Aerial firefighting fleet at Lake Macquarie

10th November 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (20:06:20): This time last year much of New South Wales was blanketed in a haze of bushfire smoke. In the subsequent weeks and months the situation would worsen and New South Wales would record its worst bushfire season in history. Over that summer there were 11,774 reported fire incidents, which scorched 5.5 million hectares of land, destroyed 2,476 homes and, tragically, claimed 26 lives. I know those numbers are etched in the minds of everyone in this House—and particularly some who we know had an extraordinarily tough time in their electorates. It was the summer that gave us three state of emergency declarations, destroyed almost $1 billion worth of infrastructure, and required heroic and extraordinary efforts from more than 5,600 firefighters to eventually contain the fires.

While the embers still smouldered in many parts of the State, the Government acted quickly to establish the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, which has now produced interim and final reports that have also fed into a royal commission on our national firefighting capacities and, just as importantly, on a plan to meet the State's future needs as the climate changes. The inquiry made 76 recommendations, and I note that the Premier and her Government have committed to meeting all of them in time. I focus on two or three of those recommendations as they relate to the State's aerial firefighting capabilities. Lake Macquarie is home to Skyline Aviation Group, which recently acquired 11 Royal Australian Navy [RAN] surplus Seahawk helicopters and is reconfiguring them for firefighting duties. To put it simply, a locally owned fleet of aircraft is being repurposed to fight fires from the air.

The fleet is centrally located on the State's eastern seaboard and could have up to four aircraft ready for the coming fire season. All that is needed is a bit more Government interest and retention funds so the aircraft can be ready to be used as soon as needed. I have already had some discussions with the Deputy Premier and the emergency services Minister about this fleet—although they have not yet had the opportunity to inspect it. I have seen the fleet and I am increasingly convinced that Skyline Aviation Group already has a lot of the capacity that the State requires now and into the future to significantly improve our aerial firefighting capabilities as per the recommendations of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry. As I mentioned, Skyline Aviation Group is locally owned and locally based. At present, most type 1 rotary aircraft used during the Australian fire season are from overseas. We could wait around for the Federal Government to perhaps fund a national fleet or we could bite the bullet and get involved with a fleet that is literally sitting in my electorate, almost ready to go.

Recommendation number 52 of the inquiry urged the Government to enhance firefighting capabilities by trialling aerial firefighting at night. The Seahawks have the capacity to fly at night, although Skyline Aviation Group is awaiting final certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. The helicopters also have the potential to move larger numbers of firefighters into areas that might not be accessible by road. Such a fleet could be moved quickly to areas of need anywhere in New South Wales. It could also be used interstate or even overseas, such as in New Zealand, if required. There is certainly a cost associated with keeping and maintaining such a fleet, but such costs are negligible given what happens during times of emergency now and what the Government is seeking to do in the future to align with the inquiry's recommendations.

Currently, it costs the Government about $6.8 million for two similar aircraft to be brought in from overseas to operate over 120 days. I understand it would cost about one?third of that to operate two locally based aircraft with the same capabilities. It would cost far less money than bringing in similar aircraft from overseas. Further, research carried out by Dantia—the economic development arm of Lake Macquarie City Council—shows that basing the fleet locally would create about 270 direct jobs and a further 470 indirect jobs in the first four years of operation. This fit?for?purpose fleet could easily be added to the mix of our aviation firefighting assets. It has the capacity to be ready in time for the coming fire season and to be expanded in the years ahead.

I fully understand the need for due process and probity around decisions to engage a private company in this way, but this unique opportunity should at the very least have authorities meeting and discussing the possibility with the proponents. It would be a massive lost opportunity for additional heavy?lift firefighting aerial assets and regional jobs if the 11 former RAN Seahawk helicopters were to be lost not just to New South Wales, but perhaps also to Australia.

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