Saturday, 24 December 2016

Setting priorities - what's important and not so important to a Coroner

I'm preparing this posting being reminded that we are into the period between the Jamieson Creek fire that occurred on 19 December 2015 and eventually rampaged on to devastate parts of the residential areas of Wye River and Separation Creek on Christmas Day and afterwards kept the fire and emergency services occupied for days.

The cost to the people of both settlements has been enormous, both financially, and emotionally for some I'm told. Then there's the other costs to the broader community, such as reliability of the Great Ocean Road.

If the Colac Otway Shire and the CFA had met their statutory fire prevention responsibilities, DELWP had been serious about its fuel management responsibilities according to the Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land, 2012 and Vicroads had worked cooperatively and effectively within the Colac Otway Shire Municipal Emergency Planning Committee, surely the effect of wildfire in the forest abutting the Great Ocean Road on soil stability would have been a serious consideration. Or maybe I'm being too generous and the knowledge and commitment is lacking in Vicroads.

Add to this the adverse effect of large scale tree removal on soil stability on reconstruction in Wye River and Separation Creek.

Were the trees damaged by fire to such an extent that large scale removal was considered necessary? Who made that decision and what was the criteria?

From my observations shortly after the fire the extent of tree removal seems wildly excessive, but then so is the broad-brush approach to bushfire attack level (BAL) ratings.

Let's digress a little. The Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land, 2012 is worth reading, particularly:

page 1 – under the heading "Primary objectives for bushfire management on public land in Victoria", first dot point. The Great Ocean Road would fall in the category "essential infrastructure", also known as "lifelines".

Clearly, the government through its agency DELWP failed miserably to meet the requirements of the "Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land, 2012" when it came to helping protect Wye River–Separation Creek and the strategically important Great Ocean Road. And here's an outcome that could have been avoided or at least substantially reduced if those responsible had done their jobs. It's known as "prevention" and it's far less costly than emergency response and recovery.

Some will remember a fire that occurred in the Lancefield area of Victoria that spread from an earlier DELWP fuel reduction burn-off. Premier Andrews was quick for the government to accept responsibility for the fire and promised compensation for people who could have done more to protect their homes. Here is one example of a house clearly lost from the effect of fire spreading from ember attack:

Lancefield, a fire that due to the fickleness of the weather and limited available resources a few days later escaped from a fuel reduction burn intended to protect those properties in the path of that fire.

Just imagine if later that year under different circumstances there had been no effort to reduce the fuel on the public land and a fire occurred from other causes, taking out those same unprepared properties. Would they have been eligible for compensation? Would the owners have been critical of DELWP for not fuel reducing the public land? Probably. Regardless, "a number of times Mr Fennessy [DELWP Secretary] said sorry to locals over the fire".

An obviously worried government commissioned inquiries that ultimately led to Premier Andrews departing from a recommendation of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission concerning a fuel reduction burning target. Any connection with a recent statement from EMC Lapsley concerning the failure to reach the fuel reduction burning target this year? A story in itself!

Shock and horror for the government, approximately 15 weeks later on 19 December 2015 lightning started a fire in the forest a relatively short distance southwest of Lorne, and the rest is very sad history for many people directly and indirectly affected.

No apology from the DELWP Secretary this time, just government 'spin' and cover-up at a high level.

Some health and safety and incident management considerations.

After telling us that aircraft were ineffective on the fire burning in a "gorge", as the fire was entering Wye River–Separation Creek I'm reliably informed that this large aircraft, the DC10 shown at the bottom in the following photograph, arrived overhead and dropped red fire retardant presumed to be Phos-Chek on a house in Stanway Drive, and possibly houses in the nearby Harrington and Sarsfield Streets, and maybe elsewhere in Separation Creek.

Though there was some cleaning and tank water replacement at the Stanway Drive house, are there houses nearby where people unknowingly drank, washed dishes, showered, etc, using contaminated tank water? Should this be worrying having regard to the concern being expressed over firefighting chemicals contaminating land around some defence establishments?

Lots of information available on firefighting foam and similar on the web. Four examples:

Bushfire CRC File Note



Fire retardants and health

A response from the government when questioned on the use of Phos-Chek over the settled area seems to disagree with what actually happened. Note that it lacks a date, possibly due to it being drafted by another and taking time to get before the signatory who, no doubt under some pressure at the time, accepted what was put before him and inadvertently neglected to date stamp it?

I'm not opposed to the use of safe additives to enhance the efficiency of water dropped from aircraft, but it must be done more judiciously than appears to be the case of the DC10 over Separation Creek during Christmas Day 2015.


Deployment of the DC10 Air Tanker

On deployment of this large aircraft to the fire that was already in the Separation Creek area, who made the decision to use it, was it the Incident Controller, was it under the direction of an accompanying Air Attack Supervisor or Birddog aircraft?

If under the direction of an Air Attack Supervisor or Birddog aircraft, why the decision to drop on a house amongst other houses when there could have been people present defending their homes?

