Image for Some suggestions for bushfire control authorities in Tasmania (and elsewhere)

Summary: This article details some criticism of the Tasmanian Fire Services website, explains widespread frustration at the direction and focus of bushfire control in Tasmania, and suggests some operational changes.  It pleads for a comprehensive overhaul of the understanding of threats to Australia’s security, whereby bushfires are our enemy more than far-away terrorists, and where bushfire initiation could easily be employed as an act of terrorism, with consequences as disastrous as the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in the US, with no chance of apprehending any perpetrators.  It is argued that the defence and security forces should be involved in bushfire control and that their enormous budget for new submarines and fighter aircraft should be significantly diverted to fire-fighting aircraft purchase.

Introduction: I live just a couple of kilometres west of Maydena, directly in line to be wiped out when the long established (2 weeks and counting) bushfire near Lake Pedder goes rogue when the next extreme temperature - extreme winds event strikes.  Purely by good luck, and certainly not good management, this has not happened yet.  I have, perhaps not surprisingly, been reflecting on, and researching, some alternative approaches to bushfire control in Tasmania. I wrote this paper before the publication of Lyndall Rowley’s article ( http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/Zero-tolerance-of-fires-in-Australia-a-new-paradigm-for/show_comments ) but its release has been delayed because I sent it to TFS, inviting comment. They finally responded, after a week and two friendly reminders -

“Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your article. At this time, we are unable to supply you with a detailed response to all the issues you have raised in the proposed article. I will ensure that your suggestions for improvements are forwarded to the relevant TFS departments and considered during our operational reviews.”

It seems remarkable that my views reflect those of Lyndall’s so closely that readers might reasonably accuse me of plagiarism of both the article and several of the following comments, but I promise that is not the case!  I have resisted the temptation to alter the article in light of response via comments to Lyndall’s article, so some criticisms of her article probably equally apply to mine!

1.  What’s wrong with the TFS website?

Let’s go through the issues systematically: -

a. The grey-coloured burnt area provides no indication of where current active fire activity is occurring; hence any observer cannot tell if there could be a current threat, or if the fire might be heading away from him/her.

b. The site provides no information about the number of fire fighters present each day at each site; let alone what they are actually doing.

c. The site provides no indication of potential threat, such as temperature (current and likely maximum), no indication of current wind speed or direction, nor predicted containment difficulties and activities for any day.

d. The site details regarding current control vehicles and control measures on site are abysmal.  For example, typically the Gordon River fire site has cited, as control vehicles, “car” (is that for transporting the marshmallows for toasting?), “other” (is that a knapsack sprayer, or a serious water bomber?) and “light” tanker?

e. What the hell is really going on is never disclosed in detail.  For example how do the light tankers spend their day? Obviously they can’t get on to the real rugged terrain.  Are there any tracked or log skidder type vehicles present, and how are they deployed?  How is the fire being controlled away from the main road? Is back-burning occurring and how successfully? Are bulldozers busy clearing firebreaks around the fire edge? What problems are being encountered? Maybe this is all considered as not suitable for the general public, but I would like to know in order to avoid sleepless nights worrying about my imminent homelessness! 

f. The updating procedure is not exactly timely.  For example when the Gordon River Road was closed at Maydena it wasn’t until next day that it was officially declared on the website.  The area declared as burnt at the Gordon river fire was only updated on Thursday – 4060 ha) after a week stuck on 4315 ha.  (Just quoting the website – not my task to question their data!)

g. Nowhere does the site disclose and detail capabilities of the total available fire-fighting resources, including the available personnel and various tanker types and fire-fighting aircraft. Annoyingly, it does not mention if any of the supposed available high capacity (approx. 10,000 litres water capacity) aircraft based in mainland Australia are being deployed, and if they are, just where and how effectively?

h. The site is very minimalist in informing readers about what is happening on the general Tasmanian fire-front.  For example the last update was on 26th January advising about awards to TFS staff. i.e. there has been no mention of the Thor large capacity water bomber apparently borrowed or leased from NSW, no data on recent lightning-strike fire-initiation events, no mention of how many fires have actually been completely extinguished, and no details of how many fire-fighters have been deployed from New Zealand and mainland states, nor how much these people are costing us, and exactly what they are doing when dropped off at remote fires without any equipment apart from hand tools?

i. The legend (icons) for describing threat are not on the same page as the map of the various fires, and don’t explain many important matters such as the water carrying capacity of the various aircraft and tankers used.

