The Case for an Aerial Firefighting Fleet

The great parade was winding its way through Sydney streets. Huge crowds had gathered all along the route – crowds bigger than on Anzac Day, bigger even than for the Mardi Gras. They were anxious to cheer along the yellow-jacketed heroes of the volunteer fire-fighting services, who had sacrificed so much time and braved such risks, trying to deal with the thousands of eucalypt blazes.

The little boy had been dragged away from his precious book of fairytale parables; fresh in his mind was “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, just finished. He squirrelled his way through the forest of adult legs to make sure he got right to the front.

After the bands came the long columns of firemen, led by their Commissioner in full dress uniform. The crowd went mad with excitement. But as he drew level, the little boy raised his voice above the tumult and shouted: “But you didn’t save our house!”

The crowd nearby fell silent. To his amazement, the little boy saw the Commissioner’s uniform, insignia, braid and medals melt from him, so that he was left marching only in his cap, epaulettes and boots. Progressively down the road, the cheers turned to shocked silence. But the Commissioner ignored the little boy’s accusation, and marched on.

The little boy woke up from his daydream under the tree, with his Hans Christian Andersen on his lap still. He wondered if he would have the courage to shout “But you didn’t save our house” when the real parade was staged. Because his house was one of the two and a half thousand lost in New South Wales. Because the Rural Fire Service could not fulfil its mandate to protect both life and property. Because Australian governments’ miserly approach to supporting aerial firefighting lags the world in funding the specialised aircraft that should be the spearhead of bushfire effort. These losses, bringing tragedy, incredible dislocation and financial hardship to thousands of families, to say nothing of the economic loss to the nation, are a searing indictment of the shortcomings of the RFS and the unforgiveable short-sightedness of governments.

Despite a budget of half a billion dollars, an extensive central bureaucracy, two-thousand stations, a fighting force of a supposed 70,000 volunteers and aerial support, the 2019-2020 fires have shown how weak and incapable the RFS really is. Season after season, it sends its brave volunteers, like Macaulay’s Six Hundred, into the many valleys of death, yet does not want to admit that saving life and protecting  property is now not even an either/or proposition.

The NSW Rural Fires Act 1997 clearly sets down the responsibilities of the RFS as preventing, mitigating and suppressing bushfires. And just as clearly defines its duty as “the protection of persons from injury or death, and property from damage”. As we have seen these last months, there is no longer a pretense that in major fires these worthy aims can be fulfilled, certainly not simultaneously. One look at a map shows that state forests and national parks stretch, contiguously from the Victorian to the Queensland border. Almost every one has been on fire in 2019-20, often at the same time.

So especially since Victoria’s Royal Commission into its 2009 fires, the mission has narrowed to a single priority – saving lives. And this is achieved by delegating to citizens the responsibility for defending their homes and the decision to stay or go. If they are not well prepared, when a firefront approaches there is heavy pressure, even compulsion, to leave and let the houses burn. Little can, or will be done to save them. Understandably, for the owners of homes threatened by a firefront, “containment lines” are dirty words.

This pressure on homeowners has been increased by the new level ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating, undefined and meaningless but scary, and expected to be carried out by the equally vague “Watch and Act”. The RFS urges repeatedly that “leaving early is your only or safest option.”  Thousands obeyed this advice as bushfires swept the South Coast from Kiama to Eden, destroying 400 homes in the Bega Valley alone. For much of the time, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons’ principal role was that of an admiral, busily directing a bushfire Dunkirk.  While keeping a meticulous tally of the hectares burnt, the RFS was more reticent about updating the tally of homes lost. Twice, when I phoned for the latest count, I was told they were not available.

The arrogant superiority of the management of the RFS – a state government instrumentality – was demonstrated when its Commissioner expressed his displeasure that the Prime Minister had not called him personally to advise that he was deploying the Defence Forces to help. So successfully has the RFS management endeared itself to the media, this went without criticism!

Against this background of horrendous loss and infinite pain, Air Marshall Binskin must design a new strategy for bushfire fighting in Australia. It is no longer good enough to regard  aviation as an ancillary support service to the infantry. The air arm must be re-designed as the main force for early attack. And if bushfire seasons are getting longer, Australia must have its own fleet of appropriate modern aircraft, not hiring compromises forced on it by mean Commonwealth funding.

It has taken decades for the RFS to accept a role for aircraft. As recently as the 2002 inquiry into the Shoalhaven district fires, its formal submission said: “It is an understatement to suggest that aircraft and their reputed ability to extinguish fires is surrounded more by myth than realism.”  Former Commissioner Phil Koperberg was notoriously opposed to the use of aircraft. The breakthrough came with the introduction of the S64 Aircrane helicopters, but even that was delayed, in objections to their cost. Essentially, their acceptance was more gesture politics than practical firefighting.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre, set up in 2003 co-ordinates the contracting and deployment of firefighting aircraft, funded by an  Commonwealth grant of $44.8 million over three years, matched by the states. It was a compromise scheme to camouflage both Canberra’s meanness and the states’ reluctance to give aviation the pre-eminent role in bushfires.

