The scale of the tragedy garnered worldwide attention, and the vital role of aerial firefighting assets was thrown into sharp relief when their effectiveness, particularly of large air tankers, brought many of the fires under control. Most states and territories employed firefighting aircraft, to varying extents, during the bushfire season. Fire response agencies in New South Wales (NSW) alone conducted approximately 2,500 missions, with large air tankers dropping 24 million tons of retardant.
There has been considerable debate regarding the underlying cause of the intensity and scale of the fires, including the role of fire management practices and climate change, which during the peak of the crisis, attracted significant international attention.
Learning from history
First, we must consider the causes of the fires that effected so much damage. The major cause of the fires was lighting strikes, with the ongoing drought meaning that such strikes were more damaging and the resultant fires could take hold of dry bushland more easily. Climate and fire experts are agreed that climate change is known to result in increased fire frequency and intensity. There are also concerns about a lack of prescribed burning and fire break management, although these are disputed.
Given the above, it seems that preemptive action against bushfires is difficult to assess in terms of efficacy. Nonetheless, a Royal Commission inquiry into the Black Summer bushfires made more than 80 recommendations to the government, including detailed proposals that would improve national response efforts, tools and climate data. One of the recommendations was for more resources for aerial firefighting.
What recommendations were made for the 2020-2021 fire season?
The report states that the high demand for aircraft seen during the 2019-20 season is ‘unlikely to be rare’ and, with more extreme fire seasons expected around the world, it will become increasingly difficult to access international aviation services at short notice. The report continues: “Australian, state and territory governments should develop a modest Australia-based and registered national aerial firefighting capability comprising more specialized platforms, to be tasked according to the greatest need. This would supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories.”
Indeed, while Australia has its own national firefighting fleet, and contracts with a number of operators such as Kestrel Aviation, Erickson Inc. and Coulson Aviation, these assets were not sufficient to tackle the scale of the wildfires in early 2020. During the 2019-2020 bushfire season, approximately 66 foreign-registered aircraft were sourced for aerial firefighting operations.
International aid came from Canada, Fiji, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the US, among others. Despite the veritable arsenal of firefighting assets that were deployed, ultimately, storms put out the fires in February 2020.
A co-ordinated approach to aerial firefighting resources
The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) maintains ARENA – a management support system for aerial firefighting resources that provides a registry of aircraft, operators and crews, visibility of available ‘call when needed’ aircraft, real-time tracking of aircraft locations and dispatch functionality. “However, not all aircraft are recorded in ARENA, and not all states and territories currently use the aircraft dispatch functions,” points out the Royal Commission investigation.
The Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) told the Commission that the utilization of such a common national system for dispatch and monitoring ‘would enhance the effective sharing of resources, providing national, real-time visibility of resource availability and commitment’. The Commission states that a national register of resources would be the ultimate goal but recognizes that this is a long-term project. In the meantime, state and territorial fire and emergency services ‘should consider the development of a national register as part of their long-term capability planning’. “In the short term,” it continued, “states and territories should work to harmonize registers through consistent descriptions of resources and interoperable IT platforms.”
The length, intensity, and extent of the 2019-2020 bushfire season placed additional demands on available aviation services in Australia, which sometimes further limited the ability of states and territories to share services. While aircraft from one state can attend to a fire in that of another, there were issues with this approach highlighted by the report, which include communication difficulties, lack of availability, and aircraft being re-deployed to a home state halfway through a mission in another state. The commission concluded: “Aviation services funded, in whole or in part by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.”
