The All-Important Weapons Fighting Australia's 'Catastrophic' Fires

Fire season hit Australia early, and as emergency crews battle blazes up and down the country's east coast, support from above is more important than ever.

The aircraft fleet employed by the state and territory's fire and rescue have been crisscrossing skies above fire-ravaged grounds for the past week.

Often captured in images shared across social media and news outlets, waterbombing helicopters and planes are an impressive line of defence against increasingly difficult fires to fight.

"As part of the overall fighting arsenal, they're an essential piece of equipment today," Ken Thompson, a former deputy commissioner in the NSW Fire and Rescue Service, told 10 daily.

There are currently more than 80 fires burning across Queensland, from the southeast corner to the Cairns hinterland. Some 5,000 Sunshine Coast residents have been evacuated, as conditions continue to deteriorate due to increasing winds.

In NSW, more than 50 bush and grass fires are burning up and down the coast between Newcastle and Byron Bay, stretching inland as far as Bourke. Three of the blazes continue to burn out of control.

As ground crews work desperately to control each fire, almost 80 aircraft have been deployed across both states to help. Forty aircraft are operational daily in NSW, while 38 took to the Queensland skies on Tuesday -- the most being used at any given time during the state's bushfire event.

"They provide all kinds of different roles. They provide an observation platform, they can be a planning platform, they can be a water-bombing platform," Thompson explained.

A New South Wales Rural Fire Services Hercules C-130 plane drops water in an exercise at the Royal Australian Airforce base in Richmond on September 1, 2017. Image: Getty

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There are two types of planes used by QFES -- one of these performs aerial intelligence, including observation and coordinating water drops, while the second type of plane performs waterbombing. The same two types also apply to the helicopters used by QFES.

A mix of fixed-wing aircraft, water bombers and water scoopers are working their way around NSW.

But it's a Boeing 737 modified for use as a waterbomber -- known as Gaia -- which is the crown jewel of Australia's firefighting arsenal.

Capable of carrying more than 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant in a single load, the Large Air Tanker (LAT) was the first 737 to be used for firefighting anywhere in the world when purchased by the NSW RFS in 2018.

The multi-million-dollar plane has been dropping payloads of fire retardant across Queensland for the past week in a bid to damp down conditions and slow the blaze, allowing frontline crews to get on top of the fight.

"Fire services have used helicopters for years. They generally carry a couple of thousand litres,  and it will have some effect on containing the fire and slowing things down," Thompson said.

"But the bigger stuff is highly effective, and it's a very limited resource in Australia. There's only one in NSW, and that's less than desirable."

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Unlike many other aerial firefighting resources, Gaia is not rented or on loan from overseas, but based permanently in NSW.

Typically, privately owned and operated large firefighting aircraft are sent from the northern hemisphere to help during the Australian summer.

"So things have worked pretty well," Thompson said.

"But now what we're seeing with the changing climate is that the northern hemisphere fire season is getting a lot longer and so is the south's, which means it's becoming harder and harder for those northern hemisphere aircraft to be brought down to Australia to assist us here.

"Our firefighting season is now eight months of the year. It was never that long."

Thompson is among 23 former emergency service bosses calling on the government for stronger action on climate change, including the provision of more federally-funded resources to help deal with the increasing fire danger.

With signatories from every state and territory, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change formed earlier this year in an unprecedented show of unity.

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The group is calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to commit to a parliamentary inquiry into whether Australian emergency services are adequately resourced and equipped to cope with increasing natural disaster risks due to climate change.

"Aircraft are incredibly expensive and it's beyond the capacity of states and territories to run that kind of large scale aircraft firefighting fleet," the former deputy commissioner said.

"You talk to people in Queensland and the term they're using is catastrophic, and it's only September, we aren't even in the official fire season yet. The fire season travels from north to south, so what we're seeing in Queensland at the moment and northern NSW, I think is really just a taste of what we could be experiencing over the next six months."