2. What about bush-fire-fighting ability generally in Tasmania?

There are, to me, a few serious problems regarding current fire-fighting strategies in inaccessible sites.

1. Firstly, the initial response time seems seriously inadequate.  For example for a lightning or arson fire, the current procedures take hours even for a rapid response.  Surely a lightning-strike fire-initiation event should logically initiate an immediate panic attack response?  No waiting to finish lunch and no waiting for official verification of a fire starting.  How about if it can be acknowledged that a lightning fire has a real chance of being extinguished rapidly (within an hour or so!) if it can be quickly identified, and water-bombed with a pre-prepared serious firebombing aircraft (or 5) located nearby?

This raises the question of how to quickly detect a bushfire initiation event, such as arson or lightning strike. A few years ago we had a series of fire-spotter towers manned continuously through the fire danger summer period, with immediate response by the abundant Forestry Tasmania fire-fighters.  These days Forestry Tas is just a shadow of its old self, with seriously depleted fire-fighter personnel numbers.  We now have god only knows what mechanism to best immediately spot new fires in Tasmania?  There is:  https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/fire/bushfires/45-equipment-used-for-bushfire-detection 2 in WA, relying on long abandoned similar fire-spotting towers in Tasmania. There is Sentinel, http://sentinel.ga.gov.au/#/announcement which is a satellite based heat detection system, but takes an hour at least to detect a new fire which only registers when “significant” heat amounts are emitted, so not exactly timely for a new-low intensity lightning-strike fire!  Then there is a reporting hotline from members of the public. I think the report in The Mercury on 28th Jan. http://www.themercury.com.au/news/tasmania/backup-crews-bring-relief/news-story/6608ca062ae10e1a96004f71df4f6184 is revealing: “We suspect [the storms] have started a few new fires, but it’ll take some reconnaissance to find out exactly where and if any of those mean anything really in the greater scheme of things,” she said.”.  That is to say that there appears to be no really rapid means to detect new fires, let alone extinguish them?

DPIPWE ( http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/file.aspx?id=35224 )  very usefully explains some problems associated with fire control in remote areas, including –

- many lightning storms occur with little or no prior warning from forecasts (e.g. Packers Spur fire 2007);

- weather conditions can be too turbulent to permit safe flying soon enough to suppress fires while they are small;

- the sheer remoteness of south-west Tasmania;

- lightning fires can grow rapidly to a size for which Tasmanian suppression resources are insufficient to be effective (e.g. Reynolds Creek fire 2007);

- PWS has limited fire-fighter capacity, if already deployed to other fires in the state then preparedness for new ignitions is compromised (e.g. Giblin River fire 2013). “

My opinion is that we urgently need a serious discussion on this matter – i.e whether we should reinstate fire towers with spotters, or whether public reporting or some satellite technology is adequate?

3. Regarding appropriate fire-fighting machinery: What on earth is the use of standard fire tankers (light or heavy) if they can’t access the fire front?  We seem to almost exclusively rely on these + a handful of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft with pitifully inadequate water carrying capability for all bushfires?  No doubt tankers are indispensable for urban fires, grass fires and generally fires where local access is good. (The most common scenario for Tas Fire Service needs!)  For real bushfires though, where the terrain or bush inhibits access, they have surely to be pretty useless?  This is absolutely in no way a criticism of TFS who do an incredible job with restricted resources.  The fire-fighting crews are likewise all deserving of Australia day medals.  Couldn’t the insurance companies and the government contribute more though by improved resource prioritising?  (e.g. for the cost of the farcical fox eradication program poisoning for imaginary foxes, we could have purchased 2 very useful sky cranes, just for Tasmania!)

What I am saying then, is that we seem to need a vastly-improved mechanism for controlling fires in rugged terrain and bush sites, without easily accessible roads, especially sub-alpine wilderness sites?  This means tracked vehicles (bulldozers), serious air fire-fighting bombers (sky cranes like “Elvis”) and serious fixed-wing fire-fighting aircraft?  We also badly need to get fires extinguished totally, not just make a half-hearted attempt with inadequate resources and leave them as certain ignition points for the next extreme weather event day!  It seems a bit like bad management to wait until things are out of control and then bring in backup resources from interstate and New Zealand?  Couldn’t the armed forces also be deployed as needed?  ( Tasmanian bushfires: Authorities rejected offer of military help to fight World Heritage Area blazes, Senate committee told )

4. The terrorism angle: Surely no-one in Australia could argue that bushfires are not more terrifying than far away nasty people with IED’s and AK47’s.  Every summer all country-based people, in nearly all States, are on edge, for 2 – 3 months, waiting nervously for the next extreme day with high temperatures and strong winds.

