Sydney’s bushfires out of control, evacuations underway

05 December 2019

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AUSTRALIA – The big fires around Sydney are covering the city with smoke. An orange haze is the usual scenario around town. Residents in isolated areas are being warned that the fire services don’t have the resources to cover them, and to evacuate ASAP.

The summer fire zones have exploded with a vengeance. The Blue Mountains, in particular, are generating massive fires. Pictures show a void of grey smoke, massive flames, and whole areas engulfed in a mix of spot fires and fire fronts.

The big drought, no rain, and extremely dry conditions aren’t exactly helping. Some properties have been lost, although there’s no actual count at this stage. The Bureau of Meteorology has issued a warning regarding visibility on the roads, true enough as the haze covers the city.

These bushfires are unusual. To put that statement into statistical perspective – An average of 50 million hectares of land are burned every year. That’s what’s making these fires very different. They’re hyperactive, fast-moving, and big fires by any standards. They are also part of a pattern of worse fires over the last 10-20 years. The bushfire map from the Rural Fire Service has been looking grim for well over a month now. The current picture is that most of New South Wales is right in the middle of an extremely severe fire season.

If you’re in a current fire zone

• Be ready to get out, ASAP.

• Check local news and emergency services updates.

• Check for texts about fire warnings in your area.

• Use the evacuation routes specified by emergency services. Short cuts can be dangerous, so look out if you’re forced to use other roads.

• Make sure you know where everyone is. Looking for people can use up valuable time you need to be getting out.

The bigger pricture and current problems

The fires are exposing some serious handling issues, too:

Long bushfire seasons: The Australian bushfire season is typically summer, December to February. This season started a month or so earlier. The added workload has put major stress on fire brigades. The proven standard firefighting methods are being strained severely. It looks like the current technologies need to be upgraded with better options available, for example. It may be a very good idea to develop “area weapons” for use on these fires to break up fire fronts and large fire zones. Heat transfer management options for diverting fires might also be useful.

Lack of organic resources: Even despite the truly epic efforts of our firefighters, it’s pretty obvious that battling these fires needs a lot more resources. Help from interstate and Canadian firefighters does help a lot, but baseline resources always seem overstretched, often way too much. There are only so many resources like water bombers to be allocated, and there are many fires. The fewer resources, the greater the added workload and the longer it takes to control fires. Clearly, the brigades need a bigger scale of resources available to fight the fires quickly and efficiently. If a fire can be shut down fast, more resources will be available for other fires.

Fatigue: Fighting bushfires in 30C heat while wearing protective clothing is no joke. Exhaustion is a real issue, and crews have to get some rest, reducing the availability of people to fight the fires. (Exhaustion is also dangerous. It affects reaction times and judgment. The crews need rest, and the firefighting gear, reliable as it usually is, may need maintenance.)

40C days and northerly winds: The real summer heat is just arriving. That makes things a lot more difficult, and dangerous. The summer northern winds come straight off the desert, and they’re often very strong. Firefighting therefore becomes a lot harder.

The future needs some thought

Obviously, this constant overstretch of resources is too risky. We’ve been a bit too ready to consider this situation “normal”, too, and not look at more advanced options for large-scale fire management.

The glaring need is for capacity to deliver large scale fire responses faster, with minimal use of time and risk.

• What if you can control thermals with cryogenic materials, and disrupt the fire’s thermal properties?

• What if you could deliver a ready-made misting system in fire-prone areas within minutes of a lightning strike?

• What about a “strike force” option to deliver a lot of resources anywhere?

We need better options, now. The current situation is too dangerous, and with a spreading population, the risks will get higher. With these bushfires, winning the war has to be done on a strategic basis, with a lot of depth in resources and methods.

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