When this fire emergency began, there were 143 aircraft on the NAFC’s charter programme for the season. Hundreds of others were on call. That sounds impressive, but the reality is that most of the fleet were helicopters or light aircraft like crop-dusters (carrying a pathetically small number of litres), with only 15 Type 1 high-volume aircraft.  It was like expecting a swarm of mosquitoes to stop a herd of elephants.

In 2017 the Commonwealth had rejected calls by the NAFC and a Senate inquiry to resource a greatly enlarged firefighting fleet of large fixed-wing air-tankers. Last December, under political pressure the government found the $11 million sought and subsequently promised up to $20 million more to lease two very large (VLAT) and two large (LAT) air tankers. Last year, the NSW government went off on its own, to buy a converted Boeing 737 airliner at a cost of $26m. These are miniscule tokenistic gestures, scandalously insignificant when laid against the billions of dollars in personal and community losses.

Australia’s love affair with big aircraft – converted civilian jet airliners and large military transports seems to have resulted from the 2015 report of the NAFC delegation which visited aerial firefighting centres in France, Canada and the US. The French strategy of using aircraft to spot and kill fires quickly was discarded for the attraction of big, four-engined water bombers. North American strategy has been influenced by the availability of surplus aircraft, including military transports. Impressively, they can drop from 11-thousand to 45-thousand litres of retardant in one load. But they have long turnaround times, have to operate from a distant major airfield and are dangerously unsuited to flying low. As a result their delivery per hour is often less than smaller specialised aircraft. For example, the only specially-designed twin-engined firefighting aircraft in the world, like the CL-415 pictured below, is built by Canadair and claims to deliver 690,000 litres per day if its water source is reasonably close to the fire.

Tragically, that was exactly the situation in the recent South Coast fires, when small and local would have been much better. There are at least twenty lakes and rivers between Eden and Kiama where a Canadair could have scooped up its load and delivered it to the fire in minutes. It should be sobering for the authorities to realise that the 89 homes lost in Conjola could have been saved with water from the lake next door, and historic buildings in Mogo need not have been lost. Every fire along the South Coast was only a few minutes flying time from the huge resource of the ocean. But the C130 Hercules that crashed at Peak View had flown for two hours from Richmond to drop a single load of retardant, the tragic outcome of the wrong aircraft being used in the wrong conditions.

The Canadair is widely used, from Alaska to Korea. More than 160 of these amphibians are in service; Canada, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and Croatia all own and operate fleets. In 2015, Bombadier, the Canadian company making the Canadair ceased production because it could not obtain future orders, in particular from Australia and California, both of which were favouring large aircraft. Another Canadian company, Viking Air now has the rights to the design and has developed an improved model, the CL 515 with increased capacity and operating efficiency. Indonesia has already placed orders for seven Canadairs, including four of the new models. As well as firefighting, they are designed as a multi-role plane, suitable for everything from medevac work to locust spraying and offshore rescues.

The terms of reference for the Binskin Royal Commission, as anticipated, concentrate on hazard reduction and climate change, but will also cover the role of the Çommonwealth in bushfires. This is the opportunity to re-define the role of aviation as the primary strike force, not as an afterthought to the entrenched interests of the volunteer-based force.

The first thing Binskin should realise is that the recent fire conditions in Australia are not unique – Spain, France, Portugal, Chile and California are all reporting high intensity fast-moving fires against which firemen on the ground are helpless. A report to the EU on this new breed of wildfires by the President of the independent Spanish Pau Costa Foundation, Marc Castellnou warned that they “eat everything.” These firestorms generate 100,000 kilowatts of energy, remarkably similar to the NSW fires, ten times what a firefighter can stand. “The old way of sending firefighters to fight fires has gone,” Castellnau said.

The wildfires that devastated France after the major drought of the 1990s led to a new firefighting strategy centred on aviation. The emphasis is on stopping incipient fires instead of trying to extinguish them after they become established fires. Each season, reconnaissance aircraft search the fire zones from 10am to 6pm, in a policy of “spot early, hit fast.” Then the Canadairs are called in, from their new purpose-built base at Nimes. They can be backed up by water-bombing  converted Dash 8 Q-400s or Turbo-Firecats, converted from military Grumman Trackers. Both these aircraft are more agile and suitable for low-level work than big airliners.

