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Fighting fire with... what?

Jan 27, 2020 • 13m 36s

The bushfire season still has months to run. The question is whether volunteers can make it through another crisis without radical changes to how they work.

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Fighting fire with... what?

149 • Jan 27, 2020

Fighting fire with... what?

RICK:

Hullo!

RUBY:

Hey, Rick!

RICK:

How are you?

RUBY:

I'm good. How are you?

RICK:

I'm so good. Welcome, by the way, I forgot to do that at the start.

RUBY:

Thank you. I'm really excited to be here.

[Theme music]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, the new host of 7am. After a terrible summer, the bushfire season still has at least a month to run… but the volunteers fighting the fires are exhausted and under-resourced. Rick Morton on whether we can meet the next bushfire crisis without radical changes.

Archival Tape -- Rick Morton:

So we’re just driving out to, kinda the edge of the Gospers Mountain Fire, the mega fire actually. We saw some fire trucks earlier pass us on the highway at speed, so this fire is by no means under control.

The kangaroos are running away from the bushfire, god there’s at least 25… another water bombing helicopter… [Helicopter travels overhead] Guess I better go say hello.

RUBY:

Rick, you were at the Gospers Mountain Fire at the end of last year. Can you tell me about it?

RICK:

So Gospers mountain fire started by lightning, dry lightning at the end of October 2019.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

You know, it has collectively, as one fire, it's taken hundreds of homes on its own and it is still burning. You know, firefighters had never seen something that big before.

Archival Tape -- Rick Morton:

Gday Governor.

Archival Tape -- Shipley RFS deputy captain Ross Alderson:

How you going, alright?

Archival Tape -- Rick Morton:

I’m good, how are you?

Archival Tape -- Shipley RFS deputy captain Ross Alderson:

Alright.

Archival Tape -- Rick Morton:

Mate, I’m a journo with The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

So we were in the Blue Mountains and we actually went and spoke to Ross Alderson who is the deputy brigade captain for the Shipley Rural Fire brigade.

Archival Tape -- Shipley RFS deputy captain Ross Alderson:

“It is hard for everyone and I’m not just talking about our shed, every shed within the state of NSW, everyone is pushed to the limit, because you can only do so many days and then the fatigue management kicks in…”

RUBY:

How were the firefighters you spoke to doing?

RICK:

People already were defeated and fatigued and managing increasingly threadbare rosters of men who were taking time, unpaid time off their own jobs, off their own businesses to kind of essentially man a fire...that had no end in sight.

Archival Tape -- Shipley RFS deputy captain Ross Alderson:

“You can just keep going and going, there is no real strategy there. You’ll get tasked to where you go, you got no idea where you are going…”

RUBY:

So what makes this fire season so different for firefighters now?

RICK:

We have never before had so many millions of hectares burned across so many states...fifteen hundred homes lost in New South Wales alone. And hundreds more in Victoria, and deaths in three states. That is what we are now dealing with.

Rainforests that they used to use every year without fail as a firebreak because it didn't burn, suddenly starting to go up. And then they've had, you know, their own homes and communities in the south of New South Wales go up. So these people have been fighting fires for four months. And it's that cascading series of major events that in isolation are horrific, but cumulatively are totally unprecedented.

One of the other guys we spoke to up there on the Blue Mountains was Malcolm Scott, who’s with the Megalong Valley Fire Brigade. And he was telling us the circumstances have changed completely.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Scott:

“Well we are talking about the drought, we are talking about very hot, talking about extremely low humidity, it’s actually so scary...you don’t know…”

RICK:

And he was telling us there was a backburn that they were trying to do that had gotten away from them. And they were so terrified of the normal procedure back burning, that when they did it on these fires, they were doing twice as much work because they were aware that it was very easy for these backburns to get out of control.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Scott:

“Things that you’d normally do to stop a fire, just doesn’t appear that you can.”

RICK:

So that's the kind of circumstances we are dealing with here.

RUBY:

Yeah so on top of the sheer intensity of the fires, how big is the issue of coordination when you have all of these different fires burning in different states at the same time?

RICK:

You know, bushfires don't obey the federation. And when you've got them all burning at once, what previously used to be quite an adequate system to deal with localised bushfires in localized areas with localized community volunteers, suddenly was completely inappropriate and completely inadequate. It's a wakeup call. We have to sit back now and go, does the system work? Do the volunteer structures work? And can we survive another bushfire season doing what we've always done?

And, you know, I think the early assessment on that is, no, we can't. We have to think about the way we do things and we have to change it.

You know, I was speaking to one firefighter who said, you know, we might, we might make it through this season without that system collapsing totally. But I don't think we'll make it through another season.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, we're talking about how firefighters in particular have dealt with these bushfires. It feels like we were almost through it, but that's because the fires started so much earlier than usual. Could conditions get worse again?

