By Vic Jurskis (Feature Photo and Video Link: You Tube – Helmreich Joinery)
In autumn 1968, CSIRO and New South Wales Bushfire Council carried out only the second aerial hazard reduction burn in NSW, in Vacant Crown Land that is now National Park and Wilderness. Danny Christopher, the Fire Control Officer reckoned that the burn saved Bega in spring that year. Other parts of the state had a devastating fire season. Fourteen people died, 156 homes and buildings were lost and a million hectares were incinerated. Later on, wildfires in the rough country between Bemboka and Brogo in 1986 and 1988 were contained by backburning from the network of fire trails constructed by the Bush Fire Council.
Another wildfire started in this area on 15thAugust 2018. Just as well it happened when it did. After 30 days of fire control operations using ground crews and water-bombing helicopters, under mostly favourable conditions, crews were evacuated in anticipation of extreme winds on Saturday 15thSeptember. A house, several sheds and possibly some livestock were lost. Conditions eased with a southwesterly change. On Sunday a Rural Fire Service airtanker commenced bombing operations with fire retardant from its base in Sydney.
On Thursday 6th September 2018 – VFFA president, Mick Holton spoke to Shoalhaven CBF Radio (Chance, Barry and Frenchy)
We spoke about:
1. Minister Troy Grant and Acting Commissioner Malcolm Connellan launching the arrival of our first Large Air Tanker (LAT) for the NSW fire season at Richmond RAAF Base.
2. Our failure to recognise the simplicity of a re-engagement to the bush, a reconnect with country that can save us huge amounts of money and more importantly, a return to cultural burning has the potential to restore the environment to a healthy status.
3. The bullying enquiry.
Are modern firefighting agencies inciting fear as a method of risk management rather than applying appropriate risk control measures?
Fear is a powerful tool, it sells newspapers, keeps the television ratings alive, gives our radio stations some great material to talk about and it helps to drive campaigns to increase public spending on reactive and expensive firefighting strategies that we simply cannot afford.
Image if we could return to a situation where our local firefighters looked after their own patch without the red tape associated with hazard reduction. Image how nice it would be if our land management practices were returned to a commonsense and balanced approach that our Indigenous Australians, farmers and graziers have used in the past.
Instead of cooking the guts out of the country, we could see improved forest health and reduced risk to our native animals and the bush that we love so much.
Instead, we see another story that warns us of a bleak bushfire outlook. There is no mention of the massive fuel loads that are the root cause of this problem.
As I pursue my passion for bushfire safety I am frequently confronted by people who live in bushfire-prone residential situations but who make no preparations for fire. When I ask why, they say that they are not worried. “If a fire comes, I will simply evacuate” they say, “and if the house burns, I have insurance and will just rebuild”. This philosophy is usually based on the fear that preparing for bushfires (especially fuel reduction in bushland) means “destroying the environment”.
Several things have not been thought-through…
The recent bushfires in NSW are not in “mid winter”, where they occurred as suggested by many.
The bushfire season in mid-NSW always starts earlier than in southern Australia, with bushfires around Sydney and in the Blue Mountains historically occurring at this time of the year.
People forget how far north Sydney is (latitude), being closer to a sub-tropical than a temperate climate.
Every year when there are bushfires around Sydney in August or Sept, the cry goes out “Climate Change! Bushfires in mid-winter!”, while history and climatic zones are ignored.
On page 20 of the textbook, Bush Fire Control in Australia (1961), there is an excellent map of Australia showing the bushfire seasons. South-eastern Qld and central coastal NSW are clearly shown as having an occasional August / September fire season start.
It is worth noting that the weather varies from year to year, the diagram shows the average situation.
When you take notice of the date that this textbook was published (well over 50 years ago), these fires are nothing new. The intensity of the fires is increasing because of fuel loads and the drought in NSW will impact upon bushfire conditions.
Forty years ago in April 1978, Cyclone Alby brought one of Western Australia’s worst storm and bushfire crises to the South-west and Great Southern regions. Both were severely hit. Five lives were lost in the storm and dozens injured. Hundreds of houses were burned down or damaged, thousands of hectares of farms were burnt, stock killed and orchards and plantations smashed. The entire region was paralysed as roads were blocked by fallen trees and power lines. Power and telephones were out for up to a week.
At the time, few people imagined that a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone would ever hit the South-west and the community was caught entirely by surprise.
This book by forester and Bushfire Front Chairman Roger Underwood is the first to undertake a thorough analysis of the event. What happened and why, what were the impacts and costs? What are the lessons for the future?
This book is available at a cost of $40 posted. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Why don’t we listen to Indigenous land management experts?
In the Bega Valley Fires Independent Review, there was no mention of the case study where the Tathra fires did not burn previously treated, cultural burn areas.
There has been no follow up at all (with the Aboriginal Land Council or the Indigenous People) on how we can extend that outcome.
Indigenous People are burning country on the South Coast right now in a bid to prevent wild fires to the land just like Tathra example and healing it with native vegetation instead of dead leaves and rubbish.
These young Indigenous people are only in their early twenties and already ten times more connected to the country than most of the so called experts on fire mitigation.
They are doing all this with no wage, no vehicles, and no fire fighting equipment at all.
There are young Indigenous people in Tathra burning the effected areas right now to prevent invasive native regrowth which makes the country full of fuel to make the next fires in ten years far worse.
This is the first project of its kind in modern history in recovery of torched country.
Victor Steffensen has been burning all over Australia this year, have said “the window to burn is huge if you know how to read the country. You mob gotta stop leaving us and the land out of the conversation”.
The RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons challenges aspects of the Independent Review into the Bega Valley Bushfires.
The Bega Valley Fires Independent Review was commissioned by the NSW State Government in response to public pressure and media interest in the Reedy Swamp Fire that occurred on 18 March 2018, and subsequently impacted on the township of Tathra.
The media reported a long-standing turf war between the two predominant fire services in NSW and the Minister for Police and Emergency Services responded with an announcement that Mr Keelty will be conducting a full review for the government so that we don’t get these questions in the future.
The VFFA welcomes any opportunity to openly and transparently review and debate topics that impact upon public safety and the provision of emergency services to the people of NSW.
This post contains the VFFA response to this review other related documentation.
Are we Forgetting Something?
There is no disputing that aviation plays a vital role in our firefighting capability, but is the state government spending too much time and taxpayers money developing RFS capability whilst they are neglecting the simple principles of mitigation, early detection and suppression using their vast network of volunteer firefighters on the ground.
When it comes to fire suppression, the VFFA is not convinced that large fixed wing aircraft are the answer. We do support using smaller fixed wing aircraft and helicopters for transportation of remote area fire teams (RAFT) and to support ground crews with aerial suppression activities.
With reference to fixed wing aircraft, it should be noted that a fire retardant drop using a DC10 (Very Large Air Tanker – VLAT) costs us $45,000 per drop. Operation of helicopters for firefighting activities is significantly cheaper.
Whilst we acknowledge that this helicopter aquisition has the potential to enhance the states remote area response reach and capability, but we must not neglect the resources that we already have.
It has also been suggested that the money could have been invested into fire towers and early detection systems that have the potential to alert firefighters of a fire before it becomes too large.
At the heart of the book are memoirs collected from people who were there at the time: the firefighters, farmers, foresters, ambos, nurses, school bus drivers, policemen, timber workers, orchardists, fishermen, wives and children. The stories are dramatic and exciting, often heart-breaking and poignant, even in one or two instances humorous. They speak of the courage, resilience, toughness and selflessness of rural West Australians. You will feel proud to read these stories and you will recognise many of the people who wrote them.