Australia — Five years ago this week, Canberra didn’t know to brace itself for fire but volunteers, forestry staff and park rangers were fighting fires in rugged mountain terrain to the west of the city.
Much has been said about what could have been done better, but ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers says some lessons haven’t been learnt, and that has soured the relationship with the ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA).
Mick Lonergan is on the ACT Bushfire Council and Captain of the new Smiths Road Rural Fire Service. He says since the ESA was merged under an ACT government department, it’s become too bureaucratic.
“The current emergency services commissioner involves himself in operational matters. These confuse the messages that are going to the fire fighting side,” he says.
The communication system he says is still too slow. Volunteers want to be able to talk directly to the operations controller to tell them where firefighters are and how quickly equipment like a bulldozer can get to them.
Mick Lonergan says they’ve learnt some lessons locally. They’ve formed a new brigade at Smiths Road with 60 volunteers and regular training, attached to the NSW RFS. He says the fire trails in Namadgi National Park in the ACT are now excellent.
Val Jeffrey, Tharwa resident and local fire expert says he’s particularly concerned about the Brindabella National Park still not having a fire management plan.
He repeats complaints he’s aired many times before now. They are that the ACT RFS volunteers are becoming more disillusioned, and there’s a loss of corporate firefighting memory in the ESA.
The fuel load has built up and a lack of stock has meant there’s a lot of long grass and fallen trees which will make the fire danger very high, right into March this year.
Recovering after trauma
Michael Shanahan at Tidbinbilla Station, west of Canberra, was among quite a few who were lucky to escape alive. When the fire storm hit his property, he sheltered in his diesel 4 wheel drive with the air conditioning on. His historic woolshed was protected by a sprinkler system.
But surprisingly, he can now find good things to say about the fires.
“We had a pretty good clean up at home. There were probably a few paddocks that were a bit untidy that are now spotless; a couple of old fences that I should have pulled down got taken down for me. So it was a pretty good overall clean up,” he jokes.
While he agrees many in the rural communities were traumatised by the fires, the fact that Canberrans rallied to help them was fantastic “and you certainly realise what’s important in life.”
Women and Children are vulnerable when a fire approaches
New research is showing that women and children are more vulnerable than men if they don’t have a fire escape plan.
Jenny Filmer has a farm is at Angle Crossing, Smiths Road, Tharwa, where the fire continued to burn for a month after it hit Canberra 5 years ago. Her husband had a narrow escape at the time, when a tree crushed his fire truck.
She works at the Rural Fire Service of NSW based in Queanbeyan, and she received an OAM in 2003 for her course for women and families facing fires.
Her advice is contained in a book being released this week, called “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire,” which also contains recipes, produced by Smiths Road Tharwa residents of NSW and the ACT.
“Research is being conducted, that women and children are disproportionately injured or killed in firefighting injuries compared to the general public. Often women are getting into cars and leaving property at inappropriate times, because they get to the last minute and they’re making those decisions too late,” says Jenny Filmer.
The course “Fire fighting for non firefighters” has been running since 1993.
School kids get the message to bring their pets, even horses inside, if there’s nowhere else that’s safe. But when they take that message home, it prompts parents to ring Jenny Filmer in amazement. Ms Filmer says she uses that opportunity to tell them about other safety ideas. They include; gloves to handle gates that heat up in fires; sand bags for gutters; a bag of special toys or books kept aside to amuse children in busy fire times; knowing your exit points from the house and property.
The book “Out of the Fire and Into the Frying Pan” contains many recipes around themes; food for firefighters; picnic hampers for a total fire ban day; “one pot wonders” – food you can cook without electricity.
It will be sold to raise money for the Smiths Road Fire Brigade. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Pines in decline
Economically, pines don’t mean to the ACT what they did before 2003. Prior to the fires, 7.6 per cent of the Territory was planted to pines, or 16,000 hectares. That’s now reduced to under 10,000. Only 1800hectares was replanted, and even some plantings in the Lower Cotter catchment, are being removed.
A million pine wildings have been removed, native plants are regenerating, and more are being planted.
Russell Watkinson, Director of Parks Conservation and Lands in the ACT says a review is underway into the commercial viability of the pine plantations and a decision will be made in the next couple of months.
One of the limiting factors for the future of forestry is the closure of the Hume sawmill, and the distance the timber will have to go, mainly Tumut.
The pines are currently insured for $30 million.
About 40 kilometres of roads and fire trails were removed in 6000 hectares of the Lower Cotter to reduce the risk of sediment runoff into the important water catchment.
ACT Forests no longer exists as a stand alone agency. It’s been consumed under Territory and Municipal Services, in the Parks, Conservation and Lands area. But Russell Watkinson says there are still 130 fully trained staff, ready to fight bushfires.
Volunteers healing the earth and healing communities
Greening Australia has been working with 3,200 volunteers over the past 5 years, who have replanted the areas devastated in 2003.
Over 90,000 native trees, shrubs and grasses have been replanted, and regeneration of native seeds has been significant.
Volunteers have poured all over the mountainous terrain of Mt McDonald west of the Cotter Reserve, planting 14,000 trees. Last year Greening Australia coordinated planting in the Lower Cotter Catchment including Condor Hill.