Defence Bushfire Briefing
6 January 2020
GREG BILTON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. With me I have Major General Jake Ellwood, the national coordinator for our response to the bushfires across Australia. My name, for those I haven't met or had any interaction with, is Greg Bilton. I'm the Chief of Joint Operations. I'll give today's operational brief and then from this point on, each day, General Ellwood will give a briefing. At times I may have to come back and give briefings if he's travelling and interacting with our various joint task forces across the particular States.
What I'd like to do today is just start with some context before I actually give the operational briefing.
The mission for us has two aspects. One aspect is providing support to the ongoing firefighting. We have been undertaking this mission for many months now, providing support to the various Rural Fire Services, Country Fire Authority, across both New South Wales and Victoria, and recently it has extended now also to the Country Fire Service in South Australia. That has been going for several months.
The second aspect of our mission is to provide support to the interagency response conducted by the States and also the Federal Government. We will make a contribution, as part of an integrated team, in providing effects across both New South Wales, Victoria and also South Australia. We will also investigate, over the next few days, any opportunities to play a role in Tasmania as well. You will be aware there's a number of fires also been burning for some period of time in that State.
The way I'd like to run the brief today is to just go through now the various activities we've undertaken, principally over the last 24 hours or what's happening now, and I'll start with Victoria.
So, in Victoria you will be aware that there's been an ongoing evacuation of personnel from Mallacoota – that continues. The ship, an amphibious ship called HMAS Choules, is sitting off Mallacoota at the moment. It returned from evacuating about 1,025 people to Western Port Bay and it has returned and provided a series of logistic stores, particularly fuel, to allow the generators that are providing electrical power in Mallacoota to continue to run. It's also providing emergency supplies and stores and further liaison is being undertaken with the people that are still located in Mallacoota to see if anyone has actually changed their mind and might wish to be evacuated.
Concurrent with that, there has been an ongoing evacuation of personnel out of Mallacoota and up to 350 people who had registered a day or two ago have been moved to East Sale by aircraft. Today, unfortunately, you may be aware from other media reports, that we're unable to move people out today due to cloud cover and it's not possible to fly in or out of Mallacoota, but we believe we may have up to another 300 people to move from Mallacoota over the next few days and as the weather clears and the opportunity arises, we will use rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft to move people out of Mallacoota. The important point is that Choules will remain as a distinct and clear line of support and help provide reassurance to the community in Mallacoota that we maintain that connection.
More broadly in Victoria, there are 18 remote villages and locations that we need to visit to identify what impacts have occurred in those particular locations. These are areas that can't be accessed by road. So far, eight of those have been visited over the last 24 hours or so, and we have another ten, and that process is in play right now. As we move teams in, these are multidisciplinary teams that allow us to make an assessment of what's happening on the ground, provide an immediate response, and it's in corporation with State agencies. So we will take authorities, whoever it is applicable to take, with us and allow them access as well to be able to provide advice back to their own agencies about restoring power, restoring communications, providing medical services, etc.
Incorporated in our teams is also, if you like, an immediate medical capability where we can provide medical support to people that may require it in those locations. That work continues and will continue.
The other work that's ongoing is also occurring up in the northern part of Victoria in proximity of Wangaratta and there's a couple of evacuation centres up in northern Victoria that we're providing support to. Again, in concert with State and soon Federal Government agencies that will roll out, as the Prime Minister has recently announced, and we will interact and integrate with them.
The engineering effort also continues and it continues to grow. So we've been bringing engineering assets to Victoria, building on a reserve unit known as 22 Construction Regiment, plus bringing other assets from outside of Victoria to build a bigger capability that allows us to play a role in route clearance, access and assist the Rural Fire Service to develop more substantial fire breaks, or make gains on fighting the fires over the next few days while the weather has changed. That work will continue and we will continue to grow the force over the next few days as we draw reservists into our organisation, and also bring full time service personnel, including Air Force and Army personnel and equipment, down into Victoria to enable that continued effort.
We are also in close consultation with the Forestry Department in Victoria. The reason we're doing that, is because we want to make sure that when we do play a role in clearing routes, in particular, that we do it in a way that is safe for all concerned, including our own people, but also those from other departments that might be working with us and to ensure that there is a plan to undertake some training and preparation to enable our crews to do that in the most effective and safe way.