Bushfires are callous, indifferent to human suffering, and never surrender without a fight.  They are persevering, attacking relentlessly year after year, (much worse than ISIS), yet ignored by the defence forces because of their alien nature. In fact, any potential disillusioned reasonable citizen from a far away country might say: “Lets join forces with fire as revenge for those bastards who wiped out my family as collateral damage from a drone bombing attack on my home?” (Or even a local pimply-faced young teen misfit with a fire fetish or a local redneck with anger management issues against the government might have a vested interest in starting fires?) 

5.  The financial defence and security angle: Fire control budgets in Tasmania are in the order of a bit over $1 million per year each for Forestry Tas and DPIPWE and $10 million for Tas Fire Services operations ( http://www.fire.tas.gov.au/Show?pageId=colAnnualReports ). Since most TFS operations are in urban areas it appear that a total of only in the order of a couple of millions of dollars are allocated, on average, annually to bushfire control from the various agencies. [But more like $10 million + though so far this year, owing to delays in quickly extinguishing fires a few weeks ago?]

On the other hand, the annual budget for defence forces in Australia is orders of magnitude higher than this at about $32 BILLION. ( http://www.defence.gov.au/Budget/15-16/ ). Personally I consider this obscene, but perhaps I am too cavalier? (Our potential enemies pretty much own our farms, mines and factories anyway, so why attack us?)  What does seem certain though is that there is a genuine case to be made for identifying bushfires as a threat to security and therefore eligible for a significant contribution from the defence budget?  Otherwise anyone can hold us hostage for a very simple bushfire threat situation.

We have approximately 80,000 defence personnel, nearly all preoccupied with training for possible war situations.  Can we please accept that fighting bushfires is tantamount to war, that mobilising forces to fight bushfires, at a moment’s notice, would be fantastic training, logistics wise, and that such use of the armed forces would generate enormous goodwill, without probably significantly compromising conventional battle combat capability?

For the next decade or so the main projected defence capital budgetary items are in the order of $40 billion for submarines plus a similar amount for stealth fighters submarines   ( http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/australias-prickly-defensiveness-20151023-gkgmgl.html 0. That is to say that we could alternatively purchase 1000 skycrane fire-fighting helicopters or even more fixed-wing fire-fighting aircraft, as an alternative to the submarines, plus about the same number as an alternative to the fighters!  The sky cranes are apparently pretty amazing and universally lauded.

( http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/time-to-buy-aircrane-helicopters-blue-mountains-mayor-20131103-2wuuk.html ) [ See the Lyndall Rowley article comments section for a detailed discussion of various advantages and disadvantages of alternative fire fighting aircraft ].

The Collins submarines are only 20 years old and never used in any defensive capability, nor likely to be, plus still functioning as well as ever (ie. not very well!)  Can’t we please accept that we don’t need submarines as much as we need radically improved bushfire control capability?  New Zealand doesn’t have, nor propose purchase, of any submarines. Are they stupid and cavalier about potential invaders, or simply confident that any invading enemies can be repelled with aerial bombardment of proven tasty 1080 poison baits?  Wouldn’t it be incredible if Australia had a major innovative mission to stop devastating bushfires within 10 years, akin to the US going to the moon or conquering cancer?  Oh well, never mind – at least we are very innovative when it comes to tax avoidance!

Surely we could do a deal here somewhere?  Alternative political parties – are you listening?

*Ivo Edwards is a research scientist and inventor from Maydena.  His current obsession is an improved fruit (especially apples) picking aid whereby the fruit being picked is dropped onto a padded mattress like area on a motorised plant nursery type trolley.  The aim is for easier and faster totally bruise free picking, relative to arduous effort of picking into a bag in front of the chest.  Current version is Mark 3. He has previously worked as a factory manager, laboratory manager and research scientist.  He owns the FabricAnimalTraps.com.au site promoting his novel wallaby traps.