I understand that this aircraft deployed direct from Sydney, dropped its load and returned to Sydney. If I'm correct, why at such a late stage in the day? Why was it not deployed when the fire first began to run or did the fire catch everyone 'napping'?

Expensive exercise committing that DC10 aircraft, was it cost-effective as a firefighting tool or was that not a consideration and the aircraft deployed from a level above the Incident Controller as a desperate last-gasp PR exercise?

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?

Appreciation of the situation

Firefighter health and safety

A critical concern that should have been on the mind of the Incident Controller and above at the Regional Controller level was the health and safety of firefighters who, in the event of the fire getting away from its control line, would need to be deployed into Wye River and Separation Creek to save houses.

Due to the age and standard of construction of some buildings, there would have been vulnerable old buildings clad with asbestos fibre cement sheet. While a risk to CFA firefighters, would DELWP firefighters have been trained and equipped with the appropriate protective apparel to become involved with numerous burning houses in a residential environment the nature of those two settlements?

And what of the pathogens associated with old septic systems? Did any of the firefighters become directly exposed to systems damaged by the fire as they fought to save houses?

In conducting an early broad appreciation of the situation — if that was actually done — on which to base a suppression strategy and regularly review and update it as required, would the Incident Controller have been made aware of the failure of the Colac Otway Shire and the CFA to effectively address their statutory fire prevention responsibilities for both settlements hence their extreme vulnerability?

Would the Incident Controller also have been aware of the failure of DELWP to meet its fuel reduction burning plans for the forest between Lorne and Separation Creek, and the consequent critical need to 'pull all stops out' to extinguish the Jamieson Creek lightning strike before the wind increased later in the week?

Incident Management Arrangements

In establishing the Incident Management Team for this fire, was there 'churn' early on before an Incident Controller was settled on and if so why?

Concerning the Incident Controllers appointed to manage this fire, were they Level 3 qualified AND have the knowledge and on-the-ground forest firefighting experience required to successfully manage a forest fire in such a location as this to be able to recognise the appropriateness or otherwise of Incident Action Plans developed for his/her approval?

What arrangements, if any, were in place to assess ongoing effectiveness of Incident Action Plans and adjust accordingly?

Were there any financial, environmental or political limits imposed on the firefight?

Fuel reduction burn off

To me, it is beyond comprehension that this fire was not contained and made safe in the first couple of days.

It begs the question, was the failure to make this fire safe due to DELWP using it as an opportunity to undertake some fuel reduction burning off that had previously been denied it for 'political reasons' in the recent past?

That the forest burned so vigorously surely must question the government's statements that the forest had been to damp to fuel reduce.

Coronial investigation

To conclude, there are numerous questions around the failure to extinguish the lightning strike before it eventually took off to devastate Wye River–Separation Creek.

Towards the end of January, State Coroner, Judge Sarah Hinchey "determined that it was in the public interest to investigate the fire". Since then, nothing from Coroner Hinchey, except for a response from the Coroners Court to an inquiry from me early last week: "Unfortunately I cannot provide any time frames as to when the investigation will be complete."

Far be it from me to suggest what should be important and not so important to a Coroner setting work priorities, but given the requests for an investigation or inquiry, including one from the United Fire Fighters Union that I imagine would have known of firefighter health and safety concerns, I'm surprised that there's "no time frames as to when the investigation will be complete".

Given the time that has elapsed the evidence will be 'cold' and memories dimming, I'm beginning to wonder, was the Coroner influenced by the government — no doubt concerned over the potential for compensation claims — to give the investigation a low priority in the hope that it would go away?

Or is the Coroner the victim of a 'snow job' in the form of mountains of paper presenting the government's position?

Coronial Inquiry

As a concerned stakeholder citizen of Victoria I respectfully urge the Coroner conduct an open Inquiry and subpoena key players at all levels to give evidence and be able to be cross-examined for this shameful episode in our history to be fully transparent, if for no other reason that it must not be allowed to happen again.

Finally, there are 'key players' out there patting themselves on their backs that this was a very successful operation. On the contrary it was and is an ongoing disaster for many who put their trust in the emergency services, particularly the CFA that relies on community support to function.

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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tree canopy separation - flawed or misused science or both?

I'm still working to get to the bottom of the requirement to remove 500 trees to achieve the CFA's initial one-size-fits-all requirement for canopy separation to protect a new dwelling, as mentioned in my 15 November posting "Bushfire Protection, VCAT, Fallibility and Fairness", as this arbitrary requirement affects some of my clients, too.

From my experience a rare instance of candor by the CFA representative — rare instance, in that questioning some in the CFA dealing with the Bushfire Management Overlay on their position usually receives the response to take it to VCAT if you're not happy, and that can be a flawed and terribly unfair process — when questioned why blanket two metres canopy separation was required the response was that the fire modelling program Phoenix RapidFire indicated that "crown fire" was likely on the land in question.

For those unfamiliar with Phoenix RapidFire this overview may help you gain some understanding of the 'tool' and its application.

