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Government rejected major air-tanker expansion

But the government has resisted the idea of a national water-bombing fleet for years in an argument over federal and state responsibilities and funding, raising questions over whether a bigger fleet could have slowed this summer’s wildfires.


“Given suitable funding, there is an opportunity to develop, in future years, a sophisticated national large air-tanker capability for Australia,” the centre told a Senate inquiry into Tasmanian bushfires.

“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.

“A shared, national large fixed-wing air-tanker capability is logical and is an attractive strategy.”

The Senate inquiry backed the proposal but the government dismissed it in September 2017, saying it would continue its $15 million annual support for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre without expanding the national capability.

“The Australian government does not support this recommendation, noting that bushfire responsibility is a matter for each state and territory.”

All governments are now under growing pressure to agree on a lasting expansion in the fleet by leasing more water-bombers from America and Europe or buying more aircraft.

All governments are now under growing pressure to agree on a lasting expansion in the fleet by leasing more water-bombers from America and Europe or buying more aircraft.Credit:AAP

Fire chiefs have repeatedly warned that the existing funding is not enough, prompting the Morrison government to contribute a “one-off” payment of $11 million to the aerial firefighting task in December 2018 and the same on December 12 last year.

But all governments are now under growing pressure to agree on a lasting expansion in the fleet by leasing more water-bombers from America and Europe or buying more aircraft because the Australian bushfire season now overlaps with the season in the northern hemisphere.

An estimated 500 aircraft from more than 150 operators are available to the emergency effort this summer, according to an update from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre on Friday.


The centre has added one large DC-10 air-tanker in the past two months as well as four Airtractor planes and six Airtractor “Fireboss” aircraft capable of landing on water.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said the Commonwealth should commit to $25 million every year rather than make decisions in December because the uncertainty over funding had weakened the fire effort.

“The Prime Minister keeps saying that whatever the fire chiefs request, they get, but that’s not true,” Mr Mullins said. “The business case has been on the desk for two years. Had the fire chiefs had certainty with the $25 million, we would have more aircraft in the sky.”

The states and territories contribute about $140 million to the national centre and some have added their own capabilities, with NSW arranging a Boeing 737 and a DC-10.

Mr Mullins called on Mr Morrison to contact leaders such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to seek access to aircraft such as the Canadair CL 415, a much bigger water-bomber than the Airtractors.

Former Tasmanian fire chief Mike Brown joined Mr Mullins in March in calling for a national firefighting fleet, with both men naming climate change as a reason to expand the capabilities.

But former NSW Rural Fire Service chief Phil Koperberg told The Australian this week that more aircraft could not have contained the rapid sweep of the fires across the state’s south coast.

Mr Morrison said he was ready to consider more funding for aircraft, including arrangements with other countries, on top of the $11 million announced last month.


“We’re also now looking at additional requests,” he said. “It has been quite a few days now where we have been looking at the options available to us to source other aircraft.

“We’ll be able to respond to the requests that we have from the states. There is a request that has only just very, very recently came through but we are, I think, well pre-positioned to be able to respond to that.”

Mr Morrison went further in an interview on A Current Affair on the Nine Network on Friday night, saying “yes” when asked if more planes would arrive after talks with other governments about water-bombing aircraft.

“This is the way that you continue to respond as states and territories. We continue to meet the need and anticipate it and get in front of it,” he said.

Labor went to the last federal election promising an $80 million policy to create a national firefighting fleet to make up for a long-term fall in federal assistance. Then Labor leader Bill Shorten said the money would go towards at least six very large air-tankers as well as helicopters.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese wrote to Mr Morrison in November asking him to call a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to discuss national disaster responses including aerial firefighting.

“I proposed that COAG expand the capacity of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre and increase its funding,” Mr Albanese said. “Australia faces a national bushfire emergency and it requires a national response.”

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