So here’s a prescription for Australia. With our greater distances, military-type drones with their extended range and endurance could be used for non-stop surveillance of the countryside. The Commonwealth should fund and maintain a squadron of six CL-515 aircraft ($40m each) for firefighting duties anywhere in Australia, with the states contributing in proportion to their needs. A new central command centre should be establish to direct the air attack, calling in the rural fire services when their targets are well identified. The objective should be defined as finding and snuffing out a bushfire as soon as possible after it had started. And the priority must be in saving property as well as lives, concentrating on dousing homes, suburbs and villages instead of eucalyptus scrub.

The Binskin Commission could be a turning point in bush firefighting in Australia. Or it could lead to the strengthening of a sclerotic bureaucratic organisation, dependent on declining numbers of volunteers, ill-suited to combatting the type of fierce fast-moving fires that caused so much anguish in recent months.

Geoffrey Luck is a retired ABC journalist

9 thoughts on “The Case for an Aerial Firefighting Fleet

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    The strategy recommended by Mr Luck of killing fires before they have a chance to grow has merit but unless other actions are taken the build up of fuel will be immense. It makes sense for example to remove eucalypts from towns and villages and to ensure there are eucalypt free zones because these trees are dangerous. Cattle should return to the state crown lands whatever they are called as they were effective in reducing the fuel load. Their other advantage is they leave the nutrients where they were in the form of dung and urine. After these big fires most of the nutrient, the ash, is washed into waterways and out to sea making the fish happy but impoverishing the hills and valleys. At the very least this concept that climate change causes the fires has to be nipped in the bud. Environmentalists have to realise there are better ways to manage the scrub than simply locking it away. And lastly the recommendations need to be read and heeded by the politicians. They have studiously ignored recommendations in the past and prefer to blame others for their own dereliction of duty.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    For once I must disagree with Peter Luck, a very rare thing for me. I think Lawrie Ayres comment suggests a more practical approach. Whether it is practicable will, of course, depend entirely on the politics, and the current trend of political opinion of all parties on the relevant environmental issues seems to be more towards the extreme left.
    Mark Binskin would seem to have been an inspired choice for this Royal Commission, but I will be very surprised if he would favour the creation of a special air force (for that’s what it would amount to). Such dedicated fire-fighting aircraft, be they purpose-designed Canadair amphibians or large water bombers, or pretty much anything else will need to be purchased, based, crewed and maintained. Dedicated ground crews will also need to be found, trained, and maintained on or near all the bases these aircraft may operate from. All this on a contingency basis against major fires that, on average, may not appear more than once or twice every decade or so.
    Who will crew them, who will train the air and ground crews, and who will maintain them? I suspect that there will be impassioned bleats from the usual suspects calling for the “military to do more”. I would hope that Mark Binskin would rain heavily on that parade. The military have much more important jobs to do than to fix the mistakes and shortcomings of the civilian authorities.
    If we need airpower to fight large fires, civilian companies like Coulson should be hired as needed.

  • Andrew Griffiths says:

    It would be better to spend the money on fuel reduction, fire breaks and protection of towns, suburbs and villages by removal of trees. Fixed wing Fire tankers have been shown to be dangerous,ineffective and expensive, helicopters are better at protection of property and lives, but it would make sense to reduce risk before big fires take hold, rather than rely on expensive technology. Manly Dam Reserve in Sydney is a good place to visit to see how fire breaks, mown grass areas as well as bulldozed tracks can work in practice in suburbia next to bushland, native grasses can be grown if local species are preferred in a strip of mown grass. Excuse me,I have to go now to throw something at the radio which my wife leaves on the ABC

  • DG says:

    I tend to also disagree with GL’s article, in part. One thing these fires revealed was the startling lack of local preparedness in many townships and hamlets on the NSW south coast. Towns of timber buildings near huge forests of eucalyptus with fuel knee-deep looks like a disaster ready to fall. Yet it seems evident that there were no emergency plans for evacuation, re-supply, refuge locations, peripheral fuel reduction, property preparation. People who’s bush embedded homes and towns have been destroyed but were ill sited or unprepared should first look to their own actions, as distressing as their circumstances might be. Everything done or not done in these places made property protection and fire suppression harder to achieve and less effective. It is here that effort must be directed by local councils which must turn from being the enemy of the people to being managers of the environment for people’s benefit rather than a meaningless idealism. As a nation we seem to be blithely resistive to the realities of our climate and vegetation, thinking we live in a picture book set in the Cotswolds. Not so, as recent events demonstrate.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Shortly before the Mallacoota fire, my wife and I spent a week on holiday there. It was obvious to an old bushie like me that the understorey of the surrounding forests was far too dense for safety. So it would seem to me that mobile woodchippers likely have a role to play there.
    Harvest the understorey, chip it, and sell it on either for particle board or garden mulch. Better that than have more disasters like the one just experienced.

