Opinion piece by John O’Donnell
It is the author’s belief that many of the forested fire grounds across south eastern Australia are way too dangerous to fight bushfires and for firefighter safety. To be frank, we as a society have learnt very little following 2019/20 bushfires and bushfires before that, especially in regards to bushfire mitigation and safety.
As noted by Davey and Sarre (2020):
Thirty-three deaths occurred as a result of these fires, 25 of them in New South Wales. Nine firefighting personnel died, comprising three American aircrew and three Rural Fire Service volunteer firefighters in New South Wales and three members of Forest Fire Management Victoria. Fires destroyed 3100 homes.
The author has identified 21 main areas of concern in relation to bushfire firefighter safety in forested areas, these are outlined below across a number of heading areas:
Fire mitigation, fuel load management, preparedness and risk management for firefighter safety
Number 1 is a poor focus on sound bushfire mitigation programs/ prescribed burning to reduce bushfire spread and assisting in optimising safe, quick and efficient bushfire attack where fire conditions allow. Prescribed burning improves the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of fire suppression. Further information is outlined in:
Photo 1. Forest recently prescribed burnt in southern Queensland, greatly reducing firefighting risks.
Number 2 is that there is inadequate actioning at all levels of government for safe, healthy and resilient forest landscapes, including in regards to establishment and maintenance of resilient forest landscapes. There were inadequate levels of low intensity burning and forest thinning, important adaptive measures in the setting up of resilient fire landscapes, as the USA had identified and are actioning ( https://arr.news/2022/01/25/opportunities-for-improved-fire-management-in-australia-john-odonnell/ ). As a result there are huge high intensity bushfires and consequent heavy fuels and strata and dead trees across large areas of Australian landscapes.
Photo 2. Photo highlighting the intensity of the 2019/ 20 bushfires at Eden in June 2020 and difficult conditions for fire fighters to fight those bushfires.
Photo 3. Recent fuels resulting from the 2019/ 20 bushfires in northern NSW, including heavy undergrowth fuels, dead fuels and heavy grass fuel, not safe conditions for firefighters, especially in adverse conditions.
Number 3 is that there is inadequate focus on prescribed burning of ridges to improve containment of bushfires and firefighter safety. There is also inadequate action across landscapes in relation to Ignition Management Zones, which are areas where ignition from lightning or arson is a high risk, where fuels should be maintained at a lower level.
Number 4 is inadequate consideration of providing effective examples of reducing fuel loads across states and protecting communities and firefighters, and undertaking effective community protection on all bushfire at risk communities. Kurrajong Heights has a highly successful bushfire management plan (BFMP) that has kept the community safe for 68 years. The Kurrajong Heights BFMP relies heavily on local knowledge. Knowledge of terrain, fire behaviour and fire paths. The Kurrajong Heights Brigade has developed and implemented a plan that hazard reduces native vegetation blocks using a mosaic pattern. This strategy keeps low fuel areas as a blocking influence for approaching wildfires.
Number 5 is inadequate consideration and production of firebrands in the forest landscape. As outlined in Ecos (CSIRO 2017) in the Black Saturday fires in February 2009 at Kilmore East, Victoria, spot fires were reported 30-40 kilometres downwind from the main fire front. Fuel reduction burning reduces fire brand potential in stringybark, messmate and other rough barked species for long periods.
Number 6 is the flawed approaches to bushfire risk in some jurisdictions, increasing risks to bushfire fighters and communities. Selecting approaches in some eastern states where 1 % of forested landscapes per year are fuel reduced is one example of an approach that increases risks to fire fighters. Another example relates to the Victorian Government which set out a new approach to reducing the risk of bushfire in Victoria called Safer Together.
Safe access and water supplies provision for firefighters
Number 7 is inadequate firefighter safety and access in high fuel load and strata forested areas, with many forests dangerous for firefighters, with poor access, non-maintained access, access not adequate width and inadequate passing bays and inadequate turn around areas. Carrying out regular prescribed burning along fire access roads and fire trails is essential if they are to be of optimum value as control lines.
Photo 4. Photo in Victoria from the 2019/ 20 bushfires highlighting a crown bushfire and the dangerous conditions. Prescribed burning assisting in stopping/ restricting this bushfire at this location. The photo highlights the importance of regular prescribed burning programs beside access tracks to improve firefighter safety. Thanks to the Howitt Society for the permission to use this photo.
Number 8 is inadequate action on establishing safe evacuation of key road routes into and out of bushfires, restricting safe access and emergency escape in some cases of bushfires, many such routes having no mitigation treatment measures such as low intensity burning and fuel removal.
Photo 6. Recent prescribed burning beside a main road in southern Queensland, assisting in firefighter safety, firefighting/ backburning and reducing bushfire escape/ travel risks.
Number 9 is inadequate and well-located water supplies for optimised bushfire attack and resupply, increasing speed of control and reducing bushfire firefighter risks.
