Federal Government rejected aerial fire fighting requests ahead of bushfires ‘due to other priorities’

14 August 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au/

AUSTRALIA – The Federal Government rejected repeated requests to fund extra air support for fighting bushfires ahead of the last deadly season, arguing resources within the Home Affairs budget were too stretched.

Documents released under Freedom of Information show the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), supported by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC), had been trying to secure a permanent increase in funding for water bombers and other large firefighting aircraft for more than a year.

NAFC, which co-ordinates national water-bombing and air-support resources, had secured a one-off $11 million boost in December 2018, but the Commonwealth rejected a 2018 business case calling for an ongoing increase “due to other priorities within Government”.

The requests for additional funding last year proved unsuccessful until December, when the Prime Minister announced an $11 million boost.

But by then, the fire season had begun, and there were challenges and time lags sourcing appropriate air tankers from the northern hemisphere.

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement, drought had ravaged large swathes of the country, stoking fears of a terrible summer ahead.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre released an alarming assessment in late August, warning multiple states were in for “above-normal fire potential”.

The FOI documents reveal AFAC and NAFC directly lobbied Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud earlier in August.

After the bushfire outlook was released, the Minister backed the funding submission as having “merit”.

But Mr Littleproud was advised by the Home Affairs Department that it had “no capacity to offset or absorb” extra spending. Mr Littleproud responded that he wanted to seek an exemption from the offset requirements.

The departmental submission also noted the optics of delaying a decision.

By November, significant fires were burning across multiple states and Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk vented her frustrations about not being able to access extra water bombers to support firefighting.

“We need more national resources,” she said on November 12.

She went on to say that a written request to the Prime Minister to secure a Large Air Tanker for the state had been denied.

Government stalled on water bomber request

AFAC chief executive Stuart Ellis told Radio National that same month that there was a real indication Australia was “moving into uncharted territory” because of the number of fires burning at the same time, and resources were being pushed to the limit.

AFAC was managing requests for assistance from fire and emergency services agencies across the country, and Mr Ellis said it would have been “helpful” to have the requested federal money at that point.

In a November 13 interview with Sky News, Mr Ellis was asked directly whether Australia had enough air support available.

“Our assessment is we do,” he responded.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Aerial firefighting was essential during the black summer bushfires.

But behind the scenes, the documents show AFAC approached Mr Littleproud again four days later, with a letter reiterating the need to provide the extra money for aerial assets and to make it a permanent increase.

“Having this as an outstanding issue does no credit to the Federal Government or fire and emergency services,” Mr Ellis wrote.

An attached AFAC document warned that if demand stretched to other jurisdictions, there may be “insufficient” resources available.

On top of that, the AFAC correspondence stated there was an issue with potential long lead times for sourcing large water tankers from overseas.

It said if funding had been provided in August, it would have been possible to provide an air asset for Queensland to help deal with extensive fire activity in November.

It was another three weeks before Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Littleproud announced a funding boost of $11 million to NAFC to bolster resources for the rest of the 2019/20 bushfire season.

Within weeks, the Prime Minister would go even further, committing an extra $20 million to lease another four planes.

But by mid-January, problems had emerged with the timeframes for sourcing them.

One DC-10 air tanker, located in Alabama, in the United States, had its departure delayed by tornadoes and associated deteriorating weather.

A yellow firefighting helicopter drops a load of water.

Water-bombing craft were used to fight fires across the summer.(Supplied: Tasmanian Fire Service)

An MD-87 aircraft left the US state of Oregon but was forced to make an extended stop in Japan when the ash cloud from an erupting volcano in the Philippines impeded its flight path.

At the time, NAFC general manager Richard Alder said the Government was paying more for the resources because they were being brought in at short notice.

There had been other issues trying to source extra air support at short notice.

NAFC had investigated a fleet of CL-415 “super scooper” Canadian planes in December, but they were unable to be sourced because they were grounded, iced in by the Canadian winter.

Labor says documents show gross negligence

Labor’s emergency management spokesman, Murray Watt, said this year’s Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements had heard clear evidence water bombers played a “vital role” in rapidly attacking fires, controlling them and putting them out.

“There’s no doubt that the Government properly resourcing water bombing aircraft is a life-and-death matter for Australians in bushfire regions.”

Senator Watt said if the Commonwealth had provided earlier funding assistance, the outcome of the fire season may have changed.

“It’s gross negligence on the part of the Government to ignore or reject advice they were given that they should increase funding.”

David Littleproud looks to the ground, standing in front of a tree with vibrant red leaves

David Littleproud says the Commonwealth was present to provide funding.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

That’s a claim Mr Littleproud adamantly rejected. He said the states always knew they could rely on the Commonwealth to provide funding.

“We’ve always made those contributions,” he said.

“The states know that, they can bank on that, and have done that in the past and were going to do that in the future.”

Mr Littleproud said last November Mr Ellis assured him NAFC had “sufficient resources” and that questions about resourcing should be put to AFAC, because it was the peak body representing fire agencies.

The Minister said at that time he had assured AFAC the business case for ongoing funding was under “active consideration”.

Key points:

  • The Government was repeatedly asked to invest in aerial fire fighting ahead of last summer
  • More money was only provided weeks before the black summer bushfires intensified
  • Labor says the documents show “gross negligence” on the Government’s part
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