Australia — The state government will lease a massive water-bombing helicopter known as Elvis to help fight bushfires this season following a devastating blaze that destroyed 72 homes in the Perth Hills in February.
The aircraft, made famous for its highly visible involvement in bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales, is considered to be one of the most valuable fire fighting tools.
It is capable of dropping 9500 litres of water in a single load – more than double the capacity of the Type 1 water bomber and nine times the amount of the smaller Helitac water bomber, which the state presently relies on.
Emergency Services Minister Rob Johnson and Environment Minister Bill Marmion announced this morning the Elvis trial was part of a $6.25 million-funding boost that would make the state better resourced than during any previous fire season.
This season, which starts in December, was expected to be severe, he said.
The spending spree also includes five new fire-fighting appliances that will be brought from Japan in time for the North-West bushfire season, which starts in June.
Elvis is capable of dropping a whopping 9500 litres in a single load. Photo: FESA/Wayne Rigg
In the meantime, four aircraft that were previously slated for decommissioning will be refurbished for use during the summer fire season.
United Fire Fighters Union branch secretary Graeme Geer said while the new helicopters were welcome it was only a start.
“The union recommends we need 13 new vehicles,” he told 6PR Radio.
Mr Geer said resourcing of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority was poorly planned, forcing old vehicles to be used beyond their intended date.
“The fact that we’re having to again fiddle around with them to get enough resources to get out there is one of the things that is a legacy of the past FESA,” he said, referring to the period before former chief executive officer Jo Harrison-Ward resigned in August.
“FESA has left us with this replacement program … [that] is not up to scratch.”
The union also would insist that the new helicopters were manned by career fire fighters and not volunteers.
Mr Johnson said the additional resources would be spread across the metropolitan area, as well as the North-West and South-West of the state, depending on the fire season.
“While the use of this aircraft and new appliances will reduce the fire risk to life and property, the community must also take responsibility and ensure their properties are well prepared and they have a survival plan,” Mr Johnson said.
“You can never have enough fire fighting appliances. The [Elvis trial] will be a tremendous asset to our fire fighting capacities.”
Elvis, officially called an Erikson Skycrane, will be borrowed from Victoria, which owns two of the helicopters. Mr Johnson said the states’ bushfire seasons differed, allowing WA to use the second helicopter.
The federal government would share the $3.8 million cost of the helicopter, which would be available in early December.
Mr Johnson admitted the trial was directly related to a scathing report into the Roleystone-Kelmscott fire in February, in which former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty criticised fire fighting operations during the fire and cooperation between authorities.
Authorities are today running a multi-agency bushfire exercise to test the state’s preparedness for the upcoming bushfire season and the agencies’ cooperation.
Department of Environment and Conservation principal fire operations officer Terry Maher said simulated incidents would provide a realistic example of how agencies needed to work together in the coming months.
“DEC works closely with FESA, local government and other support agencies during bushfires that occur on DEC-managed land and it’s important to test our interagency arrangements prior to the season,” Mr Maher said.
“All agencies need to know what their role is in a major incident and work together for the safety of the WA community.”
Mr Johnson said the government remained committed to recommendations in the Keelty report.
“There’s a committee set up in the Premier’s department,” he said.
“We’re certainly committed to all of the reforms. While the actions to some of the recommendations might be slightly different to what was set out [in the report], in general terms we’re committed to the overall Keelty report.”
Mr Marmion said the Elvis trial was a welcome boost in bushfire suppression this season and would allow the DEC and FESA to evaluate its effectiveness before the government considered its future use.
“This aircraft will enhance our aerial fleet in its key role to support our ground crews to protect lives and property and will ensure we are better equipped to respond to major bushfires,” Mr Marmion said.
The state’s existing aerial fleet includes two Type 1 waterbombers, capable of dumping 4000 litres each, four Helitac waterbombers (1000 litres), eight fixed wing aircraft (3000 litres), nine spotter aircraft, and an aerial intelligence helicopter.