Over the summer of 2018/19, huge fires burnt across Tasmania. An independent review of Tasmania’s management of the summer bushfires was initiated. It makes a series of recommendations for the fire services and government, including a proposal to re-establish a volunteer remote area firefighter group. The report was produced by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC).

Recommendation 2 of the report says:

The Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) should pursue the creation of a cadre of volunteer remote area firefighters. In doing so the TFS should not consider itself limited to upskilling of current volunteer brigade members, but should carry out a cost benefit analysis of creating one or more remote area firefighting units based in urban areas, in order to tap into the potential of those members of the urban-based Tasmanian community who may have advanced knowledge and skills relating to navigation and survival in wilderness areas.

That group has now been established and is being trained.

In July 2020, expressions of Interest were opened for Tasmanian volunteer firefighters to join the specialist remote area firefighting team.

The Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management said at the time:

‘Remote area firefighters access difficult terrain by helicopter or on foot, and use special light weight pumps or hand tools to fight bushfires, protect lives and keep properties safe.

‘Successful volunteers will be provided with the additional skills needed to work in Tasmania’s remote forest wilderness areas to protect our iconic assets or stop bushfires before they impact our cities, towns and critical infrastructure.

‘These additional numbers will add to over 100 trained career firefighters and our partner agencies Parks and Wildlife Service and Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s remote area capability.

In September it was announced in The Advocate newspaper that:

The first 10 of 30 volunteer firefighters to be trained in remote area firefighting were put through their paces, including exiting helicopters on challenging terrain.

The cohort of volunteers were chosen from 190 applicants and will provide support for the 100 Tasmania Fire Service remote-trained career firefighters, and 80 from Parks and Wildlife, for the upcoming summer.

Image: The Advocate

Wilderness fires caused widespread loss of vegetation in 2018-19, putting the spotlight on the state’s ability to respond quickly in remote areas. Establishing a volunteer remote force was among the recommendations from a report into that fire season.

Acting district officer for air operations, Matt Lowe, said the volunteers would play a part in attacking fires in waves.

“Our initial attack this year will be attacking fires when they’re really small,” he said.

“The chief’s mantra is for a wave of attack, so initially hit the fire with aircraft then we deploy remote area crews so they can get a quick hold on those fires and extinguish them before they grow.”

Establishing this team is a good move by the Tasmanian government. As climate change causes more ‘dry lightning’ strikes in the state, which are a major cause of wildfire ignition, it is essential we develop more ‘first strike’ capacity to stop fires before they turn into blazes.

Is Victoria next?

New South Wales has long established remote area firefighting teams (called RAFT).

It is essential that Victoria also establish such a team to add capacity to the existing career firefighters in that state.

Like the Tasmanian model, such firefighters could be drawn from existing brigades but could also provide new opportunities for urban based people to get involved in firefighting efforts.

Details on the Victorian proposal can be found here.

IMAGE: Central Plateau near Lake Mackenzie. Rob Blakers.