Australia’s intense 2019–20 bushfire season saw fires engulf more than 12.6 million hectares of land, destroy more than 3,000 homes and kill 33 people, including nine firefighters.
During those testing months, Australians showed courage, resilience, mateship and altruism—qualities that have come to define our national character, particularly in times of hardshipand adversity.
These attributes were exemplified in the actions and behaviour of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel and Defence public servants who contributed to the crisis response, adding to our long tradition of assisting Australians when natural disasters or other tragedies strike.
Defence’s support began on 6 September 2019 in Queensland. As the situation deteriorated, with fires multiplying across the nation and burning more ferociously, Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 2019–2020 was stood up on 31 December 2019. It continued until 26 March 2020.
At the operation’s peak, some 6,500 ADF members provided support to emergency services and authorities in six states and territories. They included about 3,000 Reservists—the first compulsory call out of Reserve Brigades in Australia’s history. This assistance was augmented by hundreds of Defence public servants, contractors and industry partners.
With its nation-wide infrastructure, unique capabilities and strengths in logistics, planning and personnel support, Defence was called upon to support national relief, response and recovery efforts in various ways. Over the summer, Defence personnel worked behind bushfire front lines, in the sky and on the sea, and in offices and operational backrooms to support their fellow Australians.
Parts of the Defence estate—like the Albury Wodonga Military Area, Puckapunyal and Simpson Barracks in Victoria; RAAF Base Wagga in New South Wales; and HMAS Harman, Duntroon, the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Majura Training Area in the Australian Capital Territory—became shelters and joint taskforce command centres. These facilities provided refuge for evacuated and displaced civilians and their pets, while also accommodating police, firefighters, paramedics, Red Cross workers and RSPCA staff alongside military personnel.
Defence’s airfields and naval bases—like RAAF Base East Sale and HMAS Cerberus in Victoria—provided critical infrastructure from which aerial firefighting efforts and rescue operations were launched.
Our maritime and air capabilities—like the Bay class HMAS Choules landing ship, the amphibious HMAS Adelaide, the MV Sycamore training ship, several aircraft including the C-27J Spartan and Boeing C-17A Globemaster, CH-47 Chinook, MRH-90 Taipan and Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters—helped mobilise ADF personnel, transport emergency supplies and evacuate more than 1,100 civilians.
Around the fire fronts, ADF personnel delivered more than 77,000 meals to firefighters and emergency service workers, cleared 4,800 kilometres of road and 240 kilometres for firebreaks, repaired 1,280 kilometres of fencing, purified around 10 million litres of water, and provided other services to bushfire-ravaged communities like distributing fodder and fuel and offering pastoral care and counselling to civilians.
Away from the fires, Defence was contributing in other ways. The Customer Service Network’s 1800 DEFENCE contact centre moved to 24/7 operations, serving as a central point of information for Defence personnel and the general public. By 6 January, 29 Defence health centres were delivering care across the eastern seaboard, from Brisbane to Adelaide.
Defence industry played an important part in logistics support. Our partner Broadspectrum helped process time-critical purchase orders to acquire water purification supplies and personal protective equipment such as respirator masks, goggles, helmets, safety vests, coveralls and gloves. These items were speedily distributed to fire-affected regions and emergency workers on the front lines.
High above the Kangaroo Island and Gippsland fires in South Australia and Victoria respectively, Defence Science was at work. A Defence experimentation airborne platform equipped with the country’s most sophisticated sensors and cameras was used to peer through the smoke to monitor fire intensity and damage and provide real-time information to firefighting aircraft and emergency responders. Enabling us to detect new spot fires from a distance, this Defence capability will be valuable in future bushfire seasons.
Australia did not fight the bushfires alone. Thanks to our history of providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to our friends and neighbours, we were swiftly sent aid and resources by the governments of Canada, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and the United States. These nations’ invaluable contributions included more than 450 military personnel. Tragically, three United States aerial firefighters lost their lives.
The significance of Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 2019–2020 is twofold. First, it was the largest ever mobilisation of the ADF in response to a domestic disaster. Second, it ushered in a new era in which Defence is called upon in unique ways to assist civil authorities in response to national crises—as would soon be the case with the outbreak of COVID-19.