As the bushfire season begins in Australia the firefighting agencies in their States and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre are ramping up the fleet of aerial resources to be ready for the fires which got a much earlier start than normal in October when the “worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years” destroyed more than 200 homes. During that siege two two fixed wing aircraft crashed killing both pilots.
The bushfire season has historically started in late November or early December and lasted through February, but now that we have warmer and more extreme weather across the globe fire managers in Australia and around the world are having to adapt.
Most of the firefighting aircraft in Australia are privately owned and work under contracts for the government. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) coordinates the procurement of the aircraft on behalf of the States and Territories.
Richard Alder, the General Manager of the NAFC, told Fire Aviation that about one third of the 75 contracted aircraft have started work already and the majority will be on by early to mid-December, depending how the fire season develops in the south part of the country. As the summer temperatures increase, the down under fire season moves from north to south. The 75 aircraft includes helicopters, Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), and fixed wing aircraft that are used for reconnaissance and other purposes.
During last year’s 2012-2013 fire season, NAFC had the following on contract:
- 14 SEATs (Air Tractor AT 802 and AT 602)
- 3 Bell 206-L
- 2 Bell 205
- 5 Bell 212
- 2 Bell 214-B
- 5 Erickson S 64 Air-Crane
- 12 Eurocopter AS 350, 355, and 365
- 2 Kawasaki BK 117-B2
- 4 Sikorsky S 61-N
This season, 2013-2014, in addition to the smaller helicopters, Mr. Alder said they will have:
- 23 SEATs, which includes one water-scooping FireBoss. (All are on exclusive use, three-year contracts with options to extend to five years.)
- 6 Erickson S 64 Air-Cranes (from Kestral Aviation via Erickson)
- 2 Sikorsky S 61-N (from Coulson Aircrane Australia, a subsidiary of Coulson Aircrane in Canada)
- 10 Bell 214-B, which the NAFC considers a Type 1 helicopter (from McDermontt Aviation)
- Other aircraft, including 30 SEATs, are available on call when needed contracts.
There are no air tankers larger than SEATs working in Australia, in spite of a request for proposals that NAFC issued in November, 2012. They advertised it at the time via Twitter:
NAFC has published a Request for Proposals for large fixed wing airtankers for 2013 onward. Visit http://t.co/V1Ovp4Vt for further info.
— NAFC (@nafcaus) November 30, 2012
That RFP indicated their intention to contract not only for various types of helicopters, but also for water-scooping, large, and very large air tankers. We asked Mr. Alder what became of the effort to procure the larger aircraft. He responded:
The RFP is a component of a major project we have running to closely examine the applicability of larger fixed wing airtankers in the Australian situation. The project is ongoing and we are continuing to (actively!) gather and analyse data and related information on these capabilities (and are particularly grateful to our colleagues in the US for sharing their experiences over the recent season).