How firefighters' newest eye in the sky is keeping Canberra safe

Flying high above Canberra, Petri Miniotas noticed something amiss.

"We picked up a tree that was on fire, just by chance as I was scanning across," he said.

"It was 32 kilometres away and it came up like a little gem on our screen. It was glowing."

The chopper is equipped with cameras including an infrared one so sensitive it can pick up the heat signature of an insect from 200 metres away. When this reporter went on a flight with Mr Miniotas and pilot Ian Sloan, the camera identified a rock heating up in the sun about nine kilometres away as a hotspot.

The helicopter and the technology it possesses are the newest and most advanced eye in the sky firefighters have ever had in the ACT, and there are already plenty of success stories.

MicroFlite pilot Ian Sloan and specialist intelligence gathering camera systems officer Petri Miniotas with their helicopter, Firebird 100. Photo: Blake Foden

MicroFlite pilot Ian Sloan and specialist intelligence gathering camera systems officer Petri Miniotas with their helicopter, Firebird 100. Photo: Blake Foden

The chopper provides real-time mapping and situation intelligence for firefighters during active blazes by live-streaming video and intelligence to agency headquarters and incident management teams on the ground.

It is also used to check whether lightning strikes have ignited fires, keep track of remote area firefighting teams as they're winched into the bush by other helicopters, and to monitor fires after they have been suppressed.

When Mr Miniotas spotted the burning tree 32 kilometres away, he was on a lightning detection flight, using data from the Emergency Services Agency's risk team to scan the landscape for any blazes that might have ignited.

ACT Rural Fire Service operations manager Rohan Scott said crews on similar runs had also detected recent fires at Tidbinbilla and Mt Gingera.

A heat-mapping photo captured by the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter for the Emergency Services Agency. Photo: Emergency Services Agency

A heat-mapping photo captured by the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter for the Emergency Services Agency. Photo: Emergency Services Agency

"Those fires were detected very early after the lightning came through," Mr Scott said.

"Previously, we would have waited until the next day and the fire towers would have picked them up as the fire was increasing [in size], but we were able to put resources on them that night and that made the size of the fires much smaller.

"If we'd waited until the day, they could have been a bigger size and harder to suppress, so the early detection we get with this helicopter is paramount and worth its weight in gold."

An aerial photo captured by the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter for the Emergency Services Agency. Photo: Emergency Services Agency

An aerial photo captured by the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter for the Emergency Services Agency. Photo: Emergency Services Agency

Mr Scott said the Emergency Services Agency previously had access to an intelligence-gathering helicopter, but the new Firebird 100 chopper was the first capable of live-streaming video and data to incident management teams on the ground.

"There was also the recent Corin Dam fire, and with the real-time situational awareness [the helicopter] was providing us, we actually had our strategies in place before the crews got in," he said.

"That was a very remote and rugged fire, so crews actually had to physically walk in, but we could pick a trail that was probably more beneficial to them.

"The data it’s giving us is making our job a lot more safe and a lot easier. We’re very happy with it."

Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said the helicopter's early successes meant it was in high demand and had also been used to assist the NSW Rural Fire Service at fires in Bredbo, Cooma, Tumut and Kosciuszko National Park.

He said the ACT Parks and Conservation Service was also using the chopper to inspect sites and collect data for hazard-reduction burns.

"It's a real success story," Mr Gentleman said.

"I'll certainly be looking at whether we can extend [the MicroFlite contract] past three years and perhaps even update the technology."

An aerial view of Canberra from the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter. Photo: Blake Foden

An aerial view of Canberra from the specialist intelligence-gathering helicopter. Photo: Blake Foden

Mr Gentleman noted that the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires were started by lightning strikes, and the helicopter was a key tool authorities could use to try and prevent a repeat occurrence.

Canberrans have seen plenty of lightning strikes during recent storms. According to Weatherzone meteorologist Graeme Brittain, an electrical storm on Monday night produced about 3000 lightning strikes within a 20-kilometre radius of the city centre.