Press conference in Sydney, NSW

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
SYDNEY
TUESDAY, 12 DECEMBER 2023
 
SUBJECTS: National bushfire preparedness; aerial firefighting capability; China trade; death of NSW firefighter

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well thank you all for coming along today to Richmond Airbase here in Western Sydney, which is the home of Australia's national Large Aerial Tanker (LAT) that you can see behind me here today.

Today, I'm very pleased to be joined by New South Wales' Rural Fire Commissioner Rob Rogers, who's also the head of the National Aerial Firefighting Council (NAFC) for Australia. We're also joined by Coordinator-General of the National Emergency Management Agency, Brendan Moon, Deputy Coordinator-General Joe Buffone, and our very special guest, John Gallaher, who is one of the pilots of this plane, who will be able to speak with you about what that is like shortly as well.

So as I say, today we're launching the national large aerial tanker that we have available for water-bombing across Australia through this fire season. This large aerial tanker is a bushfire's worst nightmare, it is able to dump 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant at any one time, and obviously would have multiple missions over the course of a day. We've known for several months now that we're going to be facing a difficult fire season as a country. And of course, there are already parts of our country that have experienced bushfires in the last few weeks. So having this new national large aerial tanker is the next piece in the puzzle of the Albanese Government's plans to make sure that we are fully prepared for the coming high risk weather season. Heading into this season, we have been able to assemble nationally the largest ever fleet of water-bombing aircraft that Australia has ever seen. Including six of these large aerial tankers, some leased, some owned by governments around Australia, and of course, a lot of smaller airplanes and helicopters as well. And all up we will have a fleet of about 500 aircraft available to be used in different parts of the country as the need arises.

As I've said this air at this plane will be based here at Richmond, but it will be available to be used in different parts of the country wherever the need is greatest. Last year, for instance, it was largely based in Western Australia, because it faced the highest risk fire season of any part of the country. And as this fire season evolves, we'll be able to move it around where it is most needed, in addition to those aircraft that are available as well. All up, the Australian Government invests about $31 million every year in aerial firefighting equipment to make sure that we are keeping our community safe. We recognise that these aircrafts are a core part of our firefighting arsenal, in addition to our fantastic personnel. And having this leased airplane will go a long way to keeping Australians safe this summer.

I might just also make a few remarks about Tropical Cyclone Jasper while I'm on my feet, and then I'll pass on to Rob to talk to you a little bit further about the aircraft that we have available. I think all Australians are monitoring Tropical Cyclone Jasper very carefully, and in particular those living in Far North Queensland. What we now know is that it is currently tracking at a Category 1 size, but it is likely to intensify as it gets closer to the Queensland coast. We are expecting at this point in time that it will cross landfall somewhere between Cooktown and Innisfail in Far North Queensland at some point tomorrow. From a federal perspective, we're working very closely with the Queensland Government to make sure that any resources that are needed are pre-positioned. I've been in contact again this morning with the Queensland Emergency Management Minister to reaffirm our commitment to support them in any way that is necessary. At this point in time, there's been no request made to the Federal Government for resources. But we of course stand with all Queenslanders as this cyclone emerges. Hopefully it won't end up being a serious system, but we do need to be prepared for a serious system. And I know at a local level, there's a huge amount of preparation underway. I've also been in regular contact with Senator Nita Green, the Labor Party senator who is based in Cairns and I know that she's working very closely with state and local level representatives as well. Happy to take any further questions on that once we have a chat to our other guests today. So initially, I'll hand over to Commissioner Rob Rogers to talk to you about some of the aircraft as well. Thank you.

