Plea for permanent home

A LATROBE City councillor is calling for a fire-bombing helicopter to be based at Latrobe Regional Airport this fire season and secured for the future.

A decision on where the state’s air fleet will be allocated this season is expected in October.

Councillor Kellie O’Callaghan wants to see an ongoing commitment to a Latrobe Valley-based helicopter rather than a yearly determination. But Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said he supported the allocation of aircraft as a year-by-year decision based on fire conditions.

Cr O’Callaghan said the Valley had a significant need for aircraft because of its proximity to mines and risk of fire.

“It’s important that coming out of the fire experience we’ve had and the learnings from the (Hazelwood Mine Fire) Inquiry that we have a demonstrated commitment for our firefighters and community and ensuring that they have all the resources they require and we’re keeping them safe,” Cr O’Callaghan said.

“I will be seeking formal support from my council colleagues.”

According to Mr Lapsley, the government leases a core group of 42 aircraft, 24 of which are helicopters.

The helicopters are generally based at Colac, Ballarat, Bendigo, Healesville, Olinda, Essendon, Mansfield, Ovens, Shepparton, Benalla and Heyfield.

There are two fixed-wing aircraft based at Latrobe Regional Airport, while Hancock Victoria Plantations has a small helicopter which also services the Valley.

Cr O’Callaghan raised concerns the fixed-wing aircraft did not have as quick a turnaround as a bombing helicopter and the Heyfield helicopter was largely used by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

Mr Lapsley said the Heyfield helicopter was ideally placed to be able to travel north as well as reach the Latrobe Valley in 10 minutes.

He said authorities accepted helicopters did not always have to be at their home base and could move around.

Mr Lapsley said while helicopters were fast, they could not carry as much water as a fixed-wing aircraft.

He said authorities would receive advice from the Bureau of Meteorology in early October about the forecast summer conditions and whether the base aircraft fleet needed to be bolstered by a backup fleet.

“If it is a longer, drier summer we’d look at the Valley as an option (for a helicopter),” Mr Lapsley said.

Morwell Fire Brigade officer in charge Shane Mynard said helicopters assisted fire crews in the initial attack and knocking the head of a fire down, as well as aerial observation.

“Seeing the air capacity in regards to a bomber at the Latrobe Valley would always assist us during the summer period,” Mr Mynard said.

Member for Morwell Russell Northe said the government had established a fire preparedness taskforce led by Mr Lapsley and would support emergency services with the resources required “to ensure this plan is robust, reliable and truly effective”.