Defence Bushfire Briefing
8 January 2020
BILTON: Hi, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. What I'd like to do today is give today's operational update brief for our support to the bushfires. The key themes for today continue to revolve around expanding the ADF's presence and further integrating our force with the state-based agencies plus also working with the Federal agencies.
By way of example, supporting Human Services Department, in particular, is important in that they have started to reopen a number of centres in key towns and the larger populated centres in the South Coast region and also in Victoria and they are implementing a series of what's known as popups which is putting in a support centre into a smaller town or village and we're providing support to enable that. Thus far, four of those two in southern New South Wales and two in Victoria have been established and we're expecting to establish a number of others over the coming days.
This is indicative of the sort of interagency work that we're undertaking where access is limited and we're able to provide resources that allow those agencies to have an effect and this is very much about distributing relief payments and providing emergency assistance to people in various locations.
The tasking of the Australian Defence Force across all three jurisdictions is increasing markedly and have a far greater demand today than there was yesterday and I expect that to continue and most of it revolves around those emergency responses and clearance of access routes and additional fire-breaking contributing to that work where I'd describe it as a period of consolidation while the weather conditions are reasonably benign, where we can undertake preparations for what might be a spike in weather conditions on Friday which just enabling as better level of defence.
So in terms of the conditions in the firefighting space, it is really about consolidation, containment and we're making a contribution particularly engineering contribution and logistics contribution to that effect. We continue to move firefighters into the various jurisdictions and out as part of the volunteer firefighters in each State going through their normal rotations and that's work we've been doing for some time but it continues at the moment.
I'll start with New South Wales and the ACT just to cover off on some of the activities we're doing but not all. There's just too many in the list to cover all in a sensible way in this conference but some of the key capabilities that are coming in and will be operating include four Taipan helicopters moved from Townsville now down into Nowra. They will operate across Southern New South Wales, principally to provide ongoing support to firefighting as well as enhancing our abilities to move teams and logistics capabilities around the region.
There is an increasing number of engineer capabilities being brought in to form a larger engineer force. You'll be aware that there's ongoing work in Maitland, Mudgee, through the Southern Highlands and also in Nowra. We have a team of engineers moving right now into Eden. Their task will be to support the firefight principally around the wood-chip mill and to help the Rural Fire Service contain that particular fire and it is fairly significant but no immediate threat to Eden.
The New South Wales Government will run a major Bega conference for the whole region. We will participate in that on Friday. HMAS 'Adelaide', as you know, remains off the coast of southern New South Wales. It is starting to project more logistics capability ashore, providing support particularly to Comboyne, Eden and Moruya and then many if I can shift from the south coast just to the alpine region, we are increasing our efforts in the alpine region and our presence. Again, providing emergency relief in the form of logistics stores but also medical staff and we will be providing staff to the Tumut Hospital, to assist with the requirements in that location.
Moving to Victoria, you'll probably be aware already it's pretty much out on social media, there is another evacuation that is occurring out of Mallacoota. The ship has departed Mallacoota with about 280 people. These are people that decided, subsequent to the first evacuation, that they would like to evacuate out of Mallacoota. It also includes a number about 49 Country Fire Authority personnel that aren't being evacuated but being moved from one job to another and this is the best form of the best way we can get them out at the moment. The weather conditions over the last two days in East Gippsland have not been conducive to flying and we have had difficulty particularly in far eastern Gippsland being able to fly into Mallacoota and that's a particular point. We are got into some other areas in Gippsland but it is still problematic and it remains problematic today so the ship has played an important role.
The ship will restock with materials that are required in Mallacoota and potentially other places along the coast and we'll move the ship back to Mallacoota over the next 24 hours.
There will be a 100man camp established for international firefighters at Omeo throughout today and we continue to provide satellite phones, emergency stores, water, medical supplies to further isolated locations in Gippsland. Some of those include Bemm River, Genoa and Tamboon. The fourth CH47 aircraft arrived yesterday and is in operations today. Principally, that one is focused into the alpine regions, northern Victoria and southern New South Wales and there is a linkup in the effort between southern New South Wales and Victoria just in the sense that it's a geographical area across the Australian Alps.
The activity in South Australia continues with the establishment of a water purification system and that is being set up today. It will generate 250,000L of water every 24 hours and we're just working with Water South Australia to work out distribution. There continues to be work on the firefighting there as well just in regards to providing engineering capability to support firebreaks, access and just general engineering support. We're just working also with the local authorities for a plan on the burial of livestock. A substantial number of livestock have been killed on Kangaroo Island and we will make a contribution, along with the other State services and agencies, in undertaking that difficult task and it's certainly difficult for the farmers that have lost that stock.
