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.
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.
“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.