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Thinking about fire differently


“The fact is we are facing a difficult, changing climate and we need to be ready and we need to think differently.”

- Federal emergency services minister Murray Watt.

Victoria has just experienced three mild summers with limited fire activity. The 2023/24 season has seen much more fire activity, across the country. From August onwards, more than 26 million hectares has burnt in the Northern Territory. Fires then started across inland regions in NSW and Queensland. By October, fires were breaking out along the east coast and even Tasmania as NSW premier Chris Minns warned of a 'horror summer' and the Bureau of Meteorology 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. Many hundreds went north from Victoria to support efforts in NSW and Queensland. Fire seasons that start early and burn simultaneously across many parts of the continent put a heavy burden on volunteer and career firefighters.

In Victoria the season started early, with major fires in Gippsland. Major flooding then slowed things down until February when western Victoria was heavily impacted. With ongoing dry conditions, we face the prospect of a long season.

Despite solid investments by the Victorian government, it is clear that in bad fire seasons, where there are multiple simultaneous 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 and the recommendation from a senate inquiry into the 2016 fires in Tasmania for a national remote area firefighting team.

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.

Screen_Shot_2023-09-20_at_5.42.38_pm.pngInterstate 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. 

As fire seasons get longer, it will be harder for many existing volunteers to maintain their current level of involvement. We will need additional capacity to respond to fires.

Victoria could establish its volunteer remote area teams by offering opportunities to people living in urban areas to sign on and be trained, indicate when they are available, and then be deployed at times of urgent need. They would need to do an annual qualification refresher course before being deployed. 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,
  • build diversity within the CFA by attracting young people and people of diverse backgrounds,
  • 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.

We propose a system that could be implemented in two stages

If Victoria establishes its RAFTs by offering opportunities to people living in urban areas and outside the catchment of CFA stations, this would increase the overall pool of volunteer firefighters.

This could be done in two stages:

  • Immediate opportunity: call for expression of interest from people with previous firefighting experience who have moved to Melbourne for work, study or family reasons but live too far away from a station to volunteer. Create a training program using RAFT trainers from NSW or QLD. Train these firefighters to be proficient in remote area firefighting. Estimated start up cost to set up training programs, then train and equip first teams: less than $200,000. Estimate of $1,500 to $2,000 per firefighter (training and equipment). If funding was secured in the May 2024 budget, teams could be ready by next summer. Evaluate pilot program.
  • Short term opportunity (after the 2023/24 season): Train up new volunteers without previous experience who live in Melbourne, who will need to do general firefighter training, and then get experience at appliance-based firefighting (potentially through the Vols on Hols program), before applying to be a RAFT firefighter. Estimated cost to set up and train and equip first teams: $1 million.

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 Steve Dimopoulos, 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. This proposal will compliment the work of FFMV and does not seek to replace it. Tell them this will allow many new people to join firefighting efforts, especially people from Melbourne and that it will help build diversity among the membership of the CFA and hence assist in meeting the goals of the CFA's Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which are to 'achieve our vision of a diverse, inclusive, and respectful organisation that embraces difference'. 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.

You can email them: [email protected], [email protected]

Or mention them on social media.

Twitter and Facebook > @JaclynSymes @Steve_Dimo

A simple message is fine:

I support the proposal for a volunteer remote area firefighting team for Victoria @JaclynSymes @Steve_Dimo. It will help protect our national parks and wild places. #climatefire 


If you are a member of an organisation with an interest in the outdoors, 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.


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).

On December 14, 2023, FoE hosted an event called The future of firefighting in Victoria. You can find a recording of the forum here. A written report will be posted shortly.

Check below for some additional resources on the proposal.

A volunteer firefighting team for Victoria.

Fires are getting worse. We need extra firefighting capacity to stop small ones becoming blazes. Story here.

Media stories on the issue

The Country Fire Authority is considering options to involve Melburnians in volunteering (″⁣CFA’s plan to recruit volunteer Melburnian firefighters″⁣, 26/11,2023). 

Our response below.


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)

Lots more to do

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.

To find out more, please get in touch. [email protected]




But don’t we already have paid firefighters who do this work?

Yes, in Victoria we have career firefighters employed by the state government. Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) have firefighters trained in dry firefighting, plus crews who can be transported to a fire ground via helicopter (the rappel teams). These teams do a splendid job of stopping many small fires before they turn into massive blazes. But sometimes there are simply not enough firefighters compared with the number of fires. And with climate change making fire seasons longer and more intense, we will need to continue to invest in additional firefighting capacity.


Wouldn’t it be hard for the CFA to have a specialist firefighting group?

The CFA already has a number of very successful specialist teams operating. For instance, the Oscar 1 team is a volunteer technical rescue team that is based in central Victoria but is a state wide asset and the only CFA brigade with underground mine rescue skills. There are also road rescue brigades in a number of towns including Ballan, Daylesford and Ballarat and a number of steep-angle rescue brigades. There are even a number of CFA coast guard brigades!


What firefighting work would these volunteers carry out?

It would, of course, depend on the nature of each fire but in general terms we propose a firefighting team which is skilled in 'dry' firefighting techniques who are able to be inserted quickly to areas of new start fires - for instance after a dry lightning storm has passed over an area and started small fires in trees. Dry firefighting generally employs the use of rake hoes and chain saws to isolate the fire from surrounding vegetation through the creation of mineral earth control lines. In some instances the crews may then back burn in from the control line. They would generally be taken to the fire location by vehicle and then hike in as needed. In some instances, they may be sent via helicopter (or extracted by helicopter if there is a suitable landing point near by). We do not propose that these volunteers be trained for deployment by rappelling from helicopters due to the extensive training required to obtain and maintain these qualifications.

In some instances, it may be possible for helicopters to lower water (in portable tanks), pumps and other equipment into the fire site to allow crews to access water for firefighting purposes.  

Given that these crews will be composed of fit people with good experience in rugged terrain, they may be appropriate to also deploy in search and rescue operations in remote areas, for instance where bushwalkers or campers have been reported missing.

IMAGE BELOW: fire on the Dargo High Plains, Victoria.





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