ROB ROGERS, NSW RURAL FIRE COMMISSIONER: Thanks Minister, and I just thank the Federal Government for their ongoing support of aviation firefighting. It's something that is becoming increasingly more needed, but it's also comes at quite an expensive price tag. So you know, the Minister's been able to secure additional funding for NAFC to make sure that we can get the right aircraft in here. But that's going to be an ongoing challenge and I thank him for his ongoing discussions with us about that. As far as the national LAT, so it's here, it's already been dispatched to South Australia over the weekend when they had a particularly bad day, be on standby for them. It will continue to be moved around the country to manage risk wherever it actually pops up. So it notionally lives here, but it can spend all of its time somewhere else if that's where the need is. And that's what we've got to be able to do, is to move these assets around where the emerging fire risk is. So it joins another five large air tankers across the country. And again, be ready to help Australians wherever they happen to live. We've seen already, fires have already been quite active in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. And there've been numerous large air tanker missions, heavy helicopters indeed the Chinook from New South Wales is up in the Tenterfield area with the number of fires we've got up there - around 50 fires that are currently burning within New South Wales. So we've seen, even with that rain that came through a week ago, is already starting to dry out, and we're starting to see a problem with fires again. So it is one of these things that, you know, we plan for difficult fire season and obviously that's coming to fruition. And it's already cost dozens of properties being lost so far. So our key here is to get these sort of assets onto fires as quick as we can to stop them developing into really problematic fires. Once they develop, they become really difficult to contain. So the trick is getting these things on early.

MURRAY WATT: I might just introduce now John Gallaher, who's one of the pilots of this plane. John is actually normally based in Oregon in the US, but this (pilot) and the aircraft have been brought in for the fire season from Oregon. So John knows more about driving these planes than anyone else and I'll hand over to him.

JOHN GALLAHER, LARGE AERIAL TANKER PILOT: Thank you. My name is John Gallaher, I'm the director of flight ops for Coulson Aviation USA. The Coulson team has been coming to Australia to help in the aerial firefighting for nearly 18 years, we're pleased to be supplying the national LAT that is used all over the country. Additionally, another role that Coulson holds is that we are the contracting company that operates the RFS aircraft, the Marie Bashir, Chinook CH47 helicopter, and then three fixed wing airplanes that are used for aerial supervision, as well as a fleet of helicopters that are used in firefighting rescue, and that sort of thing. I do fly both the 737 and the C130 for Coulson Aviation. And we're here, and we've been flying on fires for the last few days and expected to continue to fly on the fires for a number of days.

MURRAY WATT: Would you like to put any questions to John first and then come back to us?

JOURNALIST: It's a big aircraft. Where is it best used, in which situation, because obviously we have a number of very targeted aircraft for different types of fires. Where is this best used?

JOHN GALLAHER: We like to say that aircraft are best used when they're used early in the fire, when we can get out when the fire is smaller, and we can get a containment line of some sort around the fire. We're really just supporting the people on the ground. Our job is to get retardant on the ground, which slows the fire down and allows the people on the ground who actually put the fire out.

JOURNALIST: How long will it take from a call going out to getting this thing up in the air talk me through the process.

JOHN GALLAHER: The amount of time it takes is dependent on how long it takes to load it, it's usually about 10 to 12 minutes to load the airplane. Our goal is from the time they give us a tasking to be airborne in 15 minutes.

JOURNALIST: It's obviously going to be a really hot season coming up, we've got a lot of bushfires expected, you've already obviously been working on some. Is your team prepared, how are you guys feeling if it's going to be so busy this season?

JOHN GALLAHER: I believe we're very prepared. We work hard to train and to be ready for what we are doing. Most of our people have just come out of the US fire season, while it was a slower fire season in the US everybody was busy. So it's not like we've been sitting around doing nothing since last season. Our people are ready. And we run shifts that keep people refreshed, so we don't spend any more than somewhere between 15 and 18 days on shift and then the next group comes in so everybody's rested and ready to go.

JOURNALIST: The fire season in the US last year was quite catastrophic in areas like Hawaii, where personally were you serving - where were you flying around and what did you see yourself out there? How does that compare to Australia?

JOHN GALLAHER: In this past season?

JOURNALIST: In the US.

JOHN GALLAHER: Yeah, the airplane that I was covering in the US was also a national asset. And so I was in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California. And parts of the US did have a pretty good fire season, but the majority of the US was much slower than we're used to, well below average.

