It’s time to change the way we do things and prepare for the future, says Andrew Wilkie. Talking Point published in the Mercury.
IT’S surreal to consider that the massive bushfires around Australia were extinguished only a few months ago.
But despite the trials and tragedies of the global coronavirus pandemic, we must consider the Black Summer tragedy, because before we know it we’ll crash into the next bushfire season – and we’d better be ready.
Late last year I proposed using the nation’s C-130 Hercules, C-17 Globemaster and C-27 Spartan military transport aircraft for water bombing. But the Federal Government was quick to dismiss the idea, despite the Royal Australian Air Force having 30 of these aircraft, claiming instead there were enough civilian aircraft available for firefighting.
The problem is the national fire threat will continue to trend badly, and any sensible government would see the importance of thinking strategically and planning for the future. Regardless of whether or not there are adequate firefighting resources currently – and that is arguable – there is no doubt that in years to come the country will need much greater capability, and that must include a much enhanced heavy aerial firefighting capability.
Enter the RAAF and its fleet of 12 C-130 Hercules in particular, based just outside Sydney, and within easy reach of just about anywhere in the nation. With a proven off-theshelf, roll-on roll-off tank system, these aircraft can be quickly converted into large firefighters. To get the ball rolling, I’ve contacted the American company that produces the product called MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems) and confirmed it is compatible with Australia’s C-130J model.
Systems cost $5.5 million to $9.4 million, and are a much cheaper option than modified or dedicated aircraft.
Moreover, already highlytrained military flight crews have shown in the US, and in other parts of the world where the system is in use, that they become proficient very quickly. Indeed, just 12 months is all that would be needed to procure MAFFS, make the electrical modifications to existing aircraft and train crews. Basically, the aircraft can be used for traditional missions until they’re needed for firefighting, when MAFFS can be rolled out of storage to transform the planes into powerful firefighters.
Last summer’s bushfires were unprecedented. Images of the infernos and mass evacuations of holidaymakers from beaches went around the world. At times, firefighters were helpless before the hot, dry conditions, high fuel loads and erratic fire behaviour.
One firefighter described conditions in NSW to ABC’s Four Corners: “The fire became so huge that it created its own weather, and we had 80km winds and it was just roaring along. There was nothing you could do. So, at that stage, we changed our plan from stay and protect to flee.” Another described the impossible task: “There was no chance we were going to stop it. I mean, it was so big, there was so much flame everywhere that, I mean, we just had some little hoses.” Traditional firefighting methods were no match for these fires.
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action agrees that the country needs to respond much more effectively to climate change, and the fire risk it produces, and that this should include much greater investment in aerial firefighting. ELCA comprises more than 20 former fire emergency chiefs from every state and territory, including Tasmania. It isn’t lost on them that federal funding for aerial firefighting has remained largely unchanged for more than a decade.
We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking last summer’s fires won’t happen again, or that there won’t be a repeat of the 1967 tragedy here in Tasmania.
Remember Hobart where many of us live on the urban fringe against bush – is assessed by bushfire experts to be the nation’s most bushfirevulnerable capital city.
It’s time to seriously consider using MAFFS to beef up Australia’s firefighting capability.
There’s no point training and equipping for the last disaster. Instead we must be open-minded and agile.
And, with our dangerously changing climate and escalating bushfire threat, surely it’s time to change the way we do things and prepare for the future. And quickly.
Summer and more fires will be here before we know it.