Safe bushfire firefighting approaches and conditions
Number 10 relates to inadequacies in fuel management and firefighting techniques increasing overall firefighter risks and firefighting time and resources. Case studies include:
- Also, NSW South East Timber Association Submission to The NSW Bushfire Inquiry, Submission 694 (20200417)
It is also clear that NSW and Victorian fire and land management authorities these days lack the expertise and experience of previous times to carry out large-scale indirect fire suppression operations — that is, strategic backburning to create effective fire breaks in the face of a running fire. Backburning is often the only effective strategy, but in long-unburnt bushland it is dangerous and can easily go wrong if conducted by people who don’t have the necessary experience and know-how, or the right sort of resources, to ensure the flames do not get away. Attempting backburning under extreme conditions and without very skilled and experienced firefighters in control is a recipe for calamity.
Firefighting aircraft, tools and technology are not a substitute for effective on-ground firefighting. The primary focus of fire control should always be around on-ground efforts with aircraft, tools and technology being used to make on-ground efforts safer and more effective.
Number 13 relates to the creation of more opportunities for increased adoption of new technology that can increase firefighter safety, including firefighting. Opportunities includes safe use of drones for reconnaissance and to optimise, speed up and better organise bushfire attack; fire detection cameras and satellites during bushfire events (noting apps for the later are useful).
Number 14 relates to cases where the use of local knowledge in prescribed burns and bushfire fighting/ techniques hasn’t been optimal, noting the decline in this area over time, creating extra firefighter safety risks.
Number 15 relates to poor air quality conditions during long duration major bushfires such as 2019/ 20, made worse by heavy fuels, dead tree fuel, dense understories, long fire runs and long bushfire durations. This increases the difficulties and health impacts on firefighters.
Photo 7. Hazardous smoke conditions in the Tumbarumba on 5 January 2020, in this case during mopping up. These conditions were common during that period, common for firefighters and emergency personnel.
Loss of skilled resources
Number 16 is the loss of skilled forest bushfire fighter resources, skills of experienced firefighters with skillsets from “better times”, ongoing loss of volunteers and with the loss of forestry/ timber contractor skillsets.
Number 17 is weaknesses in the design and protection of radio towers, communications towers and electricity lines to support radio and phone technology by firefighters and the community during bushfire disaster events. Inadequate communication between different but adjacent brigade regions can be an issue when major communication systems are down.
Learning and safety review hierarchy
Number 18 is failure to adequately listen to major by experienced retired firefighters/ fire organisations in relation to concerns about firefighter safety, firefighting and other issues in inquiries, Royal Commissions and generally. An example is outlined in the Utter Failure of Yet Another Bushfire Panel (2020) relating to the Bushfire Royal Commission after the 2019/ 20 bushfires:
when it was let slip by a Commission staffer that submissions from “lay people” would not be treated as seriously as those from people within the emergency services. Our combined hundreds of years practical experience in bushfire science, research and operations counted for nothing: we were ‘lay people’!
Number 19 is inadequate and irregular (in many cases) state performance audits of fire authorities in regards to bushfire mitigation and suppression, including in regards to firefighter safety and fireground conditions. Another concern relates to lack of independent auditing of individual major bushfires when things go wrong, bushfires are large scale or bushfires involve fatalities, an essential process in learning and sharing learnings. It would be better to have experienced firefighters undertake audits.
Number 20 is inadequate consideration of firefighter and community safety in local bushfire management risk plans, including fuel loads, prescribed burning extent, safe access/ egress/ passing/ turnaround, water supplies, dead tree management and other areas.
Number 21 is research directions not being adequately targeted at community safety and firefighter safety, including increased bushfire mitigation (including prescribed burning), sensible fire return intervals that take firefighter safety into account, forest resilience optimisation, addressing eucalypt decline of forests, reducing high intensity bushfires, reducing bushfire safety risks and research on learning from individual large bushfires. At times, there is a research focus on reducing prescribed burning to miniscule and inadequate rates and denigrating prescribed burning, without adequate consideration of whole of landscape, community, firefighter safety and intense bushfire risks.
The author believes that there are a large number of bushfire firefighter safety concerns in south eastern Australian forests, and suggests that it is past time to turn it around. This review has identified 21 such concerns in relation to bushfire firefighter safety. There are large opportunities to review the concerns above at individual firefighter, brigade, local government, fire authority, state and federal levels.
Davey SM and Sarre A Volume 83, 2020 – Issue 2 Australian Forestry Editorial: the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires Pages 47-51 | Published online: 04 Jun 2020.
Ecos (CSIRO 2017), Issue 227 Spotting the danger of long-distance firebrands, February 7, 2017 by Thea Williams, in the Black Saturday fires in February 2009 at Kilmore East, Victoria.
IFA (2020) Royal Commission Into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Submission By The Institute of Foresters Of Australia [Abn: 48 083 197 586] and Australian Forest Growers April.
Underwood R (2020) The Utter Failure of Yet Another Bushfire Panel, in Quadrant on 19 November, 2020.