Monday, 11 February 2019

Wildfire in Australia ... what the hell is happening or should I say not happening?

Referring particularly to Victoria, though it's the situation elsewhere in Australia, loss is increasing daily with the current spate of fires.

While I could rant about the failure to bring lightning strikes under control much earlier, this story in today's The Age, is worthy of wide consideration, "We are not doing nearly enough to prevent the impacts of bushfire", by Kate Cotter, CEO Bushfire Building Council of Australia.

The failure by those responsible for the well-being of us and the natural environment includes the failure to manage fuel levels in our forests and parks, resulting in heavy fuel loads that are a major contributor to fire intensity and consequent suppression difficulty.

What are the root causes of theses losses? I've written about them in previous postings and they involve non-performing governments and their fire and emergency and land management agencies and local government. And then there's the firefighting industry: air attack to mention one beneficiary. And the insurance industry is worthy of a mention, too. But more about the insurance industry later.

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Friday, 7 December 2018

Wildfire management — what's normal today?

My posting Failure — two stories on the failure of wildfire management, one distant and the other closer to home, Friday, 23 November 2018, raised some of the issues important to minimising loss in the event of wildfire. To this end I drew on issues that Australia might learn from that came to my attention from following the recent fires in California, USA.

When I posted the 23 November 2018 edition it was my intention to then look at a wildfire experience closer to home, the Christmas Day 2015 fire that engulfed a large part of Separation Creek and Wye River on the Otways coast.

To me, a major cause of property loss and associated loss of life in the California fires is a general lack of understanding of how fire crosses the land and mandatory evacuation orders. From what I've seen from the media and other videos I consider that the agencies are too response focused and need to involve the general public in active defence of their homes where the threat is ember or firebrand attack. What then are the lessons to be learned?

In recent times I’ve become aware of people who refer to the new normal or new abnormal and of course they’re referring to their perceptions climate change or global warming on wildfire. But we should consider the new normal or new abnormal is more than just climate change.

Plate 1
Graphic: The Australian, 22 January 2018

What's the graphic "Carnage Costs" have to do with wildfire?

On 22 January 2018 The Australian carried a story "Major city vigilance urged, with vehicle attacks the ‘new normal’

Causes me to wonder what the total suppression and recovery costs will be for Wye River‒Separation Creek. Could this money have been better spent on health and education in Victoria?

Preparing this posting during the afternoon of 7 December 2018 I listened to broadcast radio alerts to the communities in the Little River area concerning a wildfire — predominantly a grassfire albeit in stony country — with advice to the residents of Little River to evacuate.

From a story in The Age later in the afternoon "Little River fire: Blaze contained but homes still at risk"

Again the vexed question of evacuation, in this case an established township situated in open grasslands and having the benefit of a firebreak/control line in the form of a railway reserve aligned generally northeast southwest directly north of the closer settled part of the township.

Harking back to Dr Gordon's statement concerning the new normal, with global warming, be it short or long term its effect on the heavier fuels in our forests is a higher drought factor that leads to the heavier fuels more easily ignited and contributing to fire intensity that can in turn lead to pyrocumulus development above the fire.

Plate 2
Photo: Nicholson
Plate 2 shows pyrocumulus development above the Kilmore East fire. The photo was taken late afternoon on 7 February 2009 in Sunbury, which is approximately 50 kilometres west of where I estimate the location of the cloud. A lot of fuel is required to enable the development of a cloud of that size. Later into the evening it was producing lightning and light falls of rain towards its south-eastern end. Clearly a very hot fire.

Queensland fires spark federal inquiry

In a story in The Australian on 7 December 2018, concerning the recent wildfires in Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is quoted:

Climate change, Premier Palaszczuk? Begs the questions, what was your government doing to prepare for the effect of climate change? Were your government's agencies monitoring the increasing dryness of Queensland and modifying or adapting emergency management plans to take account of increasing vulnerability to wildfire? And what of preparing the people of Queensland? Nothing, I assume from the decision to evacuate 8,000 people from Gracemere to Rockhampton as one example.

It seems from the story that the federal parliamentary inquiry will have a relatively narrow focus:

Queenslanders, indeed all Australians deserve more and the inquiry should be expanded to consider the full gamut of factors that contributed to the fires and losses incurred, and the inquiry should not allow itself to be dominated by the emergency management agencies or their representatives. All wisdom concerning wildfire is not confined to the emergency services and the general public should be encouraged have input.

And again back to Dr Gordon's statement concerning the new normal.

It’s being reported that police are investigating the cause of the Little River fire considered to be "suspicious". Without going into detail, malicious fire-lighting or the "weaponising" of wildfire should be considered part of the new normal.

