Social Media Claim

No, military aircraft did not drop propellants on fire-threatened town

A Facebook post from January 10, 2020 carries a claim that "military planes" are dropping a red dust fire propellant on the NSW town of Batlow.

The Statement

As aerial firefighting has played a critical role in saving homes from bushfires in Australia, a Facebook post claims “military planes” exacerbated fires at a NSW town by dropping a substance that made the blaze worse.

The January 10, 2020 Facebook post features a screenshot of another post that states “100 military planes” had dropped “red aluminum nitrate dust, which is a fire propellant” on Batlow.

The post includes an image of vegetation with an orange hue and smoke from bushfires, overlaid with the words: “They want Batlow to burn to the ground”.

The post has been viewed on Facebook more than 15,000 times and shared more than 130 times.

Waterbombers drop fire retardant that is often coloured red to show where it has landed. This image shows a waterbomber in action in NSW Southern Highlands in January, 2020.

The Analysis

The town of Batlow, in south-eastern NSW, faced an extreme bushfire threat in the first days of 2020. An evacuation was ordered on January 2 for the 1,300 residents and the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) warned that Batlow “will not be defendable”.

Despite the dire forecast, Batlow did survive the blaze thanks to widely reported efforts of local firefighters and farmers. A photograph taken during the coverage shows they were supported by aerial waterbombing.

In the aftermath, Batlow, which has more than 600 homes, lost a petrol station, a former hospital building, 17 houses in the town and more houses on the outskirts but was saved from worse destruction.

An RFS factsheet states there are two types of fire suppressants used in fire fighting efforts: short-term fire suppressants comprising detergent chemicals mixed with foam and applied with water; long-term fire suppressants, such as fire retardants, are chemicals and water mixed to form a thick slurry and are used for high-intensity fires.

Fire retardants are made up of fertilisers such as ammonium, diammonium sulphate and ammonium phosphate, as well as thickeners and corrosion inhibitors for aircraft safety. The retardant is mixed with water and dropped on the target area. When the water has evaporated, the chemicals left over help slow the spread of any fire by combating ignition.

Red dye made with iron oxide is sometimes added to retardant so that firefighters can see where it has been dropped. Red or pink-coloured retardant has been used extensively in recent firefighting efforts, including in urban areas around Sydney.

Australia's National Aerial Firefighting Centre also states that retardant used in waterbombing contains ammonium-based substances commonly used as fertilisers.

Aluminium nitrate is a white crystalline compound that can make a fire burn hotter by accelerating the burning of other combustible materials, according to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information.

The RFS fire retardant factsheet does not include aluminium nitrate as an ingredient in fire retardant.

While the post claims that “100 military planes” were flying over Batlow dropping material, military aircraft have only had support roles and have not been involved in direct waterbombing, according to information from the Australian Defence Force.

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false.

The red substance often seen dropped from waterbombing aircraft on bushfires is a mixture of retardant and water that has been coloured to allow firefighters to see where it has landed. Aerial waterbombing around Batlow contributed to saving the town.

  • False - The primary claim of the content is factually inaccurate.

First published January 17, 2020, 16:19 AEDT