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Ex-fire chiefs criticise response to bushfire royal commission

written by Adam Thorn | February 5, 2021
Dave Soda shot this photo of Erickson Skycrane “Marty’s” first deployment of the bushfire season this year. The 53-year-old S-64E was protecting the communities of Mount Cottrell and Truganina, west of Melbourne, from a grassfire that quickly spread across 110 hectares on 13 December 2020.

The government has yet to show it is taking the findings of the bushfire royal commission seriously, 33 ex-fire and emergency service chiefs have said.

The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group has also argued authorities seem to have rejected the report’s core recommendation to create a larger national firefighting fleet to be shared between states and territories.

The landmark investigation, released in October 2020, also criticised the slow progress towards creating a new hazard warning system, which was first called for in 2004.

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ELCA founder and ex NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins said, “The federal government’s ‘accountability document’ is welcomed, however, its response shows that many recommendations are only supported ‘in principle’ or have merely been ‘noted’.

“Particularly worrying is the federal government’s apparent rejection of a strong recommendation to develop a local aerial firefighting capability due to longer fire seasons worldwide reducing access to large aircraft at times that we need them most in Australia.

“The federal government must clarify whether it accepts all the recommendations it is responsible for, and commit to the urgent climate action that is needed to tackle the root cause of Australia’s worsening extreme weather and bushfire crisis.”

Peter Dunn, ex ACT emergency services authority commissioner, said the government has ignored the finding that climate changed fuelled the 2019-20 bushfire season.

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“The science says that Australia must get to net zero emissions well before 2040, but the government still refuses to commit to a net zero target, which every state and territory has already done, along with countries that buy more than 70 per cent of Australia’s fossil fuel exports,” said Dunn.

“From the Black Summer fires that ravaged the east coast last year to the fires raging in the Perth Hills right now, bushfire survivors, emergency service workers and volunteers are living the consequences of accelerating climate change.

“ELCA will continue to ask critical questions about how the federal government proposes to improve bushfire response and work toward a safer climate.”

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was first proposed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February 2020 and was 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 was the call for a new “sovereign aerial firefighting capability” that can be easily shared between areas in need.

Meanwhile, the ELCA group released its own report in July 2020, which argued that Australia needs to radically change its bushfire strategy to concentrate on extinguishing blazes when they’re still small.

The investigation also said the country must invest in automated sensors that can allow for the immediate deployment of firefighting aircraft.

7 Comments

  • Steve

    says:

    As my Meteorology lecturer once said Europeans have not lived in Australia long enough to know what to expect of the climate. Mind you Dorothea McKellar iconic poem written abut 1895 reminded us that Australian has droughts and flooding rains. She wrote that at the time of the prolonged Federation Drought. On a Global scale long before the Industrial Revolution we had the Medieval Warm Period 1000 years ago when temperatures are much as they are today – Vikings inhabited Greenland and a scientist in NZ says stalactite growth indicated a temperature on the North Island slightly warmer than today. So yes we are in a typical world warming period similar to ones in the past and we should have adequate fire fighting equipment.

  • ROBERT S FRANCIS

    says:

    The only way to effectively manage the bushfire problem is to hand over all aerial firefighting authority to the RAAF, it has the expertise, man power, facilities, and personnel to fight these fires with aircraft at squadron strength. The recent fire on Fraser Island shows how not to manage a fire, after 8 weeks the fire was still out of control, destroying 87000 hectares of heritage listed island, the only thing that put it out was heavy rain, it seems that the Qld approach to bush fires is to pray for rain.
    Two squadrons of 12 CL515 water bombers could have put out the fire on the first day, they would of had a continual drop of 6 tonnes of water one aircraft after the other, by the time the last aircraft has dropped its load the first aircraft would be back after filling up its tanks from the Great Sandy Straits, think about it.
    Out of control bush fires are now a fact of life, it’s about time something positive is done to control these fires, other countries air forces can operate these aircraft, why not ours?

    • David

      says:

      Fire fighting in States and territories is not a Commonwealth role.

      You’re kidding yourself if you think the RAAF “has the expertise, man power, facilities, and personnel to fight these fires with aircraft at squadron strength.” It has zero current expertise in firefighting aircraft, and the “man power, facilities, and personnel” would need to be repurposed from other roles. Operating firefighting aircraft required year round currency and there is no ability for RAAF crews to maintain that.

      Earlier CL215/415 aircraft have been evaluated in Australia and they have only limited utility due to a lack of scoop sites, there will never ever be two squadrons of them here. Scooping from the sea is limited to a couple of drops due to salt accumulation so no they wouldn’t ‘of’ had a continual drop – and no firefighting aircraft of any description puts a fire out. Firefighters on the ground do that.

      Other countries have a military involvement in many aspects of life that’s not found here. Why not ours? Because the ADF is a warfighting organisation!

  • This group of has beens are just looking for relevance in their retirement.
    Back in 2003-4 many of these people were in post when Bombardier offered to put into Australia a fleet of amphibious CL400 fire bombers as used with distinction in Canada, Spain, Italy to name just some of the countries. The deal was to pay when used with no standing charges!
    The then head of NSW RFS was refuted to have said he didn’t want to have money go to this protective source and wanted the money to be spent on men-because they vote!
    Only now is it getting through to these same people that we should have had LAT’s a decade ago and when we were committing to the aircranes we should have been investing in our own jet air tankers.
    It is easier when you are irrelevant to sit on the sidelines throwing stones

    • David

      says:

      The CL415 and similar aircraft have been trialed and proved ineffective in this environment – there just aren’t enough suitable scooping sites. An AT-802 FireBoss will outperform one in litres per hour and accuracy of delivery all day, every day.

      Refuted?

      LATs are good for two things – as a backdrop for pollies to pose in front of and dropping a decent retardent line in open country (under the right condition). For anything else, smaller aircraft outperform then.

      If we have to have LATs then existing operators and contractual arrangements make more sense than “investing in our own jet air tankers”. Operators like Coulson and Tanker One provide crews with decades of experience that fly year round.

  • David

    says:

    Why does Australia need a “sovereign aerial firefighting capability” when existing providers with expertise developed over decades have no current problem meeting our needs?

  • Allan Lehepuu

    says:

    The retied chiefs went around in 2020 bleating that the 2019/20 was the new norm and we could expect a repeat in NSW because there was still bush to burn.
    During a community meeting at Cooma Peter Dunn confidently predicated that the Monaro would never see a return to above average rainfall.
    At our location rainfall in 2020 was 995mm well above our long term rainfall average of 783 mm compared with 2019’s 419mm.
    A real Tim Flannery moment.
    This has lead to great pasture growth with little stock to eat it which in turn has created a grasslands fire risk as it cures.
    Fortunately this summers temperatures have been below average so not a lot has happened in respect with fires.
    This is just another ginger group using fear messaging to drive their particular issue.
    Perhaps they should reflect on their time in leadership positions and their failure in establishing the aerial firefighting fleet they advocate for now.
    Meanwhile our remote brigade will battle on with twenty and thirty year old trucks doing the true work in bushfire mitigation, hazard reduction.

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