The 2004-5 fire season has drawn to a close in Australia, but the country is already preparing for the next one, which in some states starts in September.

By the end of May, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) will award contracts to suppliers and operators of firefighting aircraft to cover the next two years and extendable to five as part of a recently introduced national strategy to meet the country's need for firefighting aircraft.

The NAFC was established in July 2003 to co-ordinate aerial firefighting resources. Each Australian state is a member and the head of each state's fire authority is a director.

The 2004-5 fire season was the first time that national contracts were awarded for aerial firefighting and followed a series of devastating conflagrations in Canberra, New South Wales and Victoria in 2003-4. Although states can procure additional firefighting resources as and when needed, the national strategy is designed to more effectively manage aerial firefighting resources and also to share assets when necessary.

Last year contracts were won by Helicorp, Helicopter Resources and McDermott Aviation to provide firefighting aircraft. Melbourne-based Helicorp supplied Erickson Air-Crane Helitankers with a bellytank and a capacity of 9,500 litres (2,500USgal) and Bell 205s with a 1,400 litres capacity bellytank. Helicopter Resources supplied Mil Mi-8s carrying a 4,600 litre bucket, while Queensland-based McDermott Aviation provided Bell 412Bs. Additional aircraft and helicopters where used elsewhere as and when needed, with Western Australia, for example, using two Eurocopter AS350B3 Squirrels.

The current tender process was launched last June. Helicopters are being sought in three size categories, with payloads ranging from 544kg (1,200lb) to 2,268kg; a minimum water bombing capacity of 379 litres to a maximum of 2,653 litres; and a passenger transport capacity from four to 14. Fixed-wing requirements, meanwhile, range from a bombing capacity of 2,270 litres to 11,360 litres.

The federal government will provide slightly less than half of the lease costs of the aircraft – A$4.5 million ($3.5 million) – with states and territories meeting the remaining lease and operating costs.

The national strategy has proved successful, according to the NAFC, with resources able to be quickly deployed to areas experiencing a high fire risk. "It will take some years to achieve what we want to achieve," says Richard Alder, general manager of the NAFC. "We are all aimed at getting the best value, the most cost-effective use of resources as we can." In addition to co-operating on procurement, the NAFC is seeking to ensure consistent technical standards are implemented.

Australia is also trying to standardise its requirements with those of the rest of the world to ensure firefighting resources can move freely and quickly between the northern and southern hemispheres, says Alder.

Australia has also sought to improve the effectiveness of aerial firefighting through the use of new technology, such as high-quality airborne fire-mapping services using air-to-ground datalink and improved communications. Canberra, for example, has successfully used the FireLink mobile digital communications network developed by local company Australian Technology Information. The GPS-based technology was originally developed for the Australian defence forces. The system tracked helicopters fighting fires and the fires themselves, providing information on the speed and direction of fires and any hazards.

The overall strategy of the NAFC is to encourage industry to develop "refined approaches and technology", says Alder. This time round the NAFC has been looking at event recording and automatic dependent surveillance solutions, he adds.

The award of new contracts by the NAFC comes, however, as the effectiveness of aerial firefighting is being questioned in some quarters – primarily due to the expense of leasing aircraft. The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is halfway through a three-year study to determine how much aerial and ground suppression is needed and quantify operational costs of different resources and tactics. The CRC says the study will contribute to the national firefighting strategy by identifying key factors that contribute to the effectiveness of aerial suppression.


Source: Flight International