Victoria has just experienced three mild summers with limited fire activity. Now, as we move into the 2023/24 season, it is shaping up to be a summer more like 2019/20 than the last few years. Through August, more than 1 million hectares burnt in the Northern Territory. Fires then started across inland regions in NSW and Queensland. And now fires have been breaking out along the east coast and even Tasmania as NSW premier Chris Minns warns of a 'horror summer' and the Bureau of Meteorology has formally declared an El Niño weather event, meaning one is underway for the first time in eight years. An El Niño usually indicates a hot and dry summer, with heightened fire risk.
Already crews from South Australia have been sent to assist in the NT. During our winter, Australia sent more than 700 personal to North America to assist in their firefighting efforts. Fire seasons that start early and burn simultaneously across many parts of the continent put a heavy burden on volunteer and career firefighters.
As we face the prospect of a long season, we must ask if we are ready for the fires that are already impacting on land and people.
Despite solid investments by state government, it is clear that in bad fire seasons, where there are multiple fire starts due to lightning, that Victoria does not have sufficient capacity to stop all these ignitions turning into fires. Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) does an outstanding job of protecting our public lands and putting these fires out, as do the air crews who tackle remote area fires. But in those peak moments we need more capacity.
With fire seasons getting longer due to climate change, there are many things we need to do to respond effectively to more intense seasons, such as continuing to expand the overall number of professional firefighters, including remote area teams, investing in aircraft and early warning systems and so on. We must continue to support volunteer crews through the CFA with equipment and training and consider how we make volunteering sustainable through long and exhausting summers. We should consider the proposal to establish a national ‘semi professional’ firefighting force to be deployed locally as needed, as has been suggested by the federal Emergency Services minister Murray Watt.
A new fire fighting team in Victoria
Locally, an idea 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 FFMV.
Victoria could decide to set up its teams differently.
Interstate teams draw from existing volunteer brigades. At present, most people living in urban areas can’t contribute to volunteer firefighting efforts because they live too far from a CFA station, which means that the burden of fire fighting continues to fall on rural and regional communities, while the benefits of effective firefighting are experienced by all Victorians.
CFA brigades on the urban fringe are increasingly important in providing capacity, especially 'surge capacity' of extra crews in bad fire seasons. However, most people who live in Melbourne are well beyond the 8 minute call out time expected of people in 'medium urban' areas. Brigades in many rural and farming areas are struggling to maintain membership, and the CFA has lost around 2,000 volunteers over the past two years. This appears to be a problem around the country. For instance there are reports that around 10,000 volunteer firefighters have quit the RFSQ (Rural Fire Service Queensland) over the last four years.
Victoria could establish its remote area teams by offering opportunities to people living in urban areas to sign on, be trained, and then be deployed at times of urgent need. This would mean we skill up new trained firefighters rather than draining the existing volunteer base. This is more complicated than attracting people who already have fire qualifications and experience but would allow people who love natural places to play a role in protecting them through committing time to firefighting efforts.
Creating opportunities for people living in large centres like Melbourne and Geelong can be expected to increase diversity within CFA volunteers and attract many young people to firefighting.
What we recommend could be influenced by the Remote Area Firefighting Team (RAFT) program in NSW, who are specialist members of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service or National Parks and Wildlife Service who are trained for work in rugged, isolated areas that firefighting tankers can’t access by road. They can then be transported in by 4WD before hiking to the fireground. RAFTs are skilled in dry firefighting techniques such as creating firebreaks by cutting mineral earth control lines or undertaking back burning work.
For a modest investment, such a team would provide welcome extra capacity to our first strike capacity in extreme fire seasons. In Tasmania, the state government put an initial investment of $2.3 million in to set up teams. They now have 140 qualified individuals. Tasmania also puts a small amount each year (currently $160,000 per year) to train up new recruits.
These crews could be deployed as needed through a simple process: trained volunteers commit to do a refresher at the start of each season, then nominate when they will be available over summer. They can then be deployed as strike teams at times of great need: for instance, when it is expected there will be a large number of new fire starts (eg from lightning storms) or to assist on existing 'campaign' fires where local CFA crews would normally be allocated.
Sharing the burden of firefighting
Having volunteer teams based in urban areas would:
- represent a new way of building firefighting capacity,
- help relieve the burden on existing rural and regional fire brigades who are expected to provide people for deployment as strike teams through summer, and
- could be delivered at a very small overall cost to the taxpayer.
Climate change is supercharging fire seasons. It is putting new burdens on existing firefighters and their families and on state budgets. Providing opportunities for city based people to volunteer their time in firefighting efforts would be a smart response to the reality of longer and more intense fire seasons.
TOP IMAGE: Geoff Browne.
Let’s make this good idea a reality
The Ministers who can make this happen are Jaclyn Symes, who is the Minister for Emergency Services, and Ingrid Stitt, who is the Minister for Environment. 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 in FFMV. 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 @IngridStitt
A simple message is fine:
I support the proposal for a volunteer remote area firefighting team for Victoria @JaclynSymes @IngridStitt. It will help protect our national parks and wild places. #climatefire
Background & further information
Friends of the Earth has been promoting the idea of a new volunteer remote area firefighting team in Victoria since the fires of Black Summer (2019/20).
Check below for some additional resources on the proposal.
Fires are getting worse. We need extra firefighting capacity to stop small ones becoming blazes. Story here.
A continent that burns. And a world that's getting hotter. Story here.
Story from Jess Davis at the ABC (February 2023) which mentions our proposal. Emergency service volunteer's burden is growing as natural disasters increase. Story here.
Above: opinion piece in The Weekly Times (1/3/2023)
To find out more, please get in touch. [email protected]
IMAGE BELOW: fire on the Dargo High Plains, Victoria.