In the wake of the recent bushfires and the total devastation that has been left behind, we must consider ways of improving our land management and response to fires.

The best way to avoid a big fire is to put it out when it is small.

That may be easier said than done, but when coupled with a sensible land management regime, early detection and early suppression sounds like a great idea to me.

Mick Holton

Early detection and suppression have greatly improved the survivability of people and property in an urban firefighting context, so why shouldn’t we adopt the same principles to look after the bush?

Early intervention improves other emergency response scenarios such as a first aid response to cardiac arrest.

Perhaps we should follow a bushfire survival chain.

1. Land Management

The alternatives to a sensible land management regime are grim at best. Just take a look around at the devastation created by locking up public land and to make matter worse, we have a tendency to put out naturally occurring fires (lightening) without returning to finish off the job during a safer period. Perhaps if we had let nature deal with land management without our intervention, the fuel loads would not have become so extreme.

2. Early Detection

Smoke detectors have had a major impact on structural fire detection and helped to promote early escape and suppression. Why can’t we embrace the technologies that already exist to detect a bushfire in its early stages?

3. Early Access

Easy and early access to the fire is essential if we are going to keep it small. Aircraft can assist if we have the resources available at a moment’s notice and ground crews can get around a smaller fire quickly if we can get them to the fire. But we tend to neglect the fire trails that provide easy access to the bush for fire crews and plant (trucks, dozers and graders).

4. Early Suppression

If we can get to the fire early, we stand a better chance to keep it from getting too large. Ground crews, aviation support and Remote Area Fire Teams (RAFT) are all viable suppression resources if they have early access.

Early intervention is the key to success.

A “ridiculous” bushfire funding rule is preventing emergency services from waterbombing small fires before they turn into mega blazes that destroy homes and kill people.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins (Ref: SMH February 28, 2020)

Ex-fire chiefs say ‘ridiculous’ bushfire funding stymies waterbombing

By Mike Foley and Alexandra Smith – 28th February 2020

Click HERE or the SMH logo (above) to view their original article.

Former fire chiefs say a “ridiculous” bushfire funding rule is preventing emergency services from waterbombing small fires before they turn into mega blazes that destroy homes and kill people.

Federal funding can flow to state governments under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements with up to 75 per cent of costs covered – but only in “extraordinary” circumstances when firefighting was targeted at “imminent” risks to lives and property.

NSW’s custom large aerial tanker 737 jet dumps fire retardant on a bushfire south of Port Macquarie in October last year. CREDIT: NICK MOIR

That means states may have to carry the cost of early prevention waterbombing on fires in remote areas, well away from lives and property. This summer a number of small fires in remote areas became major blazes that destroyed homes in NSW and Victoria.

NSW has confirmed it would seek “partial reimbursement” from the federal government for its firefighting efforts, including waterbombing, since July last year.

Victoria’s former Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said funding arrangements had stopped fire managers sending planes to waterbomb small fires in wilderness.

“Without doubt there are definitely examples from this summer where fires got too big for ground suppression to be effective, but if more aircraft were deployed earlier there would have been a better chance to keep fires small,” Mr Lapsley said.

Mr Lapsley said “operational people have not stuffed up” with their deployment of resources, but had done “the best they could” under the current arrangements.

“There have been examples where questions about the utilisation of large aerial tankers in remote areas has been questioned over the deployment of them – which is not the right way to consider any deployment of those aircraft,” he said.

A NSW government spokesman said it estimated an “additional” $315 million went to the Rural Fire Service for increased costs this summer, and the state would request funding from the federal government.

The Tasmanian government has lodged a special request for funding to help cover the cost of fires that began in late 2018 and burned in World Heritage wilderness. Spokespeople for the Tasmanian and federal governments said negotiations over funding are ongoing.

This year lightning strikes lead to huge blazes in remote bushland in the Snowy Mountains and a series of fires that burned across East Gippsland in Victoria. The Gospers Mountain fire began in the Wollemi National Parkin the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and burnt for months over a total area of 444,000 hectares.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said the national disaster funding is a “ridiculous rule”.

“Look at the size of the fires – more than five million hectares in NSW. The majority of the area burnt was nowhere near homes and people, but we lost more than 10 times more property than any time in NSW’s history,” Mr Mullins said.

Former Victorian Country Fire Authority chief Neil Bibby said many of this summer’s fires could have been tackled before they burned towards towns and property with greater aerial resources.

“It’s a fundamental theory: put the fire out when it’s small and then you don’t have as big of a problem,” he said.

Wilderness Society policy director Tim Beshara said beefing up aerial firefighting would improve  public safety, benefit nature, and help meet Australia’s international environment obligations.

“It makes no sense on any level that the Commonwealth automatically stumps up for firefighting costs when a fire is near a home or a farm but not for putting out a fire in the middle of a World Heritage Area,” he said.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre owns a fleet of 150 aircraft and is funded by state, territory and the federal governments. The federal government contributes $15 million a year, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing in early January he would commit an extra $11 million each year toward the agency each year.

The current fire season is ongoing and NAFC has not calculated its costs. Last year its costs exceeded $130 million over a less intense fire season and a spokesperson said the costs for this year’s fire season are expected to be “significantly higher”.

State governments have two years to lodge funding applications under Disaster Recovery Funding and none have done so for this summer’s fires.

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