For those interested a paper available on the web "Wildland–urban interface (WUI) fire modelling using PHOENIX RapidFire: A case study in Cavaillon, France" provides some information. This paper provides further confirmation that wind-borne embers or firebrands are the major source of fire spread, which has been well known by the fire management community in Victoria for many years, or it should be.

Under the heading "2.1 Fire case study" in the first paragraph:

Observations of the fire indicated that wind-carried firebrands were an important mechanism for fire spread during the initial stages of the fire, with embers launched from ridges initiating new fires in adjacent gullies.

In my 13 July 2016 blog posting "The nature of bushfire Part 3 ... how fire moves across the land" I provided some information on how fire entered Wye River-Separation Creek during Christmas Day 2015, together supporting aerial photographs.

Extinguished while still small, property loss can be prevented or minimised significantly. But this would require a change of mindset by the Victorian government i.e. departing its "leave early and live" policy.

But for now, CFA's one-size-fits-all tree canopy separation requirements and the CFA representative's reference to Phoenix RapidFire.

As I recall our discussion, the assertion was that the canopy of medium height predominately Stringybark eucalypts would be exposed to flames reaching a height of 29 metres and fire would burn up the stringbark trunks causing "crown fire" and that "two metres separation" of tree canopies was necessary to prevent crown fire occurring. And, while I'm on it, what is "crown fire?

The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council Bushfire Glossary, January 2012, provides the following definitions:

Crown fire – A fire that advances from top to top of trees or shrubs.

Crowning – A fire ascending into the crowns of trees and spreading from crown to crown.

Crowning potential – A probability that a crown fire may start, calculated from inputs of foliage moisture content and height of the lowest part of the tree crowns above the surface.

Crown scorch – Browning of the needles or leaves in the crown of a tree or shrub caused by heat from a fire.

From the definitions, some important issues:

1. Note, a fire that advances from top to top of trees or a fire spreading from crown to crown, not just the odd tree or shrub foliage or crown burning in relative isolation!

2. Note, crowning potential, amongst other factors, takes into consideration foliage moisture content and height of the lowest part of the tree crowns above the surface!

First, on "crowning" and "crown fire", photographs included in postings on 4 October 2016, 12 January 2015 and 22 June 2014 that show tree canopies exposed to fires burning under total fire ban weather conditions that only suffered "crown scorch". Why only scorching, is it due to the moisture content being sufficiently high enough to prevent ignition before the heat from the fire begins to drop after the fire front has gone past?

Looking around for a reasonably simple explanation, the theory explained in the following extract from An Introduction to Fire Dynamics, Second Edition, Dougal Drysdale, Wiley, 1998, seems to suit my purpose:

Following is a photograph taken on 2 July 2014 following a fire that occurred on the western side of the Geelong–Bacchus Marsh Road, at approximately midday, on 11 March 2014, a day of total fire ban. The photograph shows the transition from leaf scorch to all or parts of leaves that have actually been ignited. Ignited after the moisture had been expelled.

The following two photographs also taken on 2 July 2014 show that part of the roadside plantation near where the fire entered it heading south from the grass before wind from the northeast at approximately 24 kph gusting to 28 kph, recorded at Point Wilson. Note the scorched vegetation alongside where the fire burned south through the plantation, significant to my argument that moisture needs to be dispelled before they would actually burn.

The following two photographs are of the surface fine fuel, mainly dead and dry Casuarina tree 'needles', the average depth of which is indicated by the marker pen in the second photograph, and near surface fine fuel unaffected by the fire.

The marker pen provides some perspective on how aerated, hence conducive to complete combustion, was the distribution of the surface fine fuel.

The following two photographs illustrate how complete was the combustion of the surface fine fuel, yet the combustion of the living vegetation on some of the trees above what would have been a hot fire was incomplete.

The upper red arrows indicate unburnt leaves and the lower arrows indicate fallen leaves that fell from the scorch zone well after the fire was out.

The red arrows indicate scorched Casuarina 'needles' that despite their close proximity to the ground were not completely incinerated.

The following three Google Earth photos are of the area covered in my 2 July 2014 photos taken prior to the fire.

So far I’ve only covered the need for moisture to be removed from the fuel to enable ignition. In my next posting I’ll deal with flame i.e. its structure and temperature variation and the height of the fuel canopy being subjected to the drying process.

I’ve earlier pointed to postings showing examples of where only scorching occurred under extreme fire conditions, which supports my argument that true crown fire is a relatively rare occurrence.

Causes me to wonder if Phoenix RapidFire is flawed or being misused by the CFA to justify its one-size-fits-all approach to tree canopy separation or both. And, if Phoenix RapidFire is being used to support the government’s bushfire emergency warnings, is it reliable or does it under or overestimate fire spread potential?

And, on the suitability-to-role of people who won't or can't consider each case on its merits, that's something we should all be considering.

Finally, always open to respectful questioning or challenging in the comments.

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