Australia — Firebombing aircraft will be sent to bushfires and grass fires across Victoria more rapidly this summer, under new rules for aircraft management that aim to tackle fires from the air sooner and stop them spreading.
The new aircraft dispatch system – which was trialled in Victoria last summer – is a response to a key recommendation from the Bushfires Royal Commission, which found the authorisation system for aircraft used on Black Saturday was too slow.
The royal commission heard many concerns about aircraft dispatch on Black Saturday, including that the first two fire-bombing aircraft dispatched to the deadly Murrindindi fire that destroyed most of Marysville ”arrived too late”.
Under the new system, firebombing aircraft will be dispatched as quickly as possible and at the same time as ground crews. This differs from the traditional system, under which aircraft are sent only after a ground crew reaches a fire and decides if aircraft are needed.
Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley welcomed the new approach.
”This will significantly reduce the time it takes to get aircraft to a fire and will make a big difference to keeping small fires small,” he said.
Mr Lapsley said in last summer’s trial firebombing, aircraft arrived at fires at least 30 to 40 minutes sooner than would otherwise have been the case. The ”pre-determined dispatch system” was trialled in Bendigo for four months. ”It definitely had what we believe was a profound impact on early suppression,” Mr Lapsley said.
In the trial, aircraft were sent to 44 fires and firebombed them in 19 cases. All but one of the fires were contained within 24 hours and ground crews said early firebombing played a major role in stopping the spread of the fires.
The automatic dispatch system will run in five locations – Bendigo, Casterton, Hamilton, Sea Lake and Benambra.
Mr Lapsley said the locations were chosen because of their proximity to housing, vast cropping fields and plantations.
”Apart from reducing the potential spread of a fire, getting aircraft out quickly also means fire crews aren’t as fatigued, and equipment and repair costs are reduced,” he said.
Safety considerations were paramount in the new aircraft system, he said, because firebombing aircraft would be working above ground crews very early on.
Adam Lawson, manager of the State Aircraft Unit, said that getting a firebombing aircraft to a fire when it was still small was a significant advantage.
”The trial was particularly successful in getting the aircraft out the door as fast as possible. So the response times were significantly reduced, at least halved,” he said.
”By getting the aircraft there really quickly you can apply in some cases 3000 litres, or 2500 litres of water or foam, within the first 20-25 minutes of the fire’s life. And that makes a big difference.”
The chief fire officer of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Alan Goodwin, said the state had a fleet of 41 firefighting aircraft that would be employed this summer.
”This year, fire agencies have relocated some aircraft to provide better performance and coverage to critical areas across the state as well as introducing new aircraft tactics,” he said.