An Australian coroner’s court is looking into the circumstances surrounding a deadly 2020 Canberra-area Orroral Valley brushfire, ignited when an army MRH-90 helicopter made an out-of-plan landing for a crew bathroom break. The inferno began on January 27 shortly after 1:38 p.m. local time when the helicopter landed with its searchlight turned on, sparking the blaze and scorching the underside of the helicopter. The illuminated searchlight was estimated to have a contact temperature of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and the helicopter was on the ground for less than one minute.
One of the helicopter’s pilots told the inquest that the rotor downwash from the helicopter as it was leaving acted like a “blowtorch” on the flames. The ensuing conflagration raged on for five weeks and consumed 215,000 acres, burning about 80 percent of Namadgi National Park and 22 percent of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
Officials want to know why it took the crew a full 45 minutes to report the fire after it started, long after the helicopter had made the 17-minute flight back to Canberra Airport, and why the aircraft commander did not know that the searchlight would be hot enough to start a fire.
The helicopter was dispatched to scout potential firefighting helicopter landing locations, and the searchlight was being used due to localized smoky conditions to alert other aircraft of the helicopter’s presence.