Bushfire royal commission calls for national firefighting fleet

written by Adam Thorn | October 30, 2020
Dunns Road bushfire
RFS crews head into the Dunns Road bushfire during Australia’s ‘black summer’. (RFS Riverina Zone)

The bushfire royal commission’s final report has recommended Australia creates a new national aerial firefighting fleet funded by state and federal governments.

The long-awaited investigation said it had heard evidence that existing aircraft weren’t shared between states and territories last year because of the intensity and length of the ‘black summer’ bushfire season.

It also criticised the slow progress towards creating a new hazard warning system, which was first called for in 2004.

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The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was first proposed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February and is currently headed up by former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett, leading environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh and ex-ADF chief Air Chief Marshal (Ret’d) Mark Binskin.

The commission received more than 1,700 submissions and heard from more than 290 witnesses.

The most significant recommendation is the call for a new “sovereign aerial firefighting capability” that can be easily shared between areas in need.

“The increasing duration of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, and the increasing duration and severity of fire seasons in Australia, will make it increasingly difficult to share aircraft domestically, and to acquire aviation services when we need them, particularly at short notice,” read the report.

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“We, therefore, believe that there is merit in the Australian, state and territory governments together ensuring the development of a sovereign aerial firefighting capability of sufficient size and versatility to better meet national needs.

“We define Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability as the collective Australian-based aerial firefighting capabilities of the states and territories, supported by a national capability which is jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments. These capabilities should be maintained through procurement and contracting strategies that support the Australian-based aerial firefighting industry.

“The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience.”

The commission names climate change as a major factor in the increased severity of bushfires and cites evidence Australia has warmed by 1.4 degrees since 1910.

“State and territory governments should urgently deliver and implement the all-hazard Australian warning system (AWS),” the report states, which would better help make Australians aware of bushfires or natural disasters near them.

Friday’s report comes after the interim findings, released in September, argued Australia had become too reliant on firefighting aircraft loaned from other countries – and warned longer seasons worldwide may make it harder to obtain aircraft in future.

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.

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.

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15 Comments

  • scatty

    says:

    The 2005 ACT fires that destroyed 550 homes proved that agencies don’t co-operate or wish to cede power to anyone.. Only a federal controlled agency stands any chance to give good effect to this plan, although it still needs to be paid for..

  • Adam

    says:

    Why we do not employ the resources we already have in the RAAF by installing a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) for the Hercules or Spartan ready to go in each state is beyond me. These systems have been in use in the US since the mid 1970’s utilizing the National Guard & Airforce Reserves and work in conjunction with civilian trained pilots working along side highly trained airforce/army pilots. For the pilots it involves more training specific to the job which considering they are already highly skilled should not take long to bring up to speed. Every season these units could be on standby in each state/fire zone ready to assist at a moments notice, pity they retired the Caribou as these would have made excellent delivery systems for low and slow attacks on bushfires and kept many ex RAAF ground crews in work. No brainer really just needs the Government to grow some balls and just do it.

  • michael james

    says:

    What a great proposal to have a fleet of aircraft on stand bye for what we all know will come again. With the last fire season how many lives and property were lost as well as al the animals native and domestic. It is now our chance to get this right with the amount of surplus aircraft and pilots around at the this time we can get it right.

    Regards

    Michael James

  • Gordon Mackinlay

    says:

    WOW what brilliant idea, only trouble is that the Frazer Government had set up Project Aquarius in 1981. And after successful demonstration work by a hired DC-6 fire dropper, we advanced to use with the C-130H and the MAFFS dropping system, the Caribou force was not considered due to the small water/solvent load it could carry. All of our trials were highly successful, the on ground fire fighters being unanimous that the big loads from the C-130 were superb, and that if they were used in formation of 3 to 6 aircraft ULTRA effective, by giving the big hit on the ground. But, the new Labor Government of Hawke put the total KABOSH on it. We had also commenced planning with the use of the Canadair 215 aerial tanker, and with the project (highly successful) future project CL-415, with information from Spain, France and Greece, we believed that such would be a very competent cohort of the C-130/MAFFS combo. But it only wasted two years of my life!!!!!

  • john

    says:

    Adam have you any experience in airborne fire fighting? where would the modular systems be stored when not in use, in the early 1980`s Cargo masters L382g (C130) Aircraft where ready to fit and employ the system used by Alaska International airlines but could not get agreement on where the aircraft would be based and also could not over come ANSETT`S insistence that they run the system and Cargomasters be subservient to them, a position supported by Bob Hawke.

  • Dopo

    says:

    Agree with the other comments. But make it a national guard type org operating under ADF DASA rules. Fight fires in the summer provide natural disaster relief when not in fire season and train the rest of the year. The current idea of contracting overseas operators cost heaps and no one will set up the required fleet in country for a few weeks of fire ops. Needs Federal governent money to make it happen.

  • AlanH

    says:

    I only hope that the Federal and/or state governments have the sense to consider a fleet of CL415/515 aircraft for this purpose. It’s a modern purpose-built fire-fighting amphibian, which means it can either land at an airport or scoop up water from any nearby body of water 1.5km long and go directly to the fire, whereas LAT/VLAT aircraft have to return to a major airport to be reloaded, often many miles from the source of the fire. Comparative figures have shown that a CL415 using a local water source (fresh or salt) can drop more water, plus retardant, over the course of a day than any LAT/VLAT working from a remote airbase.

