Fighting the fires of the future

The fires of 2019/20 showed that, in a bad year, we just don’t have enough capacity to fight wildfire. Before this summer starts, we need a deeper commitment from the federal government for fire fighting.

‘Australia’s Black Summer fires over 2019 and 2020 were unprecedented in scale and levels of destruction. Fuelled by climate change, the hottest and driest year ever recorded resulted in fires that burned through land two-and-a-half times the size of Tasmania (more than 17 million hectares), killed more than a billion animals, and affected nearly 80 percent of Australians. This included the tragic loss of over 450 lives from the fires and smoke, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of other buildings. While unprecedented, this tragedy was not unforeseen, nor unexpected.’ - statement from Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.

A new proposal called ‘Fire Shield’ is being put forward by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest which would aim to identify fires as they start, with a view to putting them out ‘within the hour’. The program would use on-ground cameras, drones, low-orbit satellites and data on conditions in flammable areas to identify new wildfires to allow rapid deployment to put them out.

However, we will still need more air power to make this a possibility.

Last summer’s fires

Despite heroic efforts by volunteer and career firefighters, many locals and other emergency responders, and the teams who run the aerial firefighting efforts, fire after fire got away and turned into blazes that devastated landscapes and towns, farms and wildlife.

It is clear we need additional capacity to fight the fires of the future – especially air support.

Over June and July 2020, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) hosted Australia’s first virtual bushfire and climate change summit to coordinate a national response to the Australian climate and bushfire crises. The National Bushfire and Climate Summit brought together hundreds of participants to share their experiences, and to formulate recommendations to address the worsening risk of devastating bushfires fuelled by climate change. The Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan is the culmination of that effort.

The plan’s 165 recommendations include many measures that can be implemented right now, to ensure communities are better protected. It includes a number of suggestions about how Australia can improve our aerial capacity to fight fires.

A key recommendation is the suggestion that we build our air capacity to the point where authorities are able to deploy planes or helicopters to attack fires immediately, rather than waiting until ground crews are not able to contain the blaze.

‘The aircraft did an outstanding job. They protected Katoomba, stopped the spread of that fire. They were protecting life and property. They weren’t out in the wilderness areas putting out other lightning strikes because we just didn’t have enough aircraft’. - - Kim de Govrik, former National Parks area manager and organiser, NSW Public Service Association

Expanding aerial firefighting capability

The Climate Plan recommends that the Federal Government should:

  • Increase the funding available for more aircraft to enable rapid detection and rapid attack strategies. This should include rotary and fixed wing aircraft of small, medium and large size, including amphibious water-scooping aircraft.
  • Develop a self-sufficient aerial firefighting capability in Australia. This is important given the increasing overlap of fire seasons between the northern and southern hemispheres, restricting access to medium, large, and very large water bombing aircraft. This will help to develop innovative businesses and opportunities as additional benefits.
  • Funding for the training of local pilots to fly firefighting aircraft should be increased, to reduce reliance on assets and personnel from the northern hemisphere which may be increasingly unavailable
  • Undertake an evaluation of the effectiveness of existing aerial firefighting strategies and assets used in Australia, compared to approaches used in Europe, the USA and Canada

We need additional aircraft

The bushfire season in Australia is already getting longer because of climate change and increasingly overlapping with the northern hemisphere. This increases the risk that we won’t be able to access the aircraft we need in extreme fire seasons.   

Australia doesn’t have a government-owned fleet of water bombing aircraft – which makes us reliant on hiring from private companies domestically and from overseas.

In spite of this, the Federal Government last year rejected repeated requests to fund extra air support for fighting bushfires.

After months of delay, in January 2020, the prime minister said the federal government will agree to the request made 18 months ago to permanently increase funding to boost Australia’s aerial firefighting capacity. He committed ‘up to’ $20m to lease four extra planes, and $11m in payments to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre – which were made to top up the centre in 2018 and 2019 – would “go into this year’s budget on an ongoing basis”.

Before this summer starts, we need a deeper commitment from the federal government for fire fighting.

The bushfire royal commission interim report recommends that Australia

  • Invest in a “modest, Australian-based sovereign [very large aerial tanker/large aerial tanker] capability” as the climate emergency means that northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons are running together. Australia is currently reliant on the United States for large aerial firefighting aircraft – only one large aerial tanker is permanently based in Australia.

The commission report also says:

  • There may also be a need to explore contracting models that encourage Australian industry involvement in the development of future aerial firefighting capability.
  • In order to ensure Australia’s fire fighting aerial capacity capitalises on existing assets and is made up of the right mix, the Commonwealth should conduct a trial on the feasibility of retrofitting RAAF C130 aircraft with airborne fire fighting systems to provide the Australian Defence Force with the capacity to augment aerial fire fighting during major disasters.
  • The Commonwealth should work with states and territories through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre to review the current mix of aviation assets and determine whether it is fit-for-purpose, noting the current lack of mid-sized fire fighting aircraft.
  • The Commonwealth should work with other Australian governments to provide long-term funding certainty to AFAC, including the National Resource Sharing Centre (NRSC) and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC).

How would we pay for it?

The Australia Institute is proposing a National Climate Disaster Fund, funded by a levy of $1 per tonne of all coal gas and oil produced in Australia to help pay for some of the increasing costs of these climate disasters.

A $1 levy on fossil fuel production in Australia would currently raise around $1.5 billion a year for the National Climate Disaster Fund. While the Institute suggests the money generated could be allocated to sectors and communities which are affected by climate change, like First Nations and farmers, some of it could also be allocated to fire fighting capacity, including planes.


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