Royal Navy helicopter pilot helps Australian wildfire evacuation effort

By Joe Gammie, PA

A Royal Navy helicopter pilot has helped evacuate people trapped by the devastating wildfires in Australia.

Lieutenant Commander Nick Grimmer, who is on exchange with the Royal Australian Navy, has been flying rescue missions for the last two months, the Royal Navy said.

The 35-year-old, from Great Yarmouth, is flying troop-carrying MRH90 helicopters with the Australian Navy’s 808 Squadron, which has been in constant action since November helping people whose lives have been threatened by the fires.

Lt Cdr Grimmer has been flying for up to 10 hours a day in the most difficult of conditions, with crews expected to make “life and death decisions on almost every sortie”, the Royal Navy said.

The unprecedented fire crisis in south-east Australia has claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and shrouded major cities in smoke.

The pilot, who has been in the Royal Navy for 12 years, described the devastation as “truly horrific” and said it is “heart-breaking” to see the impact of the blazes on wildlife.

He said: “The scale of the fires are phenomenal and the devastation is truly horrific.

“At times it seems the entire horizon is on fire with flames up to 50 or 60 feet high.

“I’m an animal lover and seeing the impact on wildlife is heart-breaking – all too often we are seeing dead animals who have succumbed to the fires in fields we are landing in.”

Lt Cdr Grimmer with the MRH90 helicopter he has been flying to rescue residents of New South Wales (LSIS Shane Cameron/Commonwealth of Australia/PA)

Over the new year, Lt Cdr Grimmer’s aircraft joined the HMAS Choules landing ship to rescue residents of the small town of Mallacoota who had fled to the beach when the flames could no longer be held back.

While the ship was able to rescue the majority of residents, the helicopter was launched to search for people cut off and survey the extent of the damage, the Royal Navy said.

HMAS Choules carried around 1,100 people – plus 117 dogs, four cats, a parakeet and a rabbit – along the coast to Melbourne.

Lt Cdr Grimmer, who spent six months in Sierra Leone as part of Britain’s efforts to halt the spread of the Ebola virus in 2014-15, said being thanked by those they rescued had made the hard work worthwhile.

Lt Cdr Grimmer said he had been heartbroken by seeing wildlife killed by the raging fires (POIS Helen Frank/Commonwealth of Australia/PA)

He added: “Watching people – everyone from a baby of two months to an elderly lady in her 90s – get off in Melbourne, relieved, saying ‘goodbye’, ‘thank-you’ and shaking everyone’s hands was very gratifying, definitely the highlight and made all our efforts seem worthwhile.

“We recently winched down our aircrewman from 150 feet to a man on his porch. His wife had fled the fire a few days before.

“She had no idea whether he was alive or the house was standing due to no power or communications.

“We were able to tell her both were safe – that was a wonderful feeling.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “We always stand by to help our friends and allies and my thoughts are with the Australian people with whom we share a close bond.

“Lt Cdr Grimmer is an example of what our military do on a daily basis, putting his life at risk to save others.

“Flying in incredibly difficult conditions, he is doing a job that takes courage, professionalism and skill, demonstrating the best of the Royal Navy.”