In short:

More Australian aerial firebombers are heading to the Northern Hemisphere to help European countries fight fires.

Former Port Lincoln agricultural pilot Tony Warren will work in France for a second stint after firebombing in Türkiye in 2022.

What’s next?

There have already been large fires in Europe this year with authorities expecting a high fire danger season.

Port Lincoln pilot of 30 years Tony Warren is spending his third winter far from home, helping fight fires in the European summer. 

The 45-year-old aviator is among a growing cohort of overseas-trained pilots in Europe, including pilots from the United States, Canada, and South American countries with agricultural flying backgrounds.

Mr Warren cut his teeth in aviation crisscrossing paddocks on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula before switching to firebombing about seven years ago.

The first Australian aerial firefighting effort was in 1967, when two agricultural aviators dropped retardant on a fire in north-eastern Victoria.

Pilot Tony Warren with his father Kevin, in the family’s Cessna.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

From there it has grown to a fleet of more than 500 aircraft nationally with more than 150 operators.

Many of the pilots, like Mr Warren, got their start in agricultural flying, which involves very low-altitude flying, dropping fertiliser or seeds, and chemicals for bugs or weeds on paddocks.

“[In agricultural flying] we’re very low to the ground, which means flying around obstacles, around houses, under powerlines,” Mr Warren said.

Tony Warren knows all about the dangers of agricultural aviation, having survived this accident when he hit a powerline.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

“The low-level flying was good fun — I don’t know any other flying really quite like it.

“It can give you some adrenaline rushes.”

Navigating unfamiliar landscapes as a waterbomber overseas posed different challenges, particularly during Mr Warren’s five-month posting in Türkiye in 2022.

Tony Warren’s bird’s-eye view of a blaze in mountainous terrain in Türkiye.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

“We had to fly through a lot of high terrain, a lot of turbulence, a lot of non-controlled aircraft, as in there were aircraft from Ukraine, Argentina, Chile, Australia, Russia [on the fire ground],” Mr Warren said.

“Most of those people couldn’t talk to each other and we had helicopters and planes left, right, and centre — so a lot of it was being very aware out the window.”

He said, at times, the GPS system was blocked and scrambled due to the Russian-Ukraine war.

The spectacular Turkish mountains with inaccessible areas and highly turbulent flight paths.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

“It was a bit unnerving watching your GPS fail in a country where the smog sometimes is quite bad, and visibility is very low, and you’re among 13,000-foot (almost 4,000-metre) mountains,” Mr Warren said.

Language barriers were overcome by having interpreters in the aircraft.

Waterbombing flight checks at Claremont, Aerotech’s home base in the Adelaide Hills.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

“So in the dual-cab machines we had interpreters sitting behind us and they would talk to the helicopters that are telling us where they want the load to be put on the fires, and they’re talking to the Turks on the ground,” Mr Warren said.

“It was the same as what we had to do in France, to have interpreters in the back seat.”

Greece Aerial Fire Fighting Operations chief Zisoula Ntasiou said 22 different countries helped her nation battle the out-of-control fires that ravaged north-eastern Greece last year.

Ms Ntasiou, who is also vice-president of the International Fire and Rescue Services Association (CTIF), said firefighting efforts relied on a combination of ground crews and aerial efforts, but also on citizens being active in fire prevention.

Greece Aerial Fire Fighting Operations chief Zisoula Ntasiou says more fire bombers are needed with increased fire risks each year.(Supplied: Zisoula Ntasiou)

Ms Ntasiou said she expected more overseas aerial fire contractors would be needed in Europe in the future because fire risk is increasing each year.

“We used to have fires only in the Mediterranean area — Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece but now there are fires also in France and the previous year in Germany, Sweden, and even the Czech Republic,” she said.

“[There are more fires because of] climate change, and forests are not managed, there’s no prescribed burns and people have left to live in the city and the areas aren’t protected and are uncontrolled.”

The wildfires in the north of Greece in 2023 claimed 23 lives.(Supplied: Zisoula Ntasouis)

She said private companies with multinational pilots helped both Greece and Australia during their summers.

This season, Greece had already activated its highest fire risk level.

“We still have July, August, and September to go and we’ve already had fires,” Ms Ntasiou said.

Mr Warren said Türkiye had also already had a deadly fire that claimed the lives of 15 people.

This Thursday, he heads to France to work with his company Aerotech. 

Tony and Kevin Warren at the family hangar in South Australia.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

He said France was different from Türkiye as it had the second-biggest pine forests in Europe that needed protecting.

“The idea of the aircraft is it will never put the fire out — it’s to suppress the fire quick enough for ground crews to get there and help, especially in terrain that is difficult to get vehicles to.”

Mr Warren said France had strong aircraft firefighting capabilities, including amphibian planes.

“They have an enormous fleet of firebombers over there, all twin-engine aircraft … and they put big external 10-tonne tanks on the outside,” he said.

A young Tony Warren with his cousins, in front of the Corby Starlet that his father Kevin built.(Supplied: Tony Warren)

He’s never seen the children’s movie Planes, but some of his friends’ children call him Dusty the Crop Hopper, the star of the show in later sequels who goes on to become a firebomber.

Mr Warren has taken his childhood dream of flying aircraft from the paddocks of Eyre Peninsula to saving assets and lives in Europe, just like Dusty did.