Australia — This year, fire restrictions have been brought in much earlier than usual, and predictions are that it’s going to be a tough season.
Fire Awareness is a joint annual event, held by ABC Local Radio in Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). Every year, it promotes fire preparation, and offers the chance for people to ring the Victorian Bushfire Information Line on 1800 813 911 to get advice from CFA experts.
Darryl Wagstaff is a 30 year CFA veteran, and currently captain of the Maryborough brigade. He says that preparation for firefighting is essential, whether you’re a CFA member or a homeowner protecting your property.
“We as firefighters dress with our protective clothing – with our overalls, coats, boots, helmets, gloves and the like,” he says.
“If a person’s going to stay and protect their property, they need to be prepared in two ways. One is to make sure their property is fire-safe – that they’ve done their pre-summer work in clearing flammable material, making the place safe for people to reside in while the fire front passes.
“But it’s also important that they protect themselves, and this is one of the things that we see quite often on the TV, where people are out fighting fires with garden hoses, with thongs and t-shirts and shorts on. Not the right thing to do – we need to be out there with long trousers, woollen jumpers, hats and gloves to protect themselves while they’re in that situation.”
Fire restrictions are in place, which means that burning off can now only be done with a permit – and Darryl says the Maryborough brigade is done with its burning-off program for the season. Permits can be obtained, but he says there are other ways of reducing the fuel load around your place that don’t involve burning off, and those should be investigated.
With 30 years of firefighting experience under his belt, what is Darryl predicting for the fire season ahead? All the signs, he says, are pointing to ‘the worst fire season ever.’
“The forest around Maryborough is tinder-dry, it’s probably worse now than what it was in 1983 and certainly in 1985 when the Maryborough-Avoca fires went through here. We’ve had our driest August on record, and also the hottest September on record as well, and had the earliest total fire ban day declared in this season.
“All the pointers are looking to a bad season, and the low water levels and availability of water is also going to make it a hazardous season this coming year.”
Preparation is the key, and Darryl encourages people to attend street meetings with the CFA, or get in touch with the CFA and the Victorian Bushfire Information Line to talk about getting ready for the fire season.
“We’re not just there for fire suppression, we’re there for fire preparedness,” he says.
CFA Operations Officer ohn Cutting says a quiet fire station is a good fire station, but it’s an unpredictable occupation.
“It’s one of those industries, we don’t know what’s going to happen from minute to minute,” he says.
“We’re always prepared.”
He’s based in Bendigo, and says the local brigade can call on a couple of pumpers, a tanker, protective equipment van and an aerial appliance – essentially a crane. They also have ready access to aircraft.
“Aircraft in Bendigo are currently on stand-by. If we need them, we’ve got them on 15 minutes callback; if a fire, particularly a wildfire, is escalating, we can put aircraft into the air fairly quickly.”
A new pager system means the brigades get moving quickly too.
“Once the address is verified by the operator, the pagers are activated and virtually instantly the page is sent out to the relative brigade.”
Ken Diamond, Operations Officer based in Mildura, says the Mildura brigade monitors around 50 alarms in local businesses; if they activate, then the pagers of brigade members are triggered.
“We jump in the big red trucks with the lights flashing and off we go,” he says.
On one of the automatically-triggered alarm calls, crews don’t know what they’ll face until they get there; they just know that an alarm’s gone off. 000 calls are treated differently.
“They come in and they’re answered by one of the on-duty staff or one of the volunteers,” Ken says, meaning the responding crews can have more information before they arrive at the scene. The 000 calls are monitored, and they can be traced back.
“If there’s some sort of accident or an incident where somebody can’t speak, we can find out the location of that call.”
Ken echoes the call for home and property owners to prepare for fire season.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re in the country or in the city, at most fire stations you’ll find a copy of a fire plan, and the best thing is for Mum, Dad and the kids – and whoever else lives in the house – to sit down together and work out what they would do if there was some sort of an emergency, so that some planning goes into it, it’s not just a panic at the time of the fire or whatever the emergency may be.”
A meeting place is a crucial part of that plan, he says; you have to have a place to meet so you can check that everyone’s escaped.
When do you make the decision about when to stay and face a fire, and when to flee?
“We encourage people on the farms and in the little communities to listen to the radios – ABC has an excellent radio system of communicating the weather and the conditions. We encourage people to listen to the early news and get the weather conditions. Certainly on a bad day, by nine o’clock or at least ten o’clock, they should have made up their mind whether they’re going to stay or go. It’s no good waiting for the back fence to be burning down and make a decision then, that’s just way too late.”
You’re far more likely, Ken says, to get into trouble if you try a hurried evacuation in the face of a fire front.
“If the back fence is burning, then the fire’s upon you; it’s a crazy thing to get into a car and try and outrun a bushfire. It has fatal consequences.”
History backs that up; most people who die in fires, die in cars or on foot, trying to escape the flames.
Di Trotter, Executive Officer for the Wimmera Regional Sports Assembly, says it’s not just home and property owners who need to prepare; sports clubs need to do their bit too.
“Ron Fleming from the CFA and I spoke last week, and he was indicating that conditions are extreme, particularly for, for example, tennis clubs and cricket clubs who are using reserves sometimes in fairly isolated areas.
