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Rowell, Michael Neville (Mike) (1927–2010)

Mike [Michael Neville] Rowell was born in 1927 in the village of Methwold, Norfolk, on England’s east coast; a place of fens and marshes featured in Charles Dickens book, Great Expectations. He died at Busselton WA just a few days short of what would have been his 83rd birthday.

Mike lived a full and successful life and accomplished much in developing prescribed burning by aerial ignition from an idea into a reliable and safe practice. He was very professional in his approach but was also a gregarious individual and loved telling a story of which he had an endless supply. Roger Underwood once said he probably had enough material in his head to have written several books but Mike much preferred yarning with a few mates whilst unwinding, often after a long day in the air than sitting at a keyboard.

Mike joined the Royal Navy towards the end of WW2 and served for two years before being demobilised and returning to Norfolk to start a two year forestry training course with the British Forestry Commission at Santon Downham working at famous forest places like Thetford Chase. This was a very sound, practical forestry course that proved invaluable in later years.

In 1953 he migrated to Australia and worked in a variety of jobs including seismic surveys up north for an oil exploration company and as a farm manager near Margaret River before joining the Forests Department at Busselton as the Forest Assistant to the DFO at the time, Barney White. The Forest Assistant role was mainly administrative; preparing the pays, managing the District budget and other office bound tasks.

Although Mike performed ably in the role he yearned to be out in the forest applying some of his forestry training and in 1966 got his chance when he was appointed as a Technical Assistant at Research Branch, Manjimup and later promoted to Technical Officer.

In 1967, George Peet, working at the Dwellingup Research Station on fire behaviour in jarrah forest fuels following the disastrous 1961 Dwellingup fire, was transferred to Manjimup to concentrate on burning in southern forest fuel types and also to develop the use of aerial ignition to increase the area burnt each year. Although the first fire behaviour prediction tables were available, hand burning was the only method used. A gang of 5 or more workers walking in echelon formation through the forest, lighting spot fires at predetermined intervals could only burn about 200 hectares a day. It was always a difficult exercise and a safety risk when thick understorey fuels were involved and many an overseer turned grey prematurely when one or more of the gang members failed to turn up on time at the burn boundary.

In 1967 George Peet was posted to Manjimup to start research on fire behaviour in karri fuel types and to develop the use of aerial ignition methods to increase the area being burnt. Mike’s practical skills were soon recognised and being aware he was studying by correspondence to become a pilot, George appointed him as his Technical Assistant to develop a safe and reliable method of aerial burning. The idea was simple: an aircraft would fly over the forest, dropping incendiaries, and the flight pattern would mimic the grid lines used in hand burning, but it could be done on a much larger scale. Instead of burning a maximum of two hundred hectares a day, with a supreme effort, it was possible to light up ten or thirty times that area.

Having the good idea was only the first step. It took years to perfect. The first thing was to design an incendiary. It had to be something non-explosive, and with a timing device so it would not ignite within the aircraft, and must be safe to carry in the air.

The solution was simple and ingenious. David Packham of CSIRO produced a small plastic phial that would be filled with a few grams of potassium permanganate, or Condy’s Crystals. At the right moment, the phial would be injected with a few cc’s of liquid ethylene glycol, and then immediately ejected from the aircraft through a venturi. Several seconds would elapse while the capsule tumbled to the ground, by which time the chemical reaction between the two reagents would start, resulting in a brief, hot fire… enough to ignite the dry leaves on which the capsule had fallen.

David Packham also designed a bombing machine, into which the capsules could be fed, injected with glycol and then ejected. The machine had a timing device so that the bombardier could manipulate the distance apart of the spot fires, given that the speed of the aircraft was known and held steady. The bombing machine was built by John Poynton, a talented Western Australian engineer.

The plane carried a three-man crew: the pilot who was responsible for keeping the plane steady, the nominated speed consistent, and dead on the flight lines; the navigator who controlled the whole operation from beside the pilot, and the bombardier who worked the bombing machine. Mike was the navigator for most of these early aerial burns. He was ideally suited; he had a strong stomach and whilst many officers turned grey-green and became nauseous when the aircraft made a tight turn at the end of each line, he was unfazed. He maintained good communications with the bombardier and the operators on the ground whose job it was to indicate the line location on the burn boundary. He was also unflappable, had a very positive attitude and a quirky sense of humour which endeared him to his colleagues. The aircrew led by Mike had developed a secret language to send messages over the VHF radio when things were going pear shaped. There was “NABU” (Non-Adjustable Balls-Up), SWAG (Scientific Wild-Arsed Guess) and FUBB (F***-Up Beyond Belief) used to describe the level of chaos. Beyond all this Mike had a very professional approach and always dressed for the part, turning up each day in a para-military style uniform, khaki shirt and trousers and highly polished boots.

When the aerial burning technique was still in its infancy there were several times when Murphy’s Law reigned.

Early on, a demonstration was arranged for the benefit of senior staff of the Forests Department (some of whom were sceptical of the technique). They were all assembled in the jarrah forest near Perth awaiting arrival of the plane to start the burn. Down at Jandakot airport the plane had just become airborne when the bombardier inadvertently knocked the ejection switch on the bombing machine which spat out burning capsules that started a grass fire. The fire brigade were just arriving as the plane headed for the Darling Scarp. Just as the crew were ready to start bombing on flight line one, the intercom failed and communication between navigator and bombardier became difficult due to the background noise of the plane engines. In the confusion a few capsules were dropped into an adjoining pine plantation which burnt fiercely. Soon after, the radio on board exploded but despite these setbacks the burn was completed. The sceptical senior staff had a field day and the future of aerial burning looked shaky for a while. Mike wrote a 16 verse poem to describe the event and verses 7 to 14 are reproduced over the page. This was widely circulated and helped defuse the adverse reaction to aerial burning that was developing.

By 1968 aerial burning had become a routine operation in the south west of WA. Three types of aircraft had been tried, the Cessna 337, The B55 Beechcraft Baron and the British- Norman-Islander which was used for over 20 years before being superseded by helicopters. Mike had trained up many navigators and bombardiers by this time and he was looking for new challenges. He applied for a position with NT Forestry at Darwin and worked in the plantation section on Melville Island and other areas for several years. After Cyclone Tracy in 1974 he joined the NT Bushfire Council and became the Chief Fire Officer serving from 1975 to 1987 when he retired. During this time he introduced aerial prescribed burning to the NT and with others improved practices for burning of different fuel types. His earlier contacts with David Packham and Phil Cheney of CSIRO and Gerard Van Didden of then CALM in WA and Harry Luke from NSW were invaluable and all of these visited the NT at different times to provide their skills towards refining prescribed burning in the NT.

He met Leone in Darwin and they married in April 1973 and on retirement they settled in Busselton WA.

Mike is remembered for his professionalism on the job, his courage and resilience in a very physically demanding role when developing aerial burning in WA and for his capacity to unwind at the end of the day. He was a loyal mate and very loyal to his department and his colleagues. He was a raconteur par excellence and had a great sense of humour.

Although he lived in Australia for 57 years and became a great Australian he retained a certain “Englishness” about him which endeared him to so many, characterised by his wry sense of humour, his love of good books, his graciousness and an ability to tell a great story.

Verses 7–14

The day was fine and winds were light, all was set for speed and flight
But before such action could ensue a total system check was due,
Fuses, switch’s, tanks on fill, all were checked with care and skill.
The all OK was passed around and with throttles wide we covered ground
Alas then with nervous twitch, someone nudged the ejection switch
Which put two capsules on the grass. “Let’s go! I yelled or we’ll burn our arse.
As we climbed into the blue, flashing lights came into view
To quell the fire that we had lit, the pilot said ” we’re in the shit!”
The fire was quickly brought to rest, but the DCA were not impressed
The scarp was now ahead and clear. “Stand by!” we told the bombardier.
A thousand troops were on the ground and every truck that could be found
All were ready for the fray upon that fine October day.
We turned to the north and came in low with gear all primed and ready to go
But Murphy’s Law again prevailed, the intercom had sadly failed.
Confusion reigned and it was our fate, to start on line but stop too late
A FUBB indeed I must confess; what a holy stuffing mess
There was no choice but to admit a pine plantation we had lit.
“See what I mean!” said Stephen Quain,” your blokes have stuffed it up again!”
But George was calm and said “No fear—press on chaps—try out the gear!”
Just as well we’d let them know, for the radio had begun to glow.
With a blinding flash and acrid smoke, which was indeed no bloody joke,
It fell apart about my ears, confirming all our early fears
Which now had really come to pass in a molten heap of steel and glass.
The cabin now was just like hell, with heat and smoke and dreadful smell.
But we carried on as best we could and finished the job as we said we would.
The fire on the scarp could be seen from afar, we landed at six and made off to the bar.

Original publication

  • Forester, vol 55, no 4, December 2012, pp 25-27

Citation details

'Rowell, Michael Neville (Mike) (1927–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rowell-michael-neville-mike-18486/text30143, accessed 21 November 2017.

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