Australian firefighters on fire policy

firefightsausPeter Marshall, national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, writing in the Melbourne Age argues that the government needs to face the drivers of changes in fire riks, not only extinguishing fires in Face global warming or lives will be at risk:

… Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events.

Consider the devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a “low global warming scenario” will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days. However, under a “high global warming scenario”, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for a massive increase of up to 221 per cent in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted as often as every eight years. Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.

Something is going on. As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk. Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Unfortunately, the scientists are advising that no matter what we do, a “low global warming” scenario is almost inevitable, and so we must make fire plans accordingly. Fire does not respect state borders and we need a national inquiry into the state of readiness of the country’s fire services to meet this century’s challenges.

Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the “low global warming” scenario of a 25 per cent increase in extreme fire days — and catastrophic fire events every five years — in major Victorian country locations in just under 12 years’ time. Likewise, when the scientists tell us that under a “low warming” scenario in 2020, Wagga Wagga faces “very extreme” events every two years, warning bells must surely be ringing.

Climate change, however, is only one factor. There are many other pressures on our fire services. As cities expand into formerly rural areas and “growth corridors”, many volunteer brigades find their new members have full-time jobs in the city and all the pressures of urban life, and therefore less time to devote to firefighting. These areas need more resources. And professional firefighters routinely perform duties from rescue to emergency medical response, and we are now trained to be part of the front-line response to any terrorist attacks: duties we are proud to perform but which will increasingly put us under strain as we respond to more and more fires.

The real question now must be whether the nation as a whole is devoting the resources it needs to fire prevention and suppression. We are gravely concerned that the royal commission to be set up in Victoria will have a narrow brief to investigate a geographically specific disaster. It cannot have the scope needed to provide an overview of Australia’s fire readiness. Further, we want to ensure that it is not a whitewash, with narrow terms of reference designed to ensure political cover for the Victorian Government. The proposed Victorian royal commission should be folded into a broader national inquiry into the nature of Australia’s fire risk and our preparedness to meet that risk.

6 thoughts on “Australian firefighters on fire policy”

  1. (letter to Editor, for publication) –STOP THE AUSTRALIAN WILDFIRES !! –Why didn’t they call in the available Supertanker waterbomber aircraft (12,000 to 24,000 gallon water or retardant drop capacity) that would have stopped these fires cold in the beginning of the fires? –see: evergreen supertanker (on internet) or: waterbomber.org (on internet) or (-1-804-240-4065 Global Emergency Response- IL-76, Supertanker).
    These eight aircraft should have been called in weeks ago, two from California and six from the Russian Water Bomber fleet and even NOW! -and put on contract for future use. These fires shouldn’t have to happen year after year (JBS.org). -What is happening in Australia now is an example of what has been happening in America for many years because they REFUSED the Supertankers. The responsibility for these fires rests with the top fire officials and government potentates at the top who have REFUSED to use the Supertanker final solution for over 14 years and let Australia (and America) burn. Impeachment and appropriate prosecution is certainly in order for these top officials, from the Prime Minister (or President) on down. Supertanker water bombing aircraft have been available for over 14 years and not used by the top fire officials !! -Sincerely, Ed Nemechek, Adelanto. California. -760-246-8059. ednemechek@verizon.net

  2. Did you read the articles?
    More firefighters wouldn’t have stopped these fires.
    Management needs to focus on prevention (at multiple scales) not just putting out fires.

  3. Forget Ed Nemechek. He posts this disgusting garbage all over the U.S., and is apparently branching out. Trying to engage this idiot is a complete wast of time. His inflammatory rhetoric discourages meaningful debate on the topic.

  4. Despite Ed’s warning about not engaging the other Ed, I felt I should add a few thoughts here.

    One of the most common misconceptions in my region (California) regarding wildfires is that all we need to do is bring in enough planes/jets to drop retardant/water and everything will be fine. This perspective (public pressure) caused local politicians in San Diego County to lease two “Superscooper” aircraft last year in an attempt to look like they were “doing something.” The planes provide great front page photo ops and the public loves to see the huge water drops. The problem is that these planes are totally ineffective during our typical wind-driven firestorms. Ignoring the region’s own firefighter recommendations (they had suggested the leasing of a single Ericson skycrane), San Diego County went with the flash and flare. During the 2003 firestorms, the state fire agency directed useless retardant drops to mollify public criticism. I wrote an editorial on the subject if you would like additional information about this:

    http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20081114/news_lz1e14halsey.html

    As I think everyone knows here, aerial support is an important tool in fire suppression, but it is basically worthless unless you have boots on the ground to take advantage of it.

  5. Halsey is right, of course, but fixed-wing aircraft operations, especially in high-wind, mountainous regions, are particularly dangerous, and giant helicopters also can have their problems. But even those considerations are not the most relevant. What is most relevant is effectiveness and whether the degree of effectiveness is worth the risk to air and ground crews and others, not to mention property. Just as ground crews and equipment have no business being placed downwind from wind-driven fires except where effective shelter is available (e.g., well-sited and well-designed structures, preferably with cellars with tight double-entry points away from the drop zone of structures, trees, etc. or equivalent above-ground safe “pillboxes” capable of marinating sufficient oxygen and low enough temperatures for survival well-past smoke-plume and flame-front passage), aircraft have no business making drops in areas where convection currents, cyclonic winds, and wind mass turbulence is to be expected.

    There is a phenomenon sometimes called “displacement activity,” which can be observed in all animals but Homo sap. is the only species which has built a culture on illusion/hope and EXCUSES for non-performance. We rightly mourn the dead and injured, and we admire their heroic sacrifice, but using those admirable traits to distract attention from those responsible for putting those victims, innocent and heroic, “on the spot” where they have no choice.

    Sacrifice should be limited to those situations where truly anomalous conditions are present, and there is a reasonable possibility of success and avoided where corrective effort is clearly futile or probable. In the realm of the possible, there is a wide range open to good judgment and error, and fire bosses or even politicians should not necessarily be sacked or fired for a single error, but the question always should remain open as to whether or not there is a pattern of stubborn persistence with respect to error and resistance to change. Certainly, those who insist upon clinging to the same paradigms in the expectation of a different result should at the very least be open to alternatives derived from unbiased assessment of facts, not mere opinion, PARTICULARLY when advanced by experts.

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