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