Rural Fire Service watch on as a DC-10 air tanker drops retardant to save homes on a rural property near Taralga, NSW as calls grow to increase the aerial firefighting capacity with a national fleet of aircraft. Picture: Charlton Durie / Mittagong Rural Fire Brigade
Rural Fire Service watch on as a DC-10 air tanker drops retardant to save homes on a rural property near Taralga, NSW as calls grow to increase the aerial firefighting capacity with a national fleet of aircraft. Picture: Charlton Durie / Mittagong Rural Fire Brigade

Calls for national water fleet to tackle bushfires

AUSTRALIA’S unprecedented bushfire season has stretched firefighting resources to their limit and calls are growing louder for the Federal Government to establish a national waterbombing fleet.

When the Cobraball bushfire broke out near Yeppoon last November, The Morning Bulletin heard multiple radio requests for waterbombing reinforcements which took more than 90 minutes to arrive - by which time the fire was out of control.

At the time QFES said there were “significant incidents threatening lives and properties also occurring at five other locations, prompting an influx of simultaneous air support requests”.

It said the requests were processed and approved without delay but response times from request to arrival varied significantly, “influenced by factors such as availability, details of what is required and various strategic considerations”.

Cobraball fire. Fire bomber in action near Mount Barmoya.
Cobraball fire. Fire bomber in action near Mount Barmoya.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese is leading the campaign to boost the nation’s aerial firefighting capacity, writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November requesting he call an urgent meeting of COAG to discuss a national approach to disaster preparedness. He proposed that COAG expands the capacity of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre and increasees its funding.

Yesterday the Prime Minister revealed plans to seek state support to convene a wide-ranging national inquiry into the bushfire crisis.

If it goes ahead, it could potentially explore the question of whether a well resourced National Waterbombing Fleet could have halted or slowed the Cobraball bushfire’s march of destruction, destroying 36 structures including 15 homes.

He has resisted pushing forward the COAG meeting scheduled for March.

Labor went to the last federal election promising an $80 million policy to create a national firefighting fleet to make up for what its says has been a long-term fall in federal assistance.

Then Labor leader Bill Shorten said the money would go towards at least six very large air-tankers as well as helicopters.

PIT STOP: A waterbombing Blackhawk helicopter takes off after refuelling at the Barmaryee sports field.
PIT STOP: A waterbombing Blackhawk helicopter takes off after refuelling at the Barmaryee sports field.

Minister for Northern Australia Matt Canavan said his government was acting to address the crisis, providing extra military aircraft including Chinook helicopters, C-130 Hercules aircraft and Spartans.

“The Government will also permanently boost national aerial firefighting capabilities by $11 million per year taking the total for aerial firefighting to $26 million per year,” he said.

“An extra $20 million (four additional aircraft) has been committed to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre this season, which has more than 144 aircraft at its disposal.

“That noted, the Government will look into further capabilities that will help Australia better manage bushfires into the future.”

A spokesperson for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the National Aerial Firefighting Centre represents a cost effective method for the Australian Government to deliver a critical emergency management capability.

“Commissioners and Chief Fire Officers within each jurisdiction work with NAFC to determine the type and base location of aerial firefighting assets based on the assessed bushfire risk and NAFC then co-ordinate contract and leasing arrangements,” the spokesperson said.

‘Thor’ the C130 waterbomber. Photo by Anthony Clark, NSW RFS.
‘Thor’ the C130 waterbomber. Photo by Anthony Clark, NSW RFS.

“NAFC has contracts in place which guarantee a minimum number of aircraft on standby during the fire ­season.”

The spokesperson said any proposed changes would need to be considered after the bushfire season and would inform planning for next fire season.

Firefighting aircraft are generally leased due to:

  • The very high cost of purchasing and maintaining specialist firefighting aircraft.
  • The Australian bushfire season typically occurring during the “off-season” for US, Canadian and European firefighting aircraft.
  • Greater flexibility to adjust resourcing levels based on forecast risk.
  • The ability to cost effectively introduce new technologies.
The AirCrane Gypsy Lady. Photo by Anthony Clark, NSW RFS.
The AirCrane Gypsy Lady. Photo by Anthony Clark, NSW RFS.


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