Bushfire royal commission hears how COVID-19 could impact firefighting this bushfire season

17 July 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au/

AUSTRALIA – COVID-19 is impacting preparations for the upcoming bushfire season and could cause problems during the season too, according to witnesses at the bushfire royal commission this week.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has heard from fire and emergency chiefs from across the country.

In some parts of northern Australia, the fire season has already started.

Greg Leach, the Commissioner of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, today told the royal commission quarantine requirements must be considered when hiring gear from overseas.

“We’re engaging a large air tanker for Queensland this year, and it’s aimed to have that large air tanker on base ready to commence operations from September 1,” he said.

Outbreak could lead to firefighter shortfall

Police border control road sign on highway leading into Queensland's Gold Coast.

COVID-19 has had a big impact on the movement of people between some states of Australia.(ABC News: Laura Gartry)

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said coronavirus could result in a significant shortage of local firefighters.

“If you suddenly start getting a few people with confirmed COVID cases, then your assumption of who may be infected could be quite large,” he said.

Mr Rogers said the service was already planning for the presence of coronavirus this season.

“Things like the number of people we have in our fire trucks… temperature checking, good registers of personnel, good hygiene practices; there’s a whole range of things we’ve done in conjunction with New South Wales Health,” he said.

Almost 1,000 personnel from the US, Canada and New Zealand assisted Australian fire crews last season — but it takes time to get them here.

“When you’re engaging high-cost assets and resources from overseas, it can take weeks or months to secure their arrival,” former NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

He said resource management systems needed to be improved.

Pre-season works also impacted

Mr Leach said COVID-19 had meant extra precautions had been taking during hazard reductions.

“We’re in Operation Cool Burn at the moment which is undertaking our hazard mitigation burns across Queensland, and so we’ve had to take into account physical distancing requirements as best we can with our crews while they’re out doing that,” he said.

“We’ve provided additional personal protective equipment and sanitisation supplies.”

In Western Australia, the Commissioner of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Darren Klemm, said COVID-19 meant training of new volunteers had taken a hit.

“That’s been dampened somewhat by COVID and the various restrictions that were put in place and the challenges around getting those people onboarded and then trained to a standard that allows them to then go and do the volunteering that they actually joined up to do.”

Key points:

  • The Royal Commission has been asking fire chiefs from across the country the planning being done to address the impact of COVID-19
  • The potential need to quarantine those coming from overseas to assist has been considered
  • The NSW RFS has worked with NSW Health to implement measures including personnel registers and temperature checks
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