“There still is a lot of growth out there, even though it hasn’t grown too far out of the ground.
“It’s very much about knowing your neighbours if you’re a sporting club – making sure that you do know who your neighbours are, and are able to clear a lot of things, spray both sides of fences, and also think about having an emergency plan so that you do know what you’re going to do if a fire does come.
“If we get some of those extreme conditions with northerly winds here in the Wimmera, a fire can just shoot through the undergrowth. You only have to look at the fires that happened last January up at Halls Gap – the fire just skittered, absolutely raced across paddocks. So sometimes you don’t get a chance to think about what your plan might be. Have one in mind and clear a lot of the growth from right around the perimeters of your grounds and your ovals and your courts.”
Clubs should look at the firefighting equipment they have on hand, and plan out escape routes and assembly points – just in case.
Talking about fire planning is LaVergne Lehmann’s job: she’s currently employed by the CFA as a Wildfire Safety Presenter, talking to communities about bushfire plans.
“I attend community meetings and provide information to people in those communities about their options for staying or going in the event of a fire, the need to have a fire plan and what they need to think about in that fire plan – making sure all their family is aware of that plan, what will happen if some members of the family are not there and some are, what to do with pets and visitors.
“I also talk about how to prepare homes – a lot of common sense stuff like getting your gutters clean, clearing vegetation, the types of equipment you need to have if you’re going to stay and defend your home – and what you need to do for yourself. The last thing we want to see is people trying to protect their home in shorts and thongs.”
Bushfires are going to be a more common occurrence, LaVergne believes.
“The days of bushfires occurring once every 10, 15, 20 years are gone now,” she says.
“I think, when we talk about fires, we’ll be talking about the ones that happened last year or the year before, not the ones that happened in 1983.
“I think the focus is very much now on trying to give people confidence that it is actually better for many people – not everyone – to stay and defend their home, because it’s a very viable option. The CFA’s very conscious of the fact that, if you’ve got a big bushfire like you had in the Grampians last year, there’s no way they can have a CFA truck at every home all the time, so it’s really important that people prepare their homes and prepare themselves, both mentally and physically, to undertake that role.”
LaVergne echoes the point that late evacuation costs lives; in a properly prepared house, you’ve got a much better chance of surviving a fire.
“If you have to leave, leave early…you don’t want to be in your car in a fire,” she says.
“You are much safer in your house. The CFA has a slogan, ‘people save houses and houses save people.’ If you have your house prepared appropriately, there’s no reason why you can’t stay and defend that.”
Local Laws Officer with Horsham Rural City Council Maurice Rudolph says everyone has a part to play in fire season preparation.
“We’re going around shortly looking for what we think are fire hazards,” he says.
“Our standard notice requests that people cut all grass and weeds to a maximum height of 75mm. Not that you’re going to get out there with a ruler, but basically that’s a standard slasher height, and if we go around and see grass that’s considerably higher than that, owners will be getting a notice saying this work needs to be carried out.
“We usually give them a fortnight.”
They’re getting lots of phone calls this year from people calling to ‘dob in’ their neighbours who are letting the grass get a bit shaggy. Some of the people calling are concerned that the long grass provides a great snake hangout as well as a fire hazard.
Apart from long grass, there are other things that Maurice and his team will be looking at.
“Keep your place tidy of other refuse that might be lying around – people tend to stack a bit of firewood too close to a dwelling,” he says.
“We tend to tell people what’s going to happen if they don’t do it…under the CFA Act [Section 41], we can actually issue a $215 infringement notice and we also can move in our contractor to carry out the works, and we can add an administration fee of $125. So basically, there’s a $340 incentive for people to carry out the works themselves without us taking over.”
In addition, the person will have to pay whatever the contractor charges on top of the $340 in fines and administrative charges.
“You’d think that people would wake up, but we still have a few that we have to take control on,” Maurice says.
Ray Carmen, Horsham brigade member, explains what happens when someone sees a fire and rings 000.
“If you have a fire call or any emergency situation, ring 000. What happens when you call 000, you get put through to a central control centre and they take all the details – the location, the type of call, so forth. Then they page the responding brigade or brigades – it depends on the day how many they call out on the particular day.
“The Horsham brigade has about 45 personal pagers that are then activated with a message on it that tells us what type of fire and the location.”
Information from an emergency caller needs to be precise – road or street name, and the name of the nearest cross-street as a landmark.
“The policy of the Horsham brigade is, we come to the fire station. We’re all volunteers, and we pride ourselves that most of the time we can have the first unit out of the station within four minutes – that’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week…we’ve been able to maintain a four minute turnout for several years.”
The first thing brigade members do on arrival is kit up properly, in the right protective gear for the circumstances.
“There are two lots of different protective equipment. One is for grass fires, one is for structure fires. The same for trucks – we have a pumper that is for structural fires, and then we have our tankers that most people relate to at grass fires and bushfires.”
‘Superheroes’ are discouraged in the brigade.
