Australia’s fires over the summer of 2019/20 were unprecedented in scale and level of destruction. Fuelled by climate change, the hottest and driest year ever recorded resulted in fires that burned through more than 17 million hectares, killed up to 3 billion animals, and affected nearly 80% of Australians. This included the tragic loss of over 450 lives from the fires and smoke.

Aerial firefighting capacity – planes and helicopters – are an essential component of Australia’s ability to respond to bushfires. This was demonstrated in the 2019-2020 bushfire season, when an unprecedented use of aircraft occurred. However last summer also showed that we simply don’t have enough aircraft to fight fires in a bad season. This puts landscapes, people, towns and houses, and fire fighters at risk.

The recent Bushfire Royal Commission report recommended the creation of a national publicly-owned aerial firefighting fleet, which can then be allocated to the states “according to greatest national need”.

Given that Australia currently relies heavily on overseas-based aircraft which are leased for the season, this makes sense. The severity and duration of the 2019-2020 bushfire season placed strain on the existing arrangements for sharing aerial firefighting capabilities between the states and territories. And the predicted longer fire seasons in both hemispheres is also likely to cause problems, as planes will be needed for longer in each hemisphere, driving up the cost of hiring them.

The longer and increasingly severe fire seasons will only increase the demand for aerial firefighting services in the future, despite the cost of leasing fixed wing planes and helicopters. Having a fleet of publicly owned planes and helicopters will reduce some of the cost and logistics difficulties of securing leased aircraft each year.

However, the federal government has rejected this recommendation.

Meanwhile trucking magnate Lindsay Fox says that he has joined with the company that already provides a lot of Australia’s air fleet capacity (Coulson) and has plans to establish a national fleet. They say they will ‘create a nationally co-ordinated and sovereign aerial firefighting fleet – with expertise in night-time blaze-battling – to quickly respond to emergencies and prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons’. 

This company has a long history of effective fire fighting, both here and overseas. They should be involved in developing a fleet. However, a ‘sovereign fleet’ should be in public, not private, hands. The federal government has signalled that they support the private sector approach, saying ‘the Commonwealth encourages states and territories to work collaboratively and with industry to build Australian based aerial fire‐fighting capacity’ (source).

We need a publicly owned fleet of planes and aircraft suitable for effectively fighting the fires we will continue to see in a warming world.

Please sign the letter to the PM

Please sign the letter to the prime minister, urging him to listen to the Royal Commission and establish a publicly owned air fleet to assist the states and territories to fight fires.

For extra information about fires and aerial firefighting, please check here.

Fires along the edge of the Dargo High Plains, VIC Alps, March 2019

Header image: 

By Tech. Sgt. Joselito Aribuabo –, Public Domain,