The Victorian government is under pressure to enlist the help of foreign water bombing aircraft this bushfire season, amid revelations authorities knocked back an offer of two Russian planes days after the Black Saturday disaster.
With the next bushfire season just days away, Premier John Brumby on Wednesday confirmed authorities refused an offer of two massive Ilyushin-76 aircraft capable of dropping 42 tonnes of water or retardant at a time.
He said the offer was made three days after the fatal February 7 bushfires but the planes were unsuitable to operate in Victoria’s terrain.
“You never rule out more aircraft, we already use quite a few, but they have got to be suitable for our terrain and our conditions,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
Mr Brumby said the planes would have been grounded in Victoria for weeks undergoing Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval.
“DSE (Department of Sustainability and Environment) made the assessment for reasons of operational requirements, that is suitability, and secondly, time delays,” he told reporters.
“It was their decision that they were not appropriate.”
DSE assistant chief of operations Craige (Craige) Brown said the department’s heavy workload was the reason it took 11 days to respond to the Russians.
He said the department did not necessarily notify the premier of offers of assistance from other countries.
Mr Brown said the Russian government was asking millions of dollars for use of the Ilyushins but cost was not the determining factor.
He said large water bombers, such as the American 747s used in California, were helpful to fight fires in shrubby terrain, whereas Victoria’s worst fires were in tall forest.
“Flying heavily loaded multi-engine jet planes slowly at heights of 500 feet in mountainous and possibly smoke-obscured terrain poses enormous safety considerations,” he told reporters.
“These very large air tankers also pose serious safety issues for ground crews when water dropped from height can break trees off, damage equipment and injure or kill people who are hit by it.”
Opposition emergency services spokesman Andrew McIntosh rejected the DSE’s assessment that large water bombers were too dangerous to operate in Victoria.
“You look at the terrain in and around … California, around Los Angeles where the fires were only months ago, you have a look at the terrain around Greece, where other fire bombers were used,” he told reporters.
“The government should be exploring it as an option here in Victoria with the fire season this year imminent.”
Mr Brown said the DSE was constantly reviewing firefighting technology from around the world, but there were no plans to enlist the help of American 747s similar to those used to fight bushfires in California.
He said the Russians had not put in a bid for any of the DSE’s tender arrangements for this season.
The DSE has four foreign aircraft locked in for this bushfire season, which starts on October 28, including two US-based Erickson S-64F air cranes and two Sikorsky S-61 helicopters from Canada.
A further 30 local aircraft will be used and another 166 are available if needed.
The first Erickson S-64F “Elvis” air crane will be available from mid-November, about one month earlier than last year.
A DSE spokeswoman said it was too difficult to immediately provide AAP with a list of countries that had offered aircraft assistance because there was a “mountain” of paperwork.