Climate change is supercharging our bushfire seasons. Victoria’s latest Climate Science Report predicts that the annual number of high fire danger days in Victoria is projected to increase, in some areas, by over 60% by the 2050s. These climate-fuelled bushfires threaten lives, housing, health, industry, First Nations cultural heritage and biodiversity on an unprecedented scale.
Longer, more intense bushfire seasons are placing heavy burdens on Victoria’s firefighters. As climate change causes bushfire seasons around the world to overlap, we may not be able to draw on firefighting support from interstate and overseas as we have in the past for the ‘surge capacity’ needed during large bushfires.
How can firefighting in Victoria be modernised to tackle the climate-fuelled bushfires of the 21st century?
With the Victorian government’s new Bushfire Management Strategy currently being finalised, the government has the opportunity to make some innovative firefighting ideas a reality that will protect people and places we love.
This is a summary of the forum ‘The Future of Firefighting in Victoria’, hosted by Friends of the Earth on December 14, 2023.
You can find a recording of the event here.
Other speakers reports will be added as we get them.
Dr. Philip Zylstra, fire behaviour scientist and Adjunct Associate Professor at Curtin University
Phil demonstrated how an improved understanding of fire behaviour can guide safer and more effective deployment of remote fire fighting resources, and improved fire management practices that maximise opportunities for rapid suppression.
Phil has been a remote area firefighter and has a background of fire management, and came into fire research from that angle. He has always looked to fix the problems he could see on the ground. He built a model based on the experience of working on the fireground and considering why and how fires behave how they do.
The approach is based on the idea of cooperation with Country: ‘What it came down to was the species of plants and the growth stage of those plants, and that is what drove fire behaviour. That varies completely from one patch of bush to the other.’
Phil says that there are two aspects to Cooperation with Country:
- Reconciliation – understanding how fire works in each particular piece of country. Our fire management model has come out of a paradigm of colonisation and that is reflected in our practices on the fireground, which are often pre-determined, inflexible and applied regardless of the actual nature of the fire. What Phil learnt from a number of elders was that as you come into new country, you are almost like an infant – somebody who does not know fire in that country, and you need to understand the new country.
- Reinforcement – this is where the firefighting comes in. But you can’t have effective reinforcement without first reconciling with country.
Phil discussed the fire in 2019 north west of Sydney in the Wollemi wilderness. When discovered, it was about 14 ha in size. But by the time crews were going to be allocated, it had grown to about 30 ha. It was on the western edge of about 100,000 ha of bush that had been burnt already. Post fire, the lower fire risk of a burnt area only lasts about 2 years, and then the forests become more flammable than if they hadn’t burned. There were only 4 Remote Area Firefighting Teams (RAFT) crews to get out there and as a result, it became the largest single ignition fire in Australia’s history as it moved into the recently-burnt and highly flammable forests nearby.
If there had been RAFT crews to send earlier, and knowledge that burnt forests were more flammable, crews could have been allocated to intervene before it became a huge fire.
Phil has developed FRAME – the Fire Research And Modelling Environment methodology, which looks into how fire behaviour is governed by the plants present and the life stage of their ecosystem.
When it comes to how big a fire will get, there is a fairly universal rule – if you have low growing plants in a forest system separate to the canopy, you will get less canopy fire. The bigger the plants, the bigger the flames and the greater the chance it will get into the canopy. While trees aren’t burning from ground to canopy, they are calming the air and slowing the fire down. In the Black Summer fire landscape, in about 88% of the landscape the canopy didn’t burn. We often talk about increasing vegetation increasing fire risk. But in reality, plants can be a fire risk if they are small and close to the ground or they can slow the fire down if they are large and out of reach of the flames. That then raises an ecological principle: if you take out a large plant you create a vacancy and small plants will come in. The reverse is also true – as plants get older and taller they may not burn. Those plants then out compete the plants underneath – leading to an open understory that is less flammable. This is Ecological Control Theory. Older forests limit fire impact and is the reason why our fire sensitive species have survived so long. If left undisturbed, forests naturally place limits on fire in the landscape. Understanding this is a key part of Reconciliation. The least likely places to burn are the areas that have been burnt least often. Understanding how this works in different forest types allows us to move into Reinforcement (active firefighting).
Flame height is usually low in these older forests. The FRAME modelling allows us to identify where we can fight fires by understanding the likely flame height based on the plants in each area and the forest structure.
Fire in these older forests can often be managed by hand, with the use of tools like rake hoes. Knowing the modelling allows us to put crews in and aggressively tackle fires rather than being forced to rely on more intrusive methods like back burning.
A volunteer remote area firefighting team
A key aspect of our current campaigning around building capacity to fight fires is for Victoria to establish a volunteer remote area firefighting team, as the ACT, Queensland, NSW and Tasmania have done. These crews would be trained to provide additional capacity to support the efforts of Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) and be based within the CFA.
If you are a member of an organisation with an interest in the outdoors and support our proposal, please consider signing this letter.
If you are an individual who would like to express your interest in becoming involved in these teams should they be established, please add your name here. This does not bind you to anything - but it will be useful for us to be able to demonstrate interest from the community when lobbying government about the need to establish these teams.
Lots more to do
FoE has been promoting a range of ideas that would allow Victoria top continue to respond to the climate change driven fires of the 21st century, including the following.
We realise this is just one idea among the many things we must do to protect wild landscapes. There is so much we need to do. Here are some of the other ideas we are promoting. The state government should:
- continue to increase funding for national parks across the state to ensure adequate fire protection, control of invasive species, and management of visitor impacts. Funding to Parks Victoria should be a minimum of 1 per cent of state revenue
- maintain funding of existing FFMV full time firefighters, and increase the number of seasonal (project) firefighter positions
- continue to increase the number of career remote area fire fighters to protect national parks and other public lands, including an increase in the number of rappel crews
- lobby the federal government to establish a publicly owned air fleet of Large Air Tankers (LATs) to allow intervention on large fires in appropriate weather. Australia currently has 2 LATS in the country year round, but requires a minimum of 6 LATs in an average year. These are all currently leased from overseas
- investigate options for making volunteering more sustainable, for instance paying firefighters for the time spent on firegrounds during summer
- ensure adequate and ongoing funding for the existing network of staffed forest fire lookouts
- state and federal governments should continue to support emerging technologies that will improve our ability to identify and respond to fires quickly. One good example is the collaboration between Sydney drone startup Carbonix and ANU’s Bushfire Centre of Excellence, which will help create predictive models that establish areas most likely to burn after an electrical storm, and mapping areas that are at high risk of blazes
- assess whether Snow Gum woodlands require the same level of direct intervention that Alpine Ash currently receives through reseeding and other recovery programs
- ensure fire sensitive communities such as peatlands, Snow Gums and Alpine Ash can be protected from future fires through adequate resourcing of ground and air fire fighting capacity. There must be a 'voice at the table' for these ecosystems in all Incident Control Centres where allocation of firefighting resources occurs
- carry out a full and independent review of the ecological costs and benefits of fuel reduction burning as a matter of urgency.