On the international side just to touch on the New Zealand contribution of three helicopters two helicopters have arrived in Australia. They will move down to Nowra. They will be in action in the next 48 hours. The third helicopter coming from New Zealand will arrive today. Basically, they go through a process of reconstituting the capability once it comes off the C17 aircraft, do some testing, make sure it's safe then fly down so it will be about 24 hours behind the other two helicopters. Those helicopters will be involved principally in supporting the Rural Fire Service with fire-mapping and providing logistics support and movement of key personnel including firefighters to more remote or locations that are difficult to access.
The New Zealand Defence Force has also provided a C130 as an addition to their contribution and that will operate undertaking transport tasks throughout all three jurisdictions at this stage and the engineer company coming from New Zealand is on its way to South Australia. It will be received in South Australia today and will move to Kangaroo Island to take part in activities there from tomorrow. Furthermore, the Singaporean Armed Forces helicopters arrive the two CH47 Chinooks arrive in Sale today and they will be brought in to operations over the next 24 hours.
So at this stage that work continues. We are consolidating effort in some locations, expanding our footprint in others to help get emergency assistance to those communities and small rural areas, small townships that may still be experiencing some isolation and making sure they've got communications and emergency supplies. At the same time, we're planning for the larger activities associated with root clearance. In Victoria in particular, the Princes Highway and the route into Mallacoota, that work is commencing. Again, we're doing that in cooperation with the State's various authorities. Ladies and gentlemen, that's all I have for this afternoon on this update. I'll take any questions. Yes.
JOURNALIST 1: Sorry, just legally, no problem, obviously everyone's thrilled but is this being done as aid to the civil power, under that category?
BILTON: Yes, defence aid to the civil power, that's correct.
JOURNALIST 1: So we who's in charge of their police officers alongside the commanders?
BILTON: I see with the model, yes. We work the model with the local authorities. In each of the States, those authorities responsible for recovery are the police. They take the lead.
JOURNALIST 1: Yes.
BILTON: And we have connections to the police. So, for example, in New South Wales, Assistant Commissioner Willing has been assigned to the Joint Task Force and so we align our C2 system down through from that level down through the police. Same in Victoria and South Australia. But with the Rural Fire Service it's a little different in the sense that different States Mr Crisp is the authority in Victoria, whereas I have two authorities to work with in New South Wales. Mr Crisp in Victoria has absolute coordination responsibility. In New South Wales, Mr Fitzsimmons fights fires and MrWilling is my point of contact for recovery and so with the firefighting, it's really just us providing support and enabling mechanisms direct to the Rural Fire Service.
JOURNALIST 1: So you're fitting in as deployable units rather than that's essentially what you're doing?
BILTON: Yes, so we are fitting with the State authorities. Now, the police are the lead agencies and then we also work directly with the State Emergency Services and other government authorities that are operating. So it's, if you like, a multidisciplinary approach.
JOURNALIST 1: Has there been any consideration of mobilising the psych units at all?
BILTON: We are using psychologists. At this stage, all of them are regular force or full-time psychologists. We're also marrying that effort with the efforts of the various State Health Departments and so there has been a marry-up between ourselves and the respective State health authorities in that regard. So mental health is a critical focus
JOURNALIST 1: Priority.
BILTON: We're also taking the opportunity to use our padres. They play a critical role for us for morale and welfare and pastoral care. We're applying that into the community as well.
JOURNALIST 1: When you say 'padres', that presumably includes Muslim and
BILTON: All faiths.
JOURNALIST 1: Yeah, all faiths.
BILTON: Yes, we have all faiths in the ADF. We have people that serve in the ADF from all faiths.
JOURNALIST 1: Yes. Sorry.
JOURNALIST 2: Are you able to provide any more detail on what sort of support that the four Taipan helicopters from Townsville are deploying?
BILTON: Yes, I can. So, we've bought a substantial amount of the fleet down into both Victoria and New South Wales. I've principally tried to keep the fleets together in the main, so in Victoria it's CH47s and Blackhawks, and in New South Wales, I've focussed on the MRH90 and you'll be aware that both the Navy and the Army utilise that helicopter. The two principal tasks are that fire-mapping and logistics support and immediate command liaison support to the Rural Fire Service so enabling them and assisting them with access and the second part of the MRH90 mission is to work across the South Coast, including operating off HMAS 'Adelaide', and they are able to move stores and capabilities that are on that ship and project them into places like Eden, Wonboyn, Merimbula, etc.
JOURNALIST 2: Were you able to provide any update on the on how many Reservists have been processed and deployed to the bushfires at this stage?
BILTON: Yes, so I can give you the figure that's actually deployed in the field, so it's over 1200 at this stage and you'll note each day we've had an increase. Then there are a significant number in the pipeline, in other words, they've been called out and we're in the process of working them through the administration and preparing them for deployment. So I'm expecting increases each day as we work people through that process and the process of administration involves just a final medical check to make sure that we're deploying them safely. They do have a certain medical classification but it's confirmation of that and then there's arrangements to make sure they're paid, there's arrangements with their employers. It's just to make sure that everything is legally and sensibly set up in a way that enables them to be able to be employed effectively across all three jurisdictions.