With 50 firefighting vehicles reported as being committed to the Little River fire, where did they come from and were their home areas weakened in the event of other fires occurring? Would a trained and supported community have reduced the need to draw so many resources from other parts of Victoria?


Gracemere is a prime example of the need to seriously review wildfire management arrangements in Australia in today's environment.

Plate 3
Photo: Google Earth

Plate 3 is a Google Earth photo of Gracemere, Queensland. Take a stroll through and round the outskirts of the town using Google Earth Street View and determine for yourself its vulnerability to wildfire — comparable in size and surrounds with Hamilton or Horsham in Western Victoria and all surrounded predominantly by grassland.

Why then the decision to evacuate Gracemere?

Victoria fire model helped save Queensland town

From a story in The Australian, 29 November 2018, reasonably assumed to be from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services:

Makes me wonder what the modelling actually predicted and who directed the evacuation.

The same questions could be asked concerning the advice to evacuate Little River Township.

This is what I wrote about in my last bushfire blog posting. How many homes, business, schools, etc, will be lost due there being no one there to extinguish embers as they begin to arrive, with homes, businesses and community infrastructure at risk far exceeding the availability of firefighting vehicles and firefighters to protect them?

Finally, from the USA:

Note that the coloured text indicates links to further information to be clicked on.

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Friday, 23 November 2018

Failure — two stories on the failure of wildfire management, one distant and the other closer to home

In my blog posting SURVIVING BUSHFIRE, 26 October 2018, I mainly covered two issues:
  • Lessons for Australia in recent fires in California
  • Differences in wildfire fuel Victoria v California

In dealing with wildfire fuel I gave examples of how native trees in Victoria are involved in or respond to wildfire compared with trees in California.

Media coverage of the California fires in Australia is sure to unnerve many in our community and prompts the question, why are the fire management agencies not explaining the differences in fire behaviour due to the vegetation involved? Or does the media coverage serve to strengthen the "leave early" policy?

At this point I must stress that my criticisms are of fire and related emergency management policies, not firefighters who no doubt worked very hard and exposed to personal risk at times.

Out of the mouths of babes

There has been much criticism and mocking of US President Donald Trump for his comment about raking:

While raking the floor of the forest to remove the fine fuel is impractical, basically Trump is correct.

From the many graphic photographs and video clips posted by various media outlets it's quite apparent that extreme fire behaviour was occurring in the back country forests and being spurred along by chaparral and dry grassland. Add the effect of strong, dry Santa Ana wind notorious for driving wildfire in California and the result is fire behaviour shown in Plate 1.

Plate 1
A plume of smoke rises above the Camp Fire as it moves through Paradise, California. High winds and low humidity caused the Camp Fire's rapid spread.
Photo Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

What then of Mr Trump's raking the ground? Clearly, a failure to properly manage the wildland, regardless of who is responsible together with the effect of global warming, has led to the growing intensity of fires in recent years, which includes the loss of lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters in Arizona in 2013.

But other factors leading to the life and property loss we are in witnessing in recent times includes a failure to educate communities at risk on what to actually expect and how to survive coupled with mandatory evacuation in the teeth of a fire.

While putting some at extreme risk, ordering people out also deprives the agency firefighters of the support of many with homes at risk, who with training and support from the firefighting agencies during the run of a fire could do much to reduce property loss and related loss of life.

Plate 2
Land Park, Redding, California.
Photo Axios 12 August 2018

And what of suppression and recovery costs compared to money needing to be spent on effective wildland management and township protection, I expect it would have been mind-numbing, particularly when the cost of air tankers are included.

Plate 3
CFA trialing a Bambi bucket beneath its light observation helicopter in the mid-80s
Photo Nicholson

Plate 4
Dromader agricultural aircraft being demonstrated as a fire bomber in the early 80s.
Photo Nicholson

And on air tankers, I'm a supporter of helitankers (Plate 3) and small fixed wing agricultural aircraft (Plate 4) for their ability to be very precise with the delivery of their suppressant when compared with heavy fixed wing aircraft such as the B737 taken on in NSW for this summer wildfire season.

This extract speaks on the limitations of air attack:

An extract on cost-effectiveness from MEGAFIRE The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame, Michael Kodas, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2017, under the chapter heading The Fire-Industrial Complex:

Weldon [George Weldon, former deputy director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service's northern region] cited air tankers, which he helped manage when he was fighting fires, as an example of how industry drives wildfire policy. "The [US] Forest Service is looking at spending $500 million [USD] to get new-generation air tankers," he said. "But there's never been a scientific study that demonstrates the effectiveness of large air tankers. If a study was ever done, in my opinion, they are not worth the money at all."

