On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2019, a front brought a smattering of rain across the Victorian mountains, barely enough to damp down the dust. But the associated lightning storm started dozens of new fires in a long belt from Mt Buller to the NSW border.
Forest Fire Management crews swung into action and many of these were quickly put out. Aerial bombing dealt with others. But there were simply too many, and some grew into massive blazes, including the fires that went on to devastate the forests and landscapes of East Gippsland in coming weeks.
This raises the question: Do we need a new remote area volunteer firefighting force in Victoria who could help suppress lightning strike fires before they take off?
The situation at present
Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) crews are made up of firefighters from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), Parks Victoria, VicForests and Melbourne Water. It’s mission is to ‘reduce the risk and impact of bushfires on Victoria’s parks, forests and other public land’. FFMV crews also support the CFA to fight fires on private land. FFMV has a permanent workforce of career firefighters and also employs seasonal firefighters over the fire season, generally from November/December until the end of March.
About a third of Victoria is public land. Much of it is remote, mountainous and inaccessible, and fires in these areas are usually caused by lightning which, if not rapidly suppressed, can grow in size quickly. Apart from sending FFMV crews in by truck, specialist remote area firefighters may be dropped in by helicopter. DELWP currently has four seven-person rappel crews employed during the fire season which are based at Heyfield in Gippsland and Ovens in north east Victoria. DELWP also has two five-person hover exit crews employed each season, based at Horsham in the west of the state. It has access to a range of air support, including Large Air Tankers (LATs) and Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs), and helicopters that are able to drop water and/or fire retardants onto forested areas.
Despite these resources, many of these small lightning triggered fires grew in size and subsequently devastated large areas of the mountains and foothills. Partly this was influenced by the conditions. For instance, on January 4, as another front came through, wind conditions were so extreme that all FFMV crews had to be pulled out of forested areas because of the danger of falling trees. With large fires along the eastern NSW and elsewhere, there were also limitations on the availability of aerial bombing capacity.
It is clear climate change will make fire seasons more intense and will also lead to an increase in dangerous firestorms that were once considered rare: pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCB), often referred to as firestorms, which can create their own weather and start fires by generating lightning. Fire seasons will start earlier and last longer. Fire seasons across Australia and in the northern hemisphere used to be staggered – allowing exchange of vital equipment such as aerial water bombers and firefighters. The increasing overlap of fire seasons between states and territories and with the USA and Canada will limit our ability to help each other during major emergencies. The window to carry out fuel reduction burning will get narrower. The ecological impacts on foothill and mountain forests will continue to grow, as will the economic impacts on mountain and valley communities.
We need extra firefighting capacity to protect the mountains
It is clear we will need more capacity to fight fires in the mountains. There are four obvious options:
- Continue to invest in air support to fight fires in remote areas, with continued resource sharing between the states and overseas jurisdictions, to access additional planes and helicopters when needed
- Continue to increase the number of paid seasonal firefighters, including additional allocation of funds and training to expand the number of remote area firefighters
- The federal government should establish a national remote area firefighting force which can be deployed as needed across Tasmania and mainland states when World Heritage and National Parks are at risk. This was recommended by a Senate inquiry after the devastating fires in Tasmania of 2016.
We need to do all of these things. But given the scale of fires across the state and around Australia, it is clear that, even with additional resourcing as outlined above, there will be ever more demands on fire fighting capacity in coming years. As happened this year, with fires along the east coast and in South Australia at the same time, it became harder to share fire crews between states and territories. With longer fire seasons around the world, it will also place stress on traditional allies like the USA and Canada, who send firefighters to help us during their off season. And the volunteer services, like Victoria’s CFA and the RFS from NSW, will struggle to sustain the numbers required to send Strike Teams interstate and to large fires when they are busy at home fighting bushfires. This means that incident managers must sometimes priortise protection of human assets over protection of natural systems where resources are limited.
A fourth option to consider is to develop a new volunteer firefighting force specifically tasked with adding capacity to state government firefighting agencies when fires threaten national parks, wilderness and World Heritage Areas.
There is a precedent: in the early 1980s and ran until the mid 1990s, a volunteer force called the Smoke Walkers, was developed which was tasked with supporting remote area firefighting in Tasmania. And the investigation into the Tasmanian fires of 2016, recommended that the Tasmanian Fire Service should pursue the creation of a cadre of volunteer remote area firefighters.
Sometimes the Smoke Walkers would work alongside Parks Service, Forestry TAS and TFS firefighters and sometimes they would be deployed seperately. Many of the members were bushwalkers who knew the remote wilderness and wanted to help protect it.
