For those at HMAS Albatross, it might have been hard to miss the irony of fires threatening the base that has helped to fight bushfires for decades.
Half an hour after the strong north-westerly winds had started at about 10:30am on New Year’s Eve 2019, Commanding Officer HMAS Albatross Captain Robyn Phillips saw flames at the western edge of the airfield, near Nowra on the NSW south coast.
“I didn't know what would be left of Albatross, we had fire licking at the doorstep and we knew it was going to be a bad day,” she said.
As the base’s Senior ADF Officer, Captain Phillips enacted special emergency powers that allowed her to take command of all military and civilians at Albatross.
Fire travelled around the base’s western perimeter fence, then a spot fire burned across the grass around the runway’s north side and continued near the Fleet Air Arm Museum and the Parachute Training School.
“We’d see black plumes of smoke on the horizon and wonder if that was someone’s house that had gone up.”
By 3pm, no sunlight penetrated the black smoke surrounding Albatross.
Contractors and firefighters drove around the airfield extinguishing spotting, but these were just small blazes ignited by embers ahead of something bigger.
“We were just waiting for that fire front to come up Nowra Hill and get us,” Captain Phillips said.
Everyone who wasn’t supporting aircraft operations moved into one building, where about 40 people sheltered, including two civilians who lost their home at nearby Nerriga.
“This was before we officially opened up as a civilian place of refuge, but I wasn’t going to turn them away,” Captain Phillips said.
Volunteer firefighters protected the building with hoses and a fire truck at each end.
“I’d seen images on TV and wondered if those firies outside were going to be able to make a difference,” Captain Phillips said.
At the last minute, the wind changed and pushed the fire back on itself.
It was a harrowing start for Captain Phillips, who took command on 12 December 2019, and within a week gave one of her first orders to remove non-essential personnel in the face of their first fire threat.
Albatross has been supporting this season’s firefighting efforts since late November when the RFS aviation element first arrived. In mid-December civilian firefighters and trucks began staging from Albatross.
Many rooms were reserved for firefighters transiting or staying on board and the Junior Sailors’ mess worked through the holidays to keep everyone fed.
Army engineers and plant equipment are staging from Albatross, while about 80 infantrymen on board are travelling to assist fire-affected communities.
The recent arrival of three New Zealand Defence Force NH90 helicopters means remaining base accommodation might only appeal to those who love the outdoors.
“It depends how much you like staying in tents,” Captain Phillips said.
“We don’t have a lot of rooms left but we’ve identified areas where we can set up tents once we’re no longer going to come under and ember attack.”
Albatross experienced two such attacks so far this fire season.
The base is the midst of a fire zone and provides firefighters a staging point to respond.
“We have the infrastructure, we have people to give them a hand helping their aircraft refuel and re-water, on some days it gets very busy,” Captain Phillips said.
During the worst ember attack, small blazes ignited deeper inside the base, including one between accommodation blocks.
“My staff were discovering spot fires and pulling out a hoses to put them out,” Captain Phillips said.
A reminder of how close things came at Albatross, charred gum trees and burnt grass surround the flight line.
Despite this, firefighting and military aircraft stand against the charred landscape, ready for more missions.
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: