At nine, he was confronted by the aftermath of the Dwellingup fire.
Years later, he had learnt to fly and was planning to build his own airfield when a friend told him a suitable fire bomber forward airbase was needed between Perth and Bunbury.
Mr Wheeler built that airfield on a 40ha site at his own expense 19 years ago and since then Wheeler Field near Coolup has been used every year for airborne firefighter training roles and active fire bomber operations.
This fire season between Christmas Day and February 12 there were more than 440 fixed wing aircraft and helicopter movements, lifting more than 1,209,600 litres of water into the sky and on to bushfires (equivalent to 41 30,000-litre tankers).
“Over the 10 days of the Yarloop fire disaster, we lifted 200 litres of water every minute of daylight hours,’’ Mr Wheeler said.
“Volunteers freely spend their time and labour to make operations possible and spend days and weeks at the airfield, often taking leave without pay.”
Wheeler Field is capable of loading three bombers at once with water and foam, while at the same time fuelling two aircraft.
But the airfield is in desperate need of about $180,000 for development and maintenance. The airstrip has been resurfaced but needs more work and small additional strips are needed for planes to pull off.
The dam size needs to be increased and transportable buildings installed.
“Volunteers loading water bombers often stand in 43-degree heat and there is nowhere to shelter from the sun, sleep or have a feed,’’ Mr Wheeler said.
Former Murray shire president Noel Nancarrow came up with the idea of asking the five Peel local government authorities – Mandurah, Murray, Waroona, Boddington and Serpentine-Jarrahdale – to contribute $20,000 each and said he hoped Peel Development Commission might make up the shortfall.
They recently made a presentation to the Peel Regional Council meeting and Mr Nancarrow is still endeavouring to find other funding.
Mr Wheeler is concerned that the airstrip being on private property might be seen as a problem.
“But all facilities would be removable, apart from gravel and water,’’ he said.
Murray chief executive Dean Unsworth said the council would consider a report on the funding application at its meeting on April 28. He said the Shire was working closely with Mr Wheeler to help generate funding from Waroona, Harvey and the Peel Development Commission.