Blazing new trails

Blazing new trails

12 January 2007

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Australia — The seeds for Victoria’s summer of bushfire angst fell from thesky on the first day of December. Bolt after bolt of lightning crashed throughthe tinder-dry mountain ash forests of the Great Dividing Range as a storm sweptacross.

It brought a barrage of lightning but precious little rain. The bases of thetrees that conducted these bolts to earth burst into flames and before longauthorities were battling more than 80 fires spread over hundreds of thousandsof hectares.

“We had mass ignition over a relatively short period of time, about 12hours I reckon: virtually a dry thunderstorm right across the ranges,” theGovernment’s chief fire officer Ewan Waller recalls.

Helicopters were soon flying low over the ranges, unloading teams offirefighters via ropes to try to snuff out the blazes. Waller says that beforelong his crews began to report strange and worrying signs for what were supposedto be small fires. The messages being radioed back told of exponential firegrowth, searing heat and an almost impossible task.

“What they were finding when they got in there was they weren’t half ahectare, they were 5ha. They were just so hard to put out,” Waller says.”The fires were spreading quickly: every stump and every log was alight andthe crews had to physically stay longer. We weren’t getting anywhere nearcapturing the the 80 fires, we were only capturing a small percentage of them.

“Within days we had a whole array of fires in difficult country and alldeveloping very quickly. What we were finding was the aircraft weren’t havingtheir normal impact. They were holding to a certain degree, but not like theynormally would.”

Within two weeks these fires had combined into a single mountain inferno thathas loomed over the country’s southeast corner like a brooding giant, ready tounleash destruction on communities to its south, east and west.

Before it’s extinguished, this fire may well burn out one-fifth of the stateand experts have warned it may burn to the coast in the south and the NSW borderin the northeast.

The freakish dryness in the state’s forests has led this fire to doextraordinary things. Firefighters have reported that on hot nights it is stillcrowning – racing from treetop to treetop with a deafening roar – at 2.30am,when even a fearsome fire is normally dormant.

At times it has run before the northerly winds at up to 5km an hour, layingwaste to the forest in its path. Several times last-ditch efforts from firecrews and last-minute wind changes have saved communities from being burned tothe ground. Crews carving a firebreak in Melbourne’s water catchment completedtheir line just hours before the fire arrived and they were able to prevent itfrom burning out the watershed and jeopardising the city’s supply.

Just as the fire behaviour has changed this summer, so too has the communityresponse to it. Although almost 1,000,000ha of land and 32 houses have beenburned and a serious fire is still out of control after almost six weeks, thereis little sense that the state is in crisis. Alert but not alarmed seems to bethe attitude.

Fire agencies have worked hard to shift the emphasis to individualresponsibility, compelling landowners to make arrangements for preparing anddefending their properties. They have also held countless community meetings ina concerted effort to provide timely information for residents to make thatcrucial decision: should I stay or should I go? There also seems to be anacceptance among some rural dwellers that the drought or climate change has madea serious fire this year inevitable.

Victorian Nationals leader Peter Ryan, who has been touring the fire-affectedregions in his electorate of Gippsland South and beyond, agrees the public’sunderstanding and anticipation of fire danger has grown.

“I think there has been a culture change, but I also think there’s asense of frustration in that the management of the public land issue has beenable to spill over again,” he says.

He says people are grateful for the heroic efforts of the up to 2400firefighters tackling the blaze, but they are tired after six weeks ontenterhooks, dreading the next day of hot northerly winds.

The tensions that have bedevilled relations between the mainly volunteerCountry Fire Authority force (whose main responsibility is private land) and theDepartment of Sustainability and Environment’s paid firefighters (whoseprincipal concern is public land) have been far less than in previous fires, theNationals leader has found.

But, according to Ryan, people feel let down by the fact that the DSE has notdone enough to burn off in the autumn and reduce the fuel load in the forests.The DSE burned off just 50,000ha from a target of 135,000ha: a failing Wallerblames on the lack of rainfall in autumn and unfavourable weather that made ittoo risky to conduct fuel-reduction burns.