    • Dean

      says:

      ++++ Alanh. 100% agree and have been saying the same thing myself for years. With the new CL-515 we could go on to utilise its purpose built modular mission systems for search and rescue during the off-season making it the most valuable asset for our country emergency services.

  • Marum

    says:

    @Adam. A mere bagatelle my boy! Tis only the taxpayer’s money they are wasting.

  • Jason Taylor

    says:

    Using RAAF aircraft takes them away from frontline training and tasking, although some synergies may be available for RRAF and Commercial pilots to move across agencies / platforms. Why not look at utilising the current RAAF C130 fleet across to this role, considering its due for replacement circa 2030, bringing forward its replacement (2xSQNs) via a rapid acquisition strategy similar to the initial C17 acquisition of 2005/6.

    Maybe a B737 based fleet is the way to go, this in itself also supports rapid mass firefighter movement and evacuations due seating capacity. A rotary wing option may include Refurbished Blackhawk / MRH90 aircraft. With COVID essentially shutting down business and governments and the vast amounts of aircraft “in storage” with a good portion never to see flying again; manufacturers also have cancellations lists a mile long. Australian Federal Government has some seriously cheap options available here for both fixed wing and rotary.

    Maybe, from an organisational perspective, place the fixed wing assets under RAAF (eg. re-establish 38SQN), and rotary under Army (eg. re-establish 9SQN), or both under RAAF if rotary elements shift into the future. Either way, main point is these assets would be tasked in support of Whole of Government response, via a HQJOC Joint Task Group, operating out of the nearest RAAF base / Army Rotary base. Infrastructure is largely in place for all, RAAF Richmond prime for home base due excess facilities. Workforce could be a combination of full time staff, reservists and certified civilians.

    With COVID crisis comes opportunity, and whilst aerial firefighting and the disease are in no way linked, the opportunities to form a very rapid response and formation of a long overdue sovereign aerial firefighting capability will never be as good as now and likely never to be repeated. It’s a Value for Money proposition the government simply cannot miss.

  • The RAAF trialled MAFFS on its C-130 aircraft in the 1980s.
    There are many reasons why such “Dr Google” pseudo-solutions are unsuitable for Australia.
    1. Australia’s predominantly dry-sclerophyll hardwood forests burn much hotter than North America’s predominantly softwood ones. This results in greater low-altitude turbulence and therefore different flying conditions when water bombing. Including when handling major weight loss when the water is dropped.
    2. Jet-propelled water-bombers are optimum for Australian conditions. They cover disrances faster, drop more water and are much safer to fly at low altitude to operate because the tanks are underneath (not dispersing water from the rear of the aircraft like MAFFS).
    3. The RAAF is much smaller than the USAF and Air National Guard. Flying waterbombers requires the special pilotage skills that are difficult to maintain in a much smaller force. And those with the required skills (maintained for other purposes) cannot be easily diverted to flying waterbombers (& being on standby to do so) for 4-5 months each year.
    4. Just as the RAAF do not fly the nation’s fixed-wing and rotary-wing air-ambulance aircraft, Australia’s waterbombers shld be owned/leased and operated directly by our rural fire services.
    5. As occurs now, they can be operated operationally from RAAF airbases to avoid/reduce airspace conflicts with commercial flights. And so the RAAF can help with refuelling (both fuel and water/retardent)

  • Steve A

    says:

    Not sure why it requires a Royal Commission of Inquiry to state the bleeding obvious?
    Now, with so many airframes being scrapped, it seems like an opportune time to look to see which ones will make the best conversions to firefighter aircraft and to buy them at bargain basement prices.
    Conversion here in Australia would create more jobs with so many QF aircraft engineers being forced to work at Woolies by AJ.
    Oh, I looked for AJ working at my local Woolies but maybe he’s working at a different branch? I know that they could use a good keen man like him with his skills to work as a trolley boy here in Bargara.
    Don’t miss this opportunity AJ, apply for that job before it is snapped up by someone else.

  • Kirk Bendall

    says:

    What are the scenarios a ‘NATIONAL FIREFIGHTING FLEET’ has to operate in?
    The distribution of fires and usable airfields are key elements to analyse in my opinion.

  • Gordon Mackinlay

    says:

    Mr James, during Project Aquarius that wrote about earlier, by changing flying techniques your point No.1 was not considered to be a problem.
    In your point No.2 where do you get this information?
    Point No.3 the techniques used in such aerial firefighting from the C-130 was considered to be totally appropriate for special forces aviation support, and also for SAR operations.

  • ROBERT S FRANCIS

    says:

    The solution is painfully obvious, Make the RAAF responsible for all aerial firefighting . Two squadrons of 12 aircraft
    such as the Cl 515 waterbombers can be moved to any state and stop these fires before they become too big. The RAAF has the manpower, facilities and maintenance capability to organize, plan, and take on these fires by force, think of it, 12 aircraft dropping 6 tons of water one after the other, unlike large jet aircraft that would take hours to fly back to a large airport to refuel an load water, these CL 515 aircraft are amphibious and can take on water from any large lake, river, or even the ocean.
    What happens in the off season? the same thing that happens to our F35’s .
    The cost of the 2 Squadrons would be about a quarter of the cost of the last fires.

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