Australia– A retired general manager of the former Department of Conservation and Land Management has questioned the effectiveness of water bombers in fighting large-scale fires such as those in Western Australia this bushfire season.
The State Government and Department of Fire and Emergency Services have faced pressure over the issue of aerial support for firefighting, after it emerged it rejected the offer of a DC-10 and a Hercules water bomber to help fight last month’s catastrophic fire near Yarloop.
It followed on from criticism of the slow deployment of aerial support to the Esperance bushfires last November.
But Bushfire Front WA chairman Roger Underwood said water bombers made little difference to bushfires of the scale and intensity that struck the state this summer.
“The thing that’s disturbed me are the calls for the WA Government to start investing in more and bigger water bombers,” he said.
“You may as well take an aeroplane load full of dollars, fly up over the flames, and let them loose.
“It’s money being wasted.”
Aircraft not the magic bullet
With more than four decades experience in WA forestry and fire management, Mr Underwood said aircraft could play a key support role.
But he said suggestions they could effectively extinguish large-scale fires were misguided, and had the potential to distract from preparation for future fires.
“Where water bombers fall down is that dropping water on a raging forest inferno simply doesn’t make any difference to it,” Mr Underwood said.
“The water basically evaporates before it gets to the flames.
“Or if a drop puts flames out at point A, the fire will spread to point B before the aircraft can get back again.”
A report by the CSIRO into the use of the DC-10, a Canadian-built plane that can hold up to 43,000 litres of water or fire-retardant chemicals, found mixed results from their deployment during the 20092010 bushfire season.
A mild fire season meant the aircraft could only be deployed to one wildfire, and while it dropped its payload on target, changeable weather and “discontinuous” fuels meant it did not affect the fire’s behaviour.
Further trial drops were also found to have limited effectiveness, while the concerns were raised that drops from too low an altitude could potentially damage trees and buildings and potentially endanger the lives of firefighters below.
The danger makes communication between firefighters and pilots critical, a problem exposed in Esperance, where radio communication between pilots and local farmers on the fire front were near-impossible due to infrastructure damage.
“Water bombers generally can’t operate in high winds, and they can’t operate at night,” Mr Underwood said.
“A lot of our very worst bushfires occur at night time, when water bombers are sitting on the ground.
Fuel mitigation, community leadership need to be prioritised
With Esperance farmers launching their own inquiry into last November’s fires, concerns have been raised over the restrictions placed on landowners, preventing them from clearing and managing combustible bushland.
Farmers fear the State Government’s inquiry, which will focus on the damage and response to the Yarloop fire, will overlook the communication and fuel management problems that contributed to the Esperance blaze.
Mr Underwood said funding and resources should be directed to addressing these issues, rather than investing in what he labelled a “distraction”.
“People are looking for a technological fix to what is basically a problem of land management,” he said.
“If we manage our land correctly reducing the hazard, dealing with the fuels, and preparing for fire properly then we won’t need this massive, and obscenely expensive, technological solution.”
He said the Bushfire Front would be making a submission to the privately-backed Esperance inquiry, and would emphasise the problems surrounding fuel mitigation and control.
“The Esperance situation, in terms of bushfires, is a difficult one,” he said.
“Most of the time, the weather on the south coast isn’t that bad, but you get really bad bushfire conditions for a few days.
“Under those conditions, when it’s 42 degrees Celsius and a screaming wind from the north, once a fire gets going it’s very difficult to stop.”
He said bushland in the shire’s north needed to be better prepared for future lightning strikes, the key factor behind a string of recent fires.