Operation Bushfire Assist media briefing

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Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC

Minister for Defence

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Nicky Hamer (Minister Reynolds’ Office): +61 437 989 927

Defence Media: media@defence.gov.au

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6 January 2020






MINISTER REYNOLDS: Well good afternoon and welcome. I will keep my remarks very short. But as the Prime Minister announced today, from today the Australian Defence Force will do a daily operational update briefing on the current support provided by the ADF to the bushfire support activities, Operation Bushfire Assist. I’ll now hand over to the Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, who will make some introductory remarks and then he will hand over to Lieutenant General Greg Bilton to provide some detailed operational advice on the operations. Thank you.

GENERAL CAMPBELL: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and thank you Minister. After the decisions of the National Security Committee of Cabinet yesterday, the Australian Defence Force is surging support to the national bushfire crisis and Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-2020.

We’ll be focused on safety of life, evacuation of people seeking to leave affected areas, support and access to isolated communities and support to state evacuation centres. We’re in for the long haul and also very aware of the immediate need to assist fellow Australians today.

We are now deploying more capability and teams into affected areas and building additional integrated teams of full deployment based on the call out of the Army Reserve Brigades. Separately we received a number of offers of military assistance to the bushfire response from partner nations which we are now working through. We’ve had a modest uptake of temporary accommodation on military bases as a complement to the more substantial support arrangements available within state evacuation centres, for persons in transit to family and friends away from affected areas.

General information on Defence’s efforts is available on the Defence public website. For Defence support to those evacuating affected areas or in regards to the call out of reserve personnel, people should call 1800 Defence. Operational briefings will be held here at Defence headquarters daily, typically at around 2:30pm. Initially the Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant Greg Bilton, will be the lead briefer. Later this week, Major General Justin Elwood – Jake Elwood – will take the lead once he is fully briefed into the situation and his duties as the ADF National Support Coordinator in command of three Joint Task Forces.

Yesterday, Major General Elwood visited the Joint Task Force in Victoria, commanded by Brigadier Doug Laidlaw, and familiarised himself with ADF support arrangements to the state of Victoria. Today he is in New South Wales with Joint Task Force Commander Brigadier Mick Garraway, similarly familiarising himself with ADF support arrangements there.

A third Joint Task Force, commanded by Brigadier Damian Cantwell, has been stood up covering ADF support to South Australia and Tasmania, which Major General Elwood will visit soon.

The work of the ADF is and will continue to be in complement and close coordination with state authorities. This coordination is an essential aspect of Major General Elwood’s duties and the reason the Joint Task Forces have been established. Additional Joint Task Forces will be established as circumstances might require. Our efforts will be widespread and at scale. And like all emergency response efforts, necessarily prioritised to support where the need is most critical or where the ADF’s unique capabilities are best suited to the task at hand.

I’ll now hand over to Lieutenant General Bilton to present his daily operations brief. Thank you.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: Thank you, Sir. Good afternoon Ladies and gentlemen. I’ll start by briefing on each of the jurisdictions, the locations by state, and just give an update on the operations that have occurred and are occurring as we speak.

Starting in New South Wales, the Task Force has been brought together and continues to grow, with capabilities that include engineering, logistics capabilities, Navy ships, and you’ll be aware of HMAS Adelaide leaving port yesterday and moving down to the south coast, and also a series of aviation capabilities, helicopters, as well as Air Force air lift capabilities and surveillance air craft.

In terms of the operations they’re undertaking or have undertaken in recent times, the surveillance aircraft – we call it the P-8; is used for surveillance and intelligence and reconnaissance – has been working on the south coast to map the disaster area and understand the extent of the damage and provide that to the state authorities to help them with their damage assessment. HMAS Adelaide currently sits off the coast in vicinity of Eden. Two teams, as I speak, are moving into Eden and also Moruya and their task will be to undertake reconnaissance, link up with the state authorities and begin to use some of the logistics and health and transport capabilities that exist on HMAS Adelaide, and project those forward ashore to help with the situation in those respective locations.

There are also ongoing commitments to the Rural Fire Service that includes the movement of personnel by fixed-wing aircraft, and also by rotary wing aircraft. That work continues today as we move firefighters to and from the various locations, firstly to bolster forces, but also to provide respite forces as well, and that has been ongoing for a number of months but it has continued today.

The engineering and reconnaissance teams have been sent to the following locations: Nowra, Mudgee, Maitland and Picton. In each of those locations, work has been identified where we can integrate with local authorities and commence light or heavy engineering work and this evening and through tomorrow, engineering task groups will be sent forward to undertake that work in cooperation with state authorities. That work will be focused principally on assisting with fire management, so fire breaks, but also access and route clearance.

