Stunning footage of Cap Coast properties saved from bushfire
CIRCLING the bushfire blackened expanse west of Yeppoon in a Cessna plane piloted by Howard Veal was an eye opening and sobering experience.
Only from the air could the scale of devastation created by the 17km long and 13km wide Cobraball bushfire be truly comprehended.
After being ignited by a 16-year-old boy on Saturday November 9, the bushfire went on to engulf 12,100 hectares of land including 15 homes, 38 sheds, 8,500 hectares of grazing land and 275 hectares of horticultural production land including tropical fruit (mango, lychee, banana) production.
But it could have been a hell of a lot worse without the incredible team work from the 11 aircraft and 40 firefighting crews on the ground.
An estimated 373 structures were saved from the flames which sometimes burnt right up to the doorsteps of homes.
For seven days during the Cobraball bushfire, veteran pilot of 40 years Mr Veal flew tirelessly for QFES contractor R-Mach in his fire spotting Birdog 410 plane.
He mapped the fire and co-ordinated the water bombing efforts of four fixed wing water bombing aircraft while another helicopter co-ordinated four water bombing helicopters.
Circling above them at a higher altitude, a state-of-the-art helicopter fitted with infra-red technology peered through the thick smoke for hot spots not visible to the naked eye.
Bouncing around in the turbulence on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Veal guided The Morning Bulletin over some of the most intense battle grounds of the Cobrabull bushfire.
Isolated plumes of smoke still rose from inaccessible areas.
The bushfire was unpredictable the way it veered across the landscape choosing its victims.
Sheds, vehicles and orchards were wiped out indiscriminately while just nearby, entire fields of crops were miraculously left untouched.
Houses saved from the flames with their fringes of green vegetation stood out starkly like islands against the surrounding blackened ashy ground and trees burnt brown by the fire.
Mr Veal said they were saved in part by the targeted dropping of two tonnes of water every 10 minutes by their fleet of water bombers.
On one particularly frenetic day, he said this level of waterbombing was sustained for 10 hours straight.
While thick smoke made it incredibly difficult to operate at times, it was the sudden changes in wind direction which he regarded as the biggest challenge to bringing the bushfire under control.
In the early hours of the fire, Mr Veal said the battle was fierce "along Old Byfield Rd with the wind blowing west towards the mountain".
In the days after the fire started, he said there were "very difficult times" around Mount Lizard.
"Around the big banana plantation there were four or five really intense periods where the firefighters had to put a lot of people on the ground and they had a lot of air activity at the same time," he said.
Circling Mount Lizard he pointed to a sprawling nursery which was "really lucky to survive" with burnt shade cloths the only visible damage.
This was in part due to the work of fixed wing waterbombers.
Flying past a Bungundarra house on the hillside, surrounded by burnt forest, Mr Veal confided that he "thought they were going to go".
"It was so intense, the fire group had to allocate their resources as each flare up occurred," he said.
"While there was some damage done, I would say the firegroup - QFES with their contractors, urbans and rurals - saved 98 per cent of everything."
While the bushfire wasn't the biggest or the worst Mr Veales had experienced in his career, he described it as "a very intense local fire" that was "very concentrated with periods of high danger".
Given the fire emergencies already this fire season and summer wasn't here yet, it was surprising that Mr Veal wasn't too worried about what the next few months might bring.
"I've got faith in the system and the people in the fire department," he said.
"I saw the effort go in from a lot of dedicated people and they all have a good sense of helping the public.
"I don't know if heroic is the right word but it was a genuine community effort."
He was concerned for areas which still had a high fuel load.