Australia — THE Government admits slashing three aerial firefighting weapons will save $6.8 million three years after Black Saturday, but denies it is a cost-saving exercise.
Victoria’s firefighting air force has been slashed on the eve of a summer the CFA fears may bring devastating grass blazes.
The Baillieu Government has ditched one of its three giant air crane helicopters and two planes capable of dropping 8000 litres of water anywhere in the state within an hour.
Today, Bushfire Response Minister Peter Ryan confirmed $6.8 million would be saved by axing the super chopper, and the two 500km/h Convair planes.
This is despite $4 million being spent testing the Convair planes last year.
Mr Ryan was speaking today as the “Elvis” air crane was unveiled at Essendon Airport, even as the United Firefighters Union slammed the decision.
“That is the most irresponsible and ill-conceived decision that I have ever heard in my entire career of 22 years as a firefighter,” union state secretary Peter Marshall said today.
But Mr Ryan defended the the savings today as a “relatively minimal amount of money” compared to the $900 million the government was spending adopting the bushfire initiatives recommended by the Black Saturday Royal Commission.
“It doesn’t matter, the cost doesn’t matter, this is not a cost-related issue, we’re spending more than $900 million for heaven’s sake in dealing with these matters,” Mr Ryan said.
“If we receive the advice that we need more aircraft we’ll go and get more aircraft.”
And Department of Sustainability and Environment Chief Ewan Waller and CFA Regional Commander Mick Harris said they advised the government that two air cranes would be sufficient for this year’s season.
“That is right, we assessed it, we assessed around June, July, August as we came closer and settled on what we believe the base fleet we needed for this season,” Mr Waller said.
“We’re very happy. I reckon we’ve got a very sound fleet strategically located in areas we want to locate them.
Mr Waller said the CFA and DSE could tap into interstate aerial firefighting resources if necessary.
“You’ve got to look at the context of where we had the third air crane. We brought the third air crane in particularly when we had the drought because we had 13 years of below average rainfall….because we knew we were going to have terrible fire situations,” he said.
Firefighters appalled at cuts
But Mr Marshall said the decision was wrong.
“This decision comes with the backdrop and the lessons of Black Saturday where over 170 lives were lost, 2000 homes were destroyed and communities were ravaged.
“I do not accept for one moment that the forthcoming fire season can be predicted as being different to any other major disaster that’s occurred.”
Mr Marshall said it was “rubbish” to say that grass fires could not be fought effectively with helicopters.
“It is a most effective way to fight those types of fires,” he said.
“The aerial firefighting capabilities during Black Saturday were not what the fire services requested and here we have a government that is reducing that capability even further.
“Aerial firefighting capability is essential from preventing small fires from becoming large fires and accessing remote areas.”
State budget under pressure
The state is suffering spiralling net debt and blowouts totalling more than $2.5 billion on projects such as myki, the police crime database and the Healthsmart hospital IT system.
Mr Ryan – who last year hailed the Convair planes as “one of the biggest weapons in the fight against bushfires” – also said the cuts were made because Victoria was preparing for different fire conditions to previous summers. He said grass blazes tipped this season were not as well suited to helicopters.
The CFA’s Township Protection Plans, which cover 185 communities, say they are at high risk of fires this season.
CFA spokesman Gerard Scholten said summer was expected to be particularly severe for grass fires, which could devastate large parts of the state and threaten or destroy property.
“Because of all the rain we’ve been having … that is just feeding the fuel,” he said. It would take just a few days of dry weather and strong wind to make fires a major threat.
“We will have lots of big, fast-running fires that can do a lot of damage,” he said.
Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has also warned that authorities are bracing for tough conditions, with “high risk of grassland fires due to above-average levels of growth throughout the state, with higher than average temperatures”.
The biggest grass fire threats will be in the state’s northwest, the weather bureau says.
Opposition says Ryan will be to blame if disaster hits
Opposition emergency services spokesman Danielle Green said cutting firefighting aircraft numbers was “an appalling decision that could cost lives”.
“These air cranes are pivotal in saving lives and property and they did so on Black Saturday,” she said.
“Let Peter Ryan be in no doubt that if his decision to under-finance air cranes results in disaster, Victorian will rightly hold him and his government responsible.”
But Mr Ryan said the decision was not about balancing books, but about providing the most suitable firefighting resources.
“Victoria’s fire agencies make decisions about aircraft fleet capability based on risk, preparedness and operational need,” he said.
“Above-average rainfall means the risks are different this season, with the focus predominantly on grass fires; therefore, the firefighting fleet reflects this.
“Up to 150 additional aircraft are available and there are provisions for extra air cranes if required throughout the season,” he said.
The Elvis air crane recently arrived in Melbourne and is due to be unveiled at Essendon airport by Mr Ryan this morning. Another air crane, Marty, will arrive next month as part of an $11 million budget for firefighting aircraft.
In a 12-week stay last summer, the Canadian-leased Convair planes were used to fight only two fires.