Weldon and other retired Forest Service firefighters cited estimates that air tankers are effective only about 30 percent of the time. "It's a prime example of how powerful the fire-industrial complex has become in a very short time," he said.

No study done on the efficacy of large air tankers? Not entirely correct. In my blog posting "Setting priorities - what's important and not so important to a Coroner", Saturday, 24 December 2016, I posed questions concerning the deployment of a large fixed wing air tanker to Wye River‒Separation Creek relatively late on Christmas Day 2015.

Referring to that posting, "For those interested in cost-effectiveness, and governments should be, the Bushfire CRC report "EVALUATION OF THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE 10 TANKER AIR CARRIER DC-10 AIR TANKER, VICTORIA 2010" should be food for serious consideration. Whilst it may look impressive to the gullible masses, could the money have been better spent on prevention over the years prior to the fire?"

Causes me to wonder, have we been seduced by the air tanker industry as they are not a panacea for preventing wildfire loss?

And on certain response comments to that blog posting, Karma at work?

Now, back to mandatory or officially encouraged evacuation. I find these stories from California encouraging "Everything Around Him Burned. He Stayed Put, and Lived to Tell the Tale" in the New York Times and With Flames All Around Them, Hospital Staff, Fire Chief Keep Patients Safe in Paradise Home in FOX 40.

The FOX 40 story is interesting, indeed inspiring as it shows how lay people with the support of a trained and experienced firefighter successfully defended a home:

Eventually, they ran into Paradise Fire Chief David Hawks.

"There’s a dog door here that one of the paramedics made access to it. We unlocked the garage, moved patients into this home and sheltered them in place," Hawks told FOX40.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Emergency medical technicians and nurses became stand-in firefighters, some getting on the roof of the home to clear gutters of brush sic [actually pine needles]. They hosed down the outer edge of the property.

They saved the home, all while their patients were kept safe inside.

"He said, 'You do this, you do this, you do this,'" Ferguson said. "All of us shifted our minds to what do we need to do for survival mode here."

"They followed directions," Hawks said. "They did exactly what I asked them to do."

Amid a neighborhood devastated by the Camp Fire, the Chloe Court home survived -- and so did all the patients and medical staff inside.

Listen to Chief Hawks in the video at the head of the FOX40 story (above) as he describes the action necessary to successfully defend that house, it's not rocket science.

Unfortunately, wildfire survival planning at individual level is still predicated on evacuation.

Plate 5
Jamieson Creek fire rampaging towards the east on Christmas Day 2015 prior to the wind direction changing to push it into Wye River‒Separation Creek
Photo Stoios

Interesting the similarity between the scenes in Plate 1 and Plate 5. A fundamental difference between the two situations, the people under threat from the Camp Fire had a few short hours to take action compared with the people of Wye River-Separation Creek — it seems the Incident Controller had at least from 21 December 2015, four days, and that intelligence firmed up on 23 December, to organise the defence of those two communities with the participation of property owners prepared to assist. Why did this preparation not happen and it was left to well into Christmas Day before people were urged to leave?

For those interested in MEGAFIRE The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame here is a review in Wildfire Magazine

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Friday, 26 October 2018

Surviving Bushfire

Last Saturday, 27 October, I delivered a session at a Safe Healthy Summers Region Forum hosted by Nillumbik Shire Council, at Eltham:

Plate 1
First page from my PowerPoint presentation

The brief was to present my views on the recent wildfires (bushfires) that ravaged parts of California, USA; Algarve, Portugal; and around Athens, Greece and what we might learn from those fires.

In doing so I sought to mention a broader context of loss due to wildfire:
  • human life
  • pets and other domesticated animals
  • family home
  • sources of income e.g. tools of trade, farm animals, crops
  • consequential effect on relationships in the family suffering loss
  • consequential medical issues associated with suffering loss

Since Saturday while research wildfire information from the US I've added two more, important issues for another day:
  • deleterious effect on the natural environment
  • avoidable impost on the public purse

Recent fires in North America, Portugal and Greece … what lessons for Australia?

Having the benefit of spending time with forestry and fire agencies in Canada and the USA and being a long term student of fire behaviour and community responses generally I do have some understanding of wildfires and their impact in North America.

Concerning the fires in Algarve and Greece, in places the vegetation is similar to South-eastern Australia and the wildfire problem is similar to ours.

