• Sat. Feb 11th, 2023

The royal commission into last summer’s devastating bushfires found that Australia was left vulnerable due to its reliance on firefighting air services from North America.

Dec 3, 2020

Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud says the Federal Government would support a national sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, in an apparent turnaround to the initial cautious response to the bushfires royal commission recommendation.
Key points:

  • 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

The royal commission found that Australia was left vulnerable during last summer’s devastating fires because it relied on heavy aircraft from North America which were unavailable when needed.
It recommended developing a national aerial fleet based in Australia made up of heavy-hitting large air tankers and helicopters. 
Last month, the Federal Government simply “noted” the recommendation, saying it had “no desire to replicate or replace” the existing aerial capabilities of the states and territories. 
But Mr Littleproud has now told 7.30 that he will support any proposals from the nation’s fire chiefs for a national sovereign fleet. 
“We’re happy to have a sovereign fleet but we want the fire commissioners to tell us,” he said. 
“We’ll support anything that the fire commissioners come back with in terms of their determination about what that fleet of aircraft needs to be. They are the professionals.”
He was also open to Federal Government ownership of firefighting aircraft, which the commercial aviation sector said was unnecessary. 
“I have no issues with respect to the Federal Government or any federal agency owning aerial assets but again I’ll take the advice from the fire commissioners,” he said. 
“If it makes it easier for the Federal Government to own [the fleet], we’re supportive of that, we just want them to give us their direction.”
What does sovereign mean?
The royal commission used the term “sovereign”, in other words, a fleet based and registered in Australia.
But it confused some in the sector because 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. 
The remaining 15 per cent is from overseas, which the royal commission found was problematic. 
It said the overlapping fire seasons overseas and in Australia made it more difficult to source aircraft. In addition, some overseas aircraft were unable to be scrambled at short notice 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, natural disasters overseas caused delays.  
The overseas contingent is critical they are the big guns capable of dropping whopping big loads.  
They are heavy aircraft known as very large air tankers, large air tankers and heavy helicopters like the familiar orange “Elvis” Erickson Aircranes. 
The debate over buying versus leasing
In the long term, some argue buying and owning aircraft will better prepare Australia for the next unprecedented disaster. 
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service already owns a small fleet of nine aircraft, including the powerful Marie Bashir 737 air tanker, named after the state’s former governor. 
Last summer, the Marie Bashir bombed bright pink retardant over fires in NSW and also flew to the frontline in Western Australia. 
The NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers told 7.30 that he will be pushing for governments to buy and own more aircraft. 
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 should be based here and they should be employing Australians.
“Our challenge now is to fight the last fire season again some time 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 Bashir in NSW will become important and increasingly important in future years.”
This means Australia will have to decide what it’s willing to pay. 
The Marie Bashir and two smaller aircraft cost the NSW Government $26 million to purchase. 
That’s the exact equivalent of the annual Commonwealth funding of $26 million for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which coordinates the entire existing fleet.  
Commercial sector wants longer contracts 
According to the commercial aviation sector, leasing aircraft is more cost-effective and if expanded, would boost Australia’s expertise in aerial firefighting. 
But it said the contracts of 80 to 90 days per season over three years were too short for the long-term investment in upgrading and improving fleets. 
Commercial operator Sydney Helicopters, which operates water bombers in western Sydney, is contracted to fight fires but only for part of the year. 
Chief pilot Mark Harrold told 7.30 that longer-term contracts would give Australian businesses more certainty for ongoing investment. 
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 a longer-term basis because it gives us the ability to financially take on board the costs involved, employing the experienced crews, buying the equipment,” he said. 
Separately, Mr Harrold’s firefighting operation is being “killed off” by the NSW Government, which is taking over the site for a major transport project. 
He’s been told to vacate by late next year. 
“I am absolutely gutted,” Mr Harrold said.
“It will be the end of 10 firefighting helicopters and a business that flew 4,500 hours on the fires last year. It’s crazy.”
Extra aircraft for this season 
For this season, there’s no big change to the current firefighting fleet, except for an extra large air tanker from overseasthat will be leased as a “national reserve”. 
The national body representing Australia’s fire chiefs, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), told 7.30 that the aircraft would be shared between the states.
AFAC said it intended to act on the intent of the royal commission recommendation on a national fleet. 
“Progressively, we’ll move towards closer to 90 per cent [Australian],” AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis said.
“We haven’t got a set figure, but I think we will see in the near future an increasing number of aircraft based in Australia.” 
But for those who lost property last summer, Australia needs to move faster something fire chiefs have been demanding for years. 
Fruit grower Margaret 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 Margaret Tadrosse, who lost thousands of trees and $3 million in infrastructure 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.”
Ms Tadrosse told 7.30 her husband and son fought the fire by themselves and said extra water bombers would have saved more of their farm. 
“For a country this size, we need a lot more,” she said.
“I believe every country should have their own fleet. You shouldnt be sharing. Every country should be self-sufficient.”