Last week was National Volunteer Week.
The efforts of many volunteers often go unsung, but WA’s Volunteer of the Year Raalin Wheeler feels his award recognises the many individuals who have contributed to his cause.
Mr Wheeler’s accolade was announced on Sunday May 7, for his commitment to the safety of the community through building the self-funded Wheeler Airfield, which was designed as a fully-equipped forward base for water-bombers.
A plane enthusiast from childhood, ‘Wheelerfield’ started with Ra’s dream of building his own private strip to fly a Second World War bi-plane in aerobatics.
However, when a friend involved in setting up the then-Department of Forestry’s water bombing efforts suggested he construct to accommodate their operations, Mr Wheeler broadened the scope of his plan.
Instead of the 750 metres required for his personal use, Wheelerfield is 2.3 kilometres long – the same size as Jandakot or Busselton airports – to service water-bombers during the fire season.
Built in 1997, the airfield allows water-bombers to cover the area between Busselton and Perth, including Serpentine, Boddington and Harvey.
An artificial lake that holds 1.3 million litres of water can, during fire season, be refilled via a pump from the Leederville acquifer at a rate of 7.5 litres a second, allowing four bombers to load 15 thousand litres in 3.5 minutes.
“Every 7-15 minutes we’ve got a whole road tanker disappear into the sky, to go onto the fire,” Mr Wheeler said.
The airfield is also fitted with fuel, foam, retardant, a helipad, ablutions, and food for the fire-fighters.
“It’s just like a Vietnam base when it’s happening... The main thing is the guys want food, they need to go to the toilet, and they need to fuel up and sometimes do maintenance.
“It’s just like a war, but the enemy is the fire.”
The airstrip played a pivotal role in extinguishing the Waroona-Yarloop bush fires in 2016.
“I’ve got so many people in the community around me that if I made a phone call now and said I need you at the airfield in fifteen minutes, I could get 30 people… and they’re there without needing to be paid or anything else, and they do what’s necessary,” he said.
“They’re quite excited in the Murray Shire at the moment as well, because they feel that too.”
He said many of the people who had helped Wheelerfield’s success – from the Shire of Murray workers, to the water bombers, to other community members – had farming backgrounds and knew the effects of bush fire first-hand.
“A lot of them are farm boys who grew up in places like Yarloop, and Waroona, and Pinjarra, and Harvey, Collie, Boddington,” he said.
“They’re the guys that man the firetrucks that nobody gives awards to.
“I see the award as being for them too.”