Currently we Victorians have the potential benefit of the following to mitigate wildfire loss:
  • A “pecuniary interest” clause in the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (CFA Act) that prevents people being forced to evacuate in the event wildfire does or may threaten their home;
  • A provision in the CFA Act that enables the serving of “fire prevention notices” to abate fire hazards on private land;
  • A provision in the CFA Act that places fire prevention or mitigation responsibilities on municipalities and public authorities;
  • An Australian Standard for construction in wildfdire-prone areas: AS 3959; and
  • CFA volunteer brigades embedded in much of the urban/rural interface and beyond enabling actual community involvement in emergency management.

Lessons for us?

The folly of widespread evacuation, be it voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders issued.

Plate 2
Land Park, Redding, California.
Photo Axios 12 August 2018

Plate 3
Swasey Drive, Redding, California.
Photo Axios 12 August 2018

Why folly? See what remains unburnt and not even scorched in Plates 2 and 3 and I’m referring to the vegetation.

The vegetation that remains undamaged is due to it being beyond flame contact and radiant heat sufficient to scorch that vegetation.

How wildfire travels across the landscape

Basically, fire travels across the landscape by igniting the fine fuel or vegetation such as dry grass, fallen dead leaves and twigs up to pencil size. Depending on the dryness of the heavier fuels such as dead-and-down tree limbs the fine fuel acts as “kindling” for the heavier fuels.

Nature of the fuel or vegetation in California compared with South-eastern Australia

The vegetation where the recent fires have occurred can be broadly described as grassland, chaparral and conifer forests i.e. pine and cypress trees.

Plate 4
An example of chaparral in California.
Photo: California Chaparral Institute

Plate 5
Chaparral fire in California.
Photo: East County Magazine, San Diego, California

Heath land in Victoria, such as that shown in the following two photographs, is similar to chaparral:

Plate 6
Heath at Anglesea, Victoria.
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 7
Heath and low level scrub at Fairhaven, Victoria.
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 8
Chaparral, cypress and pines in California.
Photo: FireScape, Arizona, USA

Plate 9
Mendocino Complex Fire in pines, California, USA.
Photo: Redhead Blackbelt, Northern California, USA

Plate 10
Young pine plantation near Harrietville, Victoria.
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 10 is included to show the difference between pines and our native eucalypt trees. As shown in Plate 9 pines burn vigorously when ignited and like eucalypt species contain volatiles. However, unlike eucalypt canopies that tend to have significant gaps between the canopy and surface fine fuels or "kindling", pine and cypress tree canopies tend to be closer to the ground and compact compared to eucalypts.

Following are a series of photographs I've taken over the years following fires that have involved trees and shrubs in Victoria.

Plate 11
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 11 is a view of Firth Park in the Lerderderg State Park a few days after the "Ash Wednesday 1983" fire showing an absence of "crown" or tree canopy fire in the forest in the background. Note the singed trees or shrubs in the foreground.

Plates 12 and 13 are further south from Firth Park towards Bacchus Marsh.

Plate 12
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 13
Photo: John Nicholson

What is particularly significant about Plates 12 and 13 apart from the lack of crown fire? The unburnt shrubs/suckers at the base of the trees!

Below from my blog posting of 22 June 2014 are two examples of trees and shrubs in the path of the 9 February 2014 Gisborne fire as it travelled northeast towards Riddells Creek after the wind change.

The fire weather conditions this day were described as being the worst since 7 February 2009 (Black Saturday). Again, observe the vegetation close to the ground left unburnt when the fast moving grass fire passed.

Plate 14
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 15
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 15 is particularly significant in that cypress trees along the fence line were only scorched.

Plate 16
Skyline Road, Christmas Hills, post 7 January 2009
Photo: Bell

The arrow in Plate 16 points to a gap in the tree canopy that reveals undamaged eucalypt tree canopies in the background that were certainly in the path of the fire. Those eucalypts are on one of the higher points on the western side of Skyline Road.

Apart from heath and low scrub, the evidence is that crown fire is a relatively rare occurrence in the Victorian wildfire environment compared with how fire moves across the landscape in California. Unfortunately, the fires in California, Algarve and Greece featured large in Australian media and undoubtedly served to frighten lay people — counterproductive to building a wildfire resistant community.

Why then the loss of dwellings?

Plates 2 and 3 show unburnt vegetation around the remains of dwellings, and far more numerous than shown here. The unburnt vegetation tells us that consistent flames and radiant heat sufficient to ignite did not reach these dwellings.

The evidence suggests they were ignited by windborne embers from fire further distant. The reason for this ignition can vary, but one cause may have been embers landing on easily ignited bituminous roofing tiles preheated by the heat of the day plus hot air from the fire. Another cause may have been embers landing in vegetative mulch and igniting flammable vegetation close to windows, the glass eventually breaking and allowing fire to reach inside the dwelling.

