Coronavirus restrictions are expected to make it challenging to bring in the international firefighting aircraft and crews that Australia needs in the coming bushfire season.
Emergency Management Victoria deputy commissioner Chris Stephenson says the possible impact on international assistance, particularly in terms of aircraft, is an issue across Australia.
“One of the real issues or constraints for the country at the moment is international assistance and what that might look like if required this bushfire season,” Mr Stephenson told the natural disasters royal commission.
The NSW and Tasmanian fire services also say the pandemic will likely affect the provision of aerial firefighting services this fire season, as travel restrictions and quarantine requirements may affect the availability of international pilots and maintenance crews.
“Australia cannot provide enough aircraft alone,” Tasmania Fire Service chief officer Chris Arnol said on Thursday.
“It needs to have overseas aircraft and crews coming to this country to support us in our firefighting efforts.”
Mr Stephenson said there would be logistical challenges given pilots and crews moved around the country, noting EMV would take the chief health officer’s advice about bringing them into Victoria.
“At the end of the day it will be a balance of risk between the health risks and the risk of and the significance of the potential bushfire season that we may see.”
Mr Stephenson said a lot of the aircraft resources were already contracted, but other national and state resources were being sought.
Australia’s national aerial firefighting fleet comprises about 150 aircraft that are contracted on behalf of state and territory governments, but the number can be increased to more than 500 to meet peak demand.
Echoing Wednesday’s evidence from the NSW RFS, Mr Arnol said a coronavirus outbreak among firefighters would affect the fire response.
“Our big fear is having a COVID-19 infection,” he said.
“If we had that in a camp or a fireground, what does that mean for us – that will immediately reduce capacity and give grief to us.”
Mr Arnol said the current plan was to pull the teams out, do a deep clean and replace them, or relocate the fireground crews to another site and change them over.
“That will also of course mean that we are down on resources,” he added.
Mr Arnol said quarantine requirements for interstate deployments would also create problems with moving people in and out, while social distancing could be a challenge for group briefings on the fire ground or crew changeovers.
Tasmania Police Commissioner Darren Hine said if the state needed assistance from interstate or internationally, it would have to take public health advice about the current risk and hotspots in other states.
“Obviously that will inform our decisions about deployments,” he said.