“One of the first criteria in our training is personal protection and personal welfare,” Ray says; no heroics on the job. That includes on the way to the fire; while fire trucks can exceed the speed limit, they can’t do so with impunity. The drivers must drive in a safe manner, even if they’re going over the limit in response to an emergency.
Daryl Anderson goes high instead of fast; he’s a DSE Fire Lookout Observer at the One Tree Hill tower in Bendigo. The view is spectacular, looking out above the tree-line towards the horizon in all directions; Mount Alexander is visible and, on clear days, even Pyramid Hill can be made out.
“It’s a seasonal position,” Daryl says; the DSE will call its observers on likely fire risk days and send them up the seven towers around the region, at One Tree Hill, Rushworth, Mt Ida, Elphinstone, Mt Tarrengower, one in the Pyrenees and one near Inglewood.
When an observer sees smoke or fire, they swing into action.
“Our first response is to alert the appropriate authorities. I’m with the DSE, but we work very closely with the CFA, so we try as quickly as we can. Using other towers’ assistance to get a cross-bearing and our own bearing, we’re fairly quickly able to work out a grid reference and pass that on to the appropriate authority so they can muster the troops and get to the scene as quickly and as efficiently as they can.”
The observers don’t just pass on the location; they also feed information like the colour and shape of the smoke, which tells firefighters something about the fire’s fuel and behaviour.
A fire lookout observer needs several qualifications, Daryl says.
“Map-reading skills are very important, as you’ll appreciate.
“When things start happening, there’s quite a bit of activity so, as best you can, you remain relaxed to minimise the risk of making errors in location.
“Local knowledge plays a big part in it; the more conversant you are with the lay of the land – by which I mean identifying landmarks which assist you to pinpoint locations – that’s a very important aspect as well.”
That local knowledge means that observers generally don’t ‘share’ towers, working on the one tower only.
Alison Wallace is an Ararat CFA volunteer and she had a baptism of fire in the Grampians fires in January this year.
“I was very excited because I had a really good crew and had a lot of trust in them, and was trained.”
As a first-timer, she says she was looked after by the more experienced crew members, but no special treatment for being female.
“It’s like you’re one of the kids,” she says.
“You don’t get any special treatment because you’re a girl – you’ve still got to go to the toilet behind a tree – but you’ve got all the boys there, and it’s like you’re one of the babies.”
Alison’s husband is a CFA volunteers as well, and they have four children ranging from 17 months to 14 years. It’s a race between her and her husband to see who’s out the door first when the alarms go; Alison says she’s usually quickest, so her husband either babysits while she’s firefighting, or they have the 14 year old do some babysitting duties. Living near the fire station, Alison says she’s not only usually first out the door at home, but one of the first on the truck.
When it comes to fire plans, Alison says most locals have their fire plans set, but people with holiday homes missed a few things: “little things like your gutters, little fire breaks, pick up your sticks – general, everyday things you take for granted.”
In the case of a house fire, she says, “tell your kids don’t worry about the cat, the dogs, the bird, toys – get out of the house, and stand on the nature strip so the firemen can see you.”
Kate, Jill and Julie are local residents in Macedon.
Kate’s doing a study on women’s experiences during the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. She says she wanted to understand their experience, and for them to share their stories.
“We all talk about fire, but we don’t know a lot of the history and we certainly don’t know the women and what they went through, and their experiences that we could draw upon if we ever face a similar situation.”
Jill was living in Macedon during the Ash Wednesday fires; at the time, she had three children and was five months pregnant with the fourth.
“I was looking after the children…I’d put them to bed, and then when things started to get bad, I woke them because I thought it would be better if they were aware of what was happening.”
By that stage, Jill says she was calm about the emergency.
“Earlier I got a bit panicky, but then you’ve got things to do, so you’re doing that and checking that my husband okay, because he was my biggest worry. Every now and then I’d let the children peep out the window. We had a glass door at the front and just from that it looked like the whole front pergola and everything was on fire. I’d just keep looking out with the children to make sure that everything was okay, the house wasn’t on fire, and my husband was okay.”
Julie was there at the same time, but says she was more worried by her parents being at Lorne, which was facing its own fire emergency.
“That took my attention off what was really happening Mount Macedon, where I was; it was only when the boys came into the bedroom in their pyjamas and said, ‘Mum, there are sparks flying through the air’…so we ran outside, the four of us, and it was shocking. There was fire all around us, balls flying through the air and igniting everywhere. So we just grabbed some clothes, jumped in the car with the dog and drove down the road with everyone else.
“Everyone else was doing it too, and there was no communication – we weren’t communicating with anyone. That’d be different now.”
It was an awful day, she says.
“My overwhelming thought then, when it was happening, was that the whole mountain was going to disappear, and all our friends, the whole lot of us, were just going to go in ash.”
Kate, who’s also a local Fireguard coordinator, says the area is much better prepared now.
“People who went through Ash Wednesday have a very high level of awareness and are very prepared. But I still think a lot of people understand the risk and they’re motivated, but they’re not quite sure how to get started or how to get prepared, and that’s why the Community Fireguard program is a good one, because there’s a lot to understand and a lot to absorb, and this allows time for that.
“It also allows time for community connection and developing history which will hold the community in good stead in the face of a fire.”