Does Victoria need a new volunteer firefighting force?

On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2019, a front brought a smattering of rain across the Victorian mountains, barely enough to damp down the dust. But the associated lightning storm started dozens of new fires in a long belt from Mt Buller to the NSW border.

Forest Fire Management crews swung into action and many of these were quickly put out. Aerial bombing dealt with others. But there were simply too many, and some grew into massive blazes, including the fires that went on to devastate the forests and landscapes of East Gippsland in coming weeks.

This raises the question: Do we need a new remote area volunteer firefighting force in Victoria who could help suppress lightning strike fires before they take off?

The situation at present

Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) crews are made up of firefighters from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), Parks Victoria, VicForests and Melbourne Water. It’s mission is to ‘reduce the risk and impact of bushfires on Victoria’s parks, forests and other public land’. FFMV crews also support the CFA to fight fires on private land. FFMV has a permanent workforce of career firefighters and also employs seasonal firefighters over the fire season, generally from November/December until the end of March.

About a third of Victoria is public land. Much of it is remote, mountainous and inaccessible, and fires in these areas are usually caused by lightning which, if not rapidly suppressed, can grow in size quickly. Apart from sending FFMV crews in by truck, specialist remote area firefighters may be dropped in by helicopter. DELWP currently has four seven-person rappel crews employed during the fire season which are based at Heyfield in Gippsland and Ovens in north east Victoria. It has access to a range of air support, including Large Air Tankers (LATs) and Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs), and helicopters that are able to drop water and/or fire retardants onto forested areas.

Despite these resources, many of these small lightning triggered fires grew in size and subsequently devastated large areas of the mountains and foothills. Partly this was influenced by the conditions. For instance, on January 4, as another front came through, wind conditions were so extreme that all FFMV crews had to be pulled out of forested areas because of the danger of falling trees. With large fires along the eastern NSW and elsewhere, there were also limitations on the availability of aerial bombing capacity.

It is clear climate change will make fire seasons more intense and will also lead to an increase in dangerous firestorms that were once considered rare: pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCB), often referred to as firestorms, which can create their own weather and start fires by generating lightning. Fire seasons will start earlier and last longer. Fire seasons across Australia and in the northern hemisphere used to be staggered – allowing exchange of vital equipment such as aerial water bombers and firefighters. The increasing overlap of fire seasons between states and territories and with the USA and Canada will limit our ability to help each other during major emergencies. The window to carry out fuel reduction burning will get narrower. The ecological impacts on foothill and mountain forests will continue to grow, as will the economic impacts on mountain and valley communities.

We need extra firefighting capacity to protect the mountains

It is clear we will need more capacity to fight fires in the mountains. There are four obvious options:

  • Continue to invest in air support to fight fires in remote areas, with continued resource sharing between the states and overseas jurisdictions, to access additional planes and helicopters when needed
  • Continue to increase the number of paid seasonal firefighters, including additional allocation of funds and training to expand the number of remote area firefighters
  • The federal government should establish a national remote area firefighting force which can be deployed as needed across Tasmania and mainland states when World Heritage and National Parks are at risk. This was recommended by a Senate inquiryafter the devastating fires in Tasmania of 2016.

 

We need to do all of these things. But given the scale of fires across the state and around Australia, it is clear that, even with additional resourcing as outlined above, there will be ever more demands on fire fighting capacity in coming years.  As happened this year, with fires along the east coast and in South Australia at the same time, it became harder to share fire crews between states and territories. With longer fire seasons around the world, it will also place stress on traditional allies like the USA and Canada, who send firefighters to help us during their off season. And the volunteer services, like Victoria’s CFA and the RFS from NSW, will struggle to sustain the numbers required to send Strike Teams interstate and to large fires when they are busy at home fighting bushfires. This means that incident managers must sometimes priortise protection of human assets over protection of natural systems where resources are limited.

A fourth option to consider is to develop a new volunteer firefighting force specifically tasked with adding capacity to state government firefighting agencies when fires threaten national parks, wilderness and World Heritage Areas.

Dry lightning storms will become ever more common under climate change scenarios.

This summer it was clear that there wasn’t enough capacity to attack fires after major lightning strike events.

The New Years Eve fires of last year demonstrate that we currently have insufficient resources to fight fires in the ‘new normal’ reality.

While FFMV crews did an incredible job (as did the air support who extinguished many fires after the December 31st lightning storm), there were simply too many to contain with the resources available. If there had been additional remote area teams able to hike into fire ignition points, we may have stopped some of the fires that subsequently turned into major blazes. One example is the Tabletop fire near Mt Hotham that joined fires in the Upper Victoria River, then others, eventually burnt more than 44,000 ha, and almost destroyed the township of Dinner Plain. If a small crew had been available to hike in and put the fire out on January 1 or 2, we may have avoided the significant costs of having to fight this enormous fire (eg, CFA strike teams to defend Dinner Plain and Mt Hotham village and houses in the Cobungra area, and the air support that was allocated to stopping the fire, etc).

‘Smoke Walkers’ and the NSW RAFT firefighters

There is a precedent we could follow:

In the early 1980s and ran until the mid 1990s, a volunteer force called the Smoke Walkers, was developed which was tasked with supporting remote area firefighting in Tasmania. And the investigation into the Tasmanian fires of 2016, recommended that the Tasmanian Fire Service should pursue the creation of a cadre of volunteer remote area firefighters.

Sometimes the Smoke Walkers would work alongside Parks Service, Forestry TAS and TFS firefighters and sometimes they would be deployed seperately. Many of the members were bushwalkers who knew the remote wilderness and wanted to help protect it.

