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A Defence chopper sparked Canberras Namadgi bushfire, but its crew didnt tell authorities the location for 45 minutes

The crew of an Australian Army helicopter that sparked a massive bushfire in Namadgi National Park did not pass on crucial details about the fire’s location to authorities for 45 minutes, costing emergency services precious time as they raced to extinguish the fire before it ravaged the ACT’s south.

The fire was started by the helicopter’s landing light in late January, as the Army crew set down for a break in the remote Orroral Valley.

When the blaze threatened to consume the aircraft, the crew took to the skies — only to watch as their helicopter downdraught fanned the flames into what would become a formidable firestorm.

But internal Defence reports on the incident, released to the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, show the helicopter’s pilot did not radio the coordinates in the time it took to return to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport.

That lack of information sowed confusion as ACT fire crews were dispatched to different parts of the park in a desperate scramble to locate and extinguish the blaze.

In the coming hours and days, the Orroral Valley fire grew into an inferno that ripped through the ACT national park — and then across the border in NSW, where it destroyed homes.

A person in army uniform framed by an open helicopter window.A person in army uniform framed by an open helicopter window.
Defence had been called in to help prepare the ACT for bushfires.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

The fire burnt 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park, causing an environmental disaster.

The ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) has said the Australian Defence Force’s response was appropriate.

But former ACT emergency services commissioner Peter Dunn said the 45-minute delay robbed ACT emergency services of the crucial first hour to stop the fire from growing beyond control.

“If we do not get resources onto ignition points within about one hour after ignition then … frequently we will have fires that cannot be contained.”

The Defence reports show the Army was primarily worried about the safety of its helicopter crew, but also about the “reputational impact” of the incident on the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Damaged helicopter did not relay fire location

The ADF’s MRH-90 Taipan helicopter had been called in to help emergency services defend the capital as part of Operation Bushfire Assist.

On January 27, the helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission to identify landing zones that could be used to insert and extract remote area firefighting teams.

According to the internal Defence reports, at 1:30pm, the Taipan put down so the crew could “disembark for a short break”.

Brown plumes of smoke rise into the air over a mountain ridge and blow across the horizon.Brown plumes of smoke rise into the air over a mountain ridge and blow across the horizon.
Critics say the lack of communication robbed fire crews of a crucial chance to bring the fire under control.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

Smoke and visibility issues meant the landing light was switched on, but “the heat from the aircraft’s landing light caused the dry grass which the aircraft came in contact with to ignite”.

“Within 3-5 seconds of touch down a fire was ignited underneath the aircraft, which was fanned by the rotor wash,” Defence documents said.

“Due to the rotor wash and dry conditions, the fire at the [helicopter landing zone] grew rapidly, which was photographed by the crew during take-off.”

But a Defence reporting timeline shows the crew — despite twice calling in a PAN-PAN emergency due to damage to the helicopter — did not pass on location data to emergency services until after the chopper conducted an emergency landing at Canberra Airport about 2:15pm — a full 45 minutes after it had accidentally ignited the blaze.

A woman in fire gear in front of a military helicopter.A woman in fire gear in front of a military helicopter.
The helicopter was being used to help manage the bushfire threat.(ABC News: Craig Allen)

A Defence response to questions from the ABC said the crew’s primary concern was for their own safety.

“At the time of the ignition, the Australian Defence Force MRH-90 Callsign ANGEL 21 was damaged and in an emergency situation,” a Defence spokesperson said.

“The aircrew passed the location of the fire to [the] ACT Emergency Services Agency immediately after effecting an emergency landing at Canberra Airport.”

What was not explained is why the aircrew flew a potentially compromised aircraft all the way to Canberra Airport — a distance of some 40 kilometres — instead of diverting to a safe landing site in the Orroral Valley, or the nearby ESA aerial firefighting base outside Tharwa.

Lack of information led to confusion on ground

Meanwhile, the fire was growing.

ACT ESA radio traffic logs show “white smoke” was spotted by the Mount Tennent fire tower, in Canberra’s south, at 1:49pm — 19 minutes after ignition.

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Radio calls show how fire crews struggled to locate the fire without Defence’s help.

As the minutes ticked by, fire authorities desperately hunted for the source of the smoke.

Crews were incorrectly dispatched to Booroomba Rocks, Bulls Head (Mount Franklin Road) and Honeysuckle Valley (Apollo Road) in pursuit of the blaze.

“We’re having conflicting reports about the location, can I get you to turn up Apollo Road, we have indications it might be in the Honeysuckle area,” radio traffic from emergency services said at 2:08pm.

