The recent fires in Victoria were driven by big fuel loads, not by the weather.

The fire danger index was a surprising low 16-20, but the high fuel loads resulted in predicted rates of spread of 0.5 kph and flame heights up to 10m.

In comparison, the fire danger index on Black Saturday 2009 reached around 130 -180. The FFDI is a measure of the speed, flame height and spotting distance.

There is a disturbing trend to:

  • Leave fuel loads unmanaged,
  • Blame fire crews for not doing enough, when they struggle to deal with fires driven by large fuel loads and unfavourable conditions,
  • Wait for the fire to come to us (it builds momentum as we wait), and
  • Blame climate change for these large and destructive fires.

We should be:

  • Managing fuel loads using cool / Indigenous burning techniques that were also once used by early settlers, farmers and graziers,
  • Restore the engagement of farmers and other land owners in early suppression options like tanker trailers and slip-on firefighting units,
  • Invest in early fire detection technologies like fire towers and scanning equipment (smoke, heat and other fire detection systems have reduced the frequency and severity of structural / building fires)
  • Once fuel loads are better managed, we can get back to basic firefighting techniques to help reduce the size of these fires.

It is the fuel loads that create the biggest problem.

Bunyip fire crews defended amid criticism not enough was done to protect property

By Freya Michie

VIDEO: CFA chief officer Steve Warrington said critics “didn’t understand 101 firefighting”. (ABC News)

Victorian emergency authorities have defended firefighters involved in battling a series of serious bushfires in the state’s east, after criticism from some residents that they did not do enough to protect property.

Some residents of Bunyip in Gippsland said Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighters were not present to help them as the bushfire approached.

The state’s Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Lisa Neville, said the criticism would be a “kick in the guts” to firefighters.

“I want to offer both mine and the government’s 100 per cent support to our volunteers, our career firefighters … who absolutely did an extraordinary job over the weekend and are still doing that right now,” Ms Neville said.

“I can not believe how they would feel now hearing that sort of criticism that’s coming, it must be a kick in the guts to them.”

Check the latest bushfire warnings on the VicEmergency website.

PHOTO: Some Bunyip residents claimed the CFA “didn’t turn up.” (Instagram: Sam Gordon)

Critics ‘don’t understand firefighting 101’

The minister’s strong defence of firefighters was backed up by the CFA’s chief officer, Steve Warrington.

“We’ve had a number of examples where people have said ‘hey, the CFA didn’t turn-up’,” he said.

“I can tell you, our priority is our crew safety and indeed the safety of the public.

“We do not support or condone any of the messages that criticise CFA efforts,” he said.

Mr Warrington said he believed the messages were a reflection on people who “don’t understand 101 firefighting”.

“When fires are so intense and really hot and burning hard, one of our priorities is crew safety,” he said.

“While it’s terribly disappointing, my heart goes out to those that have lost properties, have lost animals and stock, I get that, but we will continue every day to make sure that that damage is reduced.”

Emergency Management Victoria’s commissioner Andrew Crisp had warned communities they could not expect “a fire truck at every house” due to the scale and ferocity of the blaze.

“We well and truly are focused on keeping our community safe and without a doubt, our people are doing a fantastic job on the ground,” he said.

The senior emergency authorities stressed the dangerous conditions fire crews faced in the hot and unpredictable conditions, with fallen trees blocking roads.

‘We fought it on our own’

The strong defence of crews followed comments on Tuesday from some Bunyip locals expressing disappointment in the CFA.

Rex Newton, who lost his Bunyip home in the blaze, said there were no firefighters to help him defend his property.

“The only people that came in here were the local CFA blokes in the white uniforms, driving little white vehicles, that came in and said ‘you haven’t got long, do you want to evacuate?’ And I said ‘no’, and that was it,” he said.

Mr Newton later evacuated his property after he said the bushfire arrived at “unbelievable” speed and destroyed his home.

Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight, whose farm borders the Bunyip State Park, told Melbourne radio station 3AW he did not see firefighters in the area.