Ryan says the department needs to employ far more year-round fire fighters soit can do these burns in a broader range of conditions.

Athol Hodgson, a former chief fire officer in Victoria who is now aconsultant and campaigner for reform of land management practices, says the DSEhas stripped rangers from the field in remote locations, hampering its abilityto respond quickly to lightning strikes and push for fuel reduction burns whenfuel loads in the local forests got too high.

He says blaming the fire on climate change obscures the real cause of thissummer’s extraordinary blaze. “I think that’s a red herring. I think it’sthe result of the lack of the right kind of fire in theforests over the last twoor three decades,” he says.

Hodgson believes the crucial rapid access to lightning strikes is beinghampered because the DSE has allowed many fire trails to grow over or has simplyclosed them off.

Waller, a level-headed man who fought this kind of forest fire when he was ayoung forest ranger, seems willing to accept some of the criticism over themissed fuel reductions.

But he says that although the target was missed, there was a lot of burningaround vulnerable communities, and towns such as Woods Point were saved becauseof this.

And he seems determined to learn from the mistakes of the past. In a keypolicy shift this summer, the department has decided to turn hundreds ofkilometres of temporary fire breaks – 40m-wide swaths of bulldozed land – intopermanent bushfire barriers, instead of revegetating them.

Victorian Environment Minister John Thwaites says the Government boostedresources for this fire season, hiring more aircraft and bringing forwardpreparations, but the key improvement had been the decision to hold thecommunity meetings in affected areas as often as possible.

Thwaites stops short of saying major fires are inevitable every year in thispart of theworld but he is convinced climate change is making them much morefrequent than in the past. “No one can say what proportion is due todrought or long-term climate change. I certainly would say climate change isincreasing the risk of major fires,” he says.

“Since the 1950s we have had an increase of an extra five high fire riskdays a year. We are looking to have 20 per cent more high-fire risk daysby2020.”

On average, about 135,000ha are lost to fire each year in Victoria: this yearit will be more than 1,000,000ha, and there are almost two months of high firerisk left. Just four years ago, the 2002-03 season saw another 1,200,000haburned out.

This level of destruction – the present fire has cost almost $150 million tofight – has decision-makers thinking about better ways of tackling the yearlysummer menace.

Enthusiasm is growing among some in fire agencies and the South AustralianGovernment for a German-engineered plan to launch a network of mini-satellitesthat would locate and photograph fires as soon as they are larger than acampfire.

The system can produce infra-red and photographic images of the chosen pointevery 90 minutes, providing vital information for the firefighters on the groundand for agencies to direct aircraft to tackle lightning strikes.

The AUSBIRD satellite system will cost $300 million to launch and will needpaying clients in Australia and perhaps abroad to proceed. Nevertheless, theSouth Australian Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with theconsortium behind it, comprised of German aerospace agency DLR, two German firmsand Australian company Euro Pacific Strategies, and it has locked in Adelaide asthe project’s base, if it proceeds.

However, even well-directed aircraft cannot completely snuff out such spotfires: this requires rain or direct human intervention. So, although a satellitesystem would be useful, it wouldn’t be a panacea.

But there seems to be broad agreement that prevention is far cheaper and moreeffective than even the best efforts of the crews of volunteers andprofessionals fighting the fires.

With employers in the drought-stricken rural regions losing large chunks oftheir work force to firefighting duties and tourist numbers plummeting in manycountry towns, some businesses could be bankrupted by the present blaze. Theeventual impact on Victoria could be far greater than the $150 million spent sofar and the death toll among those fighting the fire, which stands at one, maywellrise.

However, relief from the punishing El Nino climate cycle that has kept thispart of the country labouring in the yoke of drought appears nigh. The Bureau ofMeteorology reports that falling sea temperatures in the eastern Pacific andrising trade winds show the El Nino may be starting to wane.

The bad news is relief may not arrive until February or March, by when timethe fires may have become among the worst in southeastern Australia’s history.

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