Australia — Some firefighting aircraft were not available to fight the Black Saturday bushfires because they were grounded by weather conditions or overheated due to the extreme conditions, the bushfires royal commission heard today.
Nicholas Ryan, the head of the state aircraft unit on February 7 last year, told the commission that a number of factors limited the uses of aircraft on very high fire danger days.
A large number of aircraft, including Elvis-type air cranes, were used on Black Saturday but they were mostly exclusively used for asset protection and not to stop the spread of the fires across the state.
Among the incidents that hampered aerial operations on the day was when an aircraft fighting the devastating Kilmore East fire overheated, a helicopter dispatched to the Bendigo fire couldn’t get off the ground and a helicopter was stood down at Churchill when it was also grounded.
Mr Ryan said that on Code Red fire days it was almost impossible to get aircraft quickly enough to the source of fires to have any effect on the spread.
“Once a fire reaches half the size of this room on a day like that you’d be very lucky to do anything with it,” he said.
Mr Ryan said that the massive DC10 aircraft brought to Victoria for evaluation during the 09/10 fire season would unlikely to have had much effect on the fire like the one that overwhelmed Marysville.
“That aircraft is a line building aircraft. Most of the work carried out on Februatry 7th was asset protection,” Mr Ryan said.
The DC10 cost the Victorian Government $10 million for the 60-day contract and it has the ability to drop fire retardant line of 500m by 30m.
Commissioner Ron McLeod asked why a town like Marysville could not have been protected if the DC10 was available.
Mr Ryan said that the aircraft could only help stop the spread of a fire if the spotting distance was not greater than the width of fire retardant line.
Counsel assisting, Melinda Richards, said there was evidence the Murrindindi fire that hit Marysville was spotting at a distance of 5km.
“It’s (the DC10) unlikely to have much impact in those fire weather conditions,” Ms Richards suggested.
“That would seem logical,” Mr Ryan said.
Mr Ryan said the standing costs of of Victoria’s fire fighting aerial fleet was $18 million.
It cost $20,000 a day for an air crane in standing charges plus $11,000 a day if it was operating.
Mr Ryan admitted that there were commuication problems on Black Saturday with aircraft caused by the volume of radio traffic and a lack of “radio discipline” among operators and pilots.