Early next year, Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Center (NAFC) will decide on the aerial firefighting fleet that will do battle against the country’s annual bushfire threat over the next few years.
With the NAFC’s existing tenders reaching the end of their three years plus two years extension life at the end of the coming 2012/2013 fire season, a call for tenders for the national fleet for 2013/14 onward is scheduled to be released in late August or early September, according to Richard Alder, general manager of the central body that co-ordinates the national aerial firefighting fleet. The tenders will initially cover a three-year fire season period, with options to extend.
Australia has years of experience fighting bushfires and has determined what works best in its climate and environment. As a result, the aerial fleet under the new contracts is unlikely to be very different to what has been employed under the current ones. Australia relies on type one helicopters, classified as having an internal payload of 2,268 kg or greater and a water carrying capacity of 2,650 liters or greater; type two with an internal payload of between 1,134 kg and 2,267 kg and a water carrying capacity of 1,135-2,649 liters; type three with an internal payload of 544 kg to 1,133 kg and a water carrying capacity of between 380 and 1,134 liters; and type four—less than 544 kg internal payload and a water carrying capacity less than 380 liters.
Tenders will cover type one, two and three rotary wing services and type four fixed-wing services, as well as other specialist services. A request for proposals will also be issued this year to supply larger fixed-wing airtanker services, including very large airtankers and type one and 2 multi-engine airtankers, says the NAFC.
The new tenders come as the country prepares for the 2012/13 fire season, which will start in late August in some parts of the northeast and continue through to April in the southwest of the country.
Over the last two years, much of the country, with the exception of Western Australia (WA), has come off lightly—particularly compared to the devastating 2008/9 fire season in which more than 170 people died in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. But Australia cannot be complacent with bushfires a constant threat in the summer months in vast areas of the country.
NAFC has yet to receive all the activity and mission figures from the states and territory for the 2011/12 fire season, but Alder says the last fire season was very similar to that of 2010/11. During that year, the national fleet of 53 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft was activated on 550-plus occasions for firefighting and made more than 4,378 drops, delivering over 7.5 million liters of water/retardant.
As in the previous year, the aerial firefighting fleet was also put to use in 2011/12 on flood recovery and storm support missions in parts of Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA. This shows the versatility of the firefighting fleet and the sharing arrangements, says Alder.
While much of the country suffered more from floods and storms in the 2011/12 fire season, WA once again had a long and busy fire season. For the first time, an Erickson S64E Aircrane—a more familiar sight in the east of the country—was stationed in Perth for the season. During the WA fire season, which kicks off in November/December and is now running through to April, the aerial firefighting fleet was activated 433 times (compared with 348 times in 2010/11), flying a total of 590 hours, according to the WA State Government. “Firefighters responded to more than 4,250 bushfires during a busy bushfire season and the support of the aerial fleet was vital,” says Troy Buswell, the state’s emergency service minister. As well as the Aircrane, dubbed Marty, the Perth-based fleet included two Sikorsky S61s, four Eurocopter AS350 Squirrels, a helicopter used for intelligence gathering, eight fixed-wing fire bombers and a Scout spotter aircraft. In total, the rotary fleet made 2,555 drops equating to nearly four million liters of water and foam, protecting more than 160 properties during the season, says the WA Government. “The introduction of the Erickson Aircrane, which can release up to 7,500 liters per drop, was a significant boost to the fleet this season and we will now assess its future role which will depend on seasonal forecasts,” says Buswell.
The national fleet for the coming year will be basically similar to 2011/12, with “maybe some changes at the edges”, says Alder. In addition to a decision yet to be made on the Perth Aircrane, the use of an extra type two helicopter in Tasmania (a Bell 205++ in 2010/11 and a Bell 212 in 2011/12) has not be determined.
It’s a bit early to forecast what the coming fire season will be like, says Alder, as although the climatic picture is no different to recent years, a lot depends on the weather in the spring.
The NAFC and the country’s fire agencies continue to monitor new technology that could aid their annual fight against bushfires, including unmanned aerial systems. A focus of the past 12 months, in particular, has been on firefighting chemicals and retardants. As a result of these studies, Alder says this fire season could see the use of water enhancers or gels that “will add another string to the bow.”
The co-ordinated, national approach to aerial firefighting appears to be working well for Australia, with the Federal Budget in May confirming that the NAFC will have its funding maintained for the next three years from 2013/14.
Related: Firefighting News