So that's Victoria to date. Again, what I see really is this concept of us increasing our presence and as more force comes online, more capability, we'll increase our presence across Victoria. We have an excellent relationship with the Emergency Management Centre in Victoria and we're able to readily provide these inter-agency, multidisciplinary teams into the region to first do assessments, and then follow up with what's immediately needed in the various locations around the State.
I'll go to South Australia, principally focused on Kangaroo Island. The key effort there is around the provision of freshwater or potable water. The purification system on Kangaroo Island is broken down and we are going to provide a purification system that will provide a source of emergency water. We can't generate the same amount of water that's generated by the current purification system but we can provide an emergency supply.
As I speak, 64,000 litres of bottled water is being trucked into Kangaroo Island and we have people involved at the evacuation centre there to make sure that we can distribute freshwater to the human population and then, of course, there is stock that will require water, and we'll provide a series of water trucks in corporation with South Australia Water. So we're not doing this on our own. We're doing it in cooperation with South Australia Water so that the effort is coordinated and as effective as it possibly can be.
There's also the unfortunate circumstances confronted by many of our farmers with regards to the loss of livestock and we're helping the local authorities to bury livestock that has been lost as a result of the fires, and we'll continue that effort, I think, over the next 36 to 48 hours. This is critical work, particularly from a health perspective, and we can make a contribution and we will. But I don't necessarily see us as the entire or major effort. It is part of a contribution to a broader effort.
So, again, our relationship in South Australia has integrated well, and works seamlessly from my perspective, in terms of coordinating tasking, and enables us to provide effective support that is complementary to the work of the other agencies.
If I can now just move to New South Wales, and, again, that same theme of expanding our presence in New South Wales is a theme I'd like to highlight through the various activities that we're doing.
There are a number of places that we've had small recon teams go out to, and now we're starting to move a larger footprint or respond with the sorts of services and capabilities that we can provide in concert with what might be provided by other agencies.
In particular, we are running a logistics capability out of Tumut and we are looking to, in fact this is ongoing, to provide support into Tarcutta, Adelong, Gilmore, Tumbarumba and Batlow. Batlow, in particular, was severely impacted by the fires. There are some other places that are coming to light now. Selwyn is another town that has also been devastated by the fires and we'll look to, as soon as possible, provide an element of support. So it's a fairly dynamic environment but we have the capacity to transport people and move people, our own, and those of interagency, to go and address the problems in these various locations and at least to provide, in the first instance, an immediate response.
On the coast itself, or around that South Coast area, we accompanied the SES at Moruya, conducting damage observation, public outreach and building impact assessments for the recces and I expect that, again, we'll follow on, as you're aware from previous briefings, HMAS Adelaide sits off the coast of Eden, along now with MV Sycamore, which is a smaller naval ship, and that just gives us some capacity, and then I've also been able to allocate a greater level of helicopter capability to lily pad, if you like, off those various amphibious ships to expedite our support.
One thing I will say that's been a very important addition to our efforts, and further focused our efforts as an ADF in support of New South Wales, has been the appointment of Assistant Commissioner Willing. He has been appointed by Commissioner Mick Fuller to provide a direct liaison officer for the ADF so that we can be as active, and expedite our effort, as quickly as possible. So as resources roll in, that senior police officer has been provided to help us be as effective as possible in the way we integrate. I really welcome that. We've got a fantastic relationship with New South Wales. We are well integrated with New South Wales. We have been for months. This just allows that additional capability that's coming into, and becoming available to be used and employed most appropriately.
In regards to Adelaide sitting off the South Coast there in proximity of Eden, we have been to Eden, Narooma, Wonboyn, we continue to have presence in Eden, and we're coordinating with local State authorities to provide that immediate effect.
We also have those engineering organisations I spoke about that continue their work at Maitland, Mudgee, Nowra, and Southern Highlands and I spoke about that yesterday in my briefings as well.
