Aerial firefighting is one of the most significant tools available to help contain and control bushfires. As was noted by the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Royal Commission), aerial firefighting can help to 'gather information, to apply retardant to reduce the progression and intensity of the bushfires, and to move emergency responders to strategic locations'.
This chapter considers the evidence received regarding the role of aerial firefighting in the 2019–20 bushfire season, and the arrangements for the provision of aerial firefighting resources in Australia.
It also details the funding arrangements for Australia's aerial firefighting fleet, and the arguments put forward in support of an expanded and permanent aerial sovereign firefighting capacity.
Australia's aerial firefighting fleet
The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) is a business unit of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), formed in 2003 to 'provide a cooperative national arrangement for the provision of aerial firefighting resources for combatting bushfires'.
There are more than 140 aircraft available to the NAFC, to be directed to where needed and contracted on behalf of state and territory governments. The NAFC aircraft are in addition to those owned by the states, and other aircraft hired to meet peak demand across Australia. In total, more than 500 aerial firefighting aircraft are available, provided by over 150 operators across Australia.
The AFAC explained that the NAFC was responsible for coordinating the leasing of a national fleet of specialised firefighting aircraft on behalf of state and territory emergency services, and that the NAFC:
… facilitates the sharing of these aircraft between states and territories during the fire season, by maintaining a resource sharing agreement. The collaborative arrangements for the national aerial firefighting fleet have been instrumental in protecting communities and saving lives and property over past bushfire seasons.
In order to procure aircraft, the NAFC uses an approved public tender process with a standard contract term of three years, with options for limited extension. The contract guarantees that the service will be in place for three years, with the NAFC procuring 'all aircraft on behalf of member agencies, who determine the type of aircraft and timeframe each aircraft is required'.
Under a funding agreement, the Commonwealth Government contributes through the NAFC in the order of $15 million annually towards the fixed costs of making the contracted national fleet available. State and territory government agencies then utilise the contracted aircraft for bushfire suppression, meeting all of the operational costs.
Aerial firefighting resources
The Royal Commission's interim observations noted that there was a variety of aircraft utilised in aerial firefighting. This included:
large and very large air-tankers (LATs and VLATs), which have a large load capacity and can travel relatively long distances at speed, across Australia; and
smaller aerial assets including helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft—which have a smaller load capacity but can operate 'at higher rates of effort in local responses and from regional locations'.
The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) advised that of the 152 aircraft contracted for 2020–21, 90 per cent normally reside in Australia. However, the remaining 10 per cent which will be sourced from overseas tend to be LATs and heavy helicopters.
The Royal Commission drew attention to the fact that there are only a small number of LATs and VLATs in operation globally, and that most of these were based in North America; New South Wales (NSW) currently has the only LAT permanently located in Australia.
The AFAC advised of the number of aircraft that were available during the 2019–20 bushfire season, stating that:
For the 2019–20 bushfire season the regular aerial firefighting fleet leased through NAFC initially comprised 147 aircraft services across the country – a mixture of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. At the request of states and territories, additional contracted aircraft services were added over the course of the season to a total of 166.
In relation to the LATs used during the 2019-20 bushfire season, the AFAC advised that:
… NAFC initially contracted a total of four LATs on behalf of states and territories. Subsequently, a further two LATs were engaged at the request of NSW. During January 2020, additional funding of $20 million was provided by the Australian government and a further four LATs were engaged across the country, bringing the total LATs in the country to eleven (ten contracted, plus one owned by NSW).
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) drew attention to a limitation in Australia's aerial firefighting response, observing that 'Australian fire services at present use small and large fixed wing water bombers, but not medium sized, a clear gap in capabilities'. ELCA recommended that:
… as a condition of receiving a portion of Australian Government annual funding support, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre be required to conduct a trial, in consultation with the Royal Australian Air Force and Australasian Council of Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, of CL415 amphibious water-scooping aircraft in a first attack / direct attack firefighting role ... [which are] used extensively and successfully in most other fire-prone countries.
Another gap in capabilities was identified by Mr Robert Cameron, Director‑General of Emergency Management Australia (EMA), who voiced concerns about the fact that Australia sources firefighting retardant from the United States. Mr Cameron suggested that in the event of 'tremendous demand for aerial firefighting', both the single-source nature of the supply, and the length of the geographic supply chain could leave Australia vulnerable. Mr Cameron was of the view that:
… were there to be onshore manufacturing to complement the existing supply arrangements, the issue of vulnerability of the supply chain would be somewhat resolved.
