Why 2,500 liters of retardant was dropped in Australia’s capital city

It happened near the National Emergency Services Memorial

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Tamara Penniket.

Wednesday’s accidental drop of 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of fire retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia led to a hazardous material response from the Australian Capital Territory Fire & Rescue.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the inadvertent retardant drop came from a Single Engine Air Tanker, an Air Tractor AT802 with a Gen3 door. The SEAT encountered significant turbulence on climb-out from the retardant base at Canberra airport on the way to the Orroral Valley Fire.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Screenshot from ABC News video.

“In maneuvering the aircraft through the turbulence, the pilot accidentally activated the drop button,” Mr. Alder said. “The drop system was armed, in accordance with normal climb-out procedure, to enable a rapid emergency drop [should it become necessary].”

He said the aircraft operator is reviewing their procedures to see if the risk of an inadvertent drop can be reduced, while maintaining appropriate safety for the aircraft and pilot.

The retardant affected Parkes Way, a parking lot at Rond Terrace, a large roundabout with a pond, and the south end of Anzac Parade, the street that leads to the Australian War Memorial. The drop was a short distance northwest of the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Elise Fantin.

Mr. Alder said the SEAT was following a route to the fire that avoided overflight of residential areas.

Several decades ago in the United States large air tankers worked out of a retardant base at the Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles. The story goes that a lady who lived near the airport was known for complaining about the noise from the firefighting aircraft. Her criticism had little effect until the day one of the tankers had a problem on climb-out and had to jettison the load. And, as luck would have it, the retardant landed on that poor lady’s house. Not long after that the tanker base was permanently closed.

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