This fire had also developed into what some may refer to as a "fire storm" with wind so strong as to damage the dwellings and allow ember penetration.

Plate 17
Land Park, Redding, California.
Photo: Google Earth 28 June 2016

Plate 17 is the current pre-fire photo of the land shown in Plate 1. There is nothing dramatic about the vegetation shown and if nothing had changed there was vegetation removal at the rear of the western side of the development and a much broader clearing to the north to inhibit flame contact and dangerous radiant heat reaching the dwellings.

The two yellow arrows point to backyard swimming pools that are points of reference for those who want to go exploring with Google Street View — views towards the west from further north along Buenaventura Boulevard show the vegetation involved.

How wildfire arrives

Windborne embers and firebrands are the major method of fire spread by igniting fresh fuel ahead of the main fire front. This process is known “spotting”, as in the lighting of “spot fires” or fires starting in separated spots ahead of the fire front. To be a threat, this burning material must be sufficiently light in weight to be carried by wind while continuing to flame or smoulder sufficiently long enough to ignite fresh fuel.

I categorise “spotting” as follows:


The transmission of light burning or smouldering material generally horizontally above ground out to a distance of 100 metres and usually in the form of burning dead eucalypt leaves and other material of a similar weight picked up off the ground, and possibly the larger forms of grass seed heads or burning stringybark from tree trunks.

Stringybark eucalypts, where the bark has not been given a recent “haircut” — singed by fire leaving the bark tight against the trunk with little or no fine fibres available to be ignited — will shed sparks and embers as fire travels up the bark. In strong wind stringybarks can be a prolific source of embers over a relatively short distance until all the fibrous aerated bark has been consumed.


Long distance spotting commonly involves the bark from gum species eucalypts, some of which shed their bark in the form of long ribbons that are susceptible to being carried aloft in the convection column or updraft above the fire. These ribbons of bark are generally aerodynamically shaped and consequently carry further in the upper wind. Due to their size they can remain alight for some time before falling to the ground and starting new fires, sometimes several kilometres downwind from the main fire. Plate 18 shows examples of gum bark ribbons.

Plate 18
Examples of gum bark indicated by the arrows.
Photo: John Nicholson

Wye River–Separation Creek, Christmas Day 2015

Plate 19
Wye River, Victoria, Christmas Day 201.
Photo: Stoios

Plate 19 shows spot fires burning under the influence of upslope in the absence of wind. The spots were due to gum bark firebrands further north following the break-out of the Jamieson Creek fire that occurred on 19 December 2015.

Plate 20
Wye River, Victoria, 11 February 2016
Photo: John Nicholson

Plate 20 shows the aftermath of the Christmas Day fire, with scorched tree canopies and virtually no true "crowning", but 116 houses lost in Wye River–Separation Creek. Plate 21 show the effect of the fire on vegetation on the high side of Karingal Drive where there were many houses lost.

Plate 21
Wye River, Victoria, 11 February 2016
Photo: John Nicholson

Why only scorching as shown in Plates 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 21? My opinion is that there was insufficient surface fine fuel or "kindling" under those trees and shrubs to provide sufficient heat to dry the foliage to the stage where it would actually burn.

Anglers Rest, Victoria, 2003

Here is an example of how fire crosses the land in an under-story fuel reduced environment. The video was recorded at Anglers Rest north of Omeo in January 2003 when the building was directly threatened — may take time to load but worth waiting. It shows some well prepared people protecting the building from fire in very windy conditions. The video shows fire moving past as "spot fires" that eventually join, but much of the fuel has been consumed by the time the "spots" join. Also note no "crowning".

I've since found the following of interest:

1. Concerning trees reducing wind speed

During my presentation I mentioned that it's well established that trees act as a wind break.

Following is an extract from an ABC News story:

2. Global warming and wildfire

A thought-provoking BBC podcast on the effect of global warming on wildfire "The Long Hot Summer, Heatwave" Episode 1 of 2.

Between 12 minutes and 17 minutes running time the podcast covers wildfire in California, USA, earlier this year and the believed impact of global warming, and note the comment "perpetual fire season" — some are referring to this as the "new normal". Some photos and comments on the Carr fire here

3. Evacuation

What does this mean for Australia? Given the early onset of fires in Eastern Victoria this year it seriously questions the appropriateness of the one-size-fits-all leave early message if life loss is to be prevented and property loss minimised.

