The fire next time



WHEN the smoke has finally cleared and the navy has completed its Dunkirk, evacuating thousands of Australians from their own beaches, let’s have a national conference.

A special national conference.

A conference which will be special because all the state and federal ministers responsible for fire and emergency services will be invited, and none of them will be allowed to speak.

State premiers and even the prime minister will be welcome to attend, but they won’t be allowed to speak either. They will all be invited to shut up and listen, think and learn.

This will be a conference for firefighters, volunteer and paid, focusing on the practical issues of what went right, what could have been done better, what we have to change before the next crisis, and what we need from governments. Now.

A quick wish list

  • All petrol stations to be required by law to have diesel generators capable of running their pumps during a power cut.
  • Employers to be fully compensated for wages paid to volunteers while on active service.
  • All mobile phone towers to have battery back-up for at least five hours.
  • More mobile phone towers to eliminate communications blackspots.
  • All major fire trucks to be fitted with halo sprinkler systems and heat-reflective curtains.
  • All fire trucks to carry thermal imaging cameras.
  • Regular aerial patrols monitoring parks and forests with thermal imaging cameras.
  • More water bombers, including at least one large aircraft permanently based in each state.
  • More Quick Response Vehicles – 4WD utes fitted with pump and 500-litre water tank.
  • All electricity wires in rural areas to be aerial bundled (sheathed).

Fire authorities have been warning for years that Australia was at risk of catastrophic fires. They were right. They think it can happen, will happen, again. Chances are, they will be right again.

Maybe not for five years. Maybe this year, again. But it will happen. We need to be ready for it. We need to make some simple, practical changes, fast.

This will not be a conference about climate change. Anyone who tries to turn the discussion into the current political shouting match about climate change will be given a rake hoe and told to go out and carve a five-metre fire break round the conference venue.

For those of you not familiar with the humble rake hoe, also known as a McLeod tool, it is like a double-headed, heavy-duty garden rake. Stout metal teeth on one side, a solid metal scraper on the other. It’s a pretty primitive fire-fighting tool, but it had to be used at times in the recent NSW fires. If you haven’t got any water, what else are you going to do?

Scraping the fire break may not be too hard, because this special conference will be held in a burnt-out area. Probably somewhere in rural NSW, though East Gippsland in Victoria could be a strong contender, with WA an odds-on outsider.

Accommodation would be in tents on the oval, as it often is for volunteers away from home for days at a time to help battle major fires. The RFS (the NSW volunteer fire service) could lend some of their tents that can sleep dozens of fireys. Perhaps the pollies could be allocated one of their long tents, the one with the air conditioner with the faulty thermostat, blowing freezing air into the tent all night. If ScoMo comes, it will be because he just wants to be there. Up against the fan.

At least 60 per cent of the conference places would be reserved for volunteers. Their hands-on experience would be essential, and they are the ones that will take ideas back to their brigades.

Preference could be given to those who were actively involved in the recent fires, either on trucks, in the air, on incident management teams, or on the radio and the phones. But all vollies would be welcome.

Attendance for any volunteer with at least two years’ active service, in any role, would be free.

Let’s have the conference in August. That will give us two months to implement recommendations before the likely start of the next fire season.

In the meantime, let’s dig out the reports of the inquiries into earlier disasters, such as the Canberra fire in 2003, Victoria 2009, and the Blue Mountains in 2013. Some key recommendations from those inquiries were only partially implemented, or were rejected for                       political reasons.

Some of us learned a lot from those disasters, but these latest fires have exceeded even the worst-case scenarios predicted by current fire-behaviour models.

 We have much to discuss.

Brian Donaghy was a volunteer firefighter with the South Australian Country Fire Service for 20 years