NSW already has such a force which could act as a template for other states.
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) has Remote Area Fire Teams (RAFT) that are composed of volunteer firefighters. They help compliment the work done by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) remote area crews. Many are members of local RFS brigades and turn out to ‘regular’ fires with their brigade but may also be called up for remote area firefighting.
There are also Rapid Aerial Response Teams (RART), which is a program within the RFS where specially trained firefighting teams (trained RAFT Firefighters) are ‘placed on standby at appropriate times and in appropriate places, transported by helicopter to the scene of an incident when needed and, if necessary, transferred to the ground by winching or similar insertion’ (source).
The RART programme was introduced within the NSW RFS in 2011 as a response from the Victorian Royal Commission findings into the 2009 fires. The idea is that when certain weather conditions are forecast a standby RAFT team and a winch capable medium helicopter are mobilised, ready to deploy, for a period of time to instantly respond upon a report of a new fire.
The NSW RFS has 27 RAFT Units across the state, with a total of about 500 personnel. The value of the NSW model is shown by the effectiveness of their teams in stopping fires becoming blazes: for instance, in the 2018/19 fire season the Rapid Aerial Response Teams responded to 77 incidents, and were able to keep 90 percent of the fires they attended contained to less than 10 hectares in size (source, p 32).
A new volunteer remote area firefighting team?
There are various ways this new remote area force could be established in Victoria:
- As a volunteer unit it would make sense for it to be hosted by the CFA
- It would receive support from the state government (training, uniforms, meals when on deployment, equipment, and potentially vehicles, etc)
- They could be mobilised at the start of each fire season. Members who have their minimum skills training and other state requirements (eg burn over and hazardous trees training) could nominate to be available for that season and then opt into possible strike team deployment on a weekly basis. These would be deployed via the state authority as volunteer strike teams are allocated at present, with priority given to deployment on remote area fires. Unlike a standard strike team deployment where members often leave from their home station in an appliance, volunteers may need to get themselves to a staging point near the fire, or the state government may organise transport from major cities or regional centres. Additionally, these firefighters could simply be regular members of their local CFA brigade, and nominate to join remote deployments when a call out is made. This could be easily managed at an operational level as brigades regularly nominate members to join Strike Teams during fire season
- The organisation would be administrated and supported by staff seconded from Fire Rescue Victoria, as per the arrangement with the CFA
- Teams would be deployed from the staging point to the fire ground via vehicles or air travel operated by the relevant state agency (PV, DELWP, Melbourne Water). In NSW, RAFT teams are managed / deployed at the District level.
- They would be specifically allocated where remote access is required on public lands – eg walk in firefighting, blackout and mopping up using dry firefighting techniques, etc. A key priority would be for them to be deployed to attack new fires triggered by lightning in mountainous and remote areas when air support is not available
- They may also be deployed alongside regular volunteer units who are allocated to campaign fires on public land
As mentioned above, many of the small lightning-caused fires across the Alps that started on December 31 went on to become massive blazes.
One example was the fire at Mt Tabletop, near Mt Hotham. It grew slowly, then under stronger wind conditions grew rapidly in size and intensity, threatening the village of Dinner Plain on January 4 before then linking with other blazes and impacting on properties in the Cobungra area towards Omeo. It burnt large sections of snow gum woodland, and eventually merged with a number of other lightning lit fires, burnt across the Great Alpine Road and eventually grew into a fire complex that impacted more than 40,000 hectares of land. If a small team of firefighters had walked in to the source of the blaze on January 1 or 2, it is very likely the fire could have been stopped before it got going. This is exactly the type of work such a firefighting force would be tasked with.
Many volunteer fire brigades in rural areas are aging. As fire seasons worsen and become longer, there will be greater pressure on these local brigades to provide the ‘surge capacity’ needed to fight big campaign fires. A volunteer remote area firefighting force would, by its nature, attract younger and urban based members, which would create a pathway for many new people to sign up for volunteer fire fighting who do not live in the catchment of an existing brigade. This would, over time, provide benefits to existing volunteer forces like the CFA and RFS. In the case of the RFS RAFT teams, many members are already members of a local brigade and opt in to remote area deployments as needed. Creating a role which is not linked to existing brigades would be most useful for attracting new urban members.
There is, of course, a lot of detail that would need to be fleshed out, and recurrent funding would be required through state budgets. But given the ever growing fire threat, and the ever greater ecological impact caused by fire across our conservation estate and other public lands, a new volunteer force could be a valuable addition to the firefighting capacity we currently have across the country.
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