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Elvis the helicopter saves Australian firefighters

Date: 07-Jan-02
Country: AUSTRALIA
Author: Michael Perry

Isolated in a massive fire tagged the "Burragorang Beast", the firemen drove their truck into a burnt-out area of bush on Thursday afternoon, used chainsaws to clear more trees around them to try to keep the flames at bay, and prepared for the worst.

A desperate radio call for help saw Elvis, a giant "Sky Crane" helicopter which can drop 9,000 litres (1,980 gallons) or nine tonnes of water at a time, push back the flames.

"Elvis saved us, absolutely," fireman Darrell Pascoe told local media on Friday of the helicopter used by the U.S. National Guard in Memphis, Tennessee - the site of the late singer Elvis Presley's Gracelands mansion.

"As the fire was coming in front of us the chopper came over. In the 10 years I've been a firey I can say that was the scaredest I have been," fire captain Michael Laverton said.

Some of those rescued on Thursday scrawled "We love Elvis", on their helmets before going back to fight the fires.

"The flames were crowning the treetops, it was a fireball," fireman Chris Tierney, 20, said the ordeal in the Burragorang valley in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

As the inferno, which has burnt out of control since Christmas Day, roared towards the firemen, they pulled out emergency fire blankets ready to huddle inside their truck.

"The wind was swirling the flames. We couldn't drive out, so we went into emergency procedures," said fireman Mick Barr.

"We got the chainsaw out and cut down some trees... I've never got the emergency blankets out before," he said.

HELICOPTER HERO

As some 10,000 firefighters face 100 fires, many lit by arsonists, on fronts totalling 2,000 km (1,250 miles), Elvis has been hailed by firemen and the public for its dramatic impact.

Elvis, given the nickname by appreciative firefighters, is leased by the Victoria state government, which has lent it to New South Wales.

The NSW government on Thursday announced that it had leased two more of the helicopters.

Australian authorities say it is more cost-effective to lease the helicopters, adapted from military cargo choppers, instead of paying more than A$30 million ($15 million) to buy one.

The extra helicopters were to be shipped by containers on board a giant Antonov cargo plane and arrive on Sunday but their departure has been delayed by snowstorms in Atlanta.

Elvis' fame grew on New Year's Day on Tuesday when flames entered Sydney suburbs for the first time, a major blaze breaking out in Sydney's leafy northern residential areas.

It made swoop after swoop along the fire front, dropping its huge water load on flames which licked at back fences and threatened to engulf dozens of homes.

The fires have destroyed 160 homes and burned an area twice the size of greater London, but there have been no deaths.

The "Black Christmas" fires, as they have become known, are the most intense since Sydney was ringed by fire in 1994. Four people were killed in the 1994 blazes.

Australia's most deadly fires swept through Victoria and South Australia states in 1983, killing 76 people.

Police investigating the latest blazes have arrested 22 people for arson, one as young as nine, sparking widespread public anger. Arsonists in New South Wales face a maximum of 14 years jail.

(US$ = A$1.96).

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