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Australia too reliant on overseas firefighting aircraft

written by Adam Thorn | September 2, 2020
Dunns Road bushfire
RFS crews head into the Dunns Road bushfire. (RFS Riverina Zone)

The bushfire royal commission has suggested Australia has become too reliant on firefighting aircraft loaned from other countries – and warned longer seasons worldwide may make it harder to obtain aircraft in future.

In an interim report released this week, the commission also revealed there is only one large air tanker permanently based in Australia.

The findings will be seen as particularly significant given Australia’s international border remains effectively slammed shut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangement was first proposed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February and is currently headed up by Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett, leading environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh and ex-ADF chief Mark Binskin.

While this week’s interim findings don’t include recommendations, it strongly hints that Australia needs to put more emphasis on having more of its own firefighting aircraft.

“As fire seasons in both hemispheres increase in length and intensity, and other global issues arise, there is a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to secure overseas aircraft to provide contracted services during the Australian bushfire season,” said one passage.

“In light of these risks, existing aerial firefighting capability and capacity arrangements require reassessment. This would need to be supported by research and evaluation to inform specific future capability needs, including the desirability for a modest, Australian-based sovereign VLAT/LAT capability.

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“There are only a small number of large air tankers and very large air tankers in operation globally, with most based in North America. There is only one LAT permanently located in Australia.”

So far, the commission has already received more than 1,700 submissions and heard from more than 290 witnesses. The final report will be released on 28 October.

Earlier this year, a new paper by former senior fire and emergency service leaders argued the country needs to radically change its bushfire strategy to concentrate on extinguishing blazes when they’re still small.

The investigation, written by the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group, argued Australia must invest in automated sensors that can allow for the immediate deployment of firefighting aircraft.

“This is a major change in our approach and requires significant investment in early detection and rapidly deployable aerial and ground firefighting forces,” the report argued.

“To match the escalating threat and cost of bushfires, Australia must upgrade its firefighting capabilities.”

Australian Aviation has also revealed that there were more accidents and safety incidents involving aerial firefighting aircraft in the financial year covering the last bushfire season than any in the previous 20.

The findings form part of an ATSB submission into the so-called bushfire royal commission, created in the wake of the “Black Summer” bushfire crisis.

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9 Comments

  • Tony

    says:

    Since moving to Perth, have been very impressed by the efficient quick response from aircraft, fixed and rotary, based at Jandakot. These are crop spraying types and single rotor helicopters. They do tackle fires early just as this report encourages. Still believe there is a case for LAT but Australia lost the opportunity to convert their old C130’s rather than donating to Indonesia. Plenty of airliners in storage ready for conversion?

  • DANIEL BASCHERA

    says:

    With all of the planes sitting idly in Arizona the Feds should buy a couple and they should be reasonably cheap and convert them into tankers ahead of our fire season which is coming up soon

  • AlanH

    says:

    There is only one viable and cost-effective option and that is to get a squadron of Viking CL-415s or preferably the new CL-515 purpose-built amphibious fire bombers. These can provide rapid turnaround close to a fire front and drop more water/retardant over the course of 24hrs than any other converted aircraft that usually needs to return to a major base sometimes far away from the fire to be replenished. A CL-415 can refill its tanks from any calm body of water, salt, brackish or fresh, that is about 1.5 kms long. They can also be used during the off-season for SAR duties, coastal survellience and even transport operations.

  • BH

    says:

    I think one of the biggest issues in progressing key necessary actions with this is that it’s too political. Too many times over the years following major fire events, politicians have promised to buy fleets of aircraft etc, only to back flip several months later.
    This issue and way forward should now be taken from the politicians hands and entrusted into an independent body that has the power and the funding to make the necessary decisions, to ensure that what needs to be done gets done. This will remove the political emotion, blame passing and back flipping.
    While owning and operating fleets of aircraft is not cheap, and it’s more financially sound from a governments books to lease aircraft, it also introduces a whole list of other risks with availability and lack of flexibility etc.
    A government owned company that operates like a private sector company with the responsibility to operate a basic minimum fleet of assets (LATSs and /or heavy lift rotary aircraft) would enable to the government/s to be flexible in their response. An aircraft fleet could be made available for additional tasks in the off season on a lease out basis etc in order to off set costs. Yes, it would mean a Government company is competing with the private sector, but we need to get past that if we want the most flexible and meaningful solution. At the end of the day, the result of poor overall performance here is destruction of property and lives lost.

