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Fire efforts grounded by aerial intruder

Water Bombing Helicopter

An unidentified helicopter that flew over the Gell River fire earlier in the week caused Tasmania Fire Service air efforts in the area to be fully grounded. 

Tasmania Fire Service Incident Controller, Steven Richardson said the small helicopter was detected by staff, but attempts to communicate with the pilot went unanswered. 

"While they didn't communicate with us, and they were in an area that they perhaps shouldn't have been in, it had the potential to shut down our operations," he said.

Up to eight or nine aircraft are being utilised in the fire zone at any one time. 

"When one person flies into that area with no flight plan or anything like that to let us know that they are even there, we have to take precautionary steps, so we shut down our aircraft, tried to make contact with them, find out who they are, and get them to leave that area," he said. 

While Tasmania Fire Service have the ability to restrict airspace, it hadn't yet been declared at the time. 

However, Mr Richardson says while the intrusion shut down operations for a small period of time, it could have had a far worse outcome. 

"We could be sending a light aircraft through at high speed and if they come across that helicopter unexpectedly because there shouldn't have been anybody there that could be quite disastrous."

"While the people managing our aircraft know exactly where people are at all different times of the day, anybody that comes into our airspace that's not communicating with us won't know what's coming through," he said. "And we may not necessarily know that somebody has flown into there as well."

One of the pilots assisting with the effort noticed the unidentified chopper, allowing other aircraft to be removed from the area almost instantly. 

While the pilot chose to ignore communication requests, it left after a short period of time, allowing operations to resume. 

The incident has been reported to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. 

Tasmania Fire Service believe they have been able to identify the unexplained aircraft by the make, model and colour. 

"There's limited numbers of aircraft in Tasmania so we do have quite a good lead into that aircraft, but there are official reports being followed up," Mr Richardson said. 


 MAIN IMAGE: Waterbombing aircraft saturate the fire edge and ground crews extinguish the remnants with hand tools. Credit: Warren Frey (supplied by TFS)