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The 2019-20 bushfires have seen possibly the highest ever level of involvement of our defence forces, and last week the Prime Minister announced his intention to give the Commonwealth new powers to deploy the Australian Defence Force in civil emergencies. I suspect the issue of State v. Commonwealth primacy will be a vexed one, but if the PM is waving the chequebook around, the state agencies and defence chiefs need to start agreeing on where the federal government should be looking. Quickly.

ADF Reservists prepared at Holsworthy Army Barracks in south-west Sydney last month for deployment in response to the unprecedented bushfires across the country.

ADF Reservists prepared at Holsworthy Army Barracks in south-west Sydney last month for deployment in response to the unprecedented bushfires across the country.Credit:James Alcock

“Why don’t they call out the Army?” was a common call back in December. But to do what exactly? There’s no point calling out soldiers to fight huge bushfires with rake-hoes. Yes, the army has lots of capability to provide support, but actual fire-fighting isn’t one of them. There’s no magical fleet of fire trucks to put them in.

The ADF has many capabilities which can support bushfire operations, and we’ve seen many in action: helicopters, ships and, eventually, army logistics and engineers. But an important reality check: the most calamitous fires in terms of human cost, such as Black Saturday or Ash Wednesday, occurred in a matter of hours from start to finish. Other than stopping those fires at their source, there was nothing the emergency services could do about it beyond protecting what property they could.

What we have been dealing with over the past two months are “campaign fires”, and the biggest problem we have, in military parlance, is lack of surge capacity. The initial concentration of resources in NSW, including trucks and crews from interstate, ran out of puff, as the volunteers returned to their homes. When the Victorian fires really got going a few weeks later, the Country Fire Authority was already constrained for both trucks and crews.