Con-air: $15m waterbomber sits idle as Fraser burns
A multimillion-dollar state-leased water bombing plane the Premier boasted could be deployed at a moment's notice sat at an airport just 90km from Fraser Island while the World Heritage site burned for a month.
The Courier-Mail can reveal the Bundaberg-based Canadian Conair air tanker Q400AT - which is capable of dropping 10,000 litres at once - was not tasked to the island until November 17, despite it costing the state $15 million and the fire by then already burning for 34 days.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk gloated in a pre-election blitz of the regions that the plane would "ensure our communities are protected" and even wrote on Facebook that it could "get to Proserpine, Tambo or the New South Wales border" within an hour.
But it inexplicably remained at Bundaberg Airport while a Queensland icon was razed 90km away, with questions repeatedly being asked by stakeholders, emergency personnel and the State Opposition about why professional firefighters and the air tanker were not tasked sooner.
The blaze began with an out-of-control campfire on October 14, before it is believed to have flared and jumped a track at Cathedral while under the management of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) were only tasked to take over management of the fire last week - a decision likely to come under the microscope in an upcoming review, along with the whereabouts of the air tanker.
"The Large Air Tanker was first used on the K'gari Fraser Island fire on November 17," QFES confirmed in a statement yesterday.
"It has made more than 10 drops since then, over several days."
It is understood the tanker was not deployed sooner because the decision was made by QPWS not to use it.
The Department of Environment and Science said in a statement: "The ability to deploy and the effectiveness of waterbombing is dictated by the prevailing weather conditions, smoke presence, assets under risk and the vegetation types."
Just one month before the blaze began, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk spruiked the $15 million aircraft as a major coupe for Queensland, saying it could be deployed "at moment's notice".
"I'd written to the Federal Government about providing some extra resources, I was knocked back, but now we have our own and Queenslanders can feel satisfied that if anything does happen we can deploy this aircraft at moment's notice," she said in September after a trip to Bundaberg to see the plane in action.
Opposition fire and emergency spokesman Dale Last said it was one of the reasons why an independent inquiry was urgently needed.
"I can't believe that a multimillion-dollar water bomber was parked in a Bundaberg hangar for weeks, while Fraser Island was burning," he said.
"This water bomber was touted as the firefighting saviour to protect Queenslanders and instead it was sitting in a hangar 30 minutes from Fraser Island gathering dust."
The bushfire is the largest on the island in at least two decades and has so far burnt more than 82,000 hectares - half of the island's total land mass.
Government mapping showed yesterday that new spot fires were headed towards the island's iconic Lake McKenzie site, south of Kingfisher Bay Resort.
More than 90 personnel, 38 trucks and 17 aircraft have been deployed.
QFES is faced with only being able to use harmful saltwater and retardant gel to bring the blaze under control, with freshwater lakes - like Lake McKenzie - deemed off limits by the Department of Environment and Science, due to "biosecurity and cultural" concerns.
There are more than 100 freshwater lakes on Fraser Island, but waterbombing aircraft have been limited to using saltwater and retardant gel.
"To minimise the impacts upon the island's fragile lake system, water will continue to be sourced from the ocean while viable to do so," the Department of environment and Science said in a statement.
"This prevents pest fish, insects, seeds or plants being transferred from waterbombing buckets, which would be catastrophic to the island's natural ecological balance."
Originally published as Con-air: $15m waterbomber sits idle as island icon burns