Beyond that, there are two logistics teams going in to scope what is happening in both Tumut and Moruya earlier and that just gives us an insight into what the demand might be for emergency supplies, particularly logistics supplies and the power situation, and also allows us to feed information back into the broader state authorities as well.

Moving to Victoria. As you’ll be aware and has been prominent in the press, there was an evacuation from Mallacoota. That first tranche of people being moved – 1,025 on HMAS Choules and another 58 personnel on the Sycamore – were moved to Western Port Bay yesterday. That was successfully completed. Sycamore has moved back and is in location off the shore of Mallacoota, providing support to the community there and just again, conducting an assessment of what might be required of Choules. Choules remained in Western Port Bay overnight, restocked with supplies, and is on its way back to Mallacoota. There it will provide ISO containers, which are used for refrigeration. It also will provide fuel and additional generators to assist with power. That, I’m expecting to be in location first light tomorrow morning to provide that ongoing support to Mallacoota.

There may be, or potentially, further evacuations from Mallacoota. Those options are being discussed with the local community. Now that people have been there for a little longer, I expect there might be some people that might appreciate an opportunity to be moved again and we’ll work with the Red Cross who assisted us with the initial evacuation and with the local authorities in Mallacoota to determine whether we need to do another evacuation, and we’ll continue to do so as the need is required. 

In Victoria we are building an engineering task force. Elements of that have already been deployed forward again for route clearance and access and to assist the Country Fire Authority with management of fires, fire breaks in particular. The first elements of those moved through Sale into East Gippsland this morning and I expect as the forces are centralised in Victoria we will dispatch further groups, which are essentially being led by our recon teams which are being moved into the East Gippsland area, but also into the Wangaratta area, where you’re aware there’s prominent fires on the border between Victoria and New South Wales.

So, at this point those teams will trigger the work those engineering teams have been putting together will undertake. There’s also increased medical effect, so we will provide medical capability almost like a doctor’s surgery with appropriate staff at East Sale and then a series of medical people, we call them combat medics, that will provide that immediate medical effect where it’s required in locations as we move into areas and they’ll operate with the recon teams that are moving out. Not just in Victoria, but also in New South Wales.

Lastly, I’d just like to touch on South Australia. The problem has perhaps not presented as being as urgent in South Australia, but there has been a significant fire in Kangaroo Island as you’re probably aware. We have sent a recon team to Kangaroo Island yesterday. There is then a further force made up of engineers and logistics capabilities, and personnel that can help with recovery and clean-up that will be dispatched once that recon team reports back what is required on Kangaroo Island. I’m expecting that organisation to be deployed to Kangaroo Island either late today or tomorrow. And then the Commander of the Task Force there, Brigadier Cantwell, will go to Tasmania on Tuesday to engage with the local authorities there to determine any support that might be required in Tasmania.

Subject to any questions that concludes my brief. Thank you.

QUESTION: So the Choules will stay in Mallacoota and perhaps move up to Eden?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: So, HMAS Adelaide, which is frankly a substantially larger amphibious vessel, fully stocked with health and logistics capabilities plus teams of people that can help with the situation on the south coast, sits off Eden at the moment. I’ve just sent the recon teams forward so that I can understand where to best place the assets and capabilities that sit on Adelaide, and that same thing’s happening in Moruya as we speak, they’re literally – the team’s flying into Eden right now.

QUESTION: In terms of the Chinooks coming down from Townsville, what’s the latest with those?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: Okay, so, three of six have already been operating in Victoria out of East Sale and they have been undertaking evacuation tasks. Principally, the latest one was out of Omeo 24 hours ago, they evacuated 42 people mainly with medical problems. The remainder – we thought we’d be evacuating about 300, but the reminder chose to stay, basically because the conditions on the ground changed and they were able to remain in Omeo without the need to be evacuated, but we did evacuate the frail, the ill, the injured, those that required a higher level of care.

The other helicopter, another CH-47, will leave Townsville today, in fact it’s on its way. It’ll take approximately two days and it will join the team down at Sale, giving us capacity to operate four aircraft. We’re just in discussions at the moment with the Singaporean military, who have offered to provide a two further CH-47 aircraft, the Chinook aircraft, and we’re just working with them to identify the parameters around which their contribution can be utilised.