Funding of the aerial firefighting fleet
Since 2015–16, the Commonwealth Government's annual contribution to the NAFC has been as follows:
2015-16 - $14.804 million and an additional one off payment $500 000
2016-17 - $14.804 million
2017-18 - $14.804 million
2018-19 - $14.813 million and an additional one off payment $11 million which was provided in December 2018.
Funding during the 2019–20 bushfire season
On 12 December 2019, the Hon Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister, announced an additional one-off payment of $11 million to the NAFC. It was noted that at the time of this payment, the fire season had already begun, and there were 'challenges and time lags sourcing appropriate air tankers from the northern hemisphere'.
Home Affairs, in a response to a question on notice, advised that the additional $11 million funding provided to the NAFC in 2019‑20 was to 'solely contribute to the fixed costs of leasing aerial firefighting aircraft'.
On 4 January 2020, the Prime Minister announced that, following a request from the AFAC, $20 million would be allocated for the leasing of four water‑bombing aircraft. These aircraft would include:
… two long-range fixed wing DC-10s with 36,000 litres capacity and two medium-range fixed-wing Large Air Tankers with 11,000 litre capacity. The Commonwealth will fully fund the leasing costs with operational costs to be shared with states and territories as usual.
Mr Richard Alder, General Manager of the NAFC, was reported conceding that leasing the aircraft in this way and at short notice meant they were more expensive than they would have been otherwise.
Ongoing funding arrangements
Aerial firefighting funding and capacity was identified by some submitters as an issue in terms of preparedness for the 2019–20 bushfire season. Submitters called for the Commonwealth Government to support aerial firefighting capabilities, through effective funding to significantly increase the capacity for the deployment of aerial firefighting resources, especially in remote areas.
The question of funding was first raised in a 2016 Senate inquiry into the Tasmanian wilderness fires, when the NAFC noted in its submission that Australian Government funding was:
… forecast to diminish in real terms, whereas the cost of providing aerial resources will rise. This may lead to a reduction in access to aerial resources in the future.
Firefighters are likely to face extended, hotter fire seasons in the future, with more days of extreme fire danger. Along with changing demographics and land use pattern, this is likely to increase demand for aerial firefighting resources….
The AFAC Business Case
A February 2018 business case from the AFAC, which was presented to EMA in May 2018, called for an increase in the annual funding of the NAFC from $14.8 million to $25.57 million. Specifically, the business case requested nearly $11 million in additional annual funding (in addition to the annual funding base of $15 million), comprising of:
$1.125 million to acknowledge the loss in values of the Commonwealth contribution due to inflation;
$2.162 million due to unfavourable movement in foreign exchange;
an acknowledgement of the key role of LATs and VLATs which required a Commonwealth contribution to ensure continuity of service;
$7.487 million to fund a national LAT and VLAT capability in the next funding agreement, commencing 1 July 2018; and
agreement that the future funding agreement not specify individual aircraft, allowing the NAFC greater flexibility in adjusting its fleet.
On 6 December 2019, Home Affairs, in answer to a question on notice, indicated that the Commonwealth Government was still considering the NAFC's request made in 2018 for a permanent increase in funding.
It was later reported that the Commonwealth Government had rejected the 2018 business case from the NAFC and its call for an ongoing increase in funding, rather than one‑off funding allocations. The business case was rejected due to 'other priorities within government'.
Mr Cameron of EMA confirmed to the committee that the decision of government at the time was to decline the request for additional annual funding, and that one-off payments were instead made in the two previous financial years.
The AFAC noted that while the business case had resulted in the one-off payment of $11 million in 2018-19, it did not address:
… the systemic funding shortfalls that have developed since the inception of the 'dollar for dollar' funding arrangement in 2003 between NAFC and the Commonwealth.
In particular, supporting the funding of Large Air Tankers (LATs) establishes a national capability for heavy lift aerial firefighting, deployable across Australia at short notice.
On 4 January 2020, the Prime Minister announced a permanent increase of $11.4 million to the annual funding of the NAFC from 2021, on an ongoing basis.
On 13 May 2020, the Minister for Emergency Management, the Hon David Littleproud MP, advised that the $11 million announced was in addition to the $15 million provided each year for aerial firefighting, and noted that:
The additional funding to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre will increase the length of existing lease arrangements and/or the number of contract opportunities available to aircraft owners/operators.
These aircraft, contracted on behalf of state and territory governments, are supplemented by additional state owned, and state contracted aircraft and other aircraft hired to meet peak demand across Australia.
The National Bushfire and Climate Summit recommended, in its Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan, that the Commonwealth Government should 'increase the funding available for more aircraft to enable rapid detection and rapid attack strategies'.
Leasing of the aerial firefighting fleet
In addition to the issue of funding, evidence to the inquiry also suggested that the leasing of aerial firefighting aircraft each bushfire season was adversely impacting on resourcing levels and increasing costs.
