AUSTRALIA – The Victorian government wants ex-military aircraft to be converted to water bombers as it looks to secure a regular supply of fire-fighting planes and helicopters for longer and more intense bushfire seasons.
Announcing Victoria’s “largest ever” fleet of fire-fighting aircraft outside Geelong on Thursday, Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said the idea of refitting retired Navy, Army or Air Force planes as fire-fighters had been put to the federal government.
Victoria will have 50 aircraft ready to take to the skies this summer, Ms Neville said, with access to another 100 from around Australia, giving the state a “surge capacity” of 150 aircraft.
The Victorian-based fleet includes two large tankers and two aircranes.
The tankers, which will be based at Avalon Airport, can each carry up to 15,000 litres of water, foam or retardant and the aircranes, which will fly out of Essendon and Moorabbin airports can carry 7500 litres.
Ms Neville said the state was well set-up to cope with what was expected to be a dangerous summer but fire seasons in the northern hemisphere were getting longer, making the start dates of planes and helicopters supplied from the US and Europe for Australian summers less certain.
The Victorian government was talking to the Commonwealth, which arranged the contracts for the aircraft, about the problem, Ms Neville said, and had received a positive response.
“We need to think about making sure we have long-term security around the start of these aircraft as we see the northern hemisphere have longer and dryer summers as well,” she said.
“It’s about long-term leases and working with the Commonwealth whether they have any Defence Force equipment at the end of their life that could be re-purposed here.”
Fires have already started burning in East Gippsland where a contractor helping firefighters died this week after his vehicle fell down an embankment and the CFA is bracing for more fires with hot weather forecast for early next week.
A fleet of 22 aircraft are ready and waiting for this year’s bushfires to hit WA.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the state’s fire-fighting air fleet had clocked up about 13,000 hours in the air during last year’s “fairly busy” bushfire season.
“The risk we saw, the fires we saw was mainly in that East Gippsland area,” he said.
“We saw 81 per cent of our flying in the east of the state and only 15 per cent in the west of the state and 4 per cent was where we supported into NSW and Tasmania.”
“We look at risk, we strategically manage our aircraft and that is how we set up for the summer and that’s what we will do as the summer unfolds.”
Mr Crisp said fire-fighting aircraft were at their most effective when used with an approach called “pre-determined dispatch”.
“It was an outcome of the Bushfire Royal Commission, a strong recommendation, that we needed to get aircraft out to fires as soon as possible, to keep those fires as small as possible,” he said.
“So when a call goes out for a fire truck to go out to a fire, the aircraft goes out at the same time.”
Mr Crisp also said that the state’s promising start to night-time firefighting would continue this summer with two helicopters stationed at Ballarat and Mangalore equipped for operating in the dark and with crews trained for night flying.