Coronavirus is a dangerous wild card for bushfire season — and people are getting nervous

26 September 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Greg Mullins has spent decades fighting fires, yet when he talks about the Black Summer of 2019-2020 you can still hear the emotion in his voice.

“I’ve been around the block a few times. But you know, I still get flashbacks to the stuff I saw in Batemans Bay that upsets me,” he says. “I’ve seen this so many times, but never on that scale.”

Fire experts like Mullins — who fought his first fire aged 12, rose to commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, and is now a Rural Fire Service volunteer — are bracing for what this season dishes up.

“I got up this morning and when I looked outside the first thing I thought was, ‘oh, a westerly wind. Right-o’,” he says of the notoriously hot and dry air currents. “It just takes a couple of days [of winds like this], and you’re back into it.”

With the trauma of last fire season still fresh, with communities, landscapes and wildlife still recovering, it is hard to fathom that the next fire season has already begun.

In Queensland, August 1 marked the official start of fire weather and elsewhere September blazes are not uncommon. Add the disruption of COVID-19 and the season ahead is making many people nervous — not least because guessing how it might play out is proving particularly hard.

“It’s extremely difficult to predict what an individual fire season will do,” says fire ecologist David Bowman. “But am I relaxed about the coming fire season? Absolutely not.”

COVID-19 can’t be ignored

Perhaps the biggest question mark facing fire teams now is how COVID-19 will impact their operations.

In the event of large-scale evacuations, gathering people into community centres could mark the start of a new threat — a hub for coronavirus spread.

But there is also uncertainty over how fire crews from intra or interstate could mix and whether interstate resource sharing arrangements can be maintained.

Garry Cook, the Acting Chief Officer of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, says non-essential activities have been affected by coronavirus in Victoria and COVID-19 guidelines have influenced training and community fire preparation.

Tony Johnstone, regional manager of the Rural Fire Service in Queensland, says online training has in some cases replaced face-to-face.

Amanda Davies, a professor of human geography at the University of Western Australia, says keeping close watch on how coronavirus may impact the movement of volunteers is crucial.

“How are they going to be able to move around districts easily, access water sources, join up with other brigades?,” she asks. “Are there going to be protocols in place to enable that if we go to a second or third wave?”

We’re even more isolated

International cooperation is another victim of coronavirus restrictions.

The extent of Australia’s reliance on giant water-bombers leased from the US was made clear last year.

While Australia does have a substantial fleet of water bombers available in every state, it includes only one of the huge 15,000-litre tankers that can impact giant blazes.

But COVID-19 is likely to make contracting extra water bombing planes more difficult this year as US pilots are required to fly them (a contractual expectation), raising once again issues of virus spread and quarantine. Planes would sit idle waiting for the pilots with fires still raging.

Mullins believes now is a great time for Australia to increase its fleet of water bombers as the downturn in the aviation industry has left many large planes sitting idle.

“You can pick them up relatively cheaply right now, then spend several million repurposing them,” he says, suggesting a fleet of six to 10 would be ideal.

But the impact of coronavirus cuts both ways.

Australian cooperation with the US has also been impacted this year, says Mullins, who has spent time fighting wildfires in California. With the US fires predicted to get even worse over the next few weeks as the Santa Ana winds hit the state, Mullins says Australian firefighters would typically travel over to help.

“We’re not doing that this year. [The US] withdrew the request because the question was how do we keep [Australian crews] safe from COVID?” he says. Requirements for quarantining also means time away from family would be extended.

‘A very scary proposition’

Fire ecologist Bowman lives on a bush block west of Hobart. The view takes in Mount Wellington, the eastern shore and Bowman believes “the whole thing could go”.

“Every house in Hobart is at risk from catastrophic bushfire. It’s a very scary proposition.”

Should it come to it, Bowman — an advocate of the “leave early” strategy — has his escape plan in place.

“We have a tank and a pump. We take the necessary precautions,” he says.

“But if there’s catastrophic fire weather I’m going to be in a sea kayak on the Derwent estuary. I’m not going to be hanging around.”

But there is some good news

On the one hand conditions — compared with last season — look relatively good this year: the upside to so much devastation is landscape that burned in 2019-2020 are unlikely to reburn with the same ferocity this year

In addition, the Bureau of Meteorology’s Spring Outlook continues to predict higher than average rainfall and lower than average temperatures for all states of Australia, bar Tasmania: a result of La Niña weather patterns.