The NAFC observed that none of its contracted aircraft are leased directly from overseas companies. Rather, the NAFC contract with Australian companies, and 'overseas sourced aircraft are leased from either … American or Canadian companies by an Australian company which then leases them to the NAFC'.
Home Affairs put it to the committee that leasing of aircraft between the northern and southern hemispheres had 'proven to be cost‑effective', while allowing for flexibility and the 'scaling and timing of resource availability to suit risk'. In relation to leasing costs, Home Affairs advised that there could be wide variations depending on, for example:
… the type of aircraft, length of contract, and crewing arrangements. For an aircraft normally contracted for a typical 90 day engagement each year to be retained in Australia and be available for 300 days (allowing for periods of heavy maintenance), the total annual standing cost would be around $5 million for 300 days in comparison to $2.5 million for 90 days. These figures exclude operating costs.
The Royal Commission's interim observations drew attention to the overseas leasing model, and noted the limitations of this approach:
As fire seasons in both hemispheres increase in length and intensity, and other global issues arise, there is a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to secure overseas aircraft to provide contracted services during the Australian bushfire season.
During the 2019–20 bushfire season the limitations of leasing aircraft was observed. A number of events meant that Australia could not rely on aircraft from overseas to assist with the firefighting efforts. For example:
a fleet of water-scooping planes from Canada were not requested by Australia until December 2019, by which time they were grounded in Canada due to icy conditions; and
following the announcement on 4 January 2020 of $20 million to lease four air tankers from the US, the arrival of two of the four tankers from the United States was delayed due to tornadoes in Alabama and an erupting volcano in the Philippines.
The AFAC pointed out that 'NAFC believes that there is merit in considering alternative leasing and ownership provisions of LAT, to ensure more secure availability over an extended fire season.' ELCA, on the other hand, put forward their view that:
Australia has insufficient aerial firefighting resources, there has been insufficient research into the effectiveness and efficiency of various aerial platforms, that there is a concerning growth in reliance on large and very large aircraft, and that there is an identified gap in the current mix of aerial firefighting resources.
The need for a sovereign fleet
There was support expressed during the inquiry for the establishment of a permanent, Australian-based aerial firefighting fleet, in order to address the concerns around a lack of appropriate resourcing during bushfire seasons, and the high cost of leasing arrangements. It was also noted that the lengthening fire seasons across the globe were utilising limited aerial resources. Therefore, augmenting national aerial firefighting capacity was seen as a critical need by several submitters in light of the 2019–20 bushfire season.
Of interest to the committee were the Prime Minister's observations, made after the announcement on 4 January 2020 of an additional $20 million funding to lease four LATs from overseas. In responding to concerns about the length of time it would take for the aircraft to arrive in Australia, the Prime Minister reportedly observed that:
What we need are waterbombers that meet the technical and specific requirements of the deployment in Australia… It's not a matter of just trying to hustle up some planes from somewhere around the world. What you need is the precise asset to deal with the situation in Australia…
The interim observations of the Royal Commission suggested the need for a reassessment of existing aerial firefighting capacities and capabilities. The Royal Commission indicated that this reassessment would need to be 'supported by research and evaluation to inform specific future capability needs'. This would include the:
… desirability for a modest, Australian-based sovereign VLAT/LAT capability. There may also be a need to explore contracting models that encourage Australian industry involvement in the development of future aerial firefighting capability.
The sentiments expressed by the Royal Commission were echoed by the National Bushfire and Climate Summit (the Summit), which concluded that there was a need to 'develop a self-sufficient aerial firefighting capability in Australia'. The Summit made the important point that this was particularly necessary given the lengthening of fire seasons globally which was 'restricting access to medium, large, and very large water bombing aircraft'.
The Summit further recommended that funding be increased for the training of local pilots, remarking that doing so would:
… reduce reliance on assets and personnel from the northern hemisphere which may be increasingly unavailable.
The sentiments expressed by the Summit were echoed by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP), which called for Australian pilots to be trained to work on aerial firefighting missions to 'boost the country's capacity to tackle bushfires and reduce the need to bring in overseas pilots'. Further, the AFAP also supported the owning and operating of an Australian-based fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft.
The AFAC stated in its submission that the NAFC was working with states and territories to adopt an agreed national aerial firefighting strategy, which would aim to:
… consolidate a co-ordinated, collaborative approach to all elements of ensuring access to the capabilities that will be required in the future, including aircraft, people and supporting infrastructure and systems. A national fleet strategy and technology roadmap will be included in the strategy.
