Tropical Cyclone Ellie, which developed in December 2022, crossed the Northern Territory coast in the New Year. The subsequent tropical low that settled over the Fitzroy River catchment area for a week in January 2023 caused significant rainfall leading to large-scale flooding, which isolated communities throughout the Kimberley region. The rainfall caused the worst floods in Western Australia's recorded history and was classed as a one-in-one-hundred-year event.
The Fitzroy River peaked at 15.8 metres at the Fitzroy Crossing town site. Satellite imagery showed the deluge caused a huge inland sea that was 50 kilometres wide at some points. The Fitzroy River Bridge sustained significant damage, as did the approaches to the eastern side of Fitzroy Crossing. The Willare Bridge and sections of Great Northern Highway sustained severe damage, making Fitzroy Crossing and Derby inaccessible by road.
In response to the large-scale flooding, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) activated the Australian Government Disaster Plan. The Federal Government deployed Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel and resources at short notice to assist the WA State Government in emergency response, assessment, relief, and recovery operations. This included fixed-wing support provided by 35 Squadron, with 5th Aviation Regiment providing the rotary wing component. The headquarters and Emergency Support Force (ESF) elements were initially drawn from 13 Brigade (Bde).
At the peak of the response, approximately 275 ADF personnel deployed to the Kimberley region. This comprised of a Joint Task Group (JTG) in Perth, a Joint Task Unit (JTU) O5 Headquarters (HQ) and two O4 HQs, ESF and Task Unit DESTRIER (2x CH47, 3x MRH-90, crew and ground crew and support elements).
This article focuses on the operations at Broome and Fitzroy Crossing in WA from 9 January 2023 as part of the 13 Bde ESF. The key leadership positions were predominantly provided by the 10th Light Horse (LH) Regiment. Troops who deployed were from NORFORCE, the Pilbara Regiment, 10 LH Regiment, 11/28 Battalion (Bn) Royal Western Australian Regiment (RWAR), 16 Bn RWAR, 13 Field Regiment and various other units from 13 Bde. JTG 629.6 mission was to support the WA State Government in its response to the floods impacting the Kimberley region from 7 January 2023 in order to enable disaster response efforts.
Some of the tasks carried out during the deployment were:
- Key leadership engagement and information gathering to ascertain what support communities required.
- Security of the fixed and rotary wing aircraft at the Broome airport.
- Long range vehicle patrols to check road conditions, bridges, and communities.
- Assisting WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and urban search and rescue (USAR) conducting damage assessments of remote communities by helicopter.
- The delivery of essential food, emergency relief supplies, and livestock feed to remote communities and locations.
- Securing landing zones for helicopter deliveries to regional communities and towns.
- General duties work clearing debris from community buildings.
- Engineering assessments of bridges and crossing points of the Fitzroy River.
- Project managing a small boat crossing point at Fitzroy Crossing.
- Provision of air traffic control support around Fitzroy Crossing (4705 sorties).
What made this flood assist operation unique from other similar deployments in recent years was:
- Aviation being central to the operations.
- Working in remote indigenous communities.
- Wide dispersion of ADF elements.
Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (RSO&I): For the initial body of troops deploying, this was completed at the NORFORCE depot in Broome. For subsequent groups, this was completed in Perth, prior to flying to Broome.
Clothing and equipment: Members deployed with their wheeled black bag and field pack, field belt, two or three sets of uniforms, and a backpack. Members also brought civilian clothing and PT gear to wear when off duty.
Communications: Personal mobile phones were used extensively during the operation. The ESF call sign used the Signal app as the best method to communicate between small teams, and to provide command and control of operations. In addition, each patrol took with them a satellite phone and Mobile Cloud Operated Network (MCON) iPhone devices. The MCONs worked very well and allowed tracking of vehicles on long range patrols via ADF iPads and iPhones.
Vehicles: In Broome, the ESF used hire car vehicles to transport personnel and stores. At Fitzroy Crossing, the callsign had two SRVs, two hire 4WDs and a sprinter van.
The SRVs were used for route reconnaissance and “proof of road condition” patrols, as well as to reach some of the remote communities to assess flood damage and infrastructure and to ascertain what the communities needed.
Fuel: Diesel for the vehicles in Fitzroy Crossing was sourced from RAAF Base Curtin which was accessible by road from Derby and Fitzroy Crossing.
Ration plan: At Broome, meals were provided by the Mangrove Hotel. Breakfast and lunch were prepacked for pickup in the morning. A good quality buffet was provided for the evening meal. At Fitzroy Crossing, troops were on ration packs. No food was purchased in the town as it was needed for the local population.
Accommodation: In Broome, the ADF contingent was accommodated at five local hotels. In Fitzroy Crossing, the troops were billeted at the senior high school and then at the Adult Education Centre, which provided good security as both were fenced off and vehicles could be secured each evening.
