Emergency Management Minister DavidÂ LittleproudÂ says the Federal Government would supportÂ a national sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, in an apparent turnaround toÂ theÂ initial cautious response to the bushfires royal commission recommendation.
- In October, the bushfires royal commission recommended the development of a national aerial firefighting fleet
- Currently, Australia leases 15 per cent of our firefighting aircrafts from overseas but this is problematic due to overlapping fire seasons
- Australia’s own commercial aviation sector is also pushing for longer-term contracts to encourage ongoing investment
TheÂ royal commissionÂ found that Australia was left vulnerableÂ during last summer’s devastating firesÂ because it relied onÂ heavy aircraft from North America which were unavailableÂ when needed.
It recommendedÂ developing aÂ nationalÂ aerialÂ fleet based in Australia made up of heavy-hittingÂ largeÂ air tankers and helicopters.Â
Last month, the Federal GovernmentÂ simplyÂ “noted”Â the recommendation,Â saying itÂ hadÂ “no desire to replicate or replace” the existingÂ aerialÂ capabilities of the states and territories.Â
But MrÂ LittleproudÂ has now told 7.30 that he will support any proposals from the nation’s fire chiefsÂ for aÂ national sovereign fleet.Â
“We’re happy to have a sovereign fleet but we want the fire commissioners to tell us,” he said.Â
“We’ll support anything that the fire commissioners come back with in terms of their determinationÂ about whatÂ that fleet ofÂ aircraftÂ needs to be. They are the professionals.”
He was also open to Federal Government ownership of firefighting aircraft, which the commercial aviation sector said wasÂ unnecessary.Â
“I have no issues with respect to the Federal Government or anyÂ federalÂ agency owningÂ aerial assets but again I’ll take the advice from the fire commissioners,” he said.Â
“If it makes it easier for the Federal Government toÂ own [the fleet], we’re supportive of that, we just want them to give us their direction.”
What does sovereign mean?
TheÂ royal commission used the term “sovereign”, inÂ otherÂ words, a fleet based and registered inÂ Australia.
But itÂ confused someÂ in the sectorÂ becauseÂ Australia already has a national fleet 85 per cent of the firefighting air services are either owned by Australianstate and territory governments or leased from the Australian commercial sector.Â
TheÂ remaining 15 per cent is from overseas, which the royal commission found wasÂ problematic.Â
It said the overlapping fire seasons overseas and in Australia made it more difficult to source aircraft. In addition,Â someÂ overseasÂ aircraftÂ were unable to be scrambled at short noticeÂ last summer.
The New South Wales RFS already owns a small fleet of nine aircraft to fight bushfires.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
Even when the Federal Government poured $20 million into leasing additional aircraft in January,Â natural disasters overseas caused delays.Â Â
The overseasÂ contingent isÂ critical they are the big gunsÂ capable of dropping whopping big loads.Â Â
They areÂ heavy aircraft known as very large air tankers, large air tankersÂ andÂ heavy helicopters like theÂ familiar orange “Elvis” Erickson Aircranes.Â
The debate over buying versus leasing
InÂ the long term, some argue buying and owning aircraft will better prepare Australia for the next unprecedentedÂ disaster.Â
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service already owns a small fleet ofÂ nineÂ aircraft, including the powerful Marie Bashir 737 air tanker, named after the state’s former governor.Â
Last summer,Â the Marie BashirÂ bombedÂ bright pink retardant over fires in NSWÂ and alsoÂ flew to the frontlineÂ in Western Australia.Â
The NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers told 7.30 that he will be pushing for governments toÂ buy and ownÂ more aircraft.Â
NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers was the deputy commissioner during the catastrophic fires last summer.(ABC News: Michael Nudl)
“I think there should be more owned machines here,” Commissioner Rogers said.
“They shouldÂ be basedÂ hereÂ and they should be employing Australians.
“Our challenge now is to fight the last fire season againÂ some timeÂ in the future.
“The NSW fire season has lengthened considerably in the last 60 years and if it goes on current trends, having assets like the Marie BashirÂ in NSW will become important and increasingly important in future years.”
This means Australia will have to decide what it’s willing to pay.Â
The Marie Bashir and two smaller aircraft cost the NSW Government $26 millionÂ to purchase.Â
That’s theÂ exactÂ equivalent of the annual Commonwealth fundingÂ of $26Â millionÂ for theÂ National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which coordinates theÂ entire existingÂ fleet.Â Â
Commercial sector wants longerÂ contractsÂ
AccordingÂ toÂ the commercial aviation sector, leasing aircraftÂ is more cost-effectiveÂ andÂ if expanded, wouldÂ boost Australia’s expertise in aerial firefighting.Â
But it saidÂ the contracts of 80 to 90 days per season over three yearsÂ wereÂ too short for the long-term investment in upgrading and improving fleets.Â
Commercial operatorÂ Sydney Helicopters, which operates water bombers in western Sydney,Â is contractedÂ to fightÂ fires but onlyÂ forÂ part of the year.Â
Chief pilot Mark HarroldÂ told 7.30 thatÂ longer-term contracts would give AustralianÂ businesses moreÂ certainty for ongoing investment.Â
Mark Harrold says longer-term contracts would give Australian businesses more certainty for the ongoing investment in upgrading and improving fleets.(ABC News: Shaun Kingma)
“It would be far more effective if local operators were given contracts on aÂ longer-termÂ basis because it gives us the ability to financially take on board the costs involved,Â employing the experienced crews, buying the equipment,” he said.Â
Separately,Â Mr Harrold’sÂ firefighting operation is being “killed off” by the NSW Government, whichÂ is taking overÂ theÂ site for a major transport project.Â
He’s been told to vacate by late next year.Â
“I am absolutely gutted,” Mr Harrold said.
“It will be the end of 10 firefightingÂ helicoptersÂ and a business that flew 4,500 hours on the fires last year.Â It’s crazy.”
Extra aircraft for this seasonÂ
For this season, there’s no big change to the current firefighting fleet, except for anÂ extra largeÂ air tanker from overseasthat will beÂ leased as a “national reserve”.Â
The national body representingÂ Australia’sÂ fire chiefs, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), told 7.30Â thatÂ the aircraftÂ would be shared between the states.
AFAC said it intended to act on the intent of the royal commission recommendation on a national fleet.Â
“Progressively, we’ll move towards closer to 90 per cent [Australian],” AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis said.
“We haven’t got a setÂ figure, but I think we will seeÂ in the near futureÂ an increasing number of aircraft based in Australia.”Â
But for those who lost property last summer, Australia needs to move faster somethingÂ fire chiefs have been demanding for years.Â
Fruit grower MargaretÂ Tadrosse believes having extra waterbombers might have helped her property during the bushfires.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
“Things don’t change very quickly,” said fruit grower MargaretÂ Tadrosse, whoÂ lost thousands of trees and $3 million in infrastructureÂ at her orchard at Bilpin in the Blue Mountains.
“It’s a very slow process, so they’re not really prepared as they should be.”
MsÂ TadrosseÂ told 7.30 her husband and son fought the fire by themselves andÂ saidÂ extra water bombersÂ would have saved more of theirÂ farm.Â
“For a country this size, we need a lot more,” she said.
“I believe every country should have their ownÂ fleet. You shouldnt be sharing. Every country should beÂ self-sufficient.”