Essentially, at this stage, we will also hub our helicopter capability, and I would just like to focus a little bit on the international effort here as well. I'm using two critical nodes for air support. One is the naval air station at Nowra, and that provides a footprint over southern New South Wales and the other area, the Air Force airfield at East Sale. Both of those form critical nodes in terms of providing aviation coverage, both fixed wing and helicopter coverage, over the South Coast and Gippsland. I also have the capacity to push helicopters into the Snowy Mountains area, and fixed wing aircraft, and also into South Australia if required. And then, lastly, we're able to operate aviation capabilities off the amphibious ships as well, which gives us greater capacity as well along the South Coast.
New Zealand has kindly, and we take it with great gratitude, provided three helicopters. The first of those will arrive tonight. Those three helicopters will be employed from Nowra. They will provide support to the Rural Fire Service and take on some of the fire mapping roles. They will have that function, that immediate operational function. They will also send a company of engineers that will be employed in New South Wales as well, most likely in the South Coast region. So, again, we're grateful for the provision of that support so rapidly from New Zealand.
The Singaporeans have agreed to provide two CH-47 Chinook aircraft. They're heavy lift aircraft. They have the same model aircraft as Australia. We have four of those aircraft located in Sale. They will join those aircraft in Sale, and again, operate from that particular hub providing support across Victoria and New South Wales, including support of the amphibious ships, as required. So we've got a particularly solid lay down of aviation coverage across the worst hit areas of New South Wales and Victoria and they have clear reach back into South Australia as well.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's all I have for today, subject to your questions.
QUESTION: Could you give a bit of an outline of the reservist call up? What numbers we’re looking at, how many have been processed retroactively?
GREG BILTON: Yeah, that's correct. So we have 497 in service deployed in the field working with the teams at the moment. Obviously they work as part of an integrated Australian Defence Force organisation, so we've got a number of full time personnel out in the field, as well and then each location. Each joint task force has the capacity to process between 80 and 100 reservists a day. I don't have numbers yet on how many are flowing through, given we established those yesterday. We've already processed close to 400. All of those 497, there's a bit of retrospective work to be done. So I think it's close to 400 processed and then we've got others moving through, so I will keep you updated on how that proceeds. But at this stage, I think that it’s been quite a successful initial start and we'll work from there.
QUESTION: I understand that they're integrated, but are you able to indicate what areas these reservists are now operating in – what State or what region?
GREG BILTON: They're in all states. Predominantly, they make up the bulk of the force in New South Wales. So that's come from 9th Brigade. So the emergency support force that's in Kangaroo Island now is predominantly reservists, and that's about 130 uniformed personnel – I'm sorry, I don't have the exact number with me today. In Victoria, it's a mix of both, it's about 30 per cent of the Force's reserve at the moment, and it's a similar percentage in New South Wales, and I see that growing over time. And what that will allow us to do over time in sustaining our effort, is to relieve people to be replaced by others because I think we'll be doing this for a while and we need to factor in maintaining a sustainable effort over the coming days and weeks.
QUESTION: You said yesterday that 3,000 you felt was a fairly good number that you expected to reach in terms of number of reservists. Is there any indication of when we might have 3,000 online? Will it be, for example, by Friday when fire conditions are expected to worsen?
GREG BILTON: I don't have an indication and right now it's hard for me to measure. But we're working with the JTF just to keep a better track of things and try and give you an understanding of what the flow is like. But I can see this happening over many, many weeks because if you can imagine, reservists have a full time job, a job in the community somewhere, and people need to make arrangements and they will be available for certain periods of time and so we'll accommodate those, we'll be as flexible as we possibly can to accommodate people. So people may be able to come immediately, some maybe not able to come for two weeks but we'll work as flexibly as we can and we'll use that inject as we build the Force to help us sustain the effect.
QUESTION: How many people are left in Mallacoota and how many of those are seeking evacuation?
GREG BILTON: I believe there may be up to 300 – I've actually asked for confirmation. But there's 300, we think, that want to be aerovac’d. So everyone that's asked to be evacuated has either been evacuated or we have them registered. You will be aware that 1,025 went on Choules and 58 went on Sycamore to Western Port Bay two days ago. We now think that people might be changing their minds as they sit and wait for access to be gained back to the Princes Highway. We'll continue to provide options for people to park. The trouble is that their vehicles and caravans, etc., their personal possessions aren't able to go with them and I know that's an impediment for some people to take up the offer. Having said that, we'll provide, with the state authorities, whatever emergency support, food, water and electrical power support that we need to, to make sure the population is at least relatively comfortable. It might be [inaudible] but they will be relatively comfortable.
