Greg Mullins, former head of New South Wales Rural Fire Service, was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a public broadcasting service. Since November Mr. Mullins has been serving as a volunteer firefighter in NSW. Most of the wildland firefighters in Australia are volunteers.
The ABC video below is a fairly deep dive (for national media) into the current state of the air tanker fleet in Australia.
Only one month into the summer, Australia’s bushfire season is already one for the record books. The federal government said that as of January 14 approximately 10 million hectares (24 million acres) had burned. If the fires in the Northern Territory which had not been previously reported are included, 6.8 million hectares (16.8 million acres), that brings the total across the continent to 16.8 million hectares (40.8 million acres).
When massive wildfires are burning homes and lives are lost — 27 people have perished so far in Australia this summer — there is always pressure to deploy more firefighting air tankers. They do not put out fires, but under ideal conditions dropping thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant can slow the spread in an area which can allow firefighters on the ground to safely move in and suppress it. If firefighters are not available to quickly take advantage, the temporarily slowed fire continues to spread. Under extreme conditions, especially strong winds, air tankers can’t safely fly low and slow as they have to do, and even if they could, the retardant can be blown away from the target.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 bushfire season the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) planned on having five large air tankers available (including four that are leased and the government-owned 737), but added two more in November after large devastating fires began burning in New South Wales.
Then on January 4 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only, bringing the total up to 11. Those four include two MD-87s and two DC-10s leased from Erickson Aero Tanker and 10 Tanker. The MD-87s have both arrived in the country, in spite of one of them being stuck for a while in Adak, Alaska due to an ash plume from a volcano in the Philippines developing on its anticipated route.
The two DC-10s were both in the midst of their C-Check maintenance in Mobile, Alabama when they were requested. As this is written on January 21 one of them, Tanker 912, has made it as far as Hawaii where it was grounded January 16 by a massive tropical storm along its planned route. John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said that after being topped off with fuel and sitting on the hot tarmac, a fuel leak was discovered. The company’s fuel team is on it, Mr. Gould said. He expects the aircraft will depart from Hawaii Wednesday morning U.S. time heading toward a refueling stop at the Marshall Islands, then arriving in Australia Thursday evening local time. (UPDATE at 5:30 p.m. PDT Jan. 22, 2020. T-912 arrived in Canberra this afternoon, U.S. time.)
The next DC-10, Tanker 914, is expected to depart later this week. It will be the third DC-10 air tanker in Australia.