RICK:

February's often a bad month. It’s often the worst month for bushfires in Australia. All it takes is one bad day where the heat is higher, the humidity is low and the winds are roaring and you've got more crises on your hands. And we've got months left of this season.

I was speaking to one fireghter back when the northern New South Wales fires were still burning. And there is a little bit of rain and I said, well, that's that's good, right? Surely that's a good thing. He said it's the worst possible amount of rain, which I did not know was a thing. Obviously it's great for farmers, but for bushfire fighting, you get a little bit of rain, which is not enough to put out the fires, but it's enough to make undergrowth start growing again. And for some new shoots to grow. And if you don't get any more rain on top of that, then that stuff dries out again. And what that means is more fuel, more fuel for fires to burn in a season where we already knew that it did not take much for fires to spread.

RUBY:

So Rick do we have the equipment to deal with these kinds of fires in the next month or in the next year?

RICK:

Look, not really. I mean, during this season, when it was at its worst in early January, the prime minister announced that we had leased another two aerial aircraft, will spend another 20 million dollars on those leases, to bring extra ones over to Australia. And they were on their way up until fairly recently when they got diverted by another global catastrophe. So as far as we know, they have not even arrived in Australia yet. That whole scenario has taught us that we were not prepared.

I mean the only firefighting specialist aircraft that is owned by anyone in Australia is the Boeing 737 air tanker that was bought by the New South Wales government fairly recently for a total cost of 20 million dollars, And we've only got one of those. We don't own even one of the Erickson Sky cranes, which are those enormous orange helicopters. One of them is called Elvis. They're so ubiquitous now in the Australian fire season that we think, you know, many people think we own them, but we don't, we lease them and we fight other countries for them. Like Chile, places in South America, Greece, California, in northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons that are starting to overlap now. So the competition for these limited number of sky cranes is fierce.

RUBY:

Ok so it sounds like we don’t have the equipment that we need, which suggests we perhaps aren’t well prepared for future fires, do you think that that is what will come up in the royal commission that the government’s announced?

RICK:

It's a question that has to be answered by someone, I mean, I'm not sure that we need a royal commission to answer that question. But if that's where it comes from, then so be it. There has to be a national involvement in the bushfire preparedness, not just at the level of leasing aviation, I think there needs to be a national reserve firefighting force similar to the Army Reserves, that can be deployed at a moment's notice when things really get heavy. And if we had that this season, then more homes would have been saved. I have no doubt about that. And nor do the people I've been speaking to, you know, there were instances this fire season where they just ran out of resources.

I mean, we have had warnings from CSIRO scientists from 1987, which for those playing along at home is the year I was born, 33 years ago, that literally said we will probably see worsening bushfire seasons in Australia that will be self-evident by 2020.

RUBY:

Are we seeing any signs that the Morrison government is listening to the science more?

RICK:

No. We are seeing signs that the government is listening to the polling. I mean, Scott Morrison has been completely rattled by his handling of this fire season, but also the fact that he is now at least pretending to give lip service to climate change. But we have seen no concrete evidence that anything has changed.

RUBY:

Do you think we need to change the way we’re approaching firefighting in this country?

RICK:

It's actually quite telling to look at history here because, you know, in the 1940s, the Country Fire Authority was formed in Victoria in response to one of their then unprecedented worst bushfire seasons in the late 1930s. And again, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service was formed in the mid to late 1990s following what was then the worst fire in New South Wales history in 1994, which burned or destroyed 200 homes and killed about four people on the urban fringe in Sydney.

But now things have changed again. We've now had a new unprecedented worst fire season. So what policy change needs to happen, like happened in the 1940s and 1990s, to better help us fight these natural calamities? Because the challenge has changed. How do we rise to meet it now?

People have said to me, people both very senior and firefighters on the ground said that they don't think we can continue the way we have. I mean, that would be a sign of madness if nothing changed after this season.

RUBY:

Thanks for talking to me today.

RICK:

No, thank you. Thank you.

[Advertisement]

[Theme music]

RUBY:

Elsewhere in the news, Coronavirus has infected more than 1,900 people in China and killed 56. The country has locked down 50 million people in an attempt to contain the virus. Four cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Australia - three in Sydney and one in Victoria. There are also confirmed cases in France, Japan and the US.

And tens of thousands of Australians attended Invasion Day rallies yesterday. Rallies were held in capital cities across the country with protestors calling for the date Australia Day is celebrated on to be changed. Speakers at the rallies also highlighted the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land and other continuing forms of injustice. A rally was also held in London, with protestors gathering in front of a statue of Captain Cook holding signs calling for Australia Day to be abolished.

Field producing in this episode was done by Elle Marsh, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

I'm Ruby Jones. See you tomorrow.

[Theme music]

In a terrible summer, the bushfire season still has months to run. The volunteers fighting the fires are exhausted and under-resourced. Rick Morton on whether we can meet the next bushfire crisis without radical changes.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

The long, hot summer in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh, with Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Our editor-in-chief is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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149: Fighting fire with... what?