Firefight chopper lost to bungling

2010-07-15 00:00

THE KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (KwaNalu) has criticised the provincial Agriculture Department for being incompetent after it allegedly failed to secure a special firefighting helicopter for the fire season.

In a statement, KwaNalu charged that the incompetence of the department led the international owners of the helicopter to withdraw it from the province. It is believed that the helicopter has instead been deployed in Turkey.

The Russian-built “heavy-lifter” helicopter is a crucial force in fighting runaway fires.

It travels very fast, has built-in equipment to draw water on any nearby dam during firefighting, can load up to four tons of water and drop firefighting personnel into remote areas.

It was withdrawn from the pro­vince after the department had failed to sign a service agreement with Firestop, the organisation funded by the government and land owners to combat fires and manage the helicopter on behalf of a charter company.

Robin Barnsley, president of KwaNalu expressed anger at the department’s incompetence.

He said that while there are still other firefighting planes, the province’s ability to combat runway fires has been compromised.

“When the smaller planes are water bombing, they have to fly back to the base, refill and fly back again, but with the heavy lifter, it has a built-in bucket that allows it to draw water from any nearby dam and can carry up to four tons.”

He said that because of the problem KwaNalu had experienced with the department in the past, it had tried to push for the service agreement to be signed early this fire season.

“In the past, the department has delayed payment, causing failure to honour the financial terms of the service agreement on time, and this season the service agreement has been with the department, unsigned, and the charter company could not risk not getting paid so they took it elsewhere.”

Barnsley said the loss of this essential service will set back firefighting in the province as the helicopter equipment has in past fire seasons played a crucial and invaluable role in the management of runaway fires.

“It’s not only the farming community that stands to lose out; this helicopter has played a significant role in combating fires in the rural areas,”continued Barnsley.

He called for the community to be cautious as conditions are conducive to runaway fires.

The department of Agriculture was contacted for comment and did not respond by the time of going to press.

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