Sunday, February 8, 2009

Victorian Fire Disaster

A large part of the Australian state of Victoria is on fire. This map from Country Fire Authority of Victoria shows the disposition of major bushfires in the state that have, at time of writing claimed 181 lives.As it has done so frequently before the Australian Army has been mobilised to assist firefighters. New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key has called Australian premier Kevin Rudd to offer support. The last time Victoria burned New Zealand sent fire-crews to assist Australian volunteers who were at the end of their tether. Heli-Harvest, a private New Zealand helicopter firm, has once again sent its Mi-17 helicopter to aid with this emergency effort.

In terms of both military and emergency management response Australia is a very large and rich country and any support New Zealand can offer is largely symbolic. That said it is notable how a flexible military force of the kind described in my defence review could be so much more useful in a crisis of this kind than the one we - of for that matter Australia - has.

For a start because it is intended to deal with domestic civil emergencies it is far more flexible for providing aid for international civil emergencies. Compare the following:

Air Support
The IL76MF proposed by the original Review is the heaviest water-bomber in the sky. Such aircraft can deliver an enormous deluge which the US Forest Service says is more useful than that from the C-130. Air Support Services in the US operates the IL76 in this role.
This aircraft could also deliver land based units for immediate operation far quicker than either the B757 or the C130H.

The Mi-26 helicopter is the largest in the world. Much larger than the Heli-Harvest Mi-17 which is already the largest monsoon bucket chopper in the Southern hemisphere. Able to carry up to 20 tonnes of fire-fighting compound the Mi-26 may be expensive to operate but it is one mother of an asset when times get tough. As with the IL76 a large monsoon dump is far more effective than many small ones.

Ground Operations
The Review proposed a dedicated fire-fighting platoon with four MAN SX fire-trucks available for international deployment. The Man SX can carry ten tonnes of fire suppresant, work in difficult country and move at speed to where its needed. Admittedly four trucks is a drop in the Ocean but better than nothing. Additional MAN SX's could be used as tankers.

The notional Force also had a company of 48 Bronco / BVS-210 armoured tracked tractors which could be useful getting into country where wheeled vehicles would have difficulty. With a rear trailer able to carry 6 tonnes the front could be fitted with a fire-hose and pump to provide a vehicle able to attack fires from flanks or rear in difficult country.

Manpower is always an issue in emergency management. The Review proposed a voluntary Emergency Brigade as a pool of reservists for domestic civil disaster. Such a unit could use the Australian disaster as a live training opportunity and feed through teams to support or relieve the Australian fire crews.

A task-force consisting of two IL76MFs with four MAN SXs and two self-deployed Mi26's could be be deployed within 72 hours. The Emergency Brigade and other assets could follow relatively quickly.

One can't help thinking that if John Key had had such a potential task-force available his conversation with Kevin Rudd would have been slightly less vague. As Mr Key said New Zealanders are happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Australia in times of adversity. It is time, however that both defence forces moved on from World War Two and recognised that damage from natural and humanitarian disasters is part of the broader remit of the modern defence/civil defence force.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the NZDF is able to offer and how long it would take to deploy.