Saturday, 21 December 2019

Wildfire management in Australia — fighting a war of survival in a leadership vacuum

In my previous posting on Tuesday, 12 November 2019, I expressed my views on "the meaning of life" in the context of wildfire management.

In support of my opposition to the once-size-fits-all penchant of governments and their emergency management agencies for evacuation and the consequent adverse affects it can have on people either urged of forced to evacuate there needs to be a serious refocus on the importance of the home in managing wildfire. From John O'Donohue, Irish Poet and Philosopher:

WHERE LOVE HAS LIVED

A home is not simply a building; it is the shelter around the intimacy of a life. Coming in from the outside world and its rasp of force and usage, you relax and allow yourself to be who you are. The inner walls of a home are threaded with the textures of one's soul, a subtle weave of presences. If you could see your home through the lens of the soul, you would be surprised at the beauty concealed in the memory your home holds. When you enter some homes, you sense how the memories have seeped to the surface, infusing the aura of the place and deepening the tone of its presence. Where love has lived, a house still holds the warmth. Even the poorest home feels like a nest if love and tenderness dwell there.

When I posted the previous blog this was the fire situation in north-eastern New South Wales on Friday, 8 November 2019:

Plate 1
Friday 8 November 2019

Plate 2
1500 hrs Sunday 8 December 2019
And below, enormous fires north and southwest of Sydney:

Plate 3
1500 hrs Sunday 8 December 2019

And since 8 December its become dramatically worse around Sydney, culminating in NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian last Thursday declaring a "state of emergency".

Plate 4
0750 hrs Sunday 22 December 2019
Seems there's potential for these monsters to join in the Katoomba area

Concerning my previous discourse on the "meaning of life", not only is loss of life and property climbing, the toll now includes firefighters killed in the line duty. Then there's the threat to health on a much broader scale due to heavy smoke, particularly in the Sydney region.

How worse can it get, the smoke interfered with Big Bash cricket in Canberra last evening!!!!

To quote Professor Julius Sumner Miller, "Why is it so?" The answer is largely in the fire triangle.

And of course I'm referring to the only component that humans can control: Fuel.

If you've been following the two main themes of discussion, one view is that "climate change" is responsible for the fires, a very tenuous argument in my opinion because it does not assist with dealing with "the here and now". The other theme concerns ineffective land management i.e. lack of hazard reduction or more particularly fuel reduction burning in forests and National Parks.

From one who is in a well-informed position to comment, listen to what President of the (NSW) Volunteer Fire Fighters Association Mick Holton has to say about wildfires rampaging across NSW, particularly about land management or maybe I should say mismanagement.

Ultimately on your head Premier Berejiklian, and your head Premier Andrews for the second catastrophe in East Gippsland this year.

Plate 5
1505 hrs Sunday 22 December 2019
East Gippsland fires — how long before two or more join?

MANAGING A CRISIS

While thinking about a headline I was tempted to refer to the Prime Minister's much-derided "thoughts and prayers", but what else does he have to offer that will deal effectively with the "here and now"? What advice has the PM been offered by the so-called experts e.g. AFAC, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC or at an emergency meeting of COAG?

Then for a few minutes the headline “adapt or die” — death in the broader context of the harmful effect of the fires on community physiological and psychological health, the economy and environmental values.

Concerning the call by many to declare a "national emergency", what would that entail and how does the PM do that when the States are responsible for wildfire prevention and suppression and can't even agree on how to manage water in the Murray-Darling system.

'The monster': a short history of Australia's biggest forest fire

THE WAY FORWARD

With the approval of the renowned International Association of Wildland Fire, a September 2019 statement on wildfire and the future:

Prime Minister Morrison, it is a national emergency due to war declared on us by wildfire, with climate change adherents predicting that it will only get worse. Time for strategic leadership from the adults that provides immediate and ongoing wildfire mitigating solutions — carpe diem Prime Minister, time to kick arse and deal with a homeland security threat and not abandon us to recalcitrant State governments or an unelected activist.

Stay tuned.

As always, I would welcome your feedback.

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Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Wildfire and the meaning of life

Wildfire, with so much burning here in Australia and in the USA what does the future hold?

I started preparation of this blog during a period of relative calm a few days prior to the hellish fire situation in north-eastern New South Wales on Friday, 8 November 2019, but kept being distracted by a worsening fire situation.

Plate 1
1910 hrs Friday 8 November 2019

Plate 2
1313 hrs Saturday 9 November 2019

Following wildfires across the state of Victoria in 2009 that took 173 lives — how many other lives were shortened in the aftermath of the fires, an issue I'll delve into later — the government established the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission to investigate the circumstances of those fires and make such recommendations as considered appropriate.

Protection of human life

Of the Commission’s 67 recommendations and other writings, to me the following quote stands out:

This reference to the protection of human life appears in several other places in the Commission's report and recommendations. The land use planning element of DELWP, and elsewhere in Victoria's emergency management literature there is reference to the "primacy of life".

Considering the loss of life and peoples homes and livelihoods in the current NSW and Queensland fires how is human life affected? I hear the emergency management agencies and governments congratulating themselves that there was no loss of life or it was minimised — "officially" those unfortunates who did lose their lives will probably carry the blame for their own demise i.e. they were warned.

