Pilot dies battling Australia fires after plane crashes

The 43-year-old becomes second person to die as more than 100 wildfires ravage New South Wales

A helicopter drops water on a bushfire approaching homes near the Blue Mountains suburb of Blackheath, located around 70 km  west of Sydney yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

A helicopter drops water on a bushfire approaching homes near the Blue Mountains suburb of Blackheath, located around 70 km west of Sydney yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Thu, Oct 24, 2013, 10:17

A pilot trying to fight one of several raging Australian wildfires died when his plane crashed, in the second fatality resulting from the fires that have ripped through the country’s most populous state over the past week.

The 43-year-old was the only person on board and was trying to drop water on to a blaze in rugged terrain near Ulladulla, south of Sydney, when his plane went down, Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

“He’s a husband with young children and we’re all acutely aware that there’s a family suffering ... because their dad hasn’t come home,” an emotional Mr Fitzsimmons said. “We’re also feeling for the firefighting community.”

More than 100 wildfires have killed one resident and destroyed more than 200 homes in New South Wales this month.

Sixty-one fires were burning, with 23 out of control, although cooler weather has decreased the fire threat and many residents who evacuated have returned to their homes.

Officials were trying to access the crash site, but the steep terrain and wind was making it difficult, New South Wales police superintendent Joe Cassar said.

“We are trying to recover the pilot from the scene but are being challenged by weather conditions and nearby fire,” Mr Cassar told reporters in Nowra, near Ulladulla.

Fire officials have defended Australia’s defence department after investigators revealed a military training exercise with live ordnance ignited the largest of the wildfires.

The fire near the city of Lithgow, west of Sydney, has burned 47,000 hectares and destroyed several houses, but caused no injuries or deaths.

Mr Fitzsimmons said the defence department’s actions were obviously an accident.

“It was a side effect of a routine activity, it would appear, and clearly there was no intention to see fire start up and run as a result of that activity,” he said. “There is no conspiracy here.”

Air Marshal Mark Binskin, vice chief of the defence forces, said the fire started after a demolition training activity. Defence personnel tried to extinguish it out and fire crews arrived within 30 minutes to help.

Mr Binskin apologised for the fire, but noted the exercise took place on a relatively cool day when there was no fire ban in place. “This was not deliberately starting a fire,” he told reporters. “This was an accident.”

Investigators are still looking into the causes of the other fires. Some were started by power lines brought down in strong winds, and at least one was probably ignited by lightning, the fire service said. A few appear to have been deliberately lit, and police have arrested several children in connection with those.

PA