Does Qld need a few large firefighting planes? Guest post by Stephen Thornton

Thanks to my good friend and colleague Dr Stephen Thornton for his latest guest post. Views expressed are Stephen’s and should not necessarily be attributed to me. GT

Does Queensland need a few large firefighting planes?

The terrible bushfires in south east Queensland in the last few weeks and the efforts to control and extinguish them have piqued my interest in aerial firefighting aircraft. With the caveat that I’m not an aviation nor firefighting expert, I am struck by how little water/fire retardant volume even the large firefighting aircraft are capable of holding as they dump their liquid cargo on the fires to save lives and property, and how few we have available to do so.

The largest firefighting aircraft we have in Australia is the converted passenger jet Boeing 737 with a 15,000L carrying capacity and the modified military transport plane C130Q with an equivalent capacity. To put that in some context, a typical backyard swimming pool holds more than twice that amount. The largest carrying capacity rotary-blade aircraft (helicopter), the Erickson S64E – Aircrane, holds around half of that, but can refill quickly from dams and other surface water sources.

We only have a handful of each for the entire country. As at November 2018, there was only one 737, two C130Qs and six S64Es in the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) arsenal with some state governments also owning aircraft. For example, the NSW government this year purchased a 737 Large Air Tanker (LAT), the ‘Marie Bashir’, named after the former Governor of NSW and which is currently water bombing areas in northern NSW.

It seems this aircraft was also used to assist in quelling the Peregian Beach bushfire on the Sunshine Coast earlier this week. No doubt the local residents were very grateful to see it cross the border.

In the US is the Global SuperTanker, a Boeing 747-400 dubbed the Spirit of John Muir based in Colorado Springs. With a carrying capacity of 70,000L it can drop almost five times the water of our current largest planes. Most recently it was contracted by Bolivia to assist with the bushfires in Brazil that have destroyed large parts of the Amazon. The SuperTanker can operate from any airport with a 2,400m long runway and required facilities. The 737 needs only 1,950m, so it has a slight advantage in where it can take off and land.

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A Global SuperTanker in Israel. Attribution: LLHZ2805 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Queensland’s new Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport has a 2,870m runway and has confirmed it can easily accommodate aircraft the size and weight of the SuperTanker with its 70 tonnes of on-board fire suppressant.

I contacted Queensland Fire and Emergency Services to enquire whether we owned any aerial firefighting aircraft. The answer is no. QFES engages its aircraft two ways.

  1. A Call-When-Needed Standing Offer Arrangement by a tender process whereby Commercial Aircraft Operators across the country are able to apply for their company, aircraft and pilots to be registered as approved suppliers of aviation services for QFES
  2. Through nationally procured contracted services arranged by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC). QFES engages eight national contracts, which are determined for a five year period (established as three years, plus 2 x one year extensions). The length of each commitment period is 12 weeks (84 days) each year, with extensions incorporated and engaged as the fire seasons progress if required.

    The eight contracts are divided into the following:

    *  2 x Type 2 Rotary Wing Bombing platforms based at Toowoomba;
    *  1 x Type 3 Rotary Wing Air Attack Supervision (AAS) / Observation (Obs) platform based at Toowoomba;
    *  2 x Type 4 Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) Fixed Wing Bombing platforms based at Toowoomba;
    *  1 x Fixed Wing AAS/Obs platform based at Toowoomba;
    *  1 x Type 2 Rotary Wing Bomber at Bundaberg; and
    *  1 x Type 3 Rotary Wing AAS/Obs platform at Bundaberg.

These are all quite small water carrying capacity aircraft, probably nothing over 2,000L – 3,000L which is not surprising given Queensland historically does not have the huge bushfires of the southern states.

Greg Mullins, former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner, says the federal government is not putting enough money in for large firefighting aircraft which ‘give you an edge on a really bad day’ and more federal funding for these type of aircraft is needed.

This may be true, especially in high and extreme bushfires where aerial suppression can provide substantial support to ground crews and also where ground crews are unable to get to the fire quickly or it is hard to reach. However, expensive dedicated aircraft have high overheads meaning their cost efficiency is contingent on a high level of operational use (see Effectiveness and Efficiency of Aerial Fire Fighting in Australia). So, you don’t want too many or too few.

The question regarding aerial firefighting is whether it makes sense for governments to own assets that are likely to only be used periodically or whether it is better to contract these services from the private sector?

Usually, it makes sense for governments to directly provide goods and services only where the market cannot or can only do so inefficiently. In the case of these large aerial firefighting planes like the 737, I doubt if our existing private supplier companies would want to extend themselves that far which is why, in the case of the NSW government purchase of the 737, it owns the asset but reportedly comes with a 10-year operational contract with Coulson Aviation to provide all flight and maintenance personnel.

In past decades we have brought in aircraft from the northern hemisphere in their ‘off season’ but, as Greg Mullins explains, some overlap has begun to develop making this strategy increasingly unsustainable.

In its response to me, QFES also noted that future considerations will be made toward further expansion based upon the most effective response models being established. We need to factor in now the longer hot, dry periods we are likely to experience in the coming decades resulting in an increased risk of bushfires and the economic, social, and environmental costs associated with that. Purchasing a few large firefighting planes which can travel to anywhere in the state at a moment’s notice should be seriously considered by the Queensland government, if the economics stack up.

Dr. Stephen Thornton is principal economist at BG Economics.

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