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Victorian Bushfires: CFA ill-prepared and reliant on obsolete firefighting technologies

The charred shell of a $350,000 CFA truck near Belgrave Heights during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires. The tanker was able to protect three firefighters from an out-of-control bushfire as it burnt over them. But in 1998, a burn-over incident during a bushfire at Linton, near Ballarat, killing five CFA volunteers. Photo: Craig Abraham [courtesy: The Age 25-Feb-09]

A report by ABC journalist, Jane Cowan, 1-Jul-09, 'Bushfire lawyers blast CFA's Rees' states that lawyers assisting Brumby's Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian Bushfires have in an interim report concluded that the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) was ill-prepared for Black Saturday. The lawyers have criticised CFA chief fire officer, Russell Rees, as having been "divorced from fundamental aspects of the responsibilities" as chief officer, 'including the provision of public warnings and the protection of life and assert that Mr Rees "should have made himself aware of predictions forecasting the path of the fires."

Criticism has also been made about the reliance by the CFA on obsolete fire fighting technologies. Bushfire consultant assisting the Commission, Tony Cutcliffe, has stated "We still have people running these organisations who are predominantly devoted to a firefighting technology that is no longer in vogue let alone being attuned to the needs of behavioural management and leadership."

What is most disturbing of all is that the CFA looks to continue business as usual. The CFA says it has full confidence in Mr Rees and expects him to be at the helm again this summer. Mr Cutcliffe has expressed his concerns that 'whatever changes are made, as it stands now the same management team that presided over the system which failed to cope on Black Saturday will be required to implement the new regime.'

If the calamity of what happened to Victoria last summer won't force an overhaul of firefighting in Australia, what will?

The CFA's old-school firefighting culture dies hard:

* The CFA remains an emergency response organisation almost totally dependent on a disparate weekend volunteer base (not the fault of the volunteers who are effectively unpaid public servants);

* The CFA's bushfire notification system is wholly reliant on public calls to 000;

* The CFA's fire fighting response system is centred around urban fire trucks that cannot access remote ignitions and so must wait until accessible from a roadside, when the fire is by then often out of control. Taking fire trucks into the bush to fight fires is deadly as the above photo shows;

* The CFA remains a public authority with carte blanche to allow and deliberately cause immense irreversible damage to Victoria's remaining ecolgical habitat, yet with no ecological expertise in its management or ranks;

* The CFA is grossly underfunded by state and federal governments.

Some questions:

1. Given that unprecedented extreme weather was forecast and known to the CFA, what commensurate planning, preparation and response did the CFA deploy and when?

2. What improvements in fire fighting practices have been implemented by the CFA since the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires to avoid a repeat?

3. Where are the statistics showing the fire fighting performance in respect to each reported ignition, namely:

a. Elapsed time from estimated ignition time to detection time (CFA becoming aware of ignition)
b. Elapsed time from detection time and on site response time (CFA arriving at the fire site/front with fire fighting equipment)
c. Elapsed time from response time to suppression time (fire extinguished by CFA)

These are the three core fire fighting performance metrics.

The Bushfire Royal Commission is following its terms of reference in assessing the specific facts and specific causes of the fires and logically as expected is starting to lay blame. What's the bet many findings are similar to those of previous bushfire investigations? If the Royal Commission finds that the current system and structure of Victoria's (read Australia's) volunteer firefighting organisation was at fault, then this is a constructive outcome. Only at such a legal level will change be forced on the system and culture. Previous internal debrief meetings and investigations (e.g. the 2003 Esplin Enquiry) have managed to have lessons from bushfire disasters ignored and fire fighting practices remain relatively unchanged. If fire fighting is becoming more effective then how can such tragedies be continuing and growing in scale? How much more 20-20 highsight is needed by the so-called 'experienced' fire fighting leadership before we can observe tangible improvements in fire fighting performance?

Same old same old. Given the dire inadequacies of this organisation, the culture has forced to become one of absolute defeatism - the only way it believes it can deal with bushfires is to slash and burn as much of the natural burnable landscape as possible, so that there is nothing left to burn. It's as crackbrained as backburning through Belgrave Heights in order to save Belgrave.

Change cannot be brought to the CFA within the CFA. Change must come from Brumby and Rudd.

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Comments

Have you any ideas as to how a new fire fighting organisation might be started up? I gather from your articles that aircraft are crucial as well as early spotting of fires, which should be possible with current meteorological technology, fly-overs and ?satellites.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

The decision by Victoria's Country Fire Authority chief, Russell Rees, to resign is appropriate.

The problem is that Premier Brumby wrongly supported him. Indeed the right thing would have been for him to resign last year.

The ‘time is right’ for change at the helm of the organisation. When the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission is due to hand down its final report in July, the need for this change will be more obvious to the general public not closely following this investigation process.

But there is no indication that CFA chairman Kerry Murphy will make real changes to his CFA to handle another Black Saturday event any differently. It is same old same old volunteer blame and Brumby is integrally complicit. Murphy and Brumby are complicit in Victoria's preparedness and response to the State Government's and to go as well.

Bushfire management has become of a scale and severity and deadly impact to warrant a military equivalent organisation and approach. Fumbling dad's armies are grossly inadequate and a negligent government approach that have been inadequate ever since the shock of 1939's Black Friday. How many such bushfire emergencies and bushfore deaths has Australia experienced since 1939?

Yet both state and federal governments around Australia have for 70 year squirmed away from serious resourcing bushfire management. Brumby and Rudd perpetuate that squirming.

The community expectation is that government is responsible for mitigating the impacts of natural disasters and national emergencies, like the February 2009 Bushfires, like the Queensland floods, like the Melbourne and Perth recent hailstorms. Sending volunteers in harms way is worse than recklessness. It is criminal negligence and the community have a right to hold government legally responsible. I am surprised a class action has not been brought by the victims.

These governments know the risks, know the consequences, yet abandon bushfire management to the lot of volunteers. But criminal negligence is a 'misfeasance' or 'nonfeasance', where the fault lies in the failure to foresee and so allow otherwise avoidable dangers to manifest. The degree of culpability is determined by applying a reasonable person standard. Criminal negligence becomes "gross" when the failure to foresee involves a "wanton disregard for human life."

Next time there will be a class legal action in the billions. If government invested billions upfront to properly equip bushfire fighting seriously, it would save lives.

Tiger Quoll
Snowy River 3885
Australia