QUESTION: When do you anticipate you will be able to fly in there again?
GREG BILTON: That will depend on cloud cover. So I can go at night, or the team can go at night if we need to, but I just don’t know yet from the meteorologists when it's likely to be better conditions. But we'll do it as soon as we can.
QUESTION: What's the latest on the three Chinooks from Townsville? I understand one was coming down yesterday. Where is that now based?
GREG BILTON: So that left Townsville yesterday. It's a two to three day journey to come from Townsville. That's flying into Sale. I'm hoping to see it either late tonight or early tomorrow. Then there will be a turnaround time and we should be able to employ it in say about 24 to 36 hours' time, if everything remains on schedule. The other two are having maintenance undertaken, completed, so that they're fully functional before they arrive. I'm expecting them towards the end of this week.
QUESTION: And with regards to some of the work that's been done by engineers to assist while we've got this cooler period, in terms of the fire breaks and that kind of assistance, are you able to give any more detail about that work? Was that presumably at the request of the States? What kind of -
GREG BILTON: Yes, it's a request of the states. I can go into some detail. So in Victoria, in Bairnsdale and Omeo, there's work being undertaken. In Bairnsdale and Omeo, it's in direct support of the Rural Fire Service, particularly in the Omeo area. There was also 18,000 litres of diesel fuel delivered to Omeo. So Omeo's become a bit of a focus at the moment for just getting those emergency supplies in and helping the ongoing fighting of fires. And we are providing an engineering effect and logistics effect into that township. There is also logistics effects into Bairnsdale. In New South Wales, the engineering effect is at Maitland, Mudgee, Nowra, and in a number of locations in the Southern Highlands as well. In Southern Highlands and Mudgee, it's associated with improving fire breaks and helping with access for Rural Fire Service.
QUESTION: Just to confirm, the Choules is at Mallacoota waiting to evacuate people if they change their mind?
GREG BILTON: And providing logistics. It's principally for logistics but it's also, really importantly, providing that sense of reassurance that they're not completely disconnected. I know it's a sea link, I know it's not a road but it's still important, I think, for the public there to know that if something catastrophic happened around them, there is an ability to move more people and there's that lifeline, if you like, of logistics support. Choules can produce a vast amount of freshwater, it has got a significant amount of fuel on it. There's a number of things that just help with the provision of those essentials to help people who might be residing there at Mallacoota at the moment.
QUESTION: The PM has announced this afternoon that one of the things the ADF will be assisting with is going in with some popups for Service Australia going in to help those communities. Are you able to give any detail about the role there and where expected that will go?
GREG BILTON: Yeah, so I think it's another way of describing the model that we've already applied. So go in, reconnaissance, understand what's happening, provide an immediate effect, that might be medical, it might be water, food, just a basic effect where there is that immediate need. And then follow on with what other capabilities might help but this is where I think we work really closely with the States. We take State agency members with us when we do those trips into remote communities and then we come back as a team with a group of capabilities or resources that are required and then we need to maintain a presence and we'll link in either with emergency centres, established by the States, if they've been established in those locations, or we will form or we will make a contribution to one of those interagency popups, but the key point is we'll be integrated.
QUESTION: And just lastly, are you able to speak to the reaction that your members are getting on the ground from the general public? Obviously it must be you've said about letting them know there is that comfort, there is that access to help if they need it. What's the reaction been like?
GREG BILTON: I think, frankly, where we are able to get in and support, the reaction has been mostly positive, in fact it's overwhelmingly positive. And I've also got soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen that want to do this work. So it's like meeting like in some ways in terms of wanting to help your fellow Australians. Where we're not able to get to or we haven't been yet, I'm getting a demand signal and it's growing. Now, it's really important that we coordinate that effectively with the State and Federal Government agencies that are going to also provide different sorts of support, support that they're basically professionals in. So that link up is really important and that's why I think our very strong emphasis on integration is so important. Thank you very much. Have a good day.