QUESTION: Speaking of overseas contribution, you mentioned Singapore. I understand PNG and New Zealand have also made offers. Could you give any detail about that?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: So at this stage I’ve spoken and my superiors have spoken at the political level as well as the Chief of Defence Force level – but I’ve spoken with my counterpart in New Zealand. Essentially, three MRH90 Taipan aircraft will be provided. An engineer company capability, that’s roughly 120 people. They’re also providing some firefighters separately, that’s going into the civilian ranks to reinforce or support either the Rural Fire Service or the Country Fire Authority. In the case of PNG I don’t have all the detail on their commitment yet, we’ve only just made communications with them.

QUESTION: In terms of the travel times, so some of the ships are taking about 17 hours from Mallacoota to Western Port. Can you kind of just explain the reason – I mean, I don’t know if that’s their usual time, for a ship to travel or (inaudible)?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: Yeah, ships don’t travel quickly and it does take from Western Port to Mallacoota, best case is 15 hours in the larger amphibious vessels. And then with Sycamore, which is a smaller vessel, to give you an idea of size it carried about 60 people in the evacuation, it undertook the trip in about 11 hours. So I’ve just got to work those timings in, and that’s part of the reason we kept Choules back, loaded it up with another lot of stores to help people and then put Sycamore forward back into Mallacoota so there was still that link. I think it was important to maintain that connection as soon as we could.

QUESTION: With regards to the Reservists, are you able to step through what that process of the call out will look like over the coming days? I understand there’s an advertisement or something to be placed in the papers tomorrow. What happens (inaudible)?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: So there’s an advertisement and then – excuse the tactical detail – but there’ll be teams of 10 to 12 people that go into each of the brigades that form the core of the capability. Those people essentially are responsible for processing our Reservists through the administration required to ensure that they’re medically prepared, that they’re going to be paid appropriately and that the other associated administration with having them now serve as members of the Australian Defence Force, all of that sorted out. That doesn’t take long per individual but as we go through several hundred, thousand, as far as 3,000 people, there is a significant administrative function to undertake there.

QUESTION: So any idea when will be the soonest we might see some Reservists out?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: They’re already out. So we’ve processed some. If you like, a trickle feed method. So as people come in, we already had people that paraded immediately. One of the things I’d say to you is that when it comes to supporting your fellow Australians, I don’t have any trouble getting volunteers to come and meet their Reserve obligations and I’m finding that across the board in each of the states. So Reserves are coming, people are volunteering with different skillsets, so we’re in a pretty good place. We’ll just need to process them, bring them in and as they come in we create and form teams that have a purpose consistent with the requirements of the respective states and then we’ll deploy them as quickly as we can.

QUESTION: When you say “immediately”, that they’re already out, is that just since this official call out when the decision was made yesterday?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: No, most of them had already appeared and we’re retrospectively going through the administrative process.

QUESTION: And can you just give a bit of an outline of what some of the roles they might be doing or are doing at the moment broadly?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: The full caveat. About the only things they don’t do, out of all the things I have described, is fly aeroplanes, fly aircraft – I don’t have Reserve pilots at the moment, there are some in the system, but I don’t have any operating at the moment. I’ve got everything from engineers to specialist logisticians, to medics, to doctors, to vets, we have a number of vets that have made themselves available based on some of the challenges with wildlife and family pets, etc. It’s the full gambit. And one of the beauties of, I guess, the Reserve is that we’re able to draw on a whole range of civilian skillsets that are just highly applicable in these particular circumstances.

QUESTION: In terms of the 3,000, is there a more conservative estimate of how many you might actually get to respond to the call out?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: Yeah look, I think 3,000’s a reasonable target. There’s also a need, too. As we deliver effect, I’m feeding back and my JTF Commanders are feeding back through Jake Elwood what’s needed and that’ll shape the requirement as well, so we’ll see how we go over the next week or so as to what’s required. I can see a process (in) a couple of weeks’ time if we need to sustain the effort, that we use a relief-in-place type process as well. So I can see us working through a number of people over a longer period of time if we need to sustain the effort for several weeks.

QUESTION: The Prime Minister and the Senator’s been saying this is unprecedented, the size of this call out. In your memory, is this unprecedented in scale?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: Yes, so I’ve served for 37 years in the Army and it’s the first time I’ve seen this happen to this scale.

GENERAL CAMPBELL: It’s never happened before.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: That’s a better answer.

QUESTION: And is it mostly focused on New South Wales and Victoria, I assume?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BILTON: And South Australia. Now as I said, it’s not as urgent in South Australia, but we can make a contribution in Kangaroo Island and Brigadier Cantwell and his team, from 9 Brigade where it’s formed from, have been working with the state authorities and that’s the reason we’ve done that or working that task down in Kangaroo Island.

Thank you very much for your time.




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