  • Noel

    says:

    Some overseas countries are re-purposing 747 aircraft into Tankers. Perhaps some of the QANTAS 747’s could be re-purposed instead of letting them deteriorate in desert storage.

  • Ben

    says:

    We missed a prime opportunity to have a fleet of locally-owned firebombers following the retirement of the P-3 Orions from the RAAF. We had a cohort of trained pilots and trained maintainers to operate more than a dozen already-government-owned aircraft; all that needed to happen was spend some money on converting them and setting up an organisation to operate them. It costs tens of thousands of dollars a day just to have one of these imported aircraft on standby; it probably costs more than a million dollars a day in standby charges for the whole fleet. That’s not all – how much does it cost to fly a DC-10 or 747 across the Pacific; or have an Antonov An-124 to bring a pair of Erickson Aircranes over from Italy?

  • AlanH

    says:

    Far too costly. And they would have to operate out of the major capital airports. Not at all practical.

  • Ian

    says:

    WA dept stainability have 10 scout fire spotters. NSW contract one to fire spot over Sydney dam catchment. Early spotting is, essentios and the likes of Fireboss (skims water from lakes, and rivers) can hit fires real early. I watched them doing 4min turnaround to west of Iluka NSW last season. As the pilot said we never list a, house!

  • James

    says:

    Spent 10 years as a “Rappeller”, helicopter-borne remote area firefighting into Victorian and NSW mountainous areas – our entire purpose was to get into lightening strikes while they were small, before they got bigger than 5 hectares.

    1) Hard to maintain crews of specialised, highly-trained, physically fit firefighters on a seasonal basis. When I wanted to borrow money to buy a house, I had to find a “real” job with permanent employment.

    2) The Victorian department that managed public land firefighting has gone “soft”. OHS rules have decimated this method of aggressive Initial Attack. Firefighters cannot work more than 12 hour shifts. They can’t stay overnight in the bush, they cannot maintain extended operations or back-up shifts between fires. It all gets too hard…. And some office-wallah needs to sign off on the risk every time the guys on the front-line need to bend the rules to put out the fire. Consequence: the Vic Govt prefers to wait until the fires get bigger, or come down to the “interface area”, where the public land borders private property. Here they have to try to tackle them when they are many thousands of hectares in size, with no public land buffer to fall back on when things get dicey.

    3) Every single arm chair hack has something to say about aerial firefighting, and how it should best be done. Unless you’ve spent multiple nights freezing wet in the mountains, or cranked dozens of drums of JETA1 into a Huey, spent months of your life at Delegate, or know exactly how to carry a 044 chainsaw up a ridgeline without cutting yourself with the dogs, I’m not sure you know what fire aviation involves. Lots of people concentrate on the aircraft, but forget the liaison with the end-user: the firefighters on the ground. Most importantly, the thing that’s wrecked remote area firefighting operations has been people in offices telling us how to do our job better / safer / more efficiently. And now the capability in Australia has been largely lost.

    4) Nine times out of ten with public land fires, it’s not about bigger is better. It’s about timing, and targeting, and spreading multiple smaller assets around the country. It’s not about spending money on converting RAAF planes, or getting 747s in from Arizona. It’s about getting a handful of very experienced, motivated guys on the ground the very next morning after the strikes have gone down. I have never, in the hundreds of fires I have been involved with, ever seen an aerial asset “put out” a fire. Every time, you need the guys on the ground to go in, dig up the stumps, cut down the trees, sit on it for 24hrs, and verify it’s really dead. By the same measure, if you need to bring in the “big guns”, you’ve probably already lost the battle, and the fire’s already into the interface area.

    We need to do a 180 degree turn, and get back to the hard yacka approach we had 20 years ago.

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