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Australia burns … while the bureaucrats bumble

By Tom Robinson - posted Tuesday, 2 January 2007

February, 1995 - Avalon Air show, Victoria - sleek and shiny planes from many nations are parked on the tarmac, begging for attention from the huge crowd of local and international visitors, military personnel and dignitaries.

Top billing, however, is reserved for the giant aircraft just now appearing on the horizon. As it makes its final approach 100 feet above the runway … suddenly … a massive cloud of water issues from the rear of the plane, and continues for one kilometre! As the IL-76 Waterbomber makes its exit at the end of the field the stunned crowd is just starting to realise what they have just witnessed.

The world’s largest and most effective firefighting air tanker has made its Australian debut, leaving behind a soaking blanket of water 300’ wide and 3,900’ long - 12 football fields in size - in just 10 seconds!


“Finally!” - many exclaimed. “Our costly, and often deadly, bushfires have met their match.” Their enthusiasm, however, was to be short-lived. Although the capabilities exhibited by the Waterbomber were hailed by fire officials and aviation experts alike, Australia's most powerful firefighting bureaucrat, Phil Koperberg, New South Wales Fire Service Commissioner was conspicuously absent.

Koperberg prefers to rely on the "tried and true" firefighting techniques.

The only thing “proven” by those “time-tested” methods of bushfire fighting has been their ineffectiveness on larger fires, and their danger to the heroic firefighters fighting them.

An oft-raised argument for not using the Waterbomber is that the IL-76 uses too much water, a resource Australia cannot afford to waste.

Using a little common sense (something that seems to be in short supply among wildfire or bushfire “leaders”, both in Australia and the US), it would seem plausible that one plane, capable of stopping a fire over 12 football fields in ten seconds, would use less precious water than a dozen small air tankers attempting to cover the same area, often unsuccessfully.

Would they really work on Australia’s bushfires? Common sense would say "Yes".


Should they be used on every fire? Not necessarily, just the big ones that have grown beyond the capabilities of the apparatus, manpower and techniques now being utilised. Alternatively they could be deployed earlier, before the fires ever reach the catastrophic level.

Each year, at the beginning of the bushfire season, IL-76 Waterbombers are placed on offer to Australia. And each year they are turned away, often with statements like, “We are too busy fighting fires at this time to consider anything new”.

If that’s the case how about considering them after the fire season each year, in anticipation of next year’s bushfires?

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About the Author

Tom Robinson is the Chief Administrator of Global Emergency Response which provides the IL-76 aircraft.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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