MURRAY WATT: One other thing I might just add before taking questions, John was mentioning to us before that, we're now starting to see Australian crew being trained as well to be able to operate this fleet. We of course, very much value our American friends and other countries who come to support us during our fire season. But of course, what we want to do is increasingly become more self-sufficient in our ability to fight these fires. And that's why it's terrific that the New South Wales Government own a LAT - a large aerial tanker - as well. We're seeing other states and territories lease their own, as well as the Commonwealth Government, and now being able to train Australian crews as well who are learning from the best in the world. But happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Can you clarify there aren't any Australian crews currently who can fly these, it is just a reliance on overseas?

MURRAY WATT: I believe that's correct, but John probably knows the details of that, so why don't I let him cover that.

JOHN GALLAHER: As I said, Coulson Aviation Australia, which is a division of Coulson Aviation, is contracted to operate the RFS on airplanes. The bird docks, we have to Citation 560s, they're crewed completely by Australian pilots. On the Marie Bashir, we have our two first officers or co-pilots on the airplane are Australians, and they're in the process of learning the job to be a captain on the airplane. And in the very near future, we foresee all of the RFS-owned airplanes being operated by Australian crew.

JOURNALIST: How far off do you think that is?

JOHN GALLAHER: That's a good question, and the reason it's a good question is because it's really dependent. This is one of those jobs that you can't train outside of the job, you really need on-the-job training. And it's dependent on how many fires we can take that crew to and get them actual experience flying the airplane on a fire.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] crew to the US for training?

JOHN GALLAHER: We do. The Bomber 210 Marie Bashir has been over to the US for the last three US fire seasons. And that's where they have gained their baseline experience for the most part. They are now in the process - and they've been they've entered what we call our upgrade process - and they will soon be getting into the left seat of the airplane and begin making drops. Once they start doing that, we figure that our historical experience is that it takes about somewhere between 75 and 100 drops in the left seat before they're ready to fly the airplane as a captain.

JOURNALIST: How do you find out about where the flies are happening before you go out there in the planes?

JOHN GALLAHER: The RFS has a very good system where they have a tasking plan, before we get the tasking itself. When we're notified of the tasking, we will go in and meet with the airbase manager, and they will have a tasking card for us that has all the relevant information we need. 'Where's the fire at? What's the geographic location? What's the communications plan? And what are the hazards that exist where we're going?'.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask you-

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I might just get Rob to supplement that answer.

ROB ROGERS: As far as aircraft being dispatched, on each of our fires, there's what we call an air attack supervisor. So there might already be local helicopters that are on that fire. They assess what the risk is, and what the benefit will be for different types of aircraft and also the prioritisation. So they would then decide whether it's a large air tanker drop, whether it's going to continue with smaller aircraft, and that will be very much looking at the whole state risk, that's actually present throughout the state. Because there'll be dozens of fires burning at any one time. So it's a matter of working out what the biggest risk is. And these aircraft are obviously sent where they can do the most benefit. So that might be stopping a fire from spreading that's just kicked off. Or it might be to try and put a line between the fire and houses to give firefighters a better chance of defending property. So there's quite a process to working out what aircraft goes where at any one time.

JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, this has been here before. So what's different now, is this leased on a permanent basis, and will it be here every fire season?

MURRAY WATT: We have a long term lease arrangement in place for this particular aircraft. One of the good things to note is that this aircraft was not available to Australia during the Black Summer bushfires. So this is an improvement that we've seen in Australia's firefighting capacity compared to what we had in Black Summer. And it's one of many examples that we can give that shows that we're much better prepared than we were in Black Summer. The reality is that Australia's fire season extends anywhere between about three and six months depending on the part of the country that we're talking about. And it's the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars to make sure that we have those aircraft available when they're needed, but not sitting around idle in other times of the year when they're not needed. So that's why across the country, we have a combination of aircraft that are either owned by governments or privately, and also leased to provide that kind of surge capacity that we need during our fire season. And that's where this aircraft fits in.

JOURNALIST: Just on Black Summer, can you just clarify - it was obviously a key recommendation to establish a national fleet - what is the difference between last fire season to this fire season? And is it just the one aircraft, are you able to practically just explain the difference?