Photo: John Nicholson

Works in progress

There is more I would like to add, but this post is already too long. Consequently, I will follow this with another in the near future. Feel free to use the "following" facility in the side margin if you want to receive future posts.

Finally, please make your own inquiries about how much defensive space you need to have around your home or out-buildings, as individual circumstances vary according to slope aspect, vegetation type/s and the building's fire resistance capability. Also obtain CFA's literature dealing with bushfire survival, property preparation and leaving early.


While speaking about fire behavior I mentioned Bushfires in Australia, R.H. Luke and A.G. McArthur.

My copy is old: Department of Primary Industry,Forestry and Timber Bureau, CSIRO Division of Forest Research, AGPS, Canberra, 1978. It is still current and I consider it a preeminent textbook for those wanting to learn about wildfire in Australia. It should still be available somewhere.

Meantime, if you have a question or comment please use the facility at the foot of this posting.

Note that the coloured text indicates links to further information to be clicked on.

I have taken the liberty of using photographs that are not mine and have endeavoured to acknowledge the owners or copyright holders. The photos are used for educational purposes. If anyone is troubled by this please let me know via the comments facility at the bottom of this posting

Friday, 15 June 2018

Fire suppression before prevention — but at what cost?

In recent times Victorians have seen serious fires involving a high rise residential building at Docklands, a waste storage facility at Coolaroo and the St Patrick's Day fires in Western Victoria.

In every case I will argue that there are government agencies, both local and state, that have prevention responsibilities both statutory and/or moral to mitigate the risk of fire in such environments. These agencies and government officers include the fire services, EPA, municipal councils, Emergency Management Commissioner and Inspector General for Emergency Management (IGEM).

Each of these fires disrupted communities and cost a fortune to make safe. Then there is the cost we all carry in helping affected people recover.

The Grenfell Tower fire in London, for which the fire brigade has received some criticism, interests me as it should the fire agencies in Australia — there are important lessons to be learned as there are parallels in Victoria, indeed Australia.

One may well ask why these avoidable losses are increasingly occurring when it should be the opposite. It's because governments and their senior public sector minions allocate the bulk of financial resources into fire suppression and cover the losses when they inevitably occur, losses that can be enormous in both financial costs across the whole community and particularly by those who suffer directly and in many cases are affected emotionally.

An example of finances increasingly being directed to suppression is the Emergency Management Commissioner fostering the use of helicopters to fight fires at night, when he knows that the time air attack is most required is when weather conditions ground these aircraft, day or night. And all the while people are being encouraged to leave their homes undefended and risk losing them. There's more to providing leadership in emergency management than promoting air attack, which comes at considerable cost and is not a panacea.

Probably the most recent example of a very costly failure of wildfire risk management are the St Patrick's Day 2018 fires in Western Victoria that I began to cover in my blog posting on Saturday, 14 April 2018 "Wildfires caused by the electrical distribution system ... why?

Plate 1
Pole supporting 22,000 volt conductors at The Sisters
responsible for one of the St Patrick's Day fires.
Photo The [Warrnambool] Standard 27 March 2018

Towards the end of the posting "Wildfires caused by the electrical distribution system ... why?" I referred to the Government appointed board of inquiry into the occurrence of bush and grass fires in Victoria in 1977 conducted by Sir Edward Hamilton Esler Barber, Q.C., former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and concluded with the final two comments:

Considering the action taken following the release of Barber's report and recommendations, clearly CFA felt chastened by his censure of its poor fire prevention performance.

Enough for now with more to follow including the eventual fate of section 44, but bells already ringing for anyone yet?

First, on CFA feeling chastened by Barber's censure.

The Regional Officer in Charge

Shortly after being transferred from Region Nine, Warragul, to Region 14, Sunbury, in late 1977, CFA directed officers in charge of fire control regions that reports according to section 44 CFA Act and listing issues to be covered were to be submitted regularly, regardless of whether a fire hazard was detected or not.

As I remember that was either late 1977 or early 1978 and the first time I can recall section 44 was to be addressed, and I commenced working in fire control regions in late 1967.

At that time regions had an officer in charge and a deputy and one transport vehicle. To get us both out on the road inspecting, CFA provided an additional vehicle to each region. Though years late it was.

I can remember driving with one eye on the road and the other on power lines and trees likely in contact and long spans where spreaders to prevent conductor clash should be considered.

Plate 2
Another view of the fallen pole at The Sisters shown in Plate 1
Photo ABC News 22 March 2018

Plate 3
Close up of the braced base of the pole shown in Plate 2
Photo ABC News 22 March 2018

Over time my interest extended to tired, cracked old timber poles, timber poles with flammable vegetation around them, braced poles that should have been replaced and suspect timber cross arms.