 

There is also a current example we should follow: the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) has Remote Area Fire Teams (RAFT) that are composed of volunteer firefighters. They help compliment the work done by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) remote area crews. Many are members of local RFS brigades and turn out to ‘regular’ fires with their brigade but may also be called up for remote area firefighting.

There are also Rapid Aerial Response Teams (RART), which is a program within the RFS where specially trained firefighting teams (trained RAFT Firefighters) are ‘placed on standby at appropriate times and in appropriate places, transported by helicopter to the scene of an incident when needed and, if necessary, transferred to the ground by winching or similar insertion’ (source).

The RART programme was introduced within the NSW RFS in 2011 as a response from the Victorian Royal Commission findings into the 2009 fires. The idea is that when certain weather conditions are forecast a standby RAFT team and a winch capable medium helicopter are mobilised, ready to deploy, for a period of time to instantly respond upon a report of a new fire.

The NSW RFS has 27 RAFT Units across the state, with a total of about 500 personnel. The value of the NSW model is shown by the effectiveness of their teams in stopping fires becoming blazes: for instance, in the 2018/19 fire season the Rapid Aerial Response Teams responded to 77 incidents, and were able to keep 90 percent of the fires they attended contained to less than 10 hectares in size (source, p 32).

 

In addition to funding additional FFMV remote area teams we propose a new volunteer remote area fire force be established.

There are various ways this new remote area force could be established in Victoria:

It could be a stand alone fire fighting force which is trained by the relevant government authority. For instance, in Victoria, they would be trained to the standard of the seasonal firefighters employed by FFMV. They may require additional medical and fitness tests, and additional training in ‘dry’ firefighting techniques, Helicopter Insertion Techniques (as per the RFS model), and the Operate in Remote Environments (ORE) training undertaken within the RFS (source, p 74). In NSW there is a specialised training capacity for RAFT and RART volunteers, run through Ops Support (previously called the Remote Area Firefighting and Specialised Operations, or RAFSO). A similar training capacity should be established in Victoria.

The RFS also has an Arduous Firefighter Program, which was introduced in 2016 as a stepping stone between normal ‘tanker based’ firefighters and RAFT firefighters. This was partly help train people to be ready for interstate and international deployments. An Arduous Firefighter in the NSW RFS has at least a couple of years’ firefighting experience. They may then decide to do ORE training to qualify as a RAFT volunteer.

  •       As a volunteer unit it would make sense for it to be hosted by the CFA
  •       It would receive support from the state government (training, uniforms, meals when on deployment, equipment, and potentially vehicles, etc)
  •       They could be mobilised at the start of each fire season. Members who have their minimum skills training and other state requirements (eg burn over and hazardous trees training) could nominate to be available for that season and then opt into possible strike team deployment on a weekly basis. These would be deployed via the state authority as volunteer strike teams are allocated at present, with priority given to deployment on remote area fires. Unlike a standard strike team deployment where members often leave from their home station in an appliance, volunteers may need to get themselves to a staging point near the fire, or the state government may organise transport from major cities or regional centres. Additionally, these firefighters could simply be regular members of their local CFA brigade, and nominate to join remote deployments when a call out is made. This could be easily managed at an operational level as brigades regularly nominate members to join Strike Teams during fire season
  •       The organisation would be administered and supported by staff seconded from Fire Rescue Victoria, as per the arrangement with the CFA
  •       Teams would be deployed from the staging point to the fire ground via vehicles or air travel operated by the relevant state agency (PV, DELWP, Melbourne Water). In NSW, RAFT teams are managed / deployed at the District level
  •       They would be specifically allocated where remote access is required on public lands – eg walk in firefighting, blackout and mopping up using dry firefighting techniques, etc. A key priority would be for them to be deployed to attack new fires triggered by lightning in mountainous and remote areas when air support is not available
  •       They may also be deployed alongside regular volunteer units who are allocated to campaign fires on public land

The Joint Operational Protocols for Remote Area Firefighting in NSW are available here.

The Operational Protocols for NSW RART which is used in NSW are available here and include details on how RART teams are dispatched and managed.

 

Creating opportunities for younger and urban based volunteer firefighters

We believe there is an additional benefit that would come with the establishment of a volunteer force which is focused on ‘campaign’ fires rather than being based in a local brigade. Many volunteer fire brigades in rural areas are aging. As fire seasons worsen and become longer, there will be greater pressure on these local brigades to help provide the ‘surge capacity’ needed to fight big campaign fires. While the peri-urban brigades do tend to provide much of the surge capacity at present, membership of these brigades is limited to people who live near a fire station.

A volunteer remote area firefighting force would, by its virtue of its activity – which will include remote area work requiring robust fitness – attract younger and potentially urban based members, which would create a pathway for many new people to sign up for volunteer fire fighting who do not live in the catchment of an existing brigade. This would, over time, provide substantial benefits to existing volunteer forces like the CFA, because it would increase its base of trained and active firefighters who can be available during the summer months.

Creating a volunteer firefighting role which is not linked to existing brigades would be most useful for attracting new urban members. It may be possible to create urban based brigades specifically for the volunteer remote area firefighters, and these could potentially be co-located in SES Units in suburban Melbourne, where there is room available.

Recruit training could be done as a block, potentially in a residential situation, and potentially timed during university holidays to make it more likely that urban based young people would be able to join.

While we understand there are serious budget constraints in Victoria, this proposal could provide a considerable boost to our state’s firefighting capacity at relatively low cost to the government.

 

[Prepared as part of a submission to the independent inquiry into the 2019-2020 Victorian fire season, conducted by the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM), April 2020].

About Cam Walker

I work with Friends of the Earth, and live in Castlemaine in Central Victoria, Australia. Activist, dad to Tali & Mia, mountain enthusiast, climber, telemark skier, volunteer firefighter.

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