Over June and July 2020, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) hosted Australia’s first virtual bushfire and climate change summit to coordinate a national response to the Australian climate and bushfire crises. The 2020 National Bushfire and Climate Summit brought together hundreds of participants from across the country, and the world, to share their experiences, and to formulate recommendations to address the worsening risk of devastating bushfires fueled by climate change. The Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan is the culmination of that effort.

The Plan provides a broad plan and practical ideas for governments, fire and land management agencies and communities to help us mitigate and adapt to worsening fire conditions. The plan’s 165 recommendations include many measures that can be implemented right now, to ensure communities are better protected. There are a range of proposals specifically around aerial support for fighting wild fire.

The Plan aims to provide the policy recommendations that will help keep Australians as safe as possible from worsening bushfires, and support communities to build resilience and lead recovery efforts, through three key areas:

Response

  • Better resource fire and land management agencies to manage fuels, and rapidly detect and attack new outbreaks
  • Add a self-sufficient Australian medium and large aerial firefighting capability to fire services
  • Better utilisation of Australian Defence Force support capabilities in emergencies

Readiness

  • Create an Indigenous-led National Cultural Fire Strategy to complement and inform fuel management by agencies
  • Increase the affordability and uptake of insurance for properties in disaster prone areas, a key factor in community resilience
  • Review and update Australian building standards in bushfire-prone areas

Recovery

  • Set up a national climate disaster fund to meet climate-fuelled disaster costs and build resilience—paid through a fossil fuel producer levy
  • Better coordinate and resource wildlife recovery efforts
  • Develop and implement a national climate change, health and well-being strategy

The full plan is available here.

Air support is vital

There is so much important information in this report, about the escalating nature of climate change induced fire seasons. As noted in the report:

‘Australia’s Black Summer fires over 2019 and 2020 were unprecedented in scale and levels of destruction. Fueled by climate change, the hottest and driest year ever recorded resulted in fires that burned through land two-and-a-half times the size of Tasmania (more than 17 million hectares), killed more than a billion animals, and affected nearly 80 percent of Australians. This included the tragic loss of over 450 lives from the fires and smoke, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of other buildings. While unprecedented, this tragedy was not unforeseen, nor unexpected.’

It is clear we need additional ground and air capacity to fight fires in future. The following are the recommendations from the plan that cover aerial firefighting.

A key recommendation is the suggestion that we build our air capacity to the point where authorities are able to deploy planes or helicopters to attack fires immediately rather than waiting until ground crews are not able to contain the blaze. This clearly will require additional aircraft.

 

Recommendations

  • Modify rapid response and initial attack procedures such that deployment of water bombing aircraft and ground firefighting crews are an immediate and automatic response to fires on days of very high, severe, extreme and catastrophic fire danger.
  • This would replace the traditional method of first dispatching a local fire unit to investigate before calling in other resources, and will require additional and different types of water bombing aircraft located across the nation.
  • Establish a night vision water bombing aircraft capability of both rotary and fixed wing aircraft.
  • Support the establishment of a national disaster management agency, or enhancement of Emergency Management Australia, tasked with developing national disaster and emergency management policy and standards, helping to manage strategic national firefighting assets, helping to coordinate the sharing of resources between states and territories and internationally, and with the authority to coordinate and allocate appropriate Federal resources as required.

Expanding aerial firefighting capability

The Federal Government should:

  1. Increase the funding available for more aircraft to enable rapid detection and rapid attack strategies. This should include rotary and fixed wing aircraft of small, medium and large size, including amphibious water-scooping aircraft.
  2. Develop a self-sufficient aerial firefighting capability in Australia. This is important given the increasing overlap of fire seasons between the northern and southern hemispheres, restricting access to medium, large, and very large water bombing aircraft. This will help to develop innovative businesses and opportunities as additional benefits.

Funding for the training of local pilots to fly firefighting aircraft should be increased, to reduce reliance on assets and personnel from the northern hemisphere which may be increasingly unavailable

Undertake an evaluation of the effectiveness of existing aerial firefighting strategies and assets used in Australia, compared to approaches used in Europe, the USA and Canada.

 

We need additional aircraft

The bushfire season in Australia is already getting longer because of climate change and increasingly overlapping with the northern hemisphere. Fire crews are already battling a bushfire in north eastern NSW, two weeks before the beginning of spring. Longer seasons increase the risk that we won’t be able to access the aircraft we need in extreme fire seasons.

Australia doesn’t have a government-owned fleet of water bombing aircraft – which makes us reliant on hiring from private companies domestically and from overseas.

In spite of this, the Federal Government last year rejected repeated requests to fund extra air support for fighting bushfires.

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”.

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

The requests for additional funding last year proved unsuccessful until December, when the Prime Minister announced an $11 million boost. Within weeks, the Prime Minister would go even further, committing an extra $20 million to lease another four planes.

But by then, the fire season had begun, and there were challenges and time lags sourcing appropriate air tankers from the northern hemisphere. By mid-January, problems had emerged with the timeframes for sourcing them.

And to make things worse, NAFC general manager Richard Alder said the government was paying more for the resources because they were being brought in at short notice.

Before this summer starts, we need a deeper commitment from the federal government for fire fighting.

 

How would we pay for it?

Obviously, we just need to allocate additional funds to fire fighting. There is also a way we could raise fund to help cover these costs:

The Australia Institute is proposing a National Climate Disaster Fund, funded by a levy of $1 per tonne of all coal gas and oil produced in Australia to help pay for some of the increasing costs of these climate disasters.

A $1 levy on fossil fuel production in Australia would currently raise around $1.5 billion a year for the National Climate Disaster Fund. While the Institute suggests the money generated could be allocated to sectors and communities which are affected by climate change, like First Nations and farmers, some of it could also be allocated to fire fighting capacity, including planes.