About the same time, Orroral Valley was identified as a possible location of the fire and, at 2:18pm, spotter aircraft confirmed the position and called in waterbombers.

It had taken ACT emergency crews 29 minutes to confirm the precise source of the smoke — 48 minutes after ignition, and around the same time the Australian Army was passing over the same information from the crew that had started the fire.

At 2:24pm, a RFS ground crew said it would not approach the fire due to the size, saying “I don’t think there’s much we can do … at this current point.”

The fire was reported as spotting ahead of itself soon after.

Flames with heavy smoke spread across hilly terrain.Flames with heavy smoke spread across hilly terrain.
By the time the first hour had passed, the fire had doubled in size.(ABC: Greg Nelson)

About one hour after ignition, at 2:32pm, Tennant Tower radioed that the fire had almost “doubled in size and is now giving off a mushroom-shaped cloud”.

At 2:35pm, aerial spotters called in that the fire was “crowning up the side of the hill and doing a very big run”.

Defence was concerned about ‘reputational impact’

It was not the first time Defence had sparked a major bushfire.

The 2013 State Mine fire, which burnt out 56,000 hectares of bush near Lithgow, NSW was sparked by live-firing exercises at the Marangaroo Training Centre on a high fire danger day.

A fire that roared through World Heritage rainforest in the Gold Coast hinterland in 2019 was also suspected to have started at Kokoda Barracks near Canungra.

The Defence documents show that damage control was a factor in its response to the Orroral Valley Fire.

A plane dropping red fire retardant.A plane dropping red fire retardant.
It took ACT emergency crews 29 minutes to determine the location of the fire once smoke was spotted.(Supplied: ACT ESA)

The documents state that, minutes after landing, a “blackout message” was sent to “advise no external comms regarding work activities”.

At 3:30pm, little more than an hour after the chopper had landed at Canberra Airport, Defence public affairs was directed to start developing a holding statement and talking points.

The talking points had been fact checked and approved for release by 5:19pm and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office was informed at 6:55pm.

At 8:30am the next day, Chief of Joint Operations Lieutenant General Greg Bilton briefed Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the incident, but it was not until 1:30pm that Defence confirmed to Chief Minister Andrew Barr and ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan that the chopper’s landing light had started the bushfire.

The Defence documents said that crew safety was the priority in reporting timelines, and “ACT ESA were informed of the location of the fire as soon as practicable”.

“The exact location of the fire was provided to the ACT ESA immediately on arrival of the aircraft at Canberra Airport,” a ministerial brief said.

A ministerial brief composed after the fire seemed to indicate some information was kept from the Minister, in a bid to protect the ADF’s image.

“The initial focus of action was on the safety of ADF and ACT PCS personnel remaining in Orroral Valley, the status of the fire, its impact for local communities and potential ADF involvement in the incident,” it said.

“Subsequent technical inspection of the MRH-90 indicated damage to the airframe was significant.

“The details of damage were reported through technical channels but were absent from advice to [the Defence Minister’s office].

“This absence appears to be a result of aircrew and unit focus on the safety of personnel still in active fire field and reputational impact to the ADF.”

‘It needs to be quicker’

There are legitimate questions about whether the fire could have been stopped — if those who caused it had passed on the location sooner.

An ESA spokesperson said environmental factors — including weather, topography, and dryness — drove the fire’s spread.

“The ACT Emergency Services Agency is satisfied that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) followed safety protocol in relation to reporting of the incident and that the information flow was consistent between ACT ESA and ADF,” the spokesperson said.

“Smoke was sighted from the Mt Tennent Tower and the location was confirmed by cross bearings from other fire towers in the ACT.

“The community should be reassured that the ACT ESA did all that they could to reduce the spread of the Orroral Valley Fire as quickly as possible [and] our crews worked extremely hard to ensure no lives or homes were lost.”

While Defence maintains the ESA was promptly informed of the fire, former emergency services commissioner Mr Dunn said the actual timeframe was not quick enough.

Mr Dunn, a retired major general who was tasked with reforming emergency services in the ACT after the 2003 bushfires, said the 45-minute time lag doomed the firefighters’ efforts.

“We have to respond with fire retardant, … remote area firefighting teams, or trucks on the ground within an hour of an ignition, [a 45-minute delay] in transmitting that data almost negates the possibility of doing that,” he said.

Mr Dunn said climate change had made traditional firefighting approaches outdated and dangerous.

“The level of dryness is so extreme that we don’t have time to wait, watch and see, we have to react,” he said.

“We’ve got to keep fires small, and we can only introduce fire into the landscape in very exceptional circumstances where we can guarantee that we can control it.”

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