MURRAY WATT: So - and Rob might be able to fill in a bit more of this detail as well - as you have said, this particular aircraft was available last year, but it wasn't available during Black Summer. It wasn't it wasn't part of the overall fleet during Black Summer. It's an improvement that has been made since Black Summer through additional federal government funding. But what we've also done - and when I say we - the National Aerial Firefighting Council has assembled, as I say, the widest and largest fleet of aircraft that Australia has ever had before. So we have more aircraft available in Australia for this bushfire season than we had last year or any season before that. That's a combination of these large jumbo jets, sometimes small planes, we've got more helicopters available than we've ever had before. So it's a mixture of the fleet to provide the kind of service that is needed in particular situations.

JOURNALIST: Can you give us a figure specifically by how many aircraft have you increased capacity since last summer?

MURRAY WATT: I know that the figure now is around the 500-mark, Rob might know a little bit more about the exact details.

ROB ROGERS: I'd have to get the details as far as the difference between year to year, I don't have that. But what I would say is, in regards to considering the Royal Commission recommendations, it's all about having also a medium to long term plan. And that's something that we're working on at the moment, as in what's the next five to 10 years looking like, and that's that's the discussions we're having with the Minister now to make sure that Australia is in a good position, not just this season or next season, but for the next decade. Because, you know, we've seen that fire seasons are becoming more and more severe. And we need to think about ramping up our preparedness and our ability to deal with that. And the longer fire seasons, more difficult fire seasons. And that's the work that we're doing now between jurisdictions, NAFC and the Federal Government to make sure that, you know, we've got that end goal as far as what we need to look like.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you, had you had this aircraft during Black Summer, how might things looked different?

ROB ROGERS: It would have helped us, it would have absolutely helped us. I mean, we had so many fires burning, we had hundreds of fires burning across the country at any one time. And you only have a small number of these aircraft, and you've got to put them, you know, at the highest priority areas. So having another asset absolutely gives you another string in the bow to make sure that you can actually help [inaudible] and things like that, we're moving towards now, RFS bought a Chinook helicopter because if it's close to water, then things like that actually can be a real game changer as well, because they can go from rivers and things like that. So, you know, we're constantly looking at new technology, what's the right mix of aircraft for the country? And there'll be certainly more more things to do with that that will be talked about in coming months.

JOURNALIST: Is New South Wales the only state to have purchased a LAT?

ROB ROGERS: Yes, correct. That's correct. I mean, to be honest, a lot of that is also about the length of the fire season in New South Wales - it can start in August up in the north of the state, but not finished until March in the southern part of the state. So we have a very long fire season. And that's where, and I think that's what the point that Minister was making, is that there's the mixture of owned versus leased, is that very much about how much you're going to use the aircraft. And we certainly worked out that we needed to have something here all the time, and that definitely overlapped with other fire seasons in the US and places like Canada.

JOURNALIST: What's RFS is expectation moving forward in regards to climate change, and how that will affect our bushfire seasons on coming years and decades?

ROB ROGERS: Well, the thing we've been very much doing, that dreadful 2019-20 fire season - we've been planning to fight that fire season again. And that's been very much about what we've been doing; rebuilding, getting better systems and making sure that all the lessons we could learn out of that season about notification and community, hitting fires hard, detection of fires - and that's why we're working with people like Minderoo on that XPrize challenge to look at satellite detection of fires - so we want to very much look at harnessing technology to make sure we can do even better than we did last time. I'm very proud of what the agency did during that season. But I think we can do better and that's very much what we've been working on is just trying to make sure we’re better. Because, you know, we saw during that 2019-20 fire season, record number of properties lost, record fire danger ratings, the length of the fire season, the consecutive numbers of fires. So there was a whole lot of records that were broken. And when we obviously are planning that that's going to continue. So that's very much our challenge is to make sure that we can keep up that level of momentum.