During a previous inquiry into the 2016 Tasmanian fires, the NAFC pointed to the benefit of deploying large fixed-wing air tankers to effectively assist in fire suppression operations, as they were 'extremely mobile and able to quickly deploy across the country or operate effectively in multiple jurisdictions in the one day'. The NAFC continued that:
Large fixed-wing airtankers are likely to be an important component of enhanced bushfire suppression capability in Australia. A shared, national large fixed-wing airtanker capability is logical and is an attractive strategy.
Dr Sarah Waddell offered her support for a national aerial firefighting fleet, and submitted that:
Rather than each State and Territory sourcing its own aerial firefighting force, it is likely to be more efficient to build a national force – one that is capable of moving between fire outbreaks in each State and Territory over a bushfire season. Medium-sized air tankers capable of scooping from water sources and landing at local air strips for manual filling can establish rapid turnaround and constant direct aerial attack.
Home Affairs detailed the cost of purchasing an LAT outright, rather than leasing:
Typical capital costs for purchasing a LAT would be between $20 million and $50 million, depending on nature and condition. Once purchased, the operational costs of making an aircraft available for firefighting need to be factored in (crewing, maintenance, insurance etc.). Hourly operating costs are more than likely to be somewhat less than for contract-leased aircraft, as there would be no need to factor in recovery of capital or a profit margin.
Committee views and recommendations
Across the country, the aerial firefighting fleet plays a vital and necessary role in attacking, controlling and extinguishing bushfires. The efficacy of aerial assistance in extinguishing fires has been proven over many years, and it is important that Australia ensures its capabilities will be sufficient in the future, especially in the context of a warming and changing climate.
The committee notes that in its submission, ELCA recommends that new, fast attack strategies for new fire outbreaks, particularly remote fires, should be introduced with clear containment objectives. Such fast attack strategies should involve rapid dispatch of suitable water bombing aircraft to achieve rapid containment of remote fires before they grow into the uncontainable fires experienced in the 2019-20 fire season, which moved from remote areas to threaten populated urban areas. The committee will further examine this possible attack strategy during the remainder of this inquiry.
Lack of adequate funding
The committee holds grave concerns over the apparent reluctance of the Commonwealth Government to properly and promptly fund Australia's aerial firefighting capacity. The committee is of the view that it should not have taken years for the government to take action in providing additional and more permanent funding to the NAFC.
The committee suggests that both a lack of funding, and funding provided too late, to such an important firefighting resource increases the risks faced by the Australian community.
The Commonwealth Government should be listening to the experts on these matters, and the experts made it clear that the funding needed to be increased, well ahead of the 2019–20 bushfire season. As was noted by Mr Greg Mullins, founder and member of ELCA, the 'funding for aircraft could have arrived sooner and actually have been put to good use'.
As the committee continues its work, it will take a keen interest in the funding arrangements for the NAFC, especially that the funding is commensurate with the increasing risks facing Australia from bushfires and natural disasters.
A sovereign Australian aerial firefighting fleet
The committee shares the views of various submitters—including government departments—that the lengthening of bushfire seasons, both here and around the world will have a direct, adverse impact on the availability of firefighting resources.
There are a number of clear limitations to the leasing arrangements currently in place, which will be exacerbated as fire seasons get longer and there are competing priorities for limited resources. Aircraft will not be able to get to Australia in time to assist, and, as the Prime Minister himself observed, 'precise assets' are needed to address the unique nature of bushfires in the Australian context.
Australia seemed particularly unprepared during the 2019–20 bushfire season with regard to the adequacy of its aerial fleet—which was also a direct result of the inadequate funding arrangements. The time is right for the Commonwealth Government to permanently increase aerial firefighting capabilities during bushfire seasons.
It also seems imperative that Australia develop an onshore manufacturing capability around firefighting retardant, rather than rely on a single, overseas source of product. The impact of COVID-19 on various supply chains highlights the necessity for Australia to ensure it can address natural disaster risk using its own resources. This would also allow for a more timely response to immediate dangers and threats, such as the upcoming bushfire season.
The committee therefore echoes the calls of those submitters who are calling for the establishment of a permanent, Australia-based aerial firefighting fleet that is resourced to the point where the reliance on overseas leasing arrangements is greatly reduced. There may also be long-term economic benefits to this approach.
Research and analysis should be conducted regarding the needs for a sovereign fleet, including the right mix between small and medium aircraft, and the need for a LAT and VLAT fleet to be maintained onshore.
The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government develop a business case to progress the establishment of a permanent, sovereign aerial firefighting fleet, which includes Large Air‑Tankers and Very Large Air‑Tankers, and small and medium-sized aircraft as appropriate.