Old firefighting tactics no longer work: report

The scene on the Batlow Road near Laurel Hill on New Year’s Day, after the Dunns Road fire swept out of a private pine plantation and into the Greenhills State Forest, travelling almost 100km overnight.

A new bushfire report is echoing the feelings of fire-affected residents in the Snowy Valleys, insisting that fires have to be detected earlier and fought harder in the critical first few days, before the fires spread.
“The resources that we have to put into emergency services must be greatly increased,” said Professor Lesley Hughes, Pro Vice Chancellor at Macquarie University, “Because we could have another year like this next year, and if not next year then the year after or the year after that.
“We’ve got to not think of last summer as a one-off event.”
The report was produced after more than 150 experts and fire-affected community members gathered at a virtual National Bushfire and Climate Summit through June and July this year.
The online summit was hosted by journalist Kerry O’Brien, who described the panel as “absolutely stacked with credibility and integrity.”
Leading the summit were former fire captains from NSW, ACT, Victoria, QLD, Tasmania, and former heads of NSW Parks and Wildlife and Emergency Management Australia.
Tumblong sheep farmer and RFS Brigade captain Chris McDonnell also appeared, speaking about the January Dunns Road fire fight, which came within a kilometre of his property. He stressed the need for better communication tools between regions and across state lines.
The summit produced a final report, outlining 165 recommendations, including a call for better communication, more fire fighting aircraft and early detection technology, better organisation of the ADF during bushfires, and a return to Indigenous land management practises.
Former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins said that a changing climate is leading to longer, drier fire seasons and the government needs to invest in more aircraft, thermal-imaging drones and satellites to target fires as soon as they’re detected.
Lower Bago farmer Andrew Scoullar has been saying the same thing since the first lightning strike was detected, starting the Dunns Road fire in the nearby private pine plantation.
“Early detection makes all the difference,” he said. “We’ve been saying it for months and everyone knows the quicker you can get onto these lightning strikes the better. It’s a matter of minutes, it’s not hours with these lightning strikes.”
Mr Scoullar said there were two storms which passed through Ellerslie on that fateful Friday evening, one at 9pm and another at midnight. The fire was first seen at noon the next day.
“They need to get onto these things,” he said. “They should have had a chopper or plane or something over that show the next morning. There was that much smoke from other fires that visibility from the forestry towers was useless. You couldn’t see.”
One argument against having more aircraft is that they’re too expensive to build and maintain for just a few months of use each year.
“At the end of the day, what’s this cost though?” asked Mr Scoullar. “I know it’s cost us a lot of money.”
Recommendation 15 in Part 3 of the final report reads:
“Modify rapid response and initial attack procedures such that deployment of water bombing aircraft and ground firefighting crews are an immediate and automatic response to fires on days of very high, severe, extreme and catastrophic fire danger. This would replace the traditional method of first dispatching a local fire unit to investigate before calling in other resources, and will require additional and different types of water bombing aircraft located across the nation.”
Mr Mullins said last summer’s fires proved that current tactics aren’t working, and fires have to be stopped sooner. The summit described a need for firefighting aircraft like the ‘Superscooper’ CL-415, an amphibious aircraft which is essentially a ‘flying boat’. The twin turbo-prop plane has 6000-litre water tanks, capable of landing on water and filling its tanks within 18 seconds.
Mr Mullins said these types of aircraft would save valuable time by not having to fly back and forth between bases to refill.
Oliver Costello of the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation spoke about the need for traditional land management practises, saying the land that has been backburned has been “burnt the wrong way and it hasn’t been managed properly for decades and centuries.”
“We need to reach out to our Indigenous brothers and sisters,” agreed Mr Mullins.
“They’ve got knowledge that we pushed off to the side and they’re part of the solution, if we let them be.”
Recommendation 11 in the report’s 22 Priority Recommendations states: “The Federal Government should coordinate the development of an Indigenous-led National Cultural Fire Strategy focused on empowering and expanding Indigenous-led fire knowledge and practice and supporting Indigenous communities with climate change, bushfire and disaster resilience.”
The report also covered the role of the Australian Defense Force during fires, saying it’s neither safe nor practical to ask soldiers to fight fires, since that’s not what they’re trained for.
“We’ve war gamed multiple disasters, we’ve war gamed disasters happening concurrently, but the disasters that occurred last summer were fundamentally different,” said former Director Defence Preparedness Cheryl Durrant.
Ms Durrant also called for greater government action on climate change, anticipating an increase in future disasters when the ADF will be called to help domestically.
Mr Mullins said better planning in the future could be used to direct the ADF towards logistical and engineering jobs, freeing up firefighters to be on the front lines.
“The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has vital support capabilities that need to be utilised during emergencies, such as bushfires, in a more coordinated manner without usurping the role of state and territory emergency management agencies,” said the report. “These capabilities need to suit local needs and have a depth of experience together with a range of specific, tailored capabilities.”
During the fires in the Snowy Valleys, ADF personnel were given tasks such as tree clearing and pushing a fire break through the Bondo State Forest.
The full report, and videos from the summit, can be found via: https://emergencyleadersforclimateaction.org.au.