JOURNALIST 3: How many of them are being deployed in South Australia?
BILTON: At this stage, 191 have been deployed in South Australia and that pipeline is open in South Australia so each briefing I think you'll find we'll have a larger figure as the force grows and I must point out that we're growing the force both from Reserve perspective and it's also full-time, so Navy, Army and Air Force elements that are being brought down. The main areas of capability we need grow are engineering. There's a really significant demand on engineering capability, not just for us but the State authorities as well and we need to make as substantial a contribution as we can within our remit.
JOURNALIST 4: On Mallacoota, did you say a further 280 have been evacuated today?
BILTON: They got on the ship last night.
JOURNALIST 4: Last night.
BILTON: So just to clarify, they got on the ship last night, yesterday afternoon. The ship departed so it's on its way to Western Port. It will actually go to 'Cerberus' which is a Navy base, HMAS 'Cerberus' in Western Port Bay, north of Hastings just to give you a sort of geographical reference, or Somers, near Somers. It will then restock and return back to Mallacoota.
JOURNALIST 4: Do we know how many people are still in Mallacoota?
BILTON: Roughly 750. That's not an exact number but, again, there's people that are reluctant to leave because of their goods and chattels that they've got there within their cars, their caravans et cetera but we will continue to provide that lifeline and as people you know, the longer, more protracted period they have to stay, others might change their mind and we'll look to extract them by air, if I can get some good weather, or by sea if necessary.
JOURNALIST 5: Just wanted to ask you about HMAS 'Adelaide' at Eden, there are suggestions that it hasn't been as affected as may have been expected. Have you found that the demands on that vessel have been maybe less than predicted?
BILTON: No, that's actually a fair observation. The demand has not been significant to date but it is today it's grown. So, principally, I moved it there with the view that I might have had to do some emergency evacuations, so the principal role in the last couple of days is to be to make sure we could get people out of towns, you know, that you're probably aware of the situation in Eden, it was a close call. We were in proximity immediately after that and then there's been other areas that were threatened as well so that was its principal the principal reason was deployed there. Then, basically, we have a whole lot of logistics stores and capabilities onboard that have been flowing into Eden and Wonboyn, Merimbula, Maruya and a number of places and I think they will continue to expand. So you'll see more activity through today and I think further activity tomorrow to call on those logistics capabilities.
JOURNALIST 5: So that logistics and supplies assistance has been ramping up and that evacuation need hasn't necessarily eventuated?
BILTON: No, not yet but I'm relatively cautious and given Friday's another dangerous day, perhaps not on the South Coast but we'll just keep it in proximity because you can put lot of people on that ship if you need to.
JOURNALIST 5: So it's going to stay there?
BILTON: Stay there for a while, yeah, yep. And we'll make use of its logistics capacity. Also the system we've been using is a reconnaissance into an area, identify need and then follow up with the resources and that's pretty much what's been happening today, we've been following up those reconnaissance activities around the whole region.
The other point I'd make to you is it has started to open up there a bit in terms you'd be aware Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have all started resupplying their supermarkets down in the region, there's also been fuel stocks starting to be provided down in the region as well so the immediate need is in some part being addressed by the commercial sector also.
JOURNALIST 6: Kangaroo Island is facing some challenging conditions tomorrow; what preparation is under way to assist the State agencies?
BILTON: Yeah, so, I guess we're there in some strength at the moment. You may be aware the Prime Minister has just completed a press conference. We're in the evacuation camps providing emergency support. We have an engineering capability that's already fielded and doing that firebreak work and just working with the county fire service and we'll continue to do that. We're forming a second Emergency Support Force we call them, which is that group of engineering and logistics capabilities we're bringing together. That's being formed in Adelaide and the commander has the intention at this stage it's Brigadier Cantwell has the intention to deploy that directly to South Australia and that's part of that reserve callout plus also some additional troops we're bringing from that's full-time troops we're bringing from other parts of the country.
JOURNALIST 6: So how many people will that involve?
BILTON: That will be about another 130 people. So there's of that 191, they're in different places in Adelaide but about 100 or so are in Kangaroo Island right now. There will be another group that comes down and reinforces that group. I don't have the exact timing for that but that's the intention.
JOURNALIST 7: Just one question on Iraq; can you clarify if Taji was hit or not? There's been mixed reports on that.
BILTON: At this stage we have no reporting of impacts in Taji.
JOURNALIST 8: Are our troops ready to evacuate if they are required to?
BILTON: Yeah, so what let me just say upfront all Australian personnel are safe and accounted for. At this stage, we've been contingency planning as you always do, it's just common sense, and we're preparing those plans for a raft of different circumstances which I won't discuss here but what I will say is we have our people postured in the safest possible manner to make sure that their wellbeing is being accounted for.
