As Australia burns, a plan for a joint seaborne firefighting unit is getting a second look

The devastating wave of wildfires ravaging Australia has rekindled interest in an unsolicited proposal dropped on the Canadian government four years ago: a call for Canada and Australia to develop and share a couple of strategic water bomber squadrons.

Plan would exploit the fact that fire seasons in Canada and Australia happen at different times of the year

Crews monitor fires and begin back burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance in east Gipplsland on January 02, 2020 in Australia. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

The devastating wave of wildfires ravaging Australia has rekindled interest in an unsolicited proposal dropped on the Canadian government four years ago: a call for Canada and Australia to develop and share a couple of strategic water bomber squadrons.

The pitch initially was made in a so-called green paper drafted by the Quebec-based Davie Shipyard with the support of the aerospace firm Bombardier — and was the subject of high-level meetings among senior members of the Liberal government, including one discussion with then-environment minister Catherine McKenna.

The proposal — which was drafted before much of Fort McMurray, Alta., was levelled by a wildfire in 2016, and long before Australia's current crisis — was quietly shelved after the initial pitch.

It landed at a time when the Davie Shipyard of Lévis, Que. was lobbying hard for work under the National Shipbuilding Strategy and caught up in the political controversy surrounding Vice-Admiral Mark Norman and a supply ship leased from the company.

"I think when we initially proposed the idea, it was too soon," said Spencer Fraser, chief executive officer of Federal Fleet Service, the Davie Shipyard's sister company. "There were still people within Canada and society that were denying extreme weather events and climate change. What's important today is — look, it's real. So let's do something about it."

An artist's rendering of the proposed Canadian Australian Strategic Firefighting Initiative vessel. (Davie Shipyard)

No one from the Liberal government was willing to comment Monday — but there was word last week that officials in two federal departments had dusted off the proposal and had asked questions of Viking Air Ltd., the B.C. company which now owns the rights to Bombardier's CL-415 water bomber.

While the threat of climate change has been the focus of intense political debate in Canada, most of that debate has been about policy measures, such the federal carbon tax.

Questions about how governments should respond to weather patterns already altered by climate change haven't played a large role in that debate.

Splitting the expense

The proposal — which apparently was shared informally by the companies with the Australians in 2016 — calls for the construction of up to 14 state-of-the-art water bombers and a new ship (or a converted older one) to transport the aircraft between the two countries.

"Their fire season is completely at a different time of the year than ours," said Fraser.

"The idea would be to move strategic firefighting assets from Canada, after our fire season, down to Australia and vice versa. That way both publics — Australia and Canada — could share the costs, instead one country bearing the cost."

Provincial governments in Canada and state governments in Australia have jurisdiction over efforts to fight wildfires, through a mixture of government-owned and private assets.

"The idea is not to supplant the current businesses doing firefighting," Fraser said.  "This is [meant] to have a second level, to have more assets [at the federal level] when things go really bad."

Australia is short of water bombers

Military units in both countries have been tasked to help with wildfire outbreaks — mostly by organizing evacuations, but occasionally on the front lines of the wildfires themselves.

A few dozen Canadian firefighting specialists are in Australia, but the country suffers from a chronic shortage of water bombers.

Greg Mullins, the former fire commissioner of the state of New South Wales, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Jan. 3 that the country should tap into Canadian expertise and assets.

"Our prime minister should be on the phone with Justin Trudeau from Canada, right now, saying, 'Justin, we need 20 or more of your water-scooping, purpose-built water bombers that are in mothballs during your winter,'" he said.

Fraser said the companies originally involved in the pitch in 2016 studied the logistics of flying water bombers between Canada and Australia and concluded it would be complicated, even perilous, to refuel the aircraft along the way in less-than-friendly nations.

Lyn and Peter Iverson look over their burnt-out office and shed on their property following a bushfire in New South Wales state on Nov. 11, 2019. (Darren Pateman/The Associated Press)

Even before the current wildfire season, there was a lot of debate in Australia about buying more firefighting aircraft.

Another former New South Wales deputy fire and rescue commissioner, Ken Thompson, told ABC the country needs more large aircraft that are available year-round.

"We've got real concerns about the impact that climate change is having on fire behaviour and we've got very serious concerns about the small numbers of large aircraft that are available to support firefighters and local communities," Thompson said on Nov. 14.

The Australian High Commission in Ottawa did not respond Monday to CBC's request for comment.

The original pitch that went to the Canadian government recommended a bi-national arrangement: the two countries would share an annual $145-million lease and, in return, the companies would deliver everything from aircraft and ships to crew members.

Fraser said the company isn't wedded to a single approach and is open to proposals from either federal government.

Dave Perry, a vice president and senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he's aware of the water bomber proposal and believes it merits study.

When governments talk about strategic national assets, they often mean defence assets like fighter jets and warships. But depending upon the country, certain industries or natural resources can be considered strategic national assets as well.

Perry said climate change will force federal officials to redefine what they consider to be strategically vital to Canada's interests and future survival.

"There is categorically a need to make sure we're putting additional resources into mitigating — as much as we can — the effects of climate change," he said.

Perry was on the fence about whether a fleet of shared water bombers is a solution, but said institutions need to be thinking in those terms.

"I do not know if this is the kind of thing that's needed or not, but it's an idea and something definitely worth kicking the tires on," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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