As tinder-dry swathes of rural Australia face a potential horror bushfire season, a project hosted by Canberra International Airport will help ensure aerial firefighters are ready for action.
A portable air base covering the Australian Capital Territory and surrounding areas of NSW is primed to supply fire retardant and a back-up supply of water should the need arise.
It means aircraft tackling fires in the region will not have to return to the outer Sydney suburb of Richmond to resupply but can land locally and turnaround quickly.
With a runway capable of accommodating international flights, Canberra can take on the biggest of fire-fighting tankers and allow them to take off fully laden without worry.
That includes the Boeing 737 tanker purchased by the NSW Government and now permanently stationed in the state.
“It was identified there was a big black spot in this area, southern NSW and even up to northern Victoria, where nearest air bases for fire-fighting operations were hours away,” said air base project manager Anthony Mallia.
“So if a fire was to kick off in this district the risk of not having an air base close enough to do good support was quite high.
“When you’re dealing with fire retardant from aircraft, they have to be close enough so that they can get a line of protection put in before a fire catches up to it. If the air base is too far away, then it basically becomes useless.”
The base, operated by ACT Emergency Services Agency and located on the Fairbairn side of the airport, is already set up to cater for its second fire season.
The spring kick-off is due to the drought conditions gripping eastern Australia and worries fires will start earlier than usual.
There are four 20,000 litre-tanks, three of them storing retardant and giving the base the ability to have 60,000 litres of mixed retardant ready to load into an aircraft. It comes in from NSW in powder form and is mixed on site.
The water supply supplements the hydrant supply and is there to guard against an unforeseen event such as a drop in pressure.
There are no aircraft stationed at the base, although the ACT has fire-fighting helicopters stationed at another location during the season.
The portable base was the result of an agreement between senior emergency response officials from the ACT and NSW.
The first season saw the base used for nine days spread over at least four fires and operates with a mix of AESA staff and volunteers.
This is because it has to be up and running, or “stood up” within 30 minutes of being tasked by the state air desk and that’s sometimes difficult for volunteers who have to leave work and head home before coming to the base.
There is also a qualification for airbase operations issued by the RFS that comes with a safety induction that includes working around aircraft and other technical aspects.
“If we mix a load that’s too heavy you’re putting a substance in an aircraft that the pilots think is a certain weight and it could be twice that weight,” Mallia said.
The RFS owns the retardant and monitors its use, ensuring that supplies are kept up.
The cost of the chemical is billed to the agency that “owns” the fire but nine out of 10 times that’s likely to be the RFS itself.
“When we actually stand up and we’re missing retardant, we have a register what we have to use which is linked to the NSW RFS,’’ Mallia explained.
“They know when we’re operating and how much product we’re using and that sort of thing. Once we get down to a minimum level, they actually organise delivery of more supplies and retardant.”
Canberra Airport head of aviation Michael Thomson said last year’s dry conditions had prompted discussions about setting up the base and the airport had been happy to help.
“We take our role in the community very seriously and we think it’s a great opportunity for them to base themselves here in what could well be another pretty bad season given the dry conditions,” he said.
The airport arranged ASICs for staff and volunteers as well as “authority to use” stickers for the operation’s telehandler vehicle.
It also waived the requirement for an Authority to Drive Airside after carrying out a risk assessment given the short distance the telehandler is operated in a controlled, fenced environment.
“We’ve heavily discounted landing and take-off fees and we’re basically charging nothing for storage,” Thomson said.
Thomson believes the residents of Canberra and NSW should rest easier as a result of the base.
“I think what it does do is provide capacity for them to respond really quickly,” he said. “Should that provide them with comfort? Yes, it should.
“But it’s not just Canberra, it’s really southern New South Wales as well, really all the way down to the coast.
“That reflects our view that we’re an airport for the region, not just Canberra but beyond it as well.”
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.