JOURNALIST 9: Have you been to that actual base?
BILTON: Personally, no. I have not been to if you're referring to Taji
JOURNALIST 9: Yes.
BILTON: I have not been to Taji personally. I'm supposed to visit in March or April but at this stage we'll see how circumstances transpire.
JOURNALIST 10: Would you be prepared to speak to the possibility of are Australian forces preparing for the possibility of withdrawal, should that eventuate, even if it's not a certainty?
BILTON: I guess Government is working through its policy position at the moment. My job is to provide advice to the CDF on what options might be available. I'm in the process of doing that and I'm not in a position to comment what policy approach government may take.
JOURNALIST 11: Going back to the bushfires; at what stage did the military begin preparing plans to assist the civil power for this?
BILTON: OK, this might be a bit of a complicated answer. We always have plans.
JOURNALIST 11: Yep.
BILTON: So across the Australian Defence Force, we have a series of capabilities that are placed on a readiness notice to be able to respond to effects natural disasters, emergencies where we might be required.
We have been responding to requests in regards to bushfires this year since July. Now, very modest in July. The uptick came, really, in October, and that was done using a request methodology. So the States and respective jurisdictions asked for support and then the Commonwealth agreed to do that and then I was asked to meet the need and we've been doing that for some time. Principally, focused on fighting fires. So that first parts of the task, which is to support the Rural Fire Service, the Country Fire Authority, the Country Fire Service, do the firefighting. We're not fighting ourselves, we're enabling them. They are they provide the firefighting capability. We support them.
JOURNALIST 11: Sorry, how many regulars and which CR have you called up, you know, 17 construction squadron or
JOURNALIST 11: Sorry.
BILTON: That's OK. I can talk specifically to units, so the 2nd Combat Engineer Unit from Brisbane has been moved south, in fact, it's forming up at Singleton at the moment as we speak, and it will be deployed in Southern New South Wales and also in the Hunter Valley as well. There's already some other engineer units. The 5th Combat Engineer Regiment has elements already working in the Hunter River region and then the 6th Engineer Support Regiment and its Construction Squadrons has two of those are being deployed, one into New South Wales Construction Squadron into New South Wales and the other one into Victoria. As I said to you, there's been quite a heavy demand on engineering capability.
JOURNALIST 11: 19CE Works.
BILTON: At this stage, no. We haven't called on 19CE Works. 19 Construction Engineer Works Unit is focused on building.
JOURNALIST 11: Rebuilding.
BILTON: And rebuilding. We haven't been asked for that support and we haven't applied it yet. As you'll be aware, they are also employed heavily with Pacific projects as part of the Pacific stepup.
JOURNALIST 11: They would be ideal to clear the route to Mallacoota or something like that?
BILTON: No, they're works teams that do the engineering planning for construction.
JOURNALIST 11: Liaising with the civil construction engineers.
BILTON: Yes, but I also have expertise in engineer regiments and, in particular, 6th Engineer Support Regiment.
JOURNALIST 11: And how many regulars, then, have been called out?
BILTON: It's over 2000.
JOURNALIST 11: Right. So you've got 2000 regulars deployed and another 1200
JOURNALIST 11: A Res.
JOURNALIST 11: With the Army Reserve, has there been any indication that a number of those who haven't yet reported to the colours have, for example, been working or overseas or do you know how many what reasons they have for not have they been working with bushfire brigades or so on? Have many of them is there some way we can generalise whether or not why people haven't called up actually attended yet.
BILTON: Yes, so there's a couple of groups that have been excluded from the callout, that's anyone involved in the emergency services, so there's absolutely no sense in us taking Reservists policemen, SES operators, firefighters out of the State system, so there is a significant number I don't have that exact number and right now we're collating it to understand exactly how many people we can't call on because it's probably not surprising but many of our Reservists, like many other people in the population, volunteer for various organisations. Then there are others that are either overseas, might be indisposed, might have family circumstances that frankly just don't enable that immediate callout. All of that is being taken into account by local commanders and local commanders this is brigade commanders and unit commanders are making decision about that exemption.
What I'd suggest to you is I've got no problem with people volunteering, we've just got to make sure it's sensible in the circumstances those people find themselves in and that I think also, sensibly, sits with the local commander to make a decision about exemption.
JOURNALIST 11: So they can be exempted by the local commander
BILTON: That's right. I think that's the most sensible way to do it. Just consider people's circumstances and then exempt where it's appropriate.
JOURNALIST 11: Yes.
JOURNALIST 12: Just back to Iraq, are you expecting that to escalate then?
BILTON: I'm not going to make any predictions here but it is concerning. Thank you very much.
JOURNALIST 11: (inaudible)