PHOTO: An emergency warning is in place for south-east of Licola in Victoria’s east.  (Supplied: Andrew Bedggood)

“Black Saturday there were CFA crews everywhere around here and I actually had tankers on my property supporting me and that was good because they stopped all the spot fires jumping in,” he said. 

“I don’t know why, nobody in Tonimbuk saw CFA tankers around here, we fought it on our own, maybe the boys and girls were busy elsewhere, but I know a big property that went up just a kilometre to the west of me … they were hitting that from everything from the air.

“I love the CFA, but I didn’t see them on my place yesterday, I think they were busy elsewhere.”

Mr Crisp said nine houses had been destroyed in the weekend fires, with 23 outbuildings and one house damaged.

Authorities said the fire risk was not over, however the immediate threat has eased somewhat.

Emergency warnings have been downgraded to watch and act messages for the township of Dargo and surrounding communities and for towns in the path of the fire at Licola, including Boisdale, Briagolong, Bushy Park, and Valencia Creek.

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15 thoughts on “Don’t blame fire crews or climate, it’s FUEL

  • December 26, 2019 at 3:04 pm
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    Yes, spot on. Australian summer fires are as predictable as winter snow, depending where you live!
    Fires are made by the sun shining…sending energy over planet Earth.
    Mother nature’s photosynthesis harvest sunshine and atmospheric CO2, and some water of course. Next…
    Atmospheric O2 oozes out and solid Carbohydrate goodness are made into cellulose and other fuels endlessly. Many millions of tons of combustible matter as a matter of fact! What’s gonna happen next?
    .
    It builds up on the floor waiting to be harvested, but if it ain’t happens then one day a young man (or maybe a thunder-flash from a blue sky?) will ignite it and all captured CO2 is once more put back into the atmosphere.
    .
    That is Nature’s way when you refuse to harvest the plentiful gifts of Nature.
    Imagine for a moment if all firefighters and volunteer “firies” spent all their precious time on eliminating forest floor fuel instead… well they would quickly run out of work to do of course!!! A win win especially for the folks living in the bush! Hurray!!!

    PS: So many private pilots struggle to afford to keep up their flying hours every year.
    Some countries help them by hiring them to fly small propeller planes in various patterns looking out for early manageable and small fires before they grow big. It is a win-win deal provided that the fuel load is kept under strict control and valuable timber can be harvested.
    Also in Australia every small propeller plane should be up in the air on hot days providing cheap aerial fire-scouting using subsidized private pilot licensing hours! Looking is all they do, then the professionals take over the fight of course.

  • January 1, 2020 at 5:16 pm
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    The story of indigenous burning when it comes to the forest areas of South West WA and South East Australia is a bit of a romantic myth encouraged by early European settlers and fire management. In any event, current fire management strategies should be based on the current circumstances of climate change an land clearing since the arrival of European. see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHZjyuE2qP8 and https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/12/06/3085726.htm etc, I remember discussing this in the early 1970’s with an indigenous Housing Commission tenant whose family originally came from around Northcliffe and with his wife often came to see me when I worked there and pay his fortnightly rent after he collected his war service pension. Well his wife “dragged” him in, so as she said “ he didn’t give all his away to his mates to spend on booze” ( I suspect he was also a bit partial to more than an occasional drink but he was no alcoholic and I do think his main fault was his cheerful generous nature ) . They knew I came from Northcliffe and we often discussed it and his peoples’ links to the area. There were fires in area in the news at the time with the associated stories about the benefits of aboriginal fire management. He was one of the generation resettled when he was a child (Mogumber/Moore River I think) so he said could not speak first hand as he had little recollection of his childhood there, but said he had discussed it with his parents and grandparents and others of that generation and they had said something along the lines of: this is a white man’s fairy story, we were never stupid enough to deliberately set the forest on fire as it was much too dangerous for us to do so. Noting they did not have BOM for weather and wind predictions and more importantly, as he said, they had no means of rapid escape (no horses let alone vehicles) from a forest fire, this makes sense. He also noted that his family had said that before European settlement the rainfall much higher and was such that it was actually usually just much too cold and wet in the Karri and Jarrah forests, except in height of summer to get a fire going. And yes, he said, at the height of summer lightening from thunder storms did start forest fires so they tried to stay away from Forest country when that was a risk The is a lot of evidence that and substantial deforestation for timber getting and clearing for farms has substantially lowered the rainfall in the area. He did say they probably did sometime burn small areas of grassland on the coastal plain and bush close to water and beaches etc where they could take refuge and in order to flush out animals but even this wasn’t something they did regularly, if at all before European settlement ; because as he said, they were skilled hunters and before white settlement a variety of game was plentiful and easily taken. I wish I could remember his name but he was already very old (in his 70’s) at the time so has doubtless passed away many years ago. In any event, I know this is just anecdotal third hand stories so not evidence. But his story it stayed with me and always made me question these claims about the extent of aboriginal fire management in the lower south west especially when it came to Jarrah and Karri forests and follow the various papers on the subject. The truth probably is somewhere in between this and the stories of winter burns. In any event, the forest and bush coverage and climate is now nothing like it was prior to European settlement, so I think any fire management regime needs to be based on what exist now and any previous indigenous fire management strategy may well be irrelevant or of just academic interest.

