This photo sequence was shot on Friday, during the bushfires that placed our suburb under dire threat. Because the fires are sweeping so swiftly through the tinder-dry terrain, I decide to collect the youngest Authorbloglet early from school, because the campus lies directly in the path of the flames.
We are hurrying from the classroom to the car when I hear the unmistakable sound of Elvis, the Ericsson Aircrane. I still have my camera slung around my neck and so I shoot this series of frames in the short walk from the main school building to where my car stands in the campus car park.
In the first shot, look carefully on the left and you can see Elvis making an approach towards the firefront. These shots are composed very deliberately, so that no distinguishing features of the school can be seen. Amid all the noise and the urgency of the situation, it is an interesting challenge – and what you see here are uncropped shots. You see – as always – exactly what I see through my viewfinder.
Four seconds later......
The thick smoke is rolling in, fanned by the hot northerly wind. Up the hills in the background, you can see the shimmering silhouette of the power lines that have to be defended and protected so vigorously by CFA (Country Fire Authority) firefighters and the heli-tanker pilots alike.
This battle is not just about protecting our suburb. It is, more vitally, about ensuring that the fires which have accelerated so rapidly through the paddocks do not affect the power lines in any way. Melbourne has suffered more than enough infrastructure problems in the record-breaking heatwave and the last thing the city (and the state) needs is a loss of power on such a mammoth scale.
If the power lines are damaged or destroyed, the flow-on effect will be catastrophic.
I was lucky with this shot (above). I hit the trigger at precisely the moment the pilot of Elvis drops his load of dark-coloured fire-retardant. The Aircrane has a 9000-litre capacity and the foam – comprising water and sulphate fertiliser – has been found to be more effective than just water when fighting fires. The dark, bulbous shape you see below the heli-tanker’s airframe is the sludge-like retardant falling with pinpoint accuracy towards its target.
The Erickson Aircranes, hailed as the most versatile high-performance specialist helicopters in the world, have carved a distinguished history on Australian soil since 2001. They are sent here each southern summer and while Elvis is probably the most famous, there are actually five of the heli-tankers in this country each season. There are two based in Sydney, two in Melbourne and one in Adelaide.
Three seconds later .......
As you can see in the photo (above) the fire-retardant foam is still falling towards the fire below. It is a lucky series of shots, but I just happen to be in the right place at precisely the right time.
Four seconds later......
The chopper pilot is on his way, presumably to nearby Lysterfield Lake to refill. In the photo above, you can clearly see the boom, used for refilling the giant tank, swinging below the fuselage. The stats fascinate me, because I recently worked on a bushfire project in my full-time job as a journalist – and I know that Elvis sucks up water so rapidly that it only takes 40 seconds to fill the 9000-litre tank.
Twenty-six seconds later ......
The ground crews have not had time to use bulldozers to clear a fire break and the searing conditions, coupled with the gusting wind, are blowing embers ahead of the fire front. But the pilot of Elvis is the major weapon in this battle to save our suburb.
Twenty-three seconds later ......
The all-consuming sound of Elvis’s rotors clattering above all other sounds during the raging bushfire is a source of supreme comfort. The next two hours are vital in the ground battle and the aerial tactics to save the streets and homes where we live.
It is exactly 60 seconds between my first shot and my last. We get into the car and drive away from the fires. The battle rages for hours as new fire fronts emerge and are collectively quelled.
On this dramatic day, when our community comes so close to mortal danger, there is still smoke in the air and there are still flames on the ground when darkness falls. But this time, the human element has triumphed over the raw, fearsome power of Nature.
Tonight, we sleep in our own beds because of the heroism of firefighters we will never meet and never be able to thank personally. But I want them, all of them, to know just how much we owe them.
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