Victoria’s former Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said funding arrangements had stopped fire managers sending planes to waterbomb small fires in wilderness.
“Without doubt there are definitely examples from this summer where fires got too big for ground suppression to be effective, but if more aircraft were deployed earlier there would have been a better chance to keep fires small,” Mr Lapsley said.
Mr Lapsley said “operational people have not stuffed up” with their deployment of resources, but had done “the best they could” under the current arrangements.
“There have been examples where questions about the utilisation of large aerial tankers in remote areas has been questioned over the deployment of them – which is not the right way to consider any deployment of those aircraft,” he said.
A NSW government spokesman said it estimated an “additional” $315 million went to the Rural Fire Service for increased costs this summer, and the state would request funding from the federal government.
The Tasmanian government has lodged a special request for funding to help cover the cost of fires that began in late 2018 and burned in World Heritage wilderness. Spokespeople for the Tasmanian and federal governments said negotiations over funding are ongoing.
This year lightning strikes lead to huge blazes in remote bushland in the Snowy Mountains and a series of fires that burned across East Gippsland in Victoria. The Gospers Mountain fire began in the Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and burnt for months over a total area of 444,000 hectares.
Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said the national disaster funding is a “ridiculous rule”.
“Look at the size of the fires – more than five million hectares in NSW. The majority of the area burnt was nowhere near homes and people, but we lost more than 10 times more property than any time in NSW’s history,” Mr Mullins said.
Former Victorian Country Fire Authority chief Neil Bibby said many of this summer’s fires could have been tackled before they burned towards towns and property with greater aerial resources.
“It’s a fundamental theory: put the fire out when it’s small and then you don’t have as big of a problem,” he said.
Wilderness Society policy director Tim Beshara said beefing up aerial firefighting would improve public safety, benefit nature, and help meet Australia’s international environment obligations.
“It makes no sense on any level that the Commonwealth automatically stumps up for firefighting costs when a fire is near a home or a farm but not for putting out a fire in the middle of a World Heritage Area,” he said.
The National Aerial Firefighting Centre owns a fleet of 150 aircraft and is funded by state, territory and the federal governments. The federal government contributes $15 million a year, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing in early January he would commit an extra $11 million each year toward the agency each year.
The current fire season is ongoing and NAFC has not calculated its costs. Last year its costs exceeded $130 million over a less intense fire season and a spokesperson said the costs for this year’s fire season are expected to be “significantly higher”.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.