  • Peter Rutherford says:

    Geoffrey, thanks for giving Greg Mullins and other former and current fire chiefs a break from advocating for more aircraft. This allows them not to place more attention on risk mitigation. It seems the more we spend on aircraft, the less money there is to be spent on fuel management on crown land. The less fuel management, the higher the fuel loads, leading to more and bigger wildfires in dry seasons.
    This comes with loss of human life and increasing amounts of property and livestock. Another outcome is unprecedented slaughter of native fauna. Solution: Get more aircraft large and small. Great photo opportunities for politicians and heads of fire agencies and it looks like they are doing something. This means public land managers don’t have to make fuel management, whether by burning or other means, a priority.
    When a fire or fires start, don’t focus on rapid deployment of initial attack ground forces, aircraft will do it. Don’t worry about lack of competence to run 24 hour operations to contain, back burn and blackout fires while they are small, aircraft will do it.
    When the blow-up day comes, deploy the fire service air force to bomb the fire to submission. BUT heavy full loads create such huge amounts of energy, that more and more water and retardant is less and less effective. Then, just as the aircraft are most desperately needed for property protection, strong winds, too much smoke or other causes ground the aircraft. Finally, it rains and the fire maybe out.
    Only maybe? Because the current day fire fighting experts, in many cases, have chosen not to back-burn, so tens or hundreds of kilometers of fire line has no adjacent mineral earth break and the only blackout along the untracked parts of the fire(s), has been the rain or extraordinarily expensive aircraft bombing using water or retardant.
    Despite the rain, bombing continues until no more smouldering logs or trees are visible, aircraft are stood down and we cross our fingers that on the next blow-up day no smouldering log or fallen tree reignites. But no worries, this year’s disaster will give the white shirted and epauletted emergency fire agency leaders greater leverage to shame government into funding the very air force you are proposing.
    With no substantive forest fuel management, the eucalyptus scrub you refer to, will continue to be incinerated, along with whatever threatened and more common native fauna might live there. What a great environmental outcome that will be. While the emergency evacuations might reduce the human death toll, the loss of homes, and other assets, fencing and live stock will increase in line with the cost of a bigger and bigger air force. What a great social and economic outcome that will be.

  • Mark Poynter says:

    Geoffrey: I get that you are an advocate for using more and bigger aircraft, but I suggest you read some of the references that I listed under the article, particularly the Moriera et al (2020) and Williams (2013) if you aren’t inclined to wade through Stephen Pyne’s 2006 book. The fact is that although large aerial water tankers are useful as you have documented a few examples, we could have two or three times more of them and they would not put out large mega-fires burning very hot over hundreds of thousands of hectares. A track around a fire on the ground is the only way to ensure their control.

    The absolute key to avoiding what we have seen this year lies in quickly containing more/most fires while they are small and controllable, and despite your dismissal of forestry practices, a combination of fuel reduction, maintenance of good track access, and aggressive initial attack by experienced ground forces is the proven way to reduce the numbers of large dangerous megafires. Currently, we are lacking in all three of these factors.

    We certainly need the aerial water-bombing to complement the ground attack, and especially to save houses when large fires grow larger, but if we get the initial attack right, fewer fires will get that large and threatening. — Mark Poynter

  • Roger Underwood says:

    Peter Luck is half right. Water/retardant bombers do have a role to play in bushfire fighting, but it is a tactical role: first attack on small fires, and (if possible) a holding operation until ground firefighters arrive. They are also useful for dousing a burning building, especially a stand-alone building like a farm homestead, not a bush hide-away under dense canopy or a street of buildings in a burning town. For this tactical role, helicopters and small fixed wing aircraft with rapid turn-around, and the capacity to operate out of country airstrips, can do very good work. However, where Peter is wrong is in thinking that any water/retardant bomber, even the massive 747 or DC10, can have the slightest impact on an intense fire burning in heavy fuels in a eucalypt forest, where the fire is crowning and generating spotfires kms ahead of the main front. In these situations, water/retardant bombing is futile and dangerous, and the enormous costs involved can never be recouped. In all my study of firefighting over many years, in Australia and overseas, I have never read or heard of a situation where a hot, running forest fire was suppressed by water bombers.

    What is needed, in my view, is a bushfire management system (which has many essential components, including fast response suppression capability) in which the key component is preparing the landscape in the expectation of fire. We cannot prevent bushfires starting, but we can prevent them becoming uncontrollable, and the most effective and ecologically-benign way of doing this, is through fuel-reduction burning. On top of all the other advantages, this will make the tactical water bombers more effective.

  • Andrew Griffiths says:

    Some great comments above,in particular the reference to the Cotswolds from DG. Geoffrey Luck is alive and contributing to Quadrant,Peter Luck unfortunately died a few years ago and has been mistakenly attributed as author of the above article.

    Quadrant,Peter Luck unfortunately is no long

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