Communication between aircraft and ground firefighters
NAFC contracts require that aircraft be equipped to communicate with the relevant fire agencies on the ground, but, as the commission inquiry pointed out, ‘because each state or territory operates a different tactical radio communications system for ground operations, there are implications for communication with aircraft’. The report states: “We heard that incompatible communication impacts the co-ordination and use of aerial firefighting assets. Additional problems arise in border areas where two separate ground communications systems might be required in addition to aeronautical radio. For example, during 2019, when there were bushfires in northern NSW and southern Queensland, Queensland authorities requested assistance from a nearby, NSW-based helicopter in gathering situational awareness on a fire on the Queensland side of the border. As the helicopter had no means of direct communication with the Queensland personnel on the ground, it was necessary to land the aircraft and arrange a meeting in-person to convey the necessary information to the ground personnel.”
While there are obstacles to improving a national communications framework, not least cost to government and operator, the Royal Commission concluded: “State and territory governments should update and implement the National Framework to improve Government radio communications interoperability, or otherwise agree a new strategy, to achieve interoperable communications across jurisdictions.”
Funding and procurements challenges in aerial firefighting
The majority (about two-thirds) of all aerial firefighting assets in Australia are owned or contracted directly by states and territories, who are responsible for meeting those costs. The remaining one-third of aircraft are contracted through NAFC. The states and territories are responsible for
the costs of aviation services procured through NAFC. Some of the fixed costs of these services are reimbursed by the Australian Government through NAFC. The Australian Government is committed to providing approximately $15 million per year during the period 2018 to 2021, with total funding amounting to $44.79 million over three years.
Each state and territory has its own organizational arrangements for aerial firefighting. The NAFC fleet of aircraft supplements aircraft owned or directly contracted by state and territory governments. Approximately 500 aircraft are used in aerial firefighting operations across Australia, with the NAFC fleet accounting for approximately 160 of these aircraft. State and territory governments are also able to procure additional aviation services at times of high demand through ‘call when needed’ (CWN) arrangements from a panel of approved suppliers at pre-agreed prices.
On the issue of aircraft procurement, the Royal Commission reported: “We heard from the Aerial Application Association of Australia, an association of aircraft service operators, that in some circumstances, CWN arrangements encourage a practice referred to as ‘tow-trucking’, whereby aircraft service operators, at their own cost, attempt to ‘game’ the system by pre-positioning their aircraft around the country in the areas they believe are most likely to be used by states and territories during periods of high demand. We heard that surge capacity for aviation services in bad fire seasons could be better managed by the states and territories maintaining aviation services on contracts with nominated service periods.”
The report goes on to say that according to Australian providers, current terms of aircraft service contracts can disincentivize some providers. Short contracts, and minimal work off season, make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment, and the Aerial Application Association of Australia agrees that the length of contracts, combined with delays in announcements of contract wins by the NAFC, discourage investment in aircraft.
The Aerial Application Association of Australia describes Australia’s reliance on overseas-based aviation services as a ‘sovereign risk’ to Australia. The Commission report states: “We note that it is self-evident that this risk is heightened by the restrictions on international travel caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which are still in effect at the time of writing. These restrictions threaten Australia’s ability to procure aviation services from overseas, particularly at short notice.”
Aerial firefighting dispatch takes skilled staff
The report notes that co-ordination of aerial firefighting assets, performed through an air desk by an air attack supervisor, is a complex job. The NAFC spoke of challenges in finding sufficient numbers of aviation support personnel to share between jurisdictions during the 2019-20 season, commenting: “These roles are harder to source than general incident management roles, owing to the increased training and currency requirements for these safety-critical roles and jurisdictions wanting to conserve their resources, to maintain capability in their geographical areas of responsibility.”
Timely dispatch of aircraft when a fire is called in is essential, and the report noted that the states of Victoria, Southern Australia and Western Australia all employed a ‘pre-determined dispatch’ protocol, which was effective in reducing the time for an aircraft to reach a fire. “In Victoria, when the fire danger index is high, the aircraft are dispatched as soon as a fire call is paged, rather than waiting to receive a call through the state air desk. The aircraft that is then the first to arrive is able to attack the fire and provide intelligence until ground support arrives. One aircraft service operator noted that the use of pre-determined dispatch helped reduce the number of flight hours for its aviation services by 30 per cent due to fires being contained in the early stages.”