JOURNALIST: Just one for the Minister quickly, just on the on the Royal Commission recommendations; there's obviously several that are yet to be fully implemented. Can you give us an update on the progress on things like the emergency stockpile? Is that on track to be completed by June next year, and other initiatives like infrastructure hardening, how prepared are we? Are we running on schedule for those reforms?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, sure. In terms of the Bushfire Royal Commission recommendations, I'm pleased to tell you that every single one of those recommendations where the Federal Government was responsible has been completed. And the remainder, which are a joint responsibility of the Federal Government and states, are very well advanced. Some of them have been completed as well. You've mentioned the stockpile - it's again, an example of something that this Federal Government, the Albanese Government, has done differently compared to any government we've seen as in federally before. We committed and budgeted earlier this year to put together the first ever national emergency management stockpile that Australia has ever had. It is underway, we've already for instance, contracted a group called HumaniHut to provide temporary accommodation to supplement what the States and Territories have available, if we do see a flood or a fire destroy a community. What we often see in these situations is that there is a huge demand for temporary accommodation. Some States and Territories are able to meet that need, some aren't. And what we want to be able to do as a federal government is to supplement that by having our own stockpile available. So the accommodation is now ready to go, we launched that a couple of weeks ago in Adelaide. And we're now very close to finalizing a tender for other equipment such as water purification equipment and the other sort of things that would be needed in a disaster situation. The other thing we've done since Black Summer is start funding a group called Disaster Relief Australia, which is a veteran-run volunteer organisation. And they do some of the work that the ADF has traditionally done to help with recovery as well. Any other questions for me?

JOURNALIST: So that will be ready? Do you estimate that will be ready by June,  it won’t fall behind schedule?
 
MURRAY WATT: No well, as I say that the stockpile is already up and running in the sense that the accommodation part of it is ready to go. That's available for States and Territories when it's needed. And very soon, we expect to have the remainder of that stockpile up and running as well.

JOURNALIST: Also just on one of the other portfolio matters, just on trade with China, I understand there's been a breakthrough in terms of beef imports and exports. Can you explain?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah I'm very pleased to say that we've been able to make another breakthrough in stabilising the trade relationship with China, which of course, is our biggest trading partner, including in agriculture.

Yesterday, we were advised by the Chinese Government, that they are removing the suspensions on three different abattoirs in Australia that were previously banned from exporting to China. In total, there were 11 abattoirs in Australia that were banned. We've now seen those suspensions lifted on three, which is terrific news. And I know the companies involved have been working really hard with us to have those suspensions removed for some time now. The three establishments that have had the suspensions lifted, are in Naracoorte, Colac and Brooklyn, within Melbourne. That is great news for jobs. It's great news for our agriculture sector to have that repaired. And of course, what we now need to do is make sure that China lift the remaining suspensions on those remaining establishments, while we worked through a couple of other issues with them too. But it's great news for agriculture.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just last one - just two questions, if I may. Are you disappointed that other states haven't invested as heavily into large aircraft as New South Wales? Do you worry that that will put pressure nationally and to force New South Wales into a difficult situation?

ROB ROGERS: No, look I think each jurisdiction looks at its risk and the way it manages those risks themselves. And a lot of the jurisdictions have smaller fire seasons, so they're more intense, which, which does tend to lend itself to more to that contracting model. But in saying that there's a lot of work that happens between the states. So for example, the large air tanker that was in Queensland, is now moving to Victoria. So there's that sort of moving things around through the NAFC umbrella to make sure that jurisdictions have those aircraft that are needed. But as things will change, fire seasons extend in both the northern and southern hemisphere, that model will change. And that's the sort of work that we're doing now, to make sure that we're looking five years ahead, not just this year and next year. So no, I think that we've certainly looked at things from our point of view in New South Wales. But, you know, every state and territory looks at these things differently.

JOURNALIST: Can l ask also as we've been standing here, it's come through that firefighter has died - a Fire Rescue firefighter has died - not far from here, at a house fire. Early on but how do you deal with those kind of difficulties?

ROB ROGERS: Yeah look, and I don't want to go into too much detail because I'm not sure what the family is aware of. But we've already seen two RFS firefighters die this year, and it's just awful. It just goes to show how dangerous firefighting is. Whether it's fighting house fire or fighting a bushfire it's incredibly dangerous and obviously our heart goes out to the firefighter’s family and indeed Fire Rescue family. And we know unfortunately, what that's like. But it's it was a joint fire that they were on with RFS and you know, again, it's a very high price people pay.