Meet the man who choreographs a 'magic dance' of firefighting aircraft

Aircraft are an integral part of firefighting efforts in the Shoalhaven

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"We have each others' backs and we need to. It's all one big magic dance, but it works."

Air Attack Supervisor Sean Bremner. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

Air Attack Supervisor Sean Bremner. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

The first thing RFS Air Attack Supervisor Sean Bremner wants people to know about firefighting aircraft is that they're part of a team.

"Aircraft don't put out fires, we just slow them up for the guys on the ground," he said.

"The RFS, Fire and Rescue, Parks, Forestry, Navy, police, ambulance, many NSW government departments all come together to protect lives and property.

"We're working as part of a team."

Aircraft play a unique role in fighting fires. Although they don't put fires out, they do waterbomb them to slow their spread.

On rare occasions, they drop fire - incendiaries - instead of water.

They are able to accurately map firefronts and see exactly what communities are at risk at any given time. Messages to at-risk communities are primed in advance of the fires. Once air crews identify where the fire is going, they contact the control room, which activates the warning texts. Sometimes they are able to send them in as little as 10 minutes.

Air crews can also provide information to ground crews about potential hazards, such as power poles.

And in extreme situations, like Saturday, December 21, they are able to rescue people trapped on properties before the blaze reaches them.

"When it first came into the south of Wandandian it got really ugly quickly," he said.

"We were mapping it , we're in there with a Navy MRH helicopter, and he's dropping down and grabbing people from properties."

He praised the Navy's support, and said HMAS Albatross supported fire crews "year after year with open arms".

Mr Bremner, a Worrigee resident, said there were up to five radios being used in a single aircraft at any one time.

His role is to "coordinate the aerial dance" of up to 13 aircraft, of different types, as they support crews on the ground.

"Power lines are our worst enemies," he said.

"Especially when you're in heavy smoke and trying to get in down low to do stuff.

"We're a close-knit team, we have each others' backs and we need to in that environment. It's all one big magic dance, but it works."

Mr Bremner has been an Air Attack Supervisor for 12 years, and has been in charge of up to 13 aircraft at a time during the current fire crisis in the Shoalhaven.

Three of those are the fixed-wing Fireboss, a yellow aircraft that can scoop off water from rivers, lakes and even the ocean, although that is riskier. Residents may have spotted them at the Shoalhaven River, St Georges Basin, at Burril Lake or on the Clyde River.

"They've been a real benefit," Mr Bremner said.

"They'll pick up 3000 litres at a time. Some days here we've had them take just four minutes drop to drop.

"Five loads of that is equal to a large air tanker [LAT] - a C-30 or 737. And you can't get that turnaround time out of a LAT.

"The turnaround time for the DC-10, which carries 45000 litres, is about an hour - it has to go back to Sydney."

There are moments of anguish when you're watching people in their yards ... - Air Attack Supervisor Sean Bremner

He said early in his career the role had been stressful, particularly when fixed-wing aircraft were introduced to work alongside helicopters.

"As you get more experience you can keep calm," he said.

"There are moments of anguish when you're watching people in their yards, but I can focus on the job I need to do."

Fire conditions mean it's not always possible - or safe - to fly.

"When it was doing its run on Saturday we couldn't get near it, the turbulence was horrible," he said.

"We have a siren on the aircraft and were able to get in under the front a little bit, so we were buzzing properties to alert them not to stand there with a garden hose.

"But if we'd tried to climb above it ... it starts to form its own weather. Lightning, rain ...the rain is normally black, and it gets ugly.

"If we can't fight it, getting intel about how fast it's moving and where it's going to hit next is really important.

"Yesterday [Wednesday, January 8] we couldn't even take off, but today, I haven't seen this good visibility since before the fires started."

He said despite all the challenges, he loved his job.

"I enjoy my job because I can make a difference quickly, as long as I do the right thing and I have all the right people happening," he said.

"I love that. That is my reward."

The story Meet the man who choreographs a 'magic dance' of firefighting aircraft first appeared on South Coast Register.