The licensing of pilots was also noted in the report – Australian licensed pilots are not allowed to operate foreign-registered aircraft. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told the Royal Commission that it has approximately 5,000 members, which suggests that there is the potential to recruit and train these pilots to operate large air tankers, were they to be owned and registered in Australia.
Sovereignty needed, with support from overseas
With fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres starting to overlap due to climate change, the Commission noted that the availability of overseas-based aviation services, particularly large air tankers, during the Australian fire seasons may be reduced.
Ultimately, the Royal Commission concluded that the development of a modest Australia-based and registered national fleet of large or very large air tankers, aircraft and type-one helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions, especially given concerns about the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons converging and putting additional strain on global resources. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities, which may benefit from a nationally co-ordinated approach. Ongoing research and evaluation, it added, should inform specific capability needs and identify the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
The good news for international civilian firefighting companies, however, is that the Commission also said that the new sovereign fleet ‘may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services where additional capacity is required and available’.
AirMed&Rescue asked Foster Coulson of Coulson Aviation what his company has been doing to prepare for the potential coincidence of northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons. He said: “Coulson Aviation has been extremely proactive with enhancing our aerial firefighting fleet in the past year to support new markets throughout the globe, while recognizing that fire seasons are becoming longer and more damaging to communities. At the same time our fleet worked a contract during Australia’s wildfire season, Coulson Aviation was able to begin two long-term contracts in Chile. In 2020, we provided aerial firefighting services across four continents, and this success is reflective of Coulson’s dedicated and talented crew and team members.”
Current status quo of Australia's fire season
The 2020-21 fire season in Australia has followed the general theme of the tale of two coastlines. The eastern seaboard, encompassing Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, has been under the influence of the La Niña weather pattern, which is characterized by increased moisture and cooler summer temperatures. This has resulted in significantly reduced fire behavior relative to previous seasons, although there remains considerable grass fuel loads for the remainder of summer and early spring.
Richard Butterworth, Head of Training for Kestrel Aviation, gave AirMed&Rescue an update on the latest developments in nighttime aerial firefighting, which is a key resource for effectively extinguishing blazes while winds are lower and humidity is higher. Victoria’s night fire aviation program has continued for its fourth consecutive season, with Kestrel Aviation contracted to provide tactical fire suppression with its medium lift Bell 412. The reduced rate of effort commensurate with a quieter season has enabled Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) to focus on capability development – primarily in terms of their scope of work.
“In previous seasons,” said Butterworth, “night fire suppression has required a day reconnaissance of the proposed tactical area, prior to the conduct of night firebombing operations. This concept has been a key risk mitigator during capability development, optimizing the identification and control of unknown hazards and obstacles. However, with a focus on maturity and the emulation of current aerial firefighting capabilities by day, night operations continue to pursue the ability to conduct an effective reconnaissance at night. This will enable aircraft to conduct initial attack on new ignitions or transition into established fires after dark and adapt tactical operations commensurate with fire behavior.”
He continued: “Our ongoing co-operative relationship with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), a function of risk managed development and evidence-based decision making, allows Kestrel to prepare and position ahead of time in order to meet the needs of EMV and the Victorian Government in terms of contract and capability objectives. Last season, Kestrel was the only Australian operator to have initial attack approval for night suppression operations, which enabled development trials featuring night reconnaissance. The success of these activities garnered the confidence of the regulator, allowing for ongoing approvals focused on more practical operational limitations that in turn formed the trial scope for this season.”
With the development of a national firefighting fleet, augmented by the additional resources offered by private operators from around the world, and new tactics and technology in the form of nighttime aerial firefighting capabilities, let’s hope that Australia will never have to endure another Black Summer. Should the recommendations of the Royal Commission be followed, there will be plenty of opportunities for aircraft manufacturers, communications software developers, and aircraft tracking technology providers to tap into the Australian aerial firefighting market.