Russian offer of fire jets rejected
October 21, 2009 - 12:00AM
AS BUSHFIRES consumed Victorian lives, forests, homes and townships in February, the Russian Government offered to send two of the world's biggest and most advanced waterbombers to the battle.
Each of the giant Ilyushin-76 jets could drop in a single pass 42,000 litres of water or retardant on a fire - almost five times the maximum capacity of the ''Elvis'' skycrane helicopters.
However, the offer, which came from the highest levels of the Government of the Russian Federation, was rejected, according to the Russian embassy in Canberra.
The Russian offer seems to have been lost in the confusion engulfing federal and Victorian authorities as they tried to deal with the disastrous fires, which cost 173 lives.
A spokesman for Emergency Management Australia, a division of the federal Attorney-General's Department, said: ''During a severe natural disaster such as the Victorian bushfires many offers of international assistance are provided.
''As states and territories have primary responsibility for dealing with natural disasters, all offers of international assistance are forwarded to relevant state and territory agencies for their assessment.''
However, a spokeswoman for the Victorian Government said that despite a search of all available material, no record of the Russian offer could be found.
A spokesman for the Country Fire Authority said he also knew nothing of the proposal, but would make further inquiries.
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Canberra, Yaroslav Eremin, told The Age that the aircraft - part of a purpose-built fleet on standby in Russia to fight fires anywhere in the world - could have been in Australia within two days. They were not being used, because the northern hemisphere was in winter while Victoria burnt.
He said the offer was made through diplomatic channels directly from the Russian Government to the Australian Government. But the response from Australia, which he said ''took some time'' was that the planes were not required.
Mr Eremin said he did not wish to speculate about why the offer might have been rejected, but said that ''it seems the Australian firefighting authorities felt they were well equipped'' to handle the emergency.
He said he did not wish to say precisely when the offer was made, but said it was in February when the ''fires were already burning''.
The IL-76 waterbombers were developed to fight wildfires in remote areas of Russia such as Siberia, but have been used to fight major fires in Greece, Portugal and Yugoslavia.
Their two large water tanks are capable of being filled in 10 to 12 minutes and can be dumped in a single burst, producing a downpour akin to heavy rain over an area 550 metres long by 100 metres wide. If the tanks are emptied sequentially, the saturated area extends to 900 metres by 65 metres.
In a letter submitted to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission last week, the Russian ambassador to Australia, Alexander Blokhin, said experts from the Russian Ministry of Emergencies estimated that two such aircraft ''would have been enough to cope with the firefighting task near Melbourne in February 2009''.
He also stated that a smaller, Russian-built firefighting jet, the amphibian Beriev BE-200, which can scoop 9000 litres of water from the sea - even with waves of up to 1.5 metres running - could have stopped the East Kilmore fire ''in one or two hours if the firefighting operation started in due time''.
The East Kilmore fire eventually consumed Kinglake.
The Russian ambassador's comments were contained in a submission to the royal commission from a member of the Australian-Russia Business Council, Luke Fraser.
Mr Fraser submitted that the commission and Australian firefighting authorities should consider more advanced firefighting technologies and complementary organisational strategies than those currently employed.This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/national/russian-offer-of-fire-jets-rejected-20091020-h6xt.html