Recognizing that there is a year-round risk for damaging vegetation fires in parts of Australia like in the Western United States, the New South Wales state government has 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 is to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability. This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.
In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments have six working, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They have also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters.
The NSW government purchase of the large air tanker and lead/supervision airplanes will be through an upcoming tender process. Likewise the maintenance and operation of these aircraft will be contracted out.
On December 5 the Australian federal government announced that they would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial firefighting for 2018-19 via NAFC. This was part of a larger funding package ($26.1 million in total) that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience. (More details of the overall package here). The $11.0 million for aerial firefighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognizing that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas. For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial firefighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million.
Mr. Alder said that in Australia the responsibility for land and forest management and bushfire prevention and suppression constitutionally rests mainly with state and territory (provincial) governments. The federal government contributes funding and other resources to assist the states and territories. With aerial firefighting, the state and territory governments and the federal government collaborate through the NAFC which handles contracting of aerial resources on behalf of the states and territories. This provides coordinated approaches to market, common standards and interoperability.
In addition to the six large air tankers and heavy helicopters, this summer NAFC has contracted for other aerial resources:
- More than forty fixed wing firebombing aircraft, including two AT802 Fireboss (scooping) airplanes;
- Five helicopters specially equipped for dedicated intelligence gathering with gimballed infrared sensors and mapping and communication systems;
- Four dedicated mapping/strategic intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft (three Lear 35/36 jets and one Kingair turboprop), equipped with infra-red line scanners, image processing and high bandwidth communications systems.
- Two night vision equipped helicopters for suppressing fires at night (and several other NVIS helicopters for support tasks).
The current NAFC large air tanker contracts are for three years with options to extend to five years, Mr. Alder told us. Five of the six working in Australia this year have mandatory availability periods (they call them “minimum service periods”) ranging from 84 to 112 days; a sixth is for 152 days. The U.S. Forest Service MAPs are usually 133 to 160 days, and the USFS contract that is out for bid now is for one year with options to extend to five years. Both the USFS and NAFC can, and often do, extend the days worked within a season beyond the minimum as needed.
To our readers: does anyone care to speculate which aircraft NSW will purchase in their goal to spend $26.3 million on a large air tanker (LAT) and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft? I don’t see how the LAT could be new. Even if the CL-415 were still being manufactured, it’s generally not considered a large air tanker since it can only carry 1,600 gallons. And the last ones produced sold for around $37 million. A new Q400 would be out of the price range, but the manufacturer, Bombardier, and Conair, which does the conversions, are both based in Canada, which appears to be a preferred source of NAFC. I have seen a used Q400 advertised for about $12 million.
A previously owned BAe-146 or RJ85 can be bought for $5 to $6 million, and adding a retardant delivery system might run around $3 to $5 million more. There are used 737-400s on the market for about $3.5 million. Coulson and Conair, both Canadian companies which are currently converting these models, would probably be happy to make a sale. Of course Neptune is also building BAe-146s. A new C-130 or LM-100J would be out of the question at their budget. Used C-130s are difficult to find and the cost can be higher than retired airliners.