One year ago, what became known as the Orroral Valley fire – the ACT’s most devastating since 2003 – was accidentally sparked by the landing light of a Defence helicopter.
Due to the dry weather and fuel, the ignition point quickly turned into a raging inferno.
Around the same time that the fire’s location was confirmed by an Emergency Services Agency (ESA) spotter aircraft, firefighters were already standing back because of the fire’s size.
“I do not think there is much we can do,” one member said, according to radio logs.
Fires need to be hit hard within the first hour of ignition, former ESA Commissioner Peter Dunn says.
“[You need to have] a response within one-hour of ignition and that response is aircraft with fire retardant and dropping remote area firefighting teams in,” he said.
“If they had an aircraft sitting on the deck they could have but they did not have that,” he said.
From the Richmond Air Base north-west of Sydney, 50-minutes away by air, a Very Large Air Tanker, or VLAT, was dispatched to fight the growing danger.
The importance of responding to new ignitions with firefighting aircraft led to one of the Royal Commission’s most cited recommendations – a national sovereign firefighting fleet.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Responses handed down its report on 20 October 2020. It made 80 recommendations, including 14 targeted at the Commonwealth Government, 23 specific to states and territories, and 41 where governments shared responsibilities.
Two weeks later Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Commonwealth would support every recommendation for which it is responsible.
The ACT Government is still finalising its official response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations. It is expected to table its response to a Legislative Assembly Committee review on the first sitting day in February.
The ACT Emergency Services Agency said it has begun implementing new initiatives across the agency to address the recommendations of all reviews into the 2019-20 bushfire season, including the royal commission.
“The ACT Government has made upgrades to the firefighting airbase at the Canberra Airport and Hume Helibase to ensure they can effectively service firefighting aircraft for the ACT and surrounding regions,” an ESA spokesperson told Region Media.
“This was demonstrated in the 2019-20 fire season when a number of aerial firefighting assets operated from the ACT.”
Canberra Airport has been used as a base for aerial firefighting assets, including helicopters that the ESA contracts during the fire season, and NSW RFS and nationally coordinated LATs and VLATs.
Canberra Airport also has an aviation fire retardant mixing base.
A standardised national warning system has been implemented in the ACT while work continues on a national fire danger rating system.
Technology is also being integrated into the ESA’s fire monitoring capabilities to spot and track fires once they ignite and better model the spread of fires and fuel loads in the ACT.
“We’re trialling the use of automated cameras to be able to detect fires quicker, which then allows us to resource and respond to these incidents in as timely a manner as possible,” the ESA spokesperson said.
“Aviation companies are trialling night-time firefighting with aviation assets and ESA is watching closely the outcomes and learnings from these trials.
“Last season we saw an increase in fire activity at night. With increased night-time fire activity, as we saw last bushfire season, we have identified a need to focus more on aggressive suppression activities throughout the night when conditions are challenging.”
Research into how climate change affects bushfire seasons, water mapping and placement due to its scarcity during drought, and hazard reduction that does not involve prescribed burning due to an increasing dryer environment is also being conducted, the ESA says.