The parts of the pole shown in Plates 2 and 3 show that it was braced, braced because a pole inspector considered it was at risk of falling over.

Braced for 20 years is one estimate I've heard, but happy to be corrected if provided with proof that I'm wrong.

Plate 4

Plate 4 shows a 22,000 volt line on the eastern side of the Geelong–Bacchus Marsh Road, approximately 2,000 metres north of the Geelong Ring Road. Plate 5 shows this pole braced on one side.

It also shows how exposed it is to wind from the northwest to southwest. If this pole was to be be subjected to strong wind in circumstances similar to that experienced by the pole shown in Plates 1 and 2 would it remain upright?

Food for thought as to where a fire caused by the conductors in contact with the ground would head.

Plate 5

Plate 5 shows the brace bolted to the north side of the pole. A recessed nut is just visible on the southern side of the pole. Plate 6 is a view of a recessed nut on the southern side of the pole.

Plate 6

Plate 7

Very 'tired' poles are sometimes braced on both sides as shown in Plate 7, obviously needed to provide restraint superior to a nut on the end of a bolt. Is that what happened with the pole shown in Plates 1 and 2, was it only braced on one side?

The yellow arrow in Plate 3 indicates the length of brace below ground level. To me the butt or base of the pole seems intact or undamaged, with the barely visible green pole at the right hand right side of Plate 2 suggesting that the pole did not fall but snapped off at some point along the brace, with the old pole base removed by the power company to enable the same hole to be used for the new pole. The remains of the pole shown in Plate 1 tend to support this theory.

Maybe someone has photos that reveal more of the fallen pole they could send me, with anonymity guaranteed.

Plate 8

Plate 8 shows the base of the pole shown in Plate 4. What does the condition of the pole at ground level suggest? Remember, it's only braced on one side. The plugs are part of the pole inspection process and in the past were part of pole preservation measures.

Plate 9

Plate 9 is here to show a severely compromised pole that I found in a suburban street in Ruthven. It's only braced on the left side.

Plate 10

Plate 10 shows the mark of the pole inspector for 2017 on the colour plate that seems to be standard for that year. I'm really curious to learn if the pole inspector had been to The Sisters pole prior to it coming down.

Vigilance required of all of us

I urge everyone to keep an eye on the poles and wires in their area and report any concerns to the CFA office in their part of Victoria to help the Chief Officer meet the section 24(d) CFA Act responsibility or MFB fire station if the concern is within the metropolitan fire district, and do it in writing.

Now, what of the fate of section 44 CFA Act?

During my last few years with CFA as Director Risk Management I was responsible for taking section 44 reports to the CFA Board, reports that were taken very seriously and issues that I was expected to know inside out and recommend solutions —challenging, some of those Board meetings. However, at that time CFA had a Board that understood the full extent of its responsibility for both prevention and suppression!

Then, in early 2012 Section 44 was revoked! And, who was it who introduced the Amendment Bill and who was Premier of Victoria at that time? A National Party member who would no doubt have claimed to represent the interests and welfare of country people and a Premier with a largely rural electorate: South West Coast and veterinarian who surely would have understood the effect of wildfire on farm animals.

From the Amendment Bill:

Clause 34 repeals section 44 of the CFA Act as the requirement for “every officer in charge of a fire control region” to undertake regular inspections within his or her region and report whether the provisions of the CFA Act are being properly and efficiently carried out and administered has been in the CFA Act since 1945 and duplicates other investigative, monitoring and reporting functions undertaken by CFA to the CFA Board and Government. This is an inefficient use of CFA resources.

"an inefficient use of CFA resources"!!!

"duplicates other investigative, monitoring and reporting functions undertaken by CFA to the CFA Board"

Other investigative, monitoring and reporting functions, what were they? None, if any, that matched the importance of section 44.

What were these people who were supposed to be acting in our best interests thinking when they repealed section 44?

How did this happen? Was it driven from within the CFA and if so why? What prompted and supported this irresponsible weakening of Victoria's protection from loss due to wildfire?

Regardless, it's reasonable to conclude that those who shepherded this repeal through the Parliament ultimately have some culpability for the fires caused by the failure of the electrical distribution network on St Patrick's Day.

But this is not the end of it, there are others with a statutory fire prevention and reporting function that it appears are not meeting their responsibilities e.g. see my blog posting of Sunday, 21 February 2016 "Obfuscation, sanitising, cabinet-in-confidence documents, burying, leaking — examples of some of the processes of government".