The meaning of life

Surely there's more to it than simply saving their skins and what they stand up in. To me there is, which brings me to my heading, "Wildfire and the meaning of life."

I'm firmly of the view that driving people to evacuate, in many cases where media photos and video shows unburnt tree canopies and in a couple of cases unburnt shrubs next to burning lost houses, condemns many to be lost to ember attack due to no one being in attendance to extinguish those embers.

I've recently done a lot of reading concerning the meaning of life and found the following two examples useful:

One definition, offered by well-being researcher Laura King and colleagues, says:

And, the following quote from John O'Donohue, Irish Poet and Philosopher that came to my attention earlier today and for this I thank my cousin, Reverend Peter:

WHERE LOVE HAS LIVED

A home is not simply a building; it is the shelter around the intimacy of a life. Coming in from the outside world and its rasp of force and usage, you relax and allow yourself to be who you are. The inner walls of a home are threaded with the textures of one's soul, a subtle weave of presences. If you could see your home through the lens of the soul, you would be surprised at the beauty concealed in the memory your home holds. When you enter some homes, you sense how the memories have seeped to the surface, infusing the aura of the place and deepening the tone of its presence. Where love has lived, a house still holds the warmth. Even the poorest home feels like a nest if love and tenderness dwell there.

The following three photographs are of the remains of a house in Wye River a victim of the 2015 Christmas Day fire. Noting the collectables still standing, love had obviously gone into the garden and no doubt its interior. Knowing a little about the owner it was certainly more than just another house, it was a home with lots of memories.

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 5

A few days ago I heard NSW Premier Berejiklian mention her concern for people traumatised by the fires including words to the effect that we should look out for them and help where we can. No wonder people are traumatised worring about their homes, animals and other things near and dear, and simply fear of wildfire itself.

Plate 6
2030 hrs Tuesday 12 November 2019

Finally, referring to my earlier question "how many other lives were shortened in the aftermath of the 2009 fires" I wonder what the longer term hidden cost will be with mental health issues or suicides out of the current NSW and Queensland fires.

Evacuation is the easy option, we can and must do better at protecting human life.

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Friday, 20 September 2019

Bushfire ‒ "Don't Burn our Future"

An opportune day to prepare this posting as young people and others strike across the world demanding that governments take action against climate change or global warming if you prefer.

The following placard was carried by one of the Gippsland protestors ‒ I wonder if she realises how widely that message applies.

A galvaniser of young people to involve themselves is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish student. You may be aware that Greta declined flying to the US, instead choosing to sail across the Atlantic to New York, asserting that air travel contributes to climate change.

On Saturday, 7 September 2019, I posted Wildfire in Australia — dealing with the new normal. The key message in that posting:

I've been reading of politicians and emergency services leaders describing the recent fire activity in Queensland and New South Wales as "unprecedented". As to the accuracy of this description, to me that's no excuse.

Queensland in particular, why did the emergency management agencies not see this coming? Didn't they have people monitoring the drought factor; seek advice from the Bureau of Meteorology to learn of the potential for "unprecedented" extreme fire weather conditions based climate change?

Again, the question at the end of my 7 September posting, "How then to deal with the "new normal"? Clearly thinking outside the box is required to reduce environmental, social and economic loss from bushfire across Australia, but with their reliance on going it alone and water/fire retardant bombing is that a "bridge to far"?

We have nothing to be smug about in Victoria, the public land manager DELWP has little to be proud of in meeting its responsibility for fire management ‒ prevention and suppression ‒ in Gippsland last summer. What was the otherwise avoidable damage done to the environment as a result of those fires, including harmful products of combustion released into the atmosphere?

And, Minister Lily D'Ambrosio, who has multiple portfolios involved, has since received what some may consider is a hefty pay increase. So much for ministerial responsibility and accountability.

Finally, the Emergency Management Commissioner has some significant challenges if social, economic and environmental loss is to be substantially reduced in a climate increasingly conducive to the outbreak and spread of bushfire in Victoria.

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Saturday, 7 September 2019

Wildfire in Australia — dealing with the new normal

Or bushfire if you prefer.

On Friday, 7 December 2018, I posted "Wildfire management — what's normal today?”

A couple of extracts from that posting:

And here we go again, wildfires destroying homes and business and threatening lives and more property in New South Wales and Queensland.

Plate 1
Wolgan Road, Lidsdale, NSW, 6 September 2019
Photo: Chris Lithgow

Chris Lithgow has kindly allowed me to use his video of the fire in Lidsdale that shows an example of wildfire crossing land.

No doubt the social, economic and environmental losses accruing from these fires and fires yet to occur before the wildfire season or summer is over will be enormous and we've not yet seen the contribution Victoria is likely to add to the losses.

I continue to see governments and others claiming that climate change i.e. global warming is responsible for these fires, but not helping the broader community better prepare to withstand wildfire and its loss potential. By this I mean the forcing or encouraging people to leave their homes to agency firefighters and run the risk that they won't be defended due to lack of firefighters available for this task. I wonder how many of the homes lost will have succumbed to ember attack.

How then to deal with the "new normal"?

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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

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:

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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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