What can Canada learn from Australia about fighting wildfires?

20 July 2021

Published by https://www.theglobeandmail.com/

CANADA – On a hot summer day in the Australian state of Victoria, don’t even think about smoking out your honeybees or maintaining a rail line when there’s a total fire ban. You should keep your lawn mower locked up for good measure, too.

Head north, into New South Wales, and you’ll find your wood-fired pizza oven or charcoal grill is out of bounds, and you absolutely must turn off your welder.

If you choose to do those activities and ignore a total fire ban, the state’s Rural Fire Service warns, “People may die.”

That type of stark, no-nonsense warning has ramped up in the country following years of deadly bushfires that have killed hundreds of people, billions of reptiles and animals, and incinerated millions of hectares of wilderness.

Firefighting is organized at a state level in Australia, much like the provincial system in Canada. As the wildfire season here gathers momentum, The Globe and Mail spoke with various Australian authorities who spend their time planning how to best prevent and mitigate wildfires.

The major focus for fire agencies is, at its heart, very simple: Be prepared.

“Everyone has a role to play,” explains Peter McKechnie, the deputy commissioner of field operations at the NSW Rural Fire Service. “Community members can’t just look at government and its agencies and say, ‘What have you done?’ They have a role. All of us – as individuals in the community – have a role.”

Planning conversations begin long before fire season does. In most parts of the country, those discussions bring together municipalities, locals and state authorities to develop action and risk plans.

“It’s constantly proven to us the importance of local decision-making, local knowledge and local input,” Mr. McKechnie says.

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Provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia do something similar with their various FireSmart programs, which bank on buy-in from local councils and individuals.

Greg Leach, Queensland’s fire and emergency services commissioner, admits he sometimes feels “a bit like a broken record,” but says making sure communities are prepared is all the more important as the country faces more and more intense fires, in places they’ve never been before.

Like other Australian jurisdictions, Queensland is already preparing itself for a very different firefighting future. It’s looking at the design of its fire trucks, for instance, and beefing up its safety systems and training.

“It’s like eating an elephant. People go, ‘Oh, climate change, what do we do?’ and throw their hands in the air. Well, there are a lot of really practical things you can do at the local level,” Mr. Leach says.

When he talks with communities, he explains that: “My job is to think about all of Queensland, your job is to think about what does it mean for you here in the local community, and what are the practical steps that we can take here to protect ourselves?”

A big focus of late has been making sure people know what they’re getting themselves in for if they choose to stay during an emergency and defend their properties.

In the state of Victoria, for instance, emergency management developed a virtual reality tool. It would take the program to community events, then ask people if they had considered staying to defend their home in a bushfire and whether they believed they were prepared. For the next 10 minutes, participants would experience being in a home when a bushfire rips through.

Mr. Leach, who was working in Victoria at the time, says, “It was a really, really powerful tool” that often opened people’s eyes.

Still, authorities in Australia emphasis fires will continue regardless of how prepared people are – and individuals have a responsibility to stay informed when they do. That means improving emergency alert systems, which has been recommended by various royal commissions examining bushfires over the past decade.

The latest federal commission said although developing a new, national, all-hazards app will have myriad jurisdictional, data and technological hurdles, state and territory governments should continue to explore if and how it’s possible.

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