As south eastern Australia braces itself for another day of intense bushfire activity, it’s fair to question why our fire authorities are again fearing the worst. Simply, they are unprepared.

Following the disastrous bushfires of 2003, Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin delivered a host of recommendations to the Victorian Government about fighting bushfires. The Esplin inquiry was followed by a COAG report which delivered recommendations at a federal level. Yet in December 2006, when multiple lightning strikes during a drought triggered another mega fire, fire authorities were as ill-prepared as they were four years ago.

Despite the hum of activity within government, it’s obvious that current strategies need to be comprehensively rethought. For example, backburning off containment lines has been relatively ineffective during periods of very high to extreme fire weather in controlling the fires, sometimes leading to further escapes from containment lines. Nobody is currently studying the effectiveness of this approach.

Why are we still using simplistic and antiquated fire behaviour models from the 1960s? They do not relate fully to today’s large fires, which burn with huge convection columns. Firefighters need an accurate idea of the fireground conditions. Without properly understanding what is really going on in front of them, such as the speed and intensity of the flames and in which directions they are moving, firefighters cannot be expected to react appropriately.

We need to critically evaluate the effectiveness of large helicopters, such as the Ericsson sky cranes. “Elvis” might be a cult hero, but in many situations he is ineffective when compared to smaller and more deployable helicopters.

For first attack purposes, small to medium sized helicopters equipped with buckets are more effective because you can hit the fire hard and more often. Then there’s the cost issue. One sky crane costs more than $250,000 a day, but you can have ten medium helicopters at $25,000 a day supporting fire operations. It’s a huge cost difference and nobody is doing the cost-benefit analysis. People who have lost property, national park users and taxpayers should be asking why.

What’s the solution? We need to be better prepared for such events. We need better early warning systems for predicting multiple lightning strikes during droughts and hit them hard with the most effective resources at our disposal. In the event that we cannot put the fires out while they are small, we need to deploy a range of containment strategies, beyond just backburning, to limit the extent and severity of fire in our forests. Our native wildlife, forests, property owners, farmers and livestock deserve better.

Editor’s note: Victorian Emergency Services Commission’s Bruce Esplin was contacted for comment but refused the opportunity.

Peter Fray

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