  • January 1, 2020 at 9:18 pm
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    Absolutely agree!

  • January 3, 2020 at 12:15 pm
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    This is why the NT doesn’t get the catastrophic fires. They have regular burn offs every year so the fuel load remains low

  • January 3, 2020 at 2:01 pm
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    I fully support the firefighters and the consequences of these fires are certainly not their fault, whether CFS, RFS, NPWS or State Forests. I have seen media articles from several experienced fire fighters that say that the fuel loads are far drier and the days far hotter, far earlier and this has lead to the catastrophic fire conditions that have occurred. Whether this is related to climate change or not, it seems that the long dry was a main precursor to the current situation. Fuel loads in wetter, cooler years tend to rot and get rid of themselves. When weather is cooler, more hazard reductions can occur. These conditions may never occur again if climate change leads to hotter and drier conditions in some forests, so what are the options then?

  • January 3, 2020 at 5:05 pm
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    I am sad, yet am numb, I am hurting for all affected by the fires, yet I feel numb.
    I am REALLY REALLY ANGRY because I believe these fires would not be as bad if we had been allowed to clear the ground fire fodder.

    I wonder how all the people who contributed to making the laws that we can’t clear the fire fodder on the ground feel now, do they even care??????
    Their only concern was to not disturb the insects habitat. WTF
    WELL WHAT FUCKING HABITAT IS LEFT FOR THEM NOW.

    How many people have died, how many people are not accounted for, how many animals have died, how many homes, farms, businesses have been destroyed.

    Its time to rethink how we manage our Bush, when the grass returns, let the cattle back in to keep the grass down, let people remove dead fallen trees and branches.

    I hope & pray that our state & federal gov’s stop listening to the tree hugging greenies and start to do the right thing by our country…..and realise that our country is prone to fires. and take the action required to minimise these fires.

  • January 3, 2020 at 8:55 pm
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    fuel reduction is the only answer! I know from personal experience. But getting approval is well nigh impossible because of insurance companies !

  • January 3, 2020 at 10:50 pm
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    My sentiments exactly. It might be of help if Dan Andrews admits that he was against Winter fuel reduction., rather than make comments after the worst firestorms that we are experiencing this season.

  • January 4, 2020 at 11:04 am
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    Please try and get this published in the news papers

  • January 4, 2020 at 1:20 pm
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    Totally agree!…

  • January 5, 2020 at 7:34 am
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    It is hard to understand how anyone can critise the people that are out there doing the most remarkable job of trying to contain these fires.
    Instead of negative comments, criticism, and blaming everyone and everything we should be be praying for the safety of all those out there putting their lives at risk just to keep us safe.
    I am aware that if a fire started here where I am that trying to contain it would be hard because all our resources are stretched to the limit so it would be up to us to pitch in and do the best that we can to help.
    I whole heartily agree with the above article and have held the same views for a long time.
    A big thank you to everyone involved in fighting these fires. For what it’s worth you have my eternal gratitude.

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