A firefighting expert has told the natural disaster royal commission that climate change is like a nuclear-powered enemy, making our current firefighting practices “insufficient”.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is this week hearing evidence about state and territory approaches to natural disaster management, including land use planning, resourcing and governance.
Monday’s key moments
- Former commissioner says we have insufficient resources
- Fighting a ‘climate change war’
- Evacuations were ‘chaotic and unplanned’, says former ACT Emergency head
- Crews with ‘five to seven radios’
‘Step change’ required to deal with changing nature of fires
A former fire chief told the commission that Australia had insufficient resources to deal with the future threat of bushfires.
Greg Mullins is the former head of Fire and Rescue NSW and part of a group which said it tried to warn of the horror bushfire season to come last summer.
“I’ve been watching the enemy for 50 years now. The enemy is geared up,” Mr Mullins said.
“It’s like [the enemy’s] suddenly got nuclear weapons and we’re still trying to deal with that with conventional forces. We need more help.”
He told the commission he was concerned about the way the fire season was changing.
He said previously the fire season would play out sequentially across Australia from north to south, but now many areas were burning at once.
“We had a situation in 2019-20 where Queensland was burning, NSW was burning, Victoria was burning, South Australia was burning and we had fires starting to kick off in Tasmania and some in Western Australia,” he said.
“So where do we get the resources? We had to bring them in internationally, and they were still burning.”
“I was in California in November last year and they’re shaking their heads about the longer fire seasons, driven by climate change, restricting our ability to share resources,” he said.
Mr Mullins told the commission that climate change was the enemy and that a different approach was needed to tackle its impact on natural disasters including bushfires.
“I’ve said publicly a number of times there’s a need for step change … in how we coordinate the insufficient resources we have to deal with this threat.”
Fighting a ‘climate change war’
Another former fire chief, Lee Johnson, the former commissioner of the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, told the commission Australia was fighting a “climate change war”.
He suggested a need for a national military-style training college to prepare people for high-level roles.
“We’re confronted with a locality of battles in a greater climate change war; that’s what we’re dealing with,” he said.
“This is where the Federal Government can support with experts, and probably what’s missing is some kind of national command college that teaches a lot about the staff officer roles in planning and logistics, intelligence, and the strategy of dealing with very large-scale battles.”
Mr Lee is also on the board of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, funding for which runs out in June next year.
He said its work had saved lives.
“When we had the use of the predictive fire services tool… people might remember in 2018 the tool predicted that that township [of Gracemere] near Rockhampton would be under direct threat and enabled the safe evacuation,” he said.
“The work it has done in its life has certainly helped save lives and helped better operations, and it needs to continue into the future — there’s no doubt about that.”
‘Chaotic and unplanned’ evacuations
A former head of the ACT Emergency Authorities Authority, Major General (retired) Peter Dunn, was in the Lake Conjola area on the south coast of NSW when fires hit.
He said the evacuation was chaotic and unplanned.
“We were very, very lucky that there were not a lot more injuries, indeed deaths, occasioned during that evacuation,” he said.
“The preparations for the evacuation were essentially non-existent and it was a question of people literally throwing themselves into Lake Conjola.
“The people that evacuated included thousands of campers … [it has] affected many tourists’ mental health, let alone the people that actually lived in the Conjola area.”
The retired major general was the commissioner of ACT Emergency Services from 2003 to 2007.
In his time at the helm, the organisation changed its communication system to align with NSW.
The royal commission has heard such cross-border issues caused problems when fighting fires.
He described the ACT before the change as “an island with its own communication systems within New South Wales”, which became evident as a problem during the 2003 fires.
He told the commission the same problems could be encountered in rolling out a national system.
“There will be technical issues, the obvious cost issues, but the biggest issue will be people’s resistance because they’ve worked so hard to build the best system they can in their state.”
Crews with ‘five to seven radios’ in border regions
Members of the forestry industry also raised concerns about the number of radios they sometimes carried in trucks.
“We are unable to communicate with a number of agencies — they all run separate radios,” Jacob Lazarus, from Hume Forests Limited, said.
“The recent fire season saw one of our vehicles with five different radio systems in it: a DELWP one, an RFS, a CFA, a forest Corp and a UHF hand piece, all in one vehicle.
“Obviously the opportunity to incorrectly pick up the wrong handpiece and transmit a message or a message to the wrong group could occur… that would be unfortunate for an important message to not be relayed to the right people by grabbing the wrong handpiece.”
Greg Saunders from the Forest Owners’ Conference said he had heard of crews having “five to seven” radios in a vehicle.
“There is certainly a possibility to either make use of the wrong radio or confuse messages from where they’re coming,” he said.
Mr Lazarus also spoke about having to undertake different training programs to fight fires in different jurisdictions and said “the thing that puzzles us the most is the fire’s the same on both sides of the border”.
“We’re puzzled by the same thing,” commission chair, retired Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin, said.
First published at The ABC – Tuesday 7 July 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-06/bushfire-royal-commission-told-climate-change-like-nuclear/12426530