Climate crisis demands revolution in firefighting

'We need a climate, and a firefighting, revolution' says Gippsland farmer Bob McIlroy. Photo: Coral Wynter

Bob McIlroy is a small farmer in the Bonang region of East Gippsland, Victoria. Though the area where he lives fortunately survived the mega-fires that consumed a large part of the iconic Gippsland forests this summer, it was badly burnt in a previous major bushfire six years earlier.

A Socialist Alliance member with 30 years' experience with the local Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), Bob spoke to Green Left’s Jim McIlroy about the experience of the giant bushfires and what needs to be done.

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We knew it was coming. All the warning signs were there. Queensland was burning in September [last year], northern New South Wales in October, and East Gippsland was in severe drought.

I was progressively running out of water to green up around my cabin. The dams were dry, and the Jingalala River was down to a trickle. There had been heat waves in August and September.

Locally, there were a series of lightning strikes in mid-November, which lit fires west of the Snowy River. Only days later, a fire spotted over onto the east side of the Snowy. Almost all the East Gippsland fires were started by lightning, not arsonists.

The modern, out-of-control bushfire is a new phenomenon.

My plan had been to stay and defend our property. I was sick of fires. In the 2014 bushfire, our valley lost 20 buildings.

On the night of December 28-29, flames showed at the top of the nearby Bowen Range, and I decided to leave. The predicted south-westerly wind change was dangerous.

I left for the small town of Delegate [just across the NSW border]. The roads were now closed, with police at the border, not allowing people to re-enter the fire zone.

On December 30, the same fire which had been threatening us for five weeks exploded under the influence of hot, north-westerly winds, and burned through Goongerah, with about 15 buildings being burnt. Overnight, the fire went through to Cann River — 100 kilometres in five hours.

Then, on New Year's Eve, at Mallacoota, on the far east Gippsland coast, the south-west wind change became a gale force wind of 100 km/hour. The wind blew the Wingan fire to Mallacoota in a day. The rest is history.

As of early February, the Gippsland fires were declared 'safe,' although fires may still be smouldering in the national parks. Rain has held the fires at bay for now, but in the meantime a massive 80% of East Gippsland has been burnt.

Climate change

The 2014 fire was illustrative of the new situation under climate change conditions.

That fire came out of the Snowy River National Park. It was under similar conditions to the recent fire, but they needed to be put out quickly. Experience shows that if the firefighting crews can get there early, they can put them out.

Despite the false claims, fuel loads in the national parks and forests are not the main issue. In our case, because the national park had burnt in the same places six years before, you would expect 'reduced fuel loads' would slow the latest fire, but not so.

The idea of regularly burning in forests far distant from settlements would not be a solution to the bushfire crisis. Hazard reduction around properties by owners and the authorities is necessary, of course.

Fuel reduction close to, and within, isolated settlements is the only feasible mitigation strategy.

In regard to the false argument that the 'greenies' are to blame for opposing hazard reduction, the fact is that environmentalists and the Greens have never opposed controlled burning in its proper place.

Nevertheless, climate change conditions now mean that no matter how much fuel reduction is carried out, the fires will come on fiercely. We have to face this fact.

Just because a forest has burned five-six years previously doesn't mean it won't burn ferociously again. This is now a worldwide phenomenon. These mega-fires, driven by climate change, are destroying the planet.

One thing has not changed, even under current conditions. Fires start small, and need to be tackled immediately.

Since the 'Black Saturday' bushfire disaster near Melbourne in 2009, [which killed 173 people], concern about the safety of firefighters has led to a situation where crews are ordered out of a fire area by the authorities. Sometimes, local or visiting brigades are willing to stay and fight the fire, but are obliged to leave.

Techniques have changed since 2009. Old-fashioned fire-fighting measures, for example, on-ground personnel using rake-hoes to make firebreaks, are out of favor. Night-time fire-fighting, which had been very common, is now rare.

Right now, we need a push for more people to join up. Of course, basic skills and training are needed to go out on a tanker.

In the past, virtually everyone in country areas was a member [of the CFA]. The authorities say the money raised for the firefighting effort should be used for new equipment. In reality, the old fire trucks have more capacity than the new, smaller ones.

The problem was not trucks but lack of crews. The village of Delegate had 10 fire tankers parked and unused for weeks this season.

But what we really need is more firefighters. And reports are that many more volunteers, especially young people, have joined up in the wake of the fire disaster.

Funding has been reduced for the summer crews. We need more paid summer firefighters, whose training needs to be completed well before the fire season starts.

We need mass recruitment for the CFA now in preparation for the next fire season — which could start even earlier this year.

A system similar to the Army Reserve [in which members are mobilised when required, and paid accordingly] should be investigated — in addition to the existing volunteer-based fire brigades. An expanded firefighting system could create many new jobs for the unemployed, and would require a major expansion of the firefighter training program.

In our area, we are planning to hold a meeting of local landholders to discuss action to defend against future fires. We will cut a broad firebreak through the grass prior to the next summer season.

There is the possibility of doing some 'patch burning,' as Aboriginal people have done for thousands of years before us.

People are also beginning to organise on a community level to rebuild local fire brigades. The Bonang rural fire brigade will undoubtedly grow considerably with new volunteers, especially younger ones and more women as well.

We need to tackle these huge bushfires like a guerrilla war, confronting an enemy that has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve.

Firefighting revolution

The destruction of rainforest on the Eastern Seaboard is an environmental tragedy. The rainforest may never recover. Unlike eucalyptus forests, rainforests do not normally burn, and may never recover.

The priceless Errinundra Plateau was affected. And the Martins Creek flora reserve on the Bonang to Orbost road has been virtually wiped out.

We need a climate, and a firefighting, revolution.

All governments, state and federal, have been serially underfunding the firefighting organisations. Moreover, a thoroughly top-down approach to firefighting doesn't work.

The first principle of modern firefighting must be: when a fire starts small, stomp on it right away. There is an over-reliance on water-bombing aircraft, and an under-reliance on trained firefighters.

We need a new approach, both to the threat of climate change, and to firefighting. We need to end our reliance on fossil fuels to combat climate change.

And we need to massively expand our public investment in the firefighting system, and create an integrated combination of volunteers (who can be compensated for time lost away from work), and properly paid and trained professionals.

The lessons of the 2019-20 fire emergency must be fully understood and acted upon urgently.

UPCOMING EVENT

IN CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE PASCOE: The Climate Emergency & Indigenous Land Practice

SATURDAY 5 DECEMBER ♦ 4PM ACT, NSW, TAS & VIC ♦ 3:30PM SA ♦ 3PM Qld ♦ 2:30PM NT ♦ 1PM WA

Zoom panel featuring Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Australian writer and editor, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

Also featuring agroecologist Alan Broughton, filmmaker & Rural Fire Service volunteer Robynne Murphy and City of Moreland councillor Sue Bolton.

For more information call (02) 8070 9341 or 0403 517 266. Hosted by Green Left.