Bushfire weapon returns to Bundaberg

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk checking out the air tanker. Picture: Contributed

By Aaron Goodwin

After playing a key role during the devastating Fraser Island bushfires in 2020, the Canadian Conair Large Air Tanker (LAT) will be stationed at the Bundaberg Airport for the next four bushfire seasons.

Starting from September, a five person Conair crew of three pilots and two mechanics will be based at the airport for 84 days, flying and dropping 10,000 litre payloads of retardant and gels at bushfires across Queensland.

It will then be sent to Victoria during its bushfire season, which traditionally occurs when Queensland is experiencing storms and cyclones.

The tanker will remain in Victoria between bushfire seasons.

The LAT provides Queensland with additional aerial firefighting capability that its never had before, previously relying on interstate LAT’s during bushfire season.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) Air Operations Executive Manager Martin Gibson said the LAT provides fire suppression and containment capabilities, which support other aerial and ground efforts.

”All the other aircraft that were operating on Fraser Island were tactical assets that were directly attacking the fire-front,” Mr Gibson said.

”Our use of the LAT is to not directly attack the fire-front, it’s to actually try and put in a form of suppressant break and support other fire break efforts by the ground crew, by dropping retardant and gels.

”It played a good role in providing that capability which assisted the other aircraft and ground crews to combat that fire.

”Where the main arsenal of aircraft is directly attacking the fire or just in front of it or trying to steer it around, the LAT is in front of the fire, trying to steer it and slow it down with its payload.”

In bushfire response, a lead plane is deployed to the scene first, where the crew will arrive and assess how best to use the LAT to support other aircraft and ground crews.

The Bundaberg Airport is a logistically ideal location to house the LAT according to QFES, able to fly to most parts of Queensland in an hour for support.

”It’s an airfield that it centrally located to travel to the New South Wales border, up to Proserpine or out west to Tambo within an hour,” Mr Gibson said.

”It’s an airport that isn’t terribly busy.

”The impact on the LAT’s ability to fly out of the airport quickly is not imposing on them.

”Last year it proved to be a good base to support not just the LAT, but our other contracted aircraft and call-when-needed aircraft.

”There’s plenty of space, it’s strategically located and it’s logistically supportable from a QFES perspective.”

Facts about the LAT:

Two pilot crew on board

10,000 litre retardant capacity

Gross weight: 31,000 kg

Cruise speed (loaded) up to 670km/h

Typical runway required 1,500m

Can land with 80% of its load on board

Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Mark Ryan said the move was part of a commitment to spend $15 million over five years financing a LAT to support Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES)’ bushfire response operations.

“This will deliver certainty and efficiencies because QFES will no longer need to contract a LAT on a season-by-season arrangement,”’the Minister said.

“It’s important to note that the LAT will be complemented by all of the aircraft that form Australia’s national aerial fire-fighting fleet, that includes another LAT located in New South Wales.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Greg Leach said the LAT demonstrated its ability to enhance bushfire response capabilities when deployed during the 2020 bushfire season.

“The Bombardier Dash-8 Q400AT delivered 40 drops to help establish and maintain containment lines last season, with some of these instrumental in halting the progress of fires,” he said.

“It will once again be a critical part of QFES’ aerial firefighting fleet, which includes access to more than 150 call-when-needed planes and helicopters.

“Along with our dedicated personnel and purpose-built equipment, the aerial fleet puts us in a great position as we gear up for the 2021 bushfire season.”