Pilot's Black Saturday burns strong a decade on
CHOPPER pilot Paul Cross had a bird's eye view as the first of what would be thousands of homes were incinerated in Australia's most devastating natural disaster.
The Mudjimba resident was based in Benalla,Victoria, as a water bomber pilot on February 7, 2009, when a call came in about 1pm to help with a fire at Kilmore.
Little did he know that by the end of the tragedy, 173 people would be dead, 3500 buildings destroyed, 450,000 hectares burned and an estimated one million domestic and wild animals would perish.
"It was obvious that this fire was enormous and moving at a deadly speed towards houses in the area," Mr Cross said.
Initially he and another waterbombing chopper worked on separate areas of the fire but they were soon drawn together.
"For the first 30 minutes or so we concentrated on keeping the fire from getting to the edge of the built up area but soon realised that we were being forced back from the flame and smoke front.
"The intensity of the fire increased exponentially with the already very strong wind and the fire creating a powerful momentum of its own."
He said desperation to fly lower under smoke increased as the fire reached the edge of houses.
"Our water sources were close by and the turn around time for water drops was very short.
"We realised that the whole situation was going badly wrong and we were being beaten by the flame front when the first house caught fire and was engulfed in seconds.
"I have seen houses burn before and I still find it hard to put in words the feeling of despair, sadness, regret and sorrow I feel for the people who have lost it all.
"This was the first house of some 2000 that were lost that day."
He said numerous homes had been lost as he entered the second hour of his flight.
"By now all hell had broken loose the flame no longer burned vertically but seemed to lie horizontally.
"The fire had taken on a life of its own and we were being beaten back by the intense heat and smoke in a hopeless bid to do what we could."
They would concentrate on saving a house only to see all neighbouring homes explode into flames.
It was not long before the overwhelmed air attack supervisor advised the bombers just to stay safe.
"Added to the desperation and the frustration of the losses was the need to contend with the increasing wind that was making the downwind turns downright dangerous.
"In a heavy loaded state with the extra 1.4 tons of water on board I was experiencing a serious sink in the turn-back into wind to line up a target.
"I came close to hitting the roofs of several houses during this sink and found it necessary to release a water load prematurely on two or three occasions."
He narrowly dodged exploding gas cylinders, power lines and an unexpected flying fox cable strung across a dam from which he was refilling with water.
"In my heart of hearts, I knew that there were spots where humans couldn't survive, the acrid smoke made my eyes water and the stench of burning tires, chemicals and building materials was overpowering.
"The size of the flames and the intense heat which caused houses to literally explode all pointed towards serious casualties.
"I was above it and I could fly away from it to clear cooler air, there were people down there who couldn't."
Everywhere they looked there were animals panicking and dying.
"The noise of the aircraft coupled with the roar of the fire, the smoke and the sirens caused total panic amongst the animals.
"Horses ran into each other and fences in absolute confusion (and) cattle literally stood under trees in the corner of the paddocks waiting to die.
"I saw kangaroos jump into the flames as I flew along fence lines toward houses.
"A large family dog ran into a fence and then into a shed that had caught fire.
"I dropped a load of water on and near the shed in a bid to shelter the terrified animal but there were other more pressing targets and I left the area not knowing the animal's fate."
Mr Cross flew for seven hours, only stopping when an engineer inspected damage he had sustained while escaping a power line.
"It appears the snorkel which had been flung up in the abrupt manoeuvrer to break free of the power line some time earlier had caused some damage and on closer inspection I was out of the fight.
"That evening there was none of the usual banter and bravado that generally plays out with helicopter pilots in the bar after fighting most fires; this was replaced by a very subdued atmosphere."
"I spoke to several of the pilots the next day at Kilmore and the general consensus was that we had taken a beating."
He said the toll of the fire made them question if they had done any good at all.
"We threw caution to the wind and gave it our best shot.
"We were simply powerless to stand up to the worst fire in Australia's history."