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Defence forces ‘should be trained to help volunteer firefighters’

Image: Bidgee [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Academic calls for restructuring of army and air force to tackle effects of climate change

Australia should restructure its army and air force to train thousands of military firefighters who can help rural volunteers deal with bushfires and the “never-ending threat” of climate change, a leading defence policy academic has said.

Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force captain and a visiting fellow at Griffith University in Queensland, says the country needs a national fleet of firefighting aircraft. The air force is “the logical organisation” to provide it, he says.

In an editorial published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, he suggests there must be a coordinated national effort to expand and maintain the country’s firefighting capabilities.

“Some 160 contracted civilian aircraft are involved in fighting bushfires, many hired from offshore companies. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre manages that equipment with funding from state, territory and federal governments. As an indicator of the scope of the requirement, Victoria considers that it alone needs a surge capacity of 150 aircraft,” Layton writes.

“Firefighting aircraft is clearly an area for a national response, not individual state penny-packeting. A national fleet would gain large economies of scale in terms of cost, staffing and training systems. The very long-term requirement means it’s most cost-effective to fund an enduring and expandable national capability.”

He says the Australian army could also train recruits in firefighting techniques but would need to revise its training schedules.

“The personnel involved would require specialist skills and a training system would need to be established. And with [fire] events now happening almost continuously across Australia, additional personnel would be needed to allow staff rotation. So the army would need about an extra 5,000 personnel.”

Layton argues that the core business of Australia’s military is defending the country against external threats, and climate change “is 99 per cent an externally generated threat”.

“Half the world’s carbon emissions are from three countries: China (29 per cent), the United States (16 per cent) and India (7 per cent). These three great powers didn’t intentionally set out to weaponise greenhouse gas emissions. They strove for ever-larger national power; global warming is just a byproduct [and] Australia is simply collateral damage,” he writes.

Layton’s comments coincide with a backlash of public criticism over funding cuts to the rural fire service in New South Wales by the federal and state governments. Earlier this week, social media posts revealed that a rural fire station in NSW had launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy fire respirator masks for its volunteer crews.

Bushfires burning across more than 2.7 million hectares in NSW have destroyed more than 700 homes since mid-November. The Bureau of Meteorology has warned that extreme to high-risk fire conditions will continue over Christmas and into January.