At the beginning of the disastrous 2002/3 Victorian Alpine fires we were camped at Wrens Flat and after lightning strikes on December 1st we saw many small valley fires from the ridge top near Jamieson. By December 5th these small fires were raging and threatening the town. Had the outbreaks been quelled quickly the threat would have vanished, but that’s far easier said than done. Most of the terrain in the High Country is impossibly steep for tracked or tyred vehicles, so the local volunteer fire crews had to wait for the flames to travel to accessible areas.
Don’t get me wrong: the volunteers who risk their lives and give up their time to defend life and property from disaster deserve our highest praise and long-postponed remuneration as well, so risks to their lives must be minimised. The under-funded bushfire effort in this country is a national disgrace.
We can apparently afford to send hundreds of Australian vessels, aircraft, vehicles and citizens abroad on military missions, yet we rely heavily on insurance company levies and volunteers to fight bushfires.
How is it that there’s technology that can deliver a destructive missile remotely through a building window, yet we appear unable to quell a fire when it’s relatively small?
Previous generations would revel in the technology we have today: within minutes of a lightning strike the resulting fire can be pinpointed from satellite imaging and water-bombing aircraft dispatched by mobile phone, guided to the site by GPS navigation.
I’m sure that yesterday’s fire-fighters would be amazed at our continued use of the old-fashioned practice of letting fires grow when we have the ability to control them almost instantly.
It’s been obvious for many years that the current practice of letting bushfires in inaccessible areas grow unchecked and join into massive fronts is as effective as placating an enemy until there’s no choice but to fight.
The only way to quell remote-area fires in their infancy is from the air, so how is it that this fire-prone nation has limited numbers of fire-fighting aircraft and has to rent jet tankers and large helicopters every year?
Too often we hear that aircraft can’t be used to water-bomb fires because smoke blocks visibility: that’s because there aren’t enough aircraft to ensure that they’re used effectively and immediately.
Why don’t we have sufficient aircraft to attack bushfires when they’re of manageable size? We can afford an expensive air force that can kill people, but we apparently lack the will to have an air fire force that can kill bushfires.
In times of relative peace our military aircraft either sit on the ground or are involved in training exercises. Wouldn’t the crews relish ‘bombing’ fires as part of their training?
The Australian Navy was certainly well employed in the rescue of the around the world sailor Tony Bullimore in the Southern Ocean in 1997 and dismissed the millions that effort cost as valuable training. Why not use military aircraft as fire fighters?
It’s time the Federal Government, of whatever political persuasion, accepted the responsibility for limiting the spread of these destructive fires and put the full weight of its budget and resources behind the task.
We can apparently afford $A50 billion for submarines that will be obsolete long before they’re delivered, to defend against some imaginary threat, but we can’t afford mere millions to upgrade our fire fighting capability to overcome an existing crisis.
A side-benefit is that reducing fire size is one sure way of helping Australia out of its pariah position on the greenhouse gas front, by limiting the poisonous gases and CO2 produced by raging bushfires.
What’s the point of limiting the emissions of vehicles to the point where they’ll soon be air cleaners and trying to sequester (bury) CO2 from coal-fired power stations underground, while having bushfires pumping tonnes of emissions into the atmosphere?
Better on-ground equipment
As well as intervention from the air, our ‘firies’ need much better mobile equipment. Isuzu, Hino, Fuso and Toyota 4×4 vehicles are pressed into service as fire-fighting trucks of different water capacities and mobility, but these vehicles were not designed for that task. Tank body builders do the best they can, but if you offered such a fire fighting appliance to an international airport you’d be laughed off the premises.
The dominant bushfire tanker truck is a Japanese 4×4 with five or eight tonnes payload capacity. These vehicles have water storage capacity and pumps for spraying the water. It’s obvious that they’re inadequate in both water storage capacity and pump delivery.
Not only that – they’re inadequate in terms of specification. It’s not the trucks’ fault – they’re designed as traction trucks, with some off-road ability. Their suspensions produce a harsh ride on rough ground, limiting their speed on fire trails.
What happens if the brake lines are burnt by a ground fire? The lines rupture, the air rushes out and the rear axle spring brakes come on. Unless the springs are retracted mechanically – not likely in the middle of a bush fire – the vehicle can’t be driven.
A sloped windscreen is the wrong shape for a serious fire-fighting machine. All airport fire tenders have forward-raked windscreens for several reasons: embers can’t land on the rubber wiper blades and render them useless; the projecting roof greatly adds to cab impact strength and falling debris can’t enter the cabin.
What has happened to our existing fire trucks when a falling branch or burnt-out tree lands on the roof or smashes through the windscreen? The occupants are killed, seriously injured or trapped – or a combination of all three. In addition, the fire may rush inside the cabin.
What happens if the truck is engulfed by fire? The window rubbers melt and the fixed windows fall out or in, exposing the crew to the full blast of the flames.
There is a better vehicle design available, but it’s more expensive than using a compromise, off-the-shelf truck. For years, now-defunct RFW Trucks produced purpose-built fire appliances and the same cab design and chassis modifications could be incorporated in today’s bush fire trucks. South Australia’s then Woods and Forests Department bought several RFWs and on at least one occasion a crew walked away unharmed from a totally burnt-out truck.
What’s essential is an insulated, impact-resistant cab with forward-sloping windscreen, water-spray system around and underneath the vehicle to prevent grass fires burning underneath the truck, fully insulated cab with fireproof window glass, fire-resistant brake lines, an off-road 4×4 or 6×6 chassis with an engine-driven pump that can deliver mains-pressure water through a truck-roof-mounted monitor, as well as through hand-held hoses.
Such a machine would cost around twice the price of a current 4×4, but offer much better performance on and off road, with much more fire ‘knock out’ ability and much greater safety for its crew.
Governments have been getting by on the cheap for years, when it comes time to budget for bushfire fighting. If you doubt it, take a look at metropolitan fire appliances and airport fire tenders – professionals obviously won’t tolerate what volunteers will.
‘Leadership’ is unlikely to come from the current hand-sitters in Canberra, who won’t even talk to fire chiefs and the Australian public is becoming angrier by the week. Listen, climate-denial Government, weak-kneed Opposition and self-interested Independents. You’re our servants and you’re getting paid: do something!