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Buy super scoopers to beat bushfires, says ex-fire chief

written by Adam Thorn | October 6, 2021

The CL-415 water bomber (WikiCommons Maarten Visser)

Former NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins has urged the federal government to invest in Viking ‘super scooper’ aircraft to help the country tackle worsening bushfires.

Speaking on the Australian Aviation Podcast, Mullins said state fire services currently “won’t touch them” because of their huge costs but warned the country must try new tactics to prevent another Black Summer crisis.

You can listen to the episode above, or on your favourite device here.

The Viking ‘super scoopers’ (technically the CL-415 and 215 variants) are specialist firebombers, particularly suited to heavily forested areas.

The amphibious aircraft can literally scoop up 5,455 litres of water in just 12 seconds from a water source, as opposed to the slower turnover times of more traditional models using buckets or hoses.

However, each super scooper is thought to cost more than $40 million, a figure that alone dwarfs current federal and state aid.


Mullins also urged the federal government to finally follow the bushfires royal commission’s recommendation to invest in a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet.

“The fires just become worse and worse,” said Mullins. “And it’s very clear to us that the climate is changing and we’ve reached a tipping point with bushfires worldwide.

“We’ve seen this year Siberia burning, Greece, Italy, Spain, California, Canada, and that’s off the back of heat waves that killed hundreds. So they’ve got these massive fires and they are behaving differently.


“And what frightens me is that I went to California in October 2019 to the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County and the firefighters over there are saying exactly the same thing.

“We don’t know how to fight these fires. Our traditional tools such as hazard reduction burning, back burns and attacking fires at night don’t work anymore in the worst conditions.

“Fires will burn through hazard reduced areas unless it was burnt the last 12 months. Back burns get away from us, and fires are burning overnight because the humidity stays down and the wind stays strong because of changes to weather patterns.

Mullins talks about the issue in his new book, Firestorm: Battling Super-Charged Natural Disasters and is also a co-founder of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action group, composed of 33 former fire and emergency service chiefs.

The group has previously attacked the government for not taking the findings of the bushfires royal commission seriously.

The technically titled Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was first proposed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February 2020 and was headed by former Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett, leading environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh and former 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. However, no such fleet has yet to be formed.

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.

Comments (6)

  • Fred


    Were does a flying boat refill in most of Australia ?

    There is a good reason that Australia has not used flying boats for firefighting in the past and why heavy lift Helicopters are popular.. You can refill them with water anyway and close to the fireground minimizing turnaround between dumping loads of water. I have been on firegrounds were Helitankers were refilling only a few hundred meters from the fire they were attacking …delivering another load of water every few minutes…

  • Amanda


    State fire services currently “won’t touch them” because they’re not a good option. Not enough stretches of water to scoop from and previous trials haven’t shown much value. Did anyone think to ask why one of these things is better than a couple of AT-802Ts?

    And another call for us to buy our own aircraft. NSW has gone down that path. They still have to pay Coulson to operate it for them, so what was the point? Guaranteed availability, supposedly. Pretty sure the industry will happily lease us as many aircraft as we ask for. A growing overlap between fire seasons? They’ll just increase their fleets!

    Mr Mullins spent his career in a mostly-urban fire service, I’m not sure why he is suddenly an expert in firefighting aircraft.

  • Allan


    The fire that burnt through the South Coast of NSW in January 2020 and destroyed so many houses started in a Badga forestry coup that had not been cleaned up after harvest.
    This is basically bad house keeping.
    How about funding more Mitigation Crews to manage forest fuel loads during Autumn before buying a nice new shiny piece of kit to stand in front of for that photo shoot for the head shed residents.
    For $40M there could be many tens of thousands of hectares treated each year with the benefit that we as a community relearn how to live in the bush.

  • The time is now for the purchase of water bombers. In the mid-nineties, bush firefighting service manages were completely against water bombing. Not anymore. They realize that well placed water bombing can make a difference and has time and again proven themselves.
    Many European nations (Greece, Spain, Russia etc.) have dedicated water bombing aircraft in their inventory, Australia has to go hand in glove to see if (mainly) the North Americans can provide aircraft. The 2019/20 bushfire disaster could have saved more property if sufficient water bombing aircraft were available but procrastination and eventually the lack of water bombers contributed the bush fire disaster.
    Ironically, many of the bushfire agencies are reluctant to take these type of aircraft on as they are expensive to maintain. The only way it will be effective is the ADF take control of these aircraft and allow them to have a dual role or the setting up of a national aerial firefighting organisation. Either way it will be expensive but there is one thing I do know, the 2019-20 bushfire period was the worse I had ever seen and there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.

    • Bruce Kendall


      Brad Harrison is corect. I used to fly air attack superviser training flights in the mid 90s. The CFA in Victoria took the view then that large water bombers were not suited to fires in SE Australia. Why, I’ll never know. What I do know is that there is a lot of underlying politics involved in this topic, and that few in the fire services know much about aviation.

  • AlanH


    Very large water bombers do not suit Australia as the distances they need to fly to suitable airbases just to reload with water/retardant (e.g. Richmond) make their impact minimal given the remoteness and speed of the fire fronts we experience here. We need smaller, more versatile aircraft that can replenish their load within minutes and return to the fire front, however inaccessible, over and over again within minutes of each application. If $40m for each CL-415 is too much then we should consider purchasing a fleet of Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Bosses (i.e. with floats) to maximise their usefulness and turnaround times. They are small but they deliver a decent load of water/retardant for their size, plus they can get down low to the ground. If we up the ante with fleets of 10 or more, the cumulative effect would reap great results. Heavy-lift helos are good to a point, but again, there is a substantial cost factor involved in both purchase and operating costs, plus added risks due to their use of buckets hanging down on long drag lines.

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