Australia probes Victoria's firefighting policy

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Australia's Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has recommended a review of the state's policies on aerial preparedness, standby arrangements and management of firefighting aircraft in its report into the Black Saturday fires of February 2009.

The report's 67 recommendations also include that the state, Emergency Management Australia and the Department of Defence develop an agreement that would allow national aerial resources that are suitable for firefighting and support to be used in planning and on days of high fire risk.

More than 170 people died in fires in Victoria in late January and February 2009, resulting in the establishment of the Royal Commission.

The commission says that aircraft played an important role in the response to the bushfires. Although severe conditions impaired the effectiveness of firebombing in some areas, aircraft assisted combating fires in many areas, it notes.

However, the commission found problems with the aircraft dispatch system, describing it as "cumbersome", requiring requests for aircraft to go through three layers of authority before they are actioned by the state air desk.

As a result, some firefighting aircraft were delayed in their response on 7 February, says the report, adding that in some instances this meant firebombing aircraft arrived too late to support the initial attack. In addition, two infrared line scanning aircraft were available for use on 7 February, but only one was requested.

The commission notes that elsewhere, in California for example, aircraft are dispatched on initial reports of a fire and pilots make their own assessments and drop aerial suppressants before the ground crew arrives.

The commission recommends "a faster response system for aircraft" as "the current request-driven system has inherent delays and does not necessarily allocate aircraft to areas of greatest risk". Protocols based on an assessment of risk are overdue, says the commission, recommending that state policy should be changed.

The state air desk should also identify and monitor fires at which aerial firefighting may be effective; advise state duty officers on the allocation of aerial resources on the basis of where they would be most effective; and ensure that the state's infrared line scanning aircraft are deployed effectively.

In terms of using national aerial resources more effectively, the commission says there is scope for the pre-emptive positioning of such resources in the event of major emergencies and it encourages ongoing collaboration between state and national agencies.

The commission notes that a Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion, based at Edinburgh in South Australia, was not deployed until 9 February when it was used to collect high-resolution infrared imagery over fire-damaged areas until 17 February.

"This type of aircraft can operate in conditions that preclude smaller aircraft and should be considered, along with other potentially suitable resources, as part of aerial firefighting preparedness at the state level," says the report.

While the commission focused on Victoria, it notes that aspects will apply to the broader Australian fire management context and welcomes moves towards a national position.