When Lieutenant Commander Nick Grimmer first came to the Royal Australian Navy’s 808 Squadron on a three-year exchange from the Royal Navy, he was more attuned to searching for submarines than searching for people cut-off from raging bushfires.
He and his team from 808 Squadron have been part of the emergency response to Australia’s bushfire crisis since November.
That response ratcheted up when Lieutenant Commander Grimmer and his five aircrew and 14 engineers joined the Royal Australian Navy amphibious ship HMAS Choules on New Year’s Eve.
Lieutenant Commander Grimmer, who previously flew the Royal Navy’s submarine-hunting Merlin helicopters, said being part of Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 was unlike anything he’d experienced in his naval career to date.
“One of the things that’s stood out is the amount of gratitude people have when you’ve helped them,” Lieutenant Commander Grimmer said.
“When we took the people into Melbourne - having evacuated them from Mallacoota, the gratitude that they showed was unbelievable and made all our efforts seem worthwhile,” he said.
As well as civilian evacuations, Lieutenant Commander Grimmer and his crew have delivered liaison teams into isolated areas and delivered food, water and medical supplies to Mallacoota, while also resupplying Choules with everything from nappies for the evacuees to food for the galley.
Lieutenant Commander Grimmer said this was only possible with collaboration across and within response organisations.
“I feel the collaboration between the Navy, the medical services and external emergency services has been exceptional,” he said.
“We had a young lad with pneumonia that we evacuated from Mallacoota to East Sale and the integration between all services was superb.”
When he finally returns to the UK, the standout lesson he’ll take with him from Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 is how to deal with risk management.
“Flying conditions have been challenging throughout the area of operations, due to the reduced visibility caused by the thick smoke.
“The crew need to be aware of their surroundings at all times in these conditions, and continually maintaining options to climb or turn back if the conditions rapidly deteriorate, to avoid obstacles.
“There’s a fine line between what you can do and what is not possible, with risks being constantly re-evaluated. So there are a few good lessons I’ll take home,” he said
Choules evacuated around 1400 people and 200 pets from Mallacoota in Victoria’s East Gippsland region in the first week of January.
An Royal Australian Navy task group, comprising Choules as well as HMAS Adelaide and MV Sycamore, are all working off the southeast coast of Australia to provide aid to the various communities impacted by the bushfires.
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: