This year has seen large parts of Eastern Australia experience record-breaking rainfall and flooding. Again. It is clear that these events have been influenced by climate change. Climate change is causing more intense storms and downpours, and these floods are the latest in a long line of climate change-driven extreme weather events that have occurred in recent years, including prolonged droughts, heatwaves, the Black Summer bushfires, and powerful storms. And new analysis of weather data suggests that the potential for severe flash flooding has increased far beyond predictions. Rapid rain bursts over the greater Sydney region have intensified by at least 40% over the last two decades.
As noted recently by the Climate Council and Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, climate change is driving a new era of ‘unnatural disasters’ – and as a country we are not prepared to cope with more frequent disasters. This year, we have seen how consecutive, record-breaking events can overwhelm emergency services and damage affected communities ability to rebuild.
Our emergency response system is being overwhelmed
Our emergency services were established in a time before the effects of climate change were being widely felt.
An essential part of responding to emergencies is mutual solidarity. Traditionally emergency services support each other in times of need through sharing staff, volunteers, and resources. But as climate change turbo charges fires, floods and storms, it is already becoming harder to keep up with requests for mutual support. Local volunteers are becoming exhausted from having to respond to relentless disasters.
For the first time in its history, the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) requested international assistance to help with the state’s ongoing flood emergency. We have crews from NZ and Singapore and possibly more coming.
In fire season, we have long relied on global cooperation to fight fire. For instance, during the Black Summer of 2019/20, Australia relied on 1,000 crew from overseas, mostly North America, to assist with our firefighting efforts. But as fire seasons get longer in both hemispheres, it is getting harder to share resources – for instance, we hardly sent any crews to North America during their recent fire season (2021/22), as we were busy dealing with the floods. Increasingly, volunteer fire fighters are being asked to assist with flood events.
Meanwhile, in the USA they are still fighting fires as they head towards winter. The gap between fire seasons in both the north and south is getting shorter. The ‘shoulder’ seasons (spring and autumn) are when we do a lot of our prescribed (fuel reduction) burning, which utilises the time of many of our career fire crews. It will get harder to rely on overseas assistance because there will be less time to maintain equipment or rest out crews before redeployment.
And now, despite months of flooding and rain, we face the prospect of a significant fire season across a lot of the country. The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) released its seasonal bushfire outlook for the 2022 summer recently, which predicted an above-normal fire risk for central western and southern Western Australia, Central Australia, southern Queensland and inland NSW.
The higher risk is due to flourishing vegetation after recent rains, which mean increased fuel loads.
Building our capacity
The world is different to what it was just a decade ago, as climate change really starts to impact on ecosystems and communities around the world. Here in Australia, we will need to find ways to resource volunteers so they are able to sustain their efforts as disasters grow in length and scale. We will need additional career emergency responders. And we will need to finally buy our own fleet of Large Air Tankers, which will be needed as the weather cycles back to dry summers and long fire seasons.
Change is clearly underway - all emergency services do incredible work, and are adapting to the impacts that are growing. We need to support them with additional state and federal funds.
The federal Emergency Services Minister, Murray Watt, is proposing the creation of a ‘semi professional’ firefighting force, which can be called up during bad fire seasons. We fully support this proposal. He has been a champion for better disaster preparedness and response. The Disaster Ready Fund has recently been passed by federal parliament. Up to $200 million a year will be invested in projects like flood levees, sea walls, cyclone shelters, evacuation centres and fire breaks.
1/ Additional ground fire fighting capacity
Here in Victoria, we are arguing for the creation of a Country Fire Authority (CFA) style team which can support firefighting efforts on public lands which specifically recruits city based people (who at present can't sign up to the CFA as they don't live near a brigade).
The Victorian government already funds a large firefighting force through Forest Fire Management Victoria, or FFMV. This includes crews who have special training and are tasked with working in remote areas like our national parks. The government has increased funding for firefighting efforts. However, it is essential that we commit to creating additional remote area crews.
Victoria needs a new volunteer remote area fire fighting team, as NSW, the ACT and Tasmania already have.
We should be opening up volunteer opportunities for people based in large cities to get involved in firefighting efforts.
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.
2/ Additional air support
With fire seasons getting longer and more intense, we will need more planes and helicopters to fight fire. At present, most of these are leased, either within Australia or from overseas. Details here.
The Bushfire Royal Commission report rafter the Black Summer fires recommended the creation of a national aerial firefighting fleet, which can then be allocated to the states "according to greatest national need". As fire seasons get longer in both the northern and southern hemispheres, it is essential that we build a publicly owned air fleet of Large Air Tankers (LATs) and Type 1 helicopters. At present we only own one LAT, and have access year round to another - the remainder are leased internationally.
A key element in effective firefighting is rapid and aggressive ‘first attack’, which is designed to stop a small fire before it turns into an out of control blaze. Australia needs to keep adopting new ideas and technologies to assist fire crews (ground or air) to get on scene quickly to deal with fires soon after they are ignited. One idea proposed is greater use of drones. At present we rely on observations from staffed fire towers, call ins from people who see fires, and information gained from satellites, which require clear weather during daytime and may only provide resolution down to 10 metres. Aircraft can also be used for early warning surveillance, however this is very expensive.
In contrast, various companies have proposed much greater use of drones, fitted with thermal cameras which could ‘quickly verify fires started by lightning in remote regions, helping to direct fire crews to the scene “with only a few per cent of the fuel” used by conventional aircraft’.
Governments need to continue to assess and support innovative proposals to improve our ability to quickly tackle fires as they develop.
4/ Support our volunteers to make their contributions sustainable
We need to prepare our emergency services – both career and volunteer – for the increasing demands of climate-driven disasters. As flooding, fires and heatwaves become more common it is clear that the load on existing volunteers will become unsustainable. We will need to transform how we respond to these disasters, with potential changes to resourcing for volunteers and their employers.
First-responders are being overwhelmed by the size, intensity and frequency of unprecedented extreme weather events. It is essential that there is a review of budgets for all first responder organisations to ensure they are sufficient to the reality of the climate driven disasters of the 21st century.
We should also investigate opportunities to provide financial support for volunteer firefighters who need to take extended periods of time off work in long fire seasons. The 2019/20 season showed the impacts of a long season on local brigades and individuals, who took long periods of time off work in order to fight fires.
5/ Training our firefighters for the conditions that are coming.
The government also needs to investigate the need for new, standardised firefighter training modules that explicitly address dynamic fire behaviours and extreme bushfire development, given that these types of behaviours will increase in prevalence – even if sufficient climate action is taken by government.
Further ideas from FoE on fire and firefighting available here.
And some ideas on fire policy for Victoria are available here.