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Ways to improve our response to bush fires

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Scott Morrison announcing the ADF's involvement in the firefighting efforts (screenshot via YouTube).

California has a strategic plan for wildfires, why don’t we?

And if it’s buried somewhere, it’s clearly not working. California has paid its prisoners to fight fires for generations, Australian volunteers missing Christmas and worse dying for lack of technology and a real plan, had to fight to get paid this season, and even then it’s still not nationwide.

It took the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) five days to get water to the Superdome in New Orleans. It took Australia 50 days to get the Australian Defence Force into the literal fire-fight. And then let’s not kid ourselves, 3,000 troops is small fry compared to the magnitude of this crisis and to wit, they are working behind the lines in support and with still no air assets committed to attack the fires.

Here are five things Australia should’ve been doing for the last 60 days to counter the bushfires and a few things looking to the future.

Smokejumpers

For a country so small in size, one would think as a nation Australia to be far less conservative with its rural firefighting methodologies. Case in point. America has been using smoke jumpers for almost half a century now. These are volunteers who get parachuted directly onto newly kindled fires to douse, fell and trench the nascent fire as quickly as possible.

The scale of the devastation in Australia today warrants an element of enhanced calculated risk and ergo an Australian smokejumper program. Controlling bushfires is all about timely response and like the reasons behind the Lindt siege failure, domestic agencies are allowing the military to institutionally guard valued dual-use skill sets.

Two military aircraft engaged in the fight

The Australian Defence Force is in the middle of retiring 39, yes 39 Blackhawk helicopters and has actually sold two to the state of New South Wales instead of gifting all of them through a program like the American 1033 program, which in practice gifts ex-military hardware to various domestic American agencies, some controversially so.

There is simply no holistic government approach to state resources and the military.

It wasn't that long ago that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds went to great lengths to preclude the ADF as an option in domestic firefighting efforts.

The vast majority of Australia’s counter-terrorism funding goes to the military, who have been chomping at the bit since 9/11 to get into the domestic sphere, democratic fundamentals aside. Post-Lindt, Australian security agencies learnt two lessons, one to make it easier to deploy the military on home-soil and two simply go in faster and harder next time.

After 2014 the constitutional "barricades" to deploying the military on home soil have been lifted evermore for the use of special forces in a security role in any domestic counter-terrorism scenario. At the same time, overlooking things like military officers fresh "off the line" in charge of civilian intelligence agencies and even commanding domestic drought relief operations, the Government and ADF have cited the civil-military divide as so important as to allow much of the country to burn.

The fact is the Australian military should’ve been geared up to be seconded to domestic natural disaster agencies years ago. The ADF does indeed have firefighting schools where military firefighters are taught to react to “wildfires”. All ADF Reservists need to go through ADF fire-fighting schools in addition to their military specialisation henceforth. There are numerous systems that can go in the cargo hold or emplaned under existing aircraft without the need for any kind of retrofitting, so that in the event that war were declared tomorrow, the ADF would be able to disentangle with its homesteading and revert to their primary military role.

It should be noted here we are not simply discussing the number of aircraft available but also the capacity, speed and size of those aircraft, by and large unmatched by the aged, civil firefighting fleet here and overseas.

The ADF has 30 transport aircraft, seemingly not on a war footing, 10 of which have a 10,000-litre capacity, 12 of which have a 20,000-litre capacity and eight which have a 70,000-litre capacity cargo holds.

Combined with the 39 retiring Blackhawks which should have been seamlessly transitioned to rural firefighting roles, we have a fleet of almost 100 additional aircraft that could've been contributing for the last two months to the unprecedented fight. The literal firefight NASA tracked from space, watching the fires grow from embers to something out of a Marvel movie in real-time, as though clicked into existence by Thanos himself.

An Australian National Guard

An Australian National Guard under control of the state premiers primarily but federalisable at times of war, would form disaster relief and law-enforcement operations in emergencies (like the recent Canadian manhunt of Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod). It also circumnavigates the thorny issue of the civil and military divide, and the threat of coups from the active military ingrained in democratic structures. Theoretically, the military is the only federal organisation that could impose its will on the entire country. 

"Suicide squads" (not really)

Supervised, all-volunteer prisoner based fire-fighting squads working in lieu of time-served could
be a massive boost to ground numbers, in the thousands. The State of California has a very interesting program, in existence since World War II, where prisoners can elect to serve time in the form of voluntary firefighting units in exchange for reduced sentences, paying fines or as terms of parole.

There is absolutely no reason Australian prisoners could also not look at this model and help move away from the traditional punitive model of time served justice system in certain cases.

Active bombing

Sweden recently experimented with the active bombing of forest fires and used military-grade ordinance to do so. There are ways to make shrapnel-less bombs encased in polymer with cheap precision guidance systems that convert dumb bombs into smart bombs, so this could be done on the cheap and for worst-case scenarios, like say a town surrounded by fire, as to simply deoxygenate the inferno and use the concussion from the shockwave to blow out critical parts of the fire.

For those who think this is an extreme measure, I would suggest that the result of not using them has proved more extreme this summer.

The use of explosives to fight mega-fires seems to have its origin with the famous Red Adair, who regularly used explosives to kinetically douse out of control oil well fires. Moreover an Australian based researcher Dr Graham Doig has already conducted some research into this methodology as it pertains to Australian bushfires some years ago.

On the mega-fires, the "mother of all bombs" could be used right now. Its shell is eviscerated by the blast and it’s only effect is pressure waves and de-oxygenation of the impact environment.

Everything in the areas behind the fires is dead or gone already and its one-mile diameter blast
radius is small next to the length of the firefront in some areas. If government agencies knew how to do
their job, they would have at least experimented with it already. It’s off-the-shelf

Feeling lonely yet? (future R&D)

The author would like the rural fire services to experiment with F-35Bs. These jets could be pre-positioned strategically around the country, get to the fires as quickly as possible and use the jet-wash from directly above the fire to blow it out from a safe height for small and medium-size fires. Time to respond is where this option shines. This has never been done before, the planes are expensive but they could be again dual-use military items. One of these jets may be more effective than 10 conventional aircraft.

Lastly, Spain is developing fire-fighting drones, we are not.

Dr Allan Orr is an international security specialist whose publications revolve around the topics of terrorism and insurgency. 

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