In Victoria, after a mild spring with above average rainfalls, it looks like this summer might provide a low key fire season.
In it’s early summer Bushfire Outlook, the AFAC (the National Council for fire and emergency services) noted that the east of the state would have ‘below normal’ fire potential this summer. We knew it would be a season of grass fires in the west rather than forest fires in the east. But with a bit of warm weather and fire weather conditions, the season has now started, with large blazes in the far west and north of the state, and even a significant grass fire in Maribyrnong.
We know that despite this mild summer, we face longer, hotter fire seasons in the years to come because of climate change.
We also know that in bad seasons, like the 2019/20 ‘Black Summer’ – which will be more like the ‘new normal’ - we simply don’t have enough firefighting resources to contain, let alone stop, the fires that can be generated by extreme conditions.
The Victorian government has made a record investment in firefighting. It has acted promptly on the recommendations of two inquiries into the devastating 2019/20 bushfires by the Inspector General for Emergency Management and the Bushfires Royal Commission. There are more than 1,000 government funded firefighters available and significant air support. We also rely on firefighters from overseas in bad seasons (in 2019/20, around 1,000 overseas crew came to Australia to help us fight fires). And of course, we have one of the largest volunteer firefighting services in the world – the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
Faced with the prospect of longer and more intense fire seasons, it is clear that we need to continue to expand our career and volunteer firefighting resources. Lightning was the major cause of ignition of fires during the 2019–20 fire crisis in NSW and Victoria. Many of them started in remote locations. These fires start small, around a single tree, and may take days before they take off and turn into a bushfire. In this early stage, they can be stopped by specialist fire crews. Our firefighters are highly skilled and have great success at containing these small fires before they turn into blazes that can threaten homes and landscapes. In the 2019/20 fire season, government firefighters supressed 89% of all new lightning caused ignitions before they grew into fires.
But 2019/20 showed us that we simply don’t have enough remote area firefighting crews to stop all these ignitions.
In early January 2020, I was in the small township of Dinner Plain, near the Hotham ski resort. Along with other volunteer firefighters, we had to wait to defend the village while government firefighters tackled the lightning strikes that were slowly building into fires on the public land that surrounds the village. Despite exceptionally hard work, the crews simply couldn’t contain them all, and as the conditions worsened there was rapid spread of fire, and within a few days we were defending Dinner Plain from a dangerous fire front. The Tabletop fire went on to join other lightning caused fires and turned into an enormous blaze that burnt for weeks.
One logical way to build our capacity to stop these small fires is to greatly increase our remote area firefighting capacity. That means more career remote area firefighters. But a sensible response would also be to establish a volunteer remote area firefighting capacity. NSW, the ACT and Tasmania already have these volunteer crews, who work with career firefighters to contain blazes in remote areas. In NSW, the Remote Area Firefighting Teams (RAFT) has up to 500 firefighters who are trained in ‘dry’ firefighting techniques and who can be deployed to stop these small fires as part of an aggressive First Strike capacity.
In large fires, we rely on the CFA brigades around the fringe of Melbourne to provide a lot of the ‘surge capacity’ we need to get on top of fires. We need additional volunteer firefighters, but the fact is that most people living in Melbourne cannot join the CFA because they don’t live close enough to a local brigade. This proposal for a volunteer remote area firefighting team could help solve that problem: there are thousands of people living in Melbourne who love our national parks: bushwalkers, skiers, mountain bike riders, trail runners and nature enthusiasts. Many of them are young. The Victorian government could establish the new volunteer teams in a way that urban based people could be trained and deployed during their summer holidays. Many people who love our wild places would be willing to join firefighting efforts and it would provide a welcome boost to our firefighting capacity.
This is not a new idea. The proposal has been talked about for years and has support both among volunteer and career firefighters. It just needs the funds to make it happen.
Tasmania is the state that has most recently established a volunteer remote area firefighting team, and for an investment of $2.3m they have a program up and running and 140 trained firefighters. This seems like a good return on investment in terms of increased capacity.
With the prospect of a mild fire season this summer, it would make sense for the Victorian government to invest in a volunteer program in the May budget. A pilot project could be run over next summer, then scaled up in coming years.
There is no single solution to the climate driven fires we will be facing in coming years. But establishing remote volunteer teams would be a smart way to add significant capacity at a low cost to stop small fires before they become blazes.
How do we make this a reality?
It's fairly simple: we need a modest allocation from the state government (we estimate $5m) to establish a pilot program here in Victoria.
The Ministers who can make this happen are Jaclyn Symes, who is the Minister for Emergency Services, and Lily D'Ambrosio, who is the Minister for Environment and Climate Change. Please tell them that you support the proposal to establish a remote area volunteer firefighting team to compliment the great work that is carried out by our career firefighters. Tell them this will allow many new people to join firefighting efforts, especially people from Melbourne. Tell them that it will be a cost effective way to increase our ability to protect the parks and reserves that we love.
A simple polite message to that effect will have impact.
Or mention them on social media.
Twitter and Facebook > @JaclynSymes @LilyDAmbrosioMP
A simple message is fine:
I support the proposal for a volunteer remote area firefighting team for Victoria @JaclynSymes @LilyDAmbrosioMP. It will help protect our national parks and wild places. #climatefire
Further information on the proposal
If this is the sort of thing you would like to be personally involved in (bearing in mind it would require a substantial time commitment to receive the required training and experience) you may want to express your interest here. We will use the numbers from this response, without any personalised details, to demonstrate to government the level of community interest in the program.
HEADER IMAGE: RAFT firefighters, NSW.