The Labor Party in Australia is pushing for a large increase in the aerial firefighting capability of the country. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if the party wins the federal election the government would infuse $101 million into the country’s aerial firefighting capacity.
Australia does not own any large or very large fixed wing air tankers and had little or no history of using them on bushfires until 2010 when they began a trial with a DC-10. After that first drop on a fire on January 31, 2010 the air tanker program, called “water bombers” down under, grew very slowly until a few years ago when they began contracting for multiple air tankers from North America, including the DC-10, RJ-85, C-130, and most recently, a 737. During the 2018-2019 bushfire season which just concluded, the country had six air tankers on contract — one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in helicopters including S-61s and Erickson Aircranes.
In December, 2018 the New South Wales government announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government was to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability. This would continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.
But the proposed new funding initiative recently disclosed by the Labor Party would allow the federal government to purchase up to six large or very large air tankers and up to twelve helicopters, such as retrofitted Blackhawks from the military or Erickson Aircranes.
The proposal also calls for creating the country’s first “Smokejumper” units. However, they describe “Smokejumper” as a firefighter who rappels from a helicopter. In Canada and the United States a smokejumper jumps out of a fixed wing aircraft with a parachute and then fights the fire from the ground. Rappellers in the U.S. are delivered to a fire via a rope below a helicopter.
Of the total of $101 million the party wants to use to boost aerial firefighting capability, $80 million would go toward acquiring air tankers and helicopters, with $21 million being committed to the National Aerial Firefighter Centre to restore recently reduced funding.