Note that the coloured text indicates links to further information to be clicked on.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Community lifelines and Telstra: outage due to lightning strike, true or false?

In emergency management jargon, "lifelines" are services or infrastructure essential to community well-being, such as the supply of electricity, water supplies, main transport corridors and telephonic communications and I would certainly include the emergency call facility Triple Zero (000).

My blog posting , "Wildfires caused by the electrical distribution system ... why?", 14 April 2018, was principally about the failure of electric supply in parts of Western Victoria that also caused fires resulting in serious loss in the community, particularly by those people directly impacted and why that was allowed to occur. My analysis of media photographs reveals that three (3) high voltage conductors were involved — see Plate 1 below.

Plate 1
Photo ABC News 22 March 2018

The size of the insulators on a steel cross arm is consistent with a 22,000 volt feeder line serving communities on a broad scale. So many people rely on electricity for many different purposes, and in recent times to maintain telephone services now supplied by the NBN where a supply of electric power to the modem is essential.

The electricity distribution network is clearly a "lifeline" for the community!

Telstra and the Triple Zero emergency call facility

Following the recent partial failure of the Triple Zero (000) emergency call facility and other services, I did some sleuthing to determine for myself if we were being told the full truth about the cause of damage to fibre optic cable between Bowral and Orange, NSW.

This video clip from the ABC News story posted below shows fire confined to the roadside, a remarkable aftermath of a lightning strike.

Quote: "The telco later tweeted a photo of the cable pit, between Bowral and Orange, which it said had "significant fire damage consistent with lightning strike".

But Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said he could not guarantee that was the case. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the closest lightning strike at the time was about 200km west of Orange — 200 kilometres west of Orange!

Then, "All of our evidence suggests it is a lightning strike," Mr Penn said.

"There is physical damage and fire damage to the particular pit where the actual cable is, but obviously we can't prove that."

The ABC News story "Government to investigate Telstra triple-0 outage after emergency calls go unanswered", 4 May 2018, quoting the Telstra CEO.

The video posted above is very informative ... look closely, preferably on a large desktop screen, for a lightning strike there seems to be little damage to the pit and the cable consistent with the power of a lightning strike such as that which damaged the tree at the start of the Wye River-Separation Creek fire — Plates 2 and 3.

Plate 2

Plate 3

And, why would lightning seek out a fibre optic cable that from my research, and I stand to be corrected, has no metal in the cable, yet ignore the metal post indicators except for signs that they had been scorched by the burning grass around them?

Plate 4
Twitter: Telstra News

Or was it a case of the pit cover not being in place and a plastic cable joint cover was exposed to fire in the grass, and was heated to the point when it melted/burned exposing a cable joint?

To me, it seems innocuous roadside fuel reduction where the burning had confined to the road reserve, but concealed within the long grass was there an exposed cable joint? Begs the question, did the length of the burn cross other pits where the cable remained unscathed?

Surely this raises the question, how many other Telstra cable pits or related infrastructure are vulnerable to fire or other damaging influence? Here’s one:

Plate 5
Broken Telstra pillar exposing soft cable

Plate 6
Viewing this on a large screen will reveal the cable already
damaged where it rests against the broken metal edge

Plate 7
Unprotected conduit leading into the nearby cable pit

Plates 5, 6 and 7 were taken early in May this year in Sunbury Township with the situation clearly visible at the side of a main road and has been this way for months. If it is redundant then it should have been removed, but given it's one — Plate 8 — on a line further along that side of the road serving a large residential area I suspect it is still in service.

Plate 8

Particularly for Victorians, we should be aware of the potential vulnerability of "lifelines", with the recent failure of the electrical distribution in Western Victoria a prime example and bring to the attention of those with responsibility for monitoring the state of "lifelines" situations that should be a cause for concern.

This ought to be a concern for governments at every level, as not only Triple Zero is vulnerable, but possibly some cables feeding cellular telephone towers are vulnerable, too. Then there are fire alarms and people relying on personal medical alert systems.

Emergency Management Act 2013

Emergency Management Act 2013 No 73 of 2013 Part 7A - Critical infrastructure resilience Section 74C defines essential services. However, given the increasing reliance on various forms of communications, including the delivery of NBN by cable, the legislated definition needs amending to include "telephony and data transmission".

For those interested in accountability and resilience in emergency management the whole of Parts 7 and 7A Emergency Management Act 2013 is enlightening reading.

More paid firefighters and water bombing aircraft can only respond to fires and won't prevent pre-response damage to some essential infrastructure, such as the fibre optic cable mentioned above — what is needed is much more emphasis on PREVENTION and community involvement. That's a major step towards modernising a fire service!

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