Heat stress: The weather each day in Fitzroy Crossing reached 33 to 35 degrees Celsius, with extreme humidity. This heat made work activities difficult. Wearing uniform and gloves whilst working and moving debris increased the likelihood of heat stress. To mitigate the risks a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature on a tripod was used, and all work details and patrols carried an Evaporative System Integrity Monitor (ESIM). Readings were taken on the hour and absolute adherence to the work/rest ratios was required, as were frequent breaks.
Team members were monitored on an ongoing basis for heat stress. Medics located with the troops also monitored them and assisted by providing ice packs made from rubber gloves and cold-water spray bottles. To counter the heat, work started early in the morning, around 0400-0500 and went until 0930-1000. Work then recommenced in the afternoon around 1530 and went through to around 1830 in the evening.
Note: The ESIM measures temperature, humidity, and light. A DSTG proprietary algorithm converts these readings into an “index” number displayed on the instrument’s LCD .
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): All members deployed to the flood-affected areas were provided the following PPE in hi-vis orange day packs:
- Leather and rubber gloves
- P2 face masks
- High visibility vest
- White barrier coveralls
- Yellow construction helmet
- Hand sanitiser
Mosquitos: Mosquitos were prevalent in the area, and their numbers were expected to increase markedly over time due to the size of the flooded areas. The ADF deployed a RAAF Environmental Officer into the area who monitored the mosquito situation, and recommended controls. DEET-based mosquito repellent was also provided to members.
Wildlife: Venomous snakes were prevalent in Fitzroy Crossing as they had sought higher ground away from the flooded areas. Troops avoided walking through long grass and carried a stretch bandage in case of snakebite. Future deployments in the area should consider issue of compression bandages and arranging for medics to provide snakebite training during downtime. Large crocodiles were also observed around Fitzroy Crossing and in the suburban areas of town. One crocodile took a liking to the new boat crossing point that was built to help locals move back and forth across the river.
Security: Broome, Derby, and Fitzroy Crossing did have problems with crime such as theft. Troops ensured that no items were left unsecured and that rooms and gates were locked at all times. Additional civilian police were deployed to the three towns to help reduce the incidence of crime.
Skills: The Pilbara Regiment, NORFORCE, and 10 LH Regiment members had vehicle qualifications which were very useful during the deployment. Most infantry soldiers lacked vehicle codes. As high-risk weather season (HRWS) tasks are more frequent nowadays, more troops such as Reserve infantry should be trained on green fleet vehicles. NORFORCE held the majority of Combat First Aid (CFA) qualified personnel, which made them useful for the long-range patrols. Other troops deployed lacked this qualification or were not current. Certification, currency, and equipment issue of CFAs should be a priority for future deployments of a similar nature.
Media: Local and national media organisations covered the floods and recovery efforts. Defence Public Affairs were in attendance and were able to provide positive stories of the work the ADF was doing.
Laundry: A local laundry in Broome was used for washing ADF uniforms. In Fitzroy Crossing members used the school washing machine to wash their clothes each night.
Working with aviation: Troops worked closely with 5 Aviation Regiment on helicopters such as MRH-90s and CH-47 Chinooks, as well as with RAAF on C-130 Hercules and C-27J Spartans. Most reservists had not worked with these units or airframes before, so they had to come up to speed quickly on safety, approaching the airframes, loading and unloading, manifests, etc. This joint force participation provided the opportunity to work together and understand roles, terminology, and respective techniques and procedures.
Troops in Fitzroy Crossing were required to secure landing zones for helicopters to bring in supplies to the local IGA supermarket. Some issues that occurred were local residents who tried to drive, walk or ride into the cordoned-off car park designated as the landing zone for the MRH-90s. The Chinooks initially landed in the IGA car park, but the rotary wash was causing issues with the supermarket doors so the landing zone was switched to the adjoining road which did also lead to some initial problems with local vehicles accessing the site. It is recommended that all soldiers keep up to date on working with and around helicopters.
Civilian and community interaction: The ADF put on an open day at the main town oval with a smoking ceremony, speeches, free footballs and basketballs, a sausage sizzle, and a static display of the Chinooks and MRH-90s. This was well received by the community and local elders. A Navy Defence member who was the granddaughter of a local indigenous elder also attended the open day as a surprise guest, which was greatly appreciated by the local elders and community.
Liaison Officers (LO): The ESF worked very closely with the Army LO in Fitzroy Crossing who helped arrange work that the community needed or provided the contact details for the key leaders in the area. There was also a RAAF Indigenous LO who helped in discussions with the local Indigenous communities. The work of the LOs was critical to the success of the operation. Additionally, all troops who deployed to the Kimberley underwent an Indigenous cultural awareness brief prior to conducting any work. The information from the brief was very useful for engaging the local community members. Any deployments in the future to Indigenous communities should consider conducting cultural awareness briefs.
Similar to other recent HRWS deployments over the past few years, this showed how much support the ADF can provide at short notice to communities in desperate need. Some community members stated to the troops that they knew they were safe now as the Army was here. It was evident that our presence brought great comfort and confidence to the local communities who were very grateful for the assistance.
Defence images of OP Flood Assist 2023 – Kimberley region WA, Defence Images: Search: S20230006