“Everyone in the fire business was dreading the big one … but we’ve had some rain and the whole moisture profile is different this year,” says Mullins. “I don’t think we’re going to have a fire season anything like last year.”

For Tony Johnstone from the Queensland RFS where the fire season is two months in, this weather pattern has delivered one of the slowest starts in years.

Johnstone suspects a range of factors are at play: property owners doing fewer hazard reduction burns perhaps to save feed for livestock, improved weather conditions and also the impact of COVID-19 that meant some group activities did not take place as normal.

For some, memories of last fire season would have influenced this year’s approach. “Some people were probably thinking, ‘Okay, maybe we don’t need another bad year, how can I help? Well, maybe not putting fire on the landscape unnecessarily’,” Johnstone believes.

Yet, the news is not all good.

While the spring rain will improve the Keeytch-Byram drought index — a measure of soil moisture that rates from 0-200 the estimated number of millimetres of rain required to soak the ground — it also encourages the growth of grasses.

Young and green grass is of little concern to fireys. But those westerly winds that worry Mullins can also dry things out at lightning speed. In fire weather crisp brown grasses are a tinder box that create very fast-moving flames capable of reaching bushland or urban areas in a flash.

The other problem facing Australia this year is the sheer size of this wide brown land: there are plenty of areas that missed fire last year but now at risk.

Bowman points to the NSW Blue Mountains, which had some of that state’s most severe blazes, as an area to watch again this year.

Mullins flags areas of Western Australia around Margaret River and large tracts of Queensland, south and inland from Townsville, as vulnerable.

In Victoria, the CFA’s Garry Cook says “drier-than-average areas in the west and north west may see the season underway in mid to late October and will still require a quick response to fast-moving grass fires”.

Should we all be volunteer fireys now?

The pressure on the firefighting community makes the idea of volunteering for a local firefighting unit seem like a logical next step and Mullins says big bushfire emergencies typically work well as a drawcard for recruitment.

Yet the numbers putting their hand up to help is falling, and keeping those who do is proving difficult.

It’s a generational thing, Mullins believes. At 61, he says he is often the youngest on his truck. He’s fit, capable and experienced but takes on tasks that would be more appropriate for a Gen-X or Gen-Y volunteer. But they can be hard to find, and hold on to.

Davies from UWA says demographic change in regional areas means volunteering has lost its prominence as younger people move from regional towns to cities.

The emotional toll is another reason.

If the trauma of working in a fire zone at the height of an emergency was not enough, the weeks and weeks required of volunteers forced many into a position where they had to choose between volunteering as a firefighter or keeping their day job.

For others, there is a disconnect between the instant satisfaction of bushfire fighting beside “the long-term, day in, day out commitment”, says Davies.

‘No one’s going to save you’

Bowman suspects the threat of bushfire, coupled with the threat of coronavirus, means Australians who live in bushfire-prone areas like he does need to consider how self-reliant they are prepared to be.

“The proposition that somebody is going to come and help you is flawed,” he says. “We can assume that we have to find a frontier spirit and be more self-reliant.”

Bowman believes the pandemic is “a fork in the road” that has raised “big philosophical questions”.

“If you see people in uniforms and trucks and aircraft it can engender the belief that society has created a sufficiently powerful firefighting force and you don’t need to do anything, just sit back and watch the show,” he says, noting that the severity of the 2019-2020 fire season presented dilemmas that simply could not be solved, like running out of water.

“It’s a confusing message,” he believes. “On the one hand we’re centralising power and control but on the other as firefighting becomes more complex, and the pandemic delivers yet more complexities, we’re going to have to be more self-reliant.”

Bowman says Australians need to understand summer is no longer a time to relax “but a time to be hyper vigilant”.

“We have to develop situational awareness, our own capacities and resources and our own community resilience,” he says, arguing everyone needs to have “a backpack, packed at the door, ready to disrupt all of your routines”.

Mullins agrees: “It is time to look at building standards, where we let people live, some towns that once were safe, probably aren’t anymore. In some cases we might have to relocate people.”

It’s a verdict that’s full of personal poignancy for Mullins: “When I look at where I live I think, well, my grandsons probably shouldn’t live here. It’s too dangerous,” he says.

“We’re in the bush and if there’s a fire locally, my place probably wouldn’t survive. I feel just a big, big sadness.”

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