Australia– Victoria’s firefighters’ union says a jumbo-sized water bomber being brought in for the current bushfire season could have saved lives during February’s deadly blazes.
The State Government on Saturday announced it would lease the jet, most likely a modified 747 or DC-10, which will be able to soak a bushfire covering more than one kilometre in one hit.
The jet will also be able to carry up to 70,000 litres of water or fire retardant – 10 times the amount carried by the Elvis skycrane – and can reach any area within 45 minutes.
But the firefighters’ union has echoed criticisms from the Opposition, saying leasing the plane now is too little, too late.
Union spokesman Peter Marshall says fire agencies asked for a similar aircraft last year.
“If the State Government had funded the aircraft that was available and actually requested by the fire services last year in the lead up to the bushfire season, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen as much loss of property, and indeed, potentially saved some lives,” he said.
Mr Marshall says the plane should have been available on Black Saturday.
“On close examination, I think you’ll find the very thing that was announced today was available last year, prior to the fire season, but was not funded by the Government even though the fire services requested it,” he said.
“I think that needs to be made very clear and examined in the Royal Commission so that everyone knows what the truth is.”
The jet will be similar to the Russian jets that were rejected by the Government after the Black Saturday fires.
It is expected to be housed at Melbourne or Avalon airport, with special infrastructure needed to be fitted to accommodate the aircraft.
The Government sees the jet as a key asset in the fight against a fire season that is expected to be as bad as, if not worse than, the last one during which 173 people died.
The Opposition has welcomed the move to lease the bomber but says it has been left too late to get into the tender process for the aircraft.
But Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron has denied that.
“This is not late at all. What it will mean is that we will have this aircraft from January through to the end of March,” he said.
“What we want is a very large aerial firebomber. There’s only limited choices in the market, so we’re expecting to receive bids from everyone.”
The head of the Country Fire Authority says the water bomber will be a big weapon in the state’s firefighting arsenal.
CFA chief fire officer Russell Rees says people need to remember the use of the aircraft is just a trial.
“The trial is very important to evaluate very solidly and rigorously the benefits of these very large air tankers,” he said.
“It is very important to determine that in this high-risk environment we can operate safely and get the best benefit we can for the investment we are making.
“Across the fleet of firefighting aircraft in Victoria, there are a range of aircraft. Each aircraft has a particular benefit for what we call a particular mission.”