A Royal Navy helicopter pilot has helped save countless lives from the apocalyptic fires devastating Australia.
Lieutenant Commander Nick Grimmer has been in near round-the-clock action for two months flying rescue missions, evacuating people otherwise trapped by the flames.
The 35-year-old, originally from Great Yarmouth, is on a three-year exchange in Australia, swapping submarine-hunting Merlin helicopters at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall for troop carrying MRH90 helicopters based at HMAS Albatross, 100 miles south of Sydney.
The Royal Australian Navy’s 808 Squadron – specialists in disaster relief operations – have been in constant action since November providing assistance to people whose lives have been threatened by the fires.
The MRH90 Flight Commander was enjoying a rare break from flying, getting ready to enjoy New Year celebrations when his flight – five aircrew and 14 engineers – was ordered to join the amphibious ship HMAS Choules as the bushfires engulfed the south-eastern tip of Australia.
Inhabitants of the small town of Mallacoota fled to the beach when the flames could no longer be held back. They spent a few days on the sands before Choules arrived to take them off.
The bulk of the evacuees were collected by landing craft; Lieutenant Commander Grimmer’s helicopter launched to search for people cut off away from the beach as well as to survey the extent of the conflagration and the damage it had caused.
“People tend to look after their properties until the very last minute. When the time comes to leave, the roads are often already blocked by fire so there’s no escape.
“People either retreat to a ‘cocoon’ in the centre of their homes, or they look for evacuation. Saving them just in time is extremely gratifying,” the naval aviator explained.
The Choules – formerly in UK service as RFA Largs Bay – was turned into “something of a Noah’s Ark” as alongside around 1,100 people evacuated from Mallacoota were 117 dogs, four cats, a parakeet and a rabbit. They were safely transported along the coast to Melbourne.