Innovation on the cards as Western Australian authorities look ahead to bushfire season

Innovation on the cards as Western Australian authorities look ahead to bushfire season  

13 July 2016

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Australia— As Western Australia moves on from its most disastrous bushfire season in recent memory, a new fire protection system developed in the state’s south is headed to the eastern states for further testing.

The brainchild of Denmark volunteer firefighter and inventor Chris Probert, the Shadrach Burn Over protection unit is a tent-like, heat-resistant structure designed to quickly fold down and protect people from fast-advancing fire fronts.

Test footage posted online last month shows Mr Probert acting as a guinea pig, stepping inside the device while it is set on fire.

“It was burning diesel, which is the same temperature eucalyptus burns at,” he told Andrew Collins on ABC Great Southern.

“I’m guessing [it was] about 400-500 degrees [Celsius] on the outside, but it was only 2-3 degrees Celcius on the inside.

“Nothing happened, it was a thermal non-event.”

Mr Probert and his team then ramped up the testing, using gas burners with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Celsius, only to produce similar results.

“It was about 15-16 degrees [Celsius] inside, you could put your hands on the fabric and it was cool as a cucumber,” he said.

CSIRO set to test device in New South Wales

The Shadrach grew out of the death of DEC firefighter Wendy Bearfoot, whose truck was overwhelmed by flames in 2012.

It inspired Mr Probert to develop an initial protective system for trucks that would allow firefighters hit by a rapidly advancing fire front, or “burn over”, to take shelter.

Following the local tests, the device will now be taken to a CSIRO facility in New South Wales for further testing.

“What we’ve got to establish is that fire crews think it will work, feel confident getting inside it and feel that it’s a safe haven,” Mr Probert said.

The more high-tech surrounds will allow for more strenuous heat testing, and a closer examination of how smoke-proof the tent actually is.

And the inventor is more than happy to maintain his role as the test subject, even when CSIRO turns on about to 40 1,000-degree Cesius gas burners onto his brainchild.

Innovative ideas examined ahead of 2016/17 fire season

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has also played a role in the Shadrach’s emergence, tipping in $15,000 to fund the project.

While conceding it was a key contribution, Mr Probert said the fact they were willing to contribute at all was the most significant factor.

“Their business is putting out fires, not funding crackpot inventors,” he said.

“They’re open to new ideas, and I’m really encouraged by that.”

The news comes as the entire country fire establishment continues to digest the recommendations of the inquiry into January’s catastrophic bushfires in WA’s South West.

Headed by former Victorian Country Fire Association chief Euan Ferguson, the inquiry recommended the creation of a similar body in WA.

Speaking to John Wibberley on ABC 720 Perth, DFES Goldfields-Midlands Superintendent Trevor Tasker said he did not know whether that would happen.

“But I do see the way the fire service operates in the country being very different,” Mr Tasker said.

“We’ve got to get better, when we stop getting better is when things start to go horribly wrong.”

Volunteers, fire mitigation critical moving forward

The veteran firefighter, who received the Australian Fire Service Medallion at this year’s Queens Birthday Honours, said the role of volunteers remained critical moving forward.

“Volunteers are the lifeblood: if we haven’t got them, we haven’t got a fire service,” Mr Tasker said.

“They’re just marvellous people — before I do any fire mitigation work I put out an SMS to my vollies asking for assistance.

“The phone doesn’t stop ringing, people will come out to do some work just to help others.”

Controlled burning and fuel load mitigation looms as the other key issue, with both the Ferguson Report and the Major Incident Review into November’s Esperance Bushfires recommending a more efficient approach.

Esperance’s State MP Graham Jacobs said improvement was clearly needed.

“It’s important that we as the Government take some responsibility, as well as the local farmers,” Dr Jacobs said.

“It’s important we overcome this fear of clearing the environment and keep in mind we’re trying to protect property and lives.”

He said fuel mitigation had fallen by the wayside, with neither DFES or the Department of Parks and Wildlife willing to take full control.

“When it came to reconstituting firebreaks, it fell between departments,” Dr Jacobs said.

“The minute those fires were downsized, they said they didn’t do fire mitigation and the bulldozers stopped.”

He said he would push strongly to ensure the Ferguson recommendations were adopted prior to the 2017 state election.

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