Firefighter: ‘We are being kicked in the teeth by government’

Protesters demanding Scott Morrison act on the bushfires on December 21, 2019. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

As the catastrophic fires raged over several states from late December into early January, Green Left’s Pip Hinman asked Shaun McDonald, a professional firefighter currently based in Tasmania about his views. McDonald has been a firefighter for 13 years, fighting fires in three states and territories, including recently being deployed to NSW.

There is a lot of finger pointing between state and federal governments about who is responsible for what. Regardless, it seems that cost cutting has hampered both professionals and volunteers trying to fight these fires. What do you think should be done both in the short and longer term?

Professional firefighting organisations are crying out for more recruits and more staff. The state governments’ Parks and Wildlife Services have had their numbers cut over the last few years through restructuring, redundancy programs and attrition as well as the flat lining of budgets. The NSW government has cut the capital expenditure and recurrent budgets for both the Rural Fire Service and the NSW Fire Brigade. New staff trained as firefighters means that the funds need to be made available.

In the volunteer organisations, people have to deal with aging equipment and substandard personal protective equipment. This is the issue with the substandard smoke masks. Vollies and even professional firefighters are being given inadequate P2 dust masks to fight fires in drier, hotter conditions.

On a fireground, communications are paramount and yet firefighters still turn out with sub-standard radios or, sometimes, without a personal radio.

On the question of volunteer pay there is a divergence in opinion. Some volunteers have been battling for months, missing pay because they have not been going to work as much this season. Some sort of compensation needs to be made available to those who lose pay through these campaign fires and a wage must be made available to compensate those who aren’t working for the time they have spent in extreme conditions away from their family.

The finger pointing takes place at a government level; it’s largely absent on the fireground. I don’t think the government has a clue what we’re going through. We know our organisations are state-based, that it’s the state governments or local councils that provide the money. But for the federal government to use that as an excuse to not give badly-needed funds is a kick in the teeth.

The federal government already funds large campaigns against severe and extended fires, so we know the funding avenues are there. They could also fund grants for equipment, or for a decent fleet of dedicated water bomber planes and helicopters or even just an increase in the numbers of professional staff.

Ultimately, climate change is responsible for the ferocity and intensity of the fires in parts of NSW and Victoria. Is this accepted by those you have been working with? 

Most firefighters can see that the climate has changed, that it’s hotter and drier than it usually was and that the fires have become more ferocious as a result.

We all know that fires have always been around and that we’ve had some bad ones in the past. But we also know that the weather conditions do not need to be that bad for one to take off now, given how dry the fuel is, or that they will take off like never before in the worst weather conditions.

Firefighters have a very good idea that something needs to be done to address climate change. But they also want to strengthen our organisations so we are better prepared to meet the challenges.

Communication, and the lack of accurate information, has been a major issue. How do we make communities more resilient to a changing climate? 

Portable radios, or a radio or TV in the house, are essential. But the messages are usually general and often only relevant just before a fire comes through. The ABC radio network has been crucial in rural areas. The crucial role it plays was reinforced by the Royal Commission into the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

Text messages from emergency agencies are also important, but people need to be more aware of what a near-by fire is doing than what they are hearing on the radio.

One of the big issues for those in rural areas is the lack of mobile coverage, both for phone calls and to enable people to keep up to date with weather or emergency alert apps.

While NBN or ADSL is crucial, it does not replace mobile coverage. This needs to be expanded and black spots around towns or residential clusters need to be eliminated.

After a fire, repairing communications’ infrastructure needs to be made a priority. Electricity companies are generally pretty good at restoring power quickly after a bushfire, although it can take days for one transmission line to be repaired if most of the posts have been burnt out.

There probably needs to be a quick response mechanism to power up telecommunications towers after the power dies and once the area is safe. Generators can be choppered in and large ones moved in on a prime mover. Getting the towers working again is very important for many reasons, not least of which is people’s health and the rebuilding of their lives and communities.

What are dry lightning storms? Can they be fought?

We can see that changing weather patterns have not just made an area drier and the fuel more volatile, but it is now becoming the cause of some of these fires starting.

Dry lightning is not new, but it has become so much more common in recent years. Storms happen as atmospheric pressure cells move across a landscape, but we are seeing less rain — and sometimes no rain — come through with a trough or a front. When there is rain on the hotter days, it’s increasingly not enough to dampen the already very dry fuel.

Up until a few years ago, a Total Fire Ban helped prevent bushfires. Most fires were started accidentally, or through negligence, but a community education campaign about what cannot be done during a Total Fire Ban was effective.

Now, during a hot, dry windy day, the biggest threat is the weather itself. It doesn’t matter how a fire starts, if the weather is hot, dry and windy — if the fire danger is in the severe range or higher — it will take off. 

But dry lightning gives us one more increasingly major thing to worry about and, in Tasmania at least, we are now expecting some every day in that fire danger range.

There is a freely available smartphone app called My Lightning Tracker (among others) that will give real-time notifications of nearby lightning. Fire agencies would be using more sophisticated technology as well and can map the strikes fairly accurately. But for those out in rural areas, using these apps means better mobile phone coverage is needed.

Are you aware of any moves by firefighter unions to hold a national summit to make demands on the federal government?

No, but it would certainly be a good initiative if the unions held such a summit because we are the ones on the ground.

There have been inquiries held into bushfires after major fire seasons, such as the Royal Commission after the Black Saturday and the 2019 inquiry into the fires in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

Unfortunately, these inquiries happen and the recommendations get sat on. The Tasmanian one, for example, said that there needs to be an increase in resources available to the Tasmanian Fire Service and the Parks and Wildlife Service — which includes human resources.

At the very least, governments should be forced to implement the findings of all these inquiries, not just those that are palatable.

Despite calls for help, the NSW government had declined to ask the army in. Is there an issue with firefighters and defence working together?

Whether it’s on a fireground, or in an operations room, we are all there to do a job no matter what agency’s uniform someone is wearing. There are definitely differences in approach between agencies but in an operation like this, personal and professional egos need to be left at the door.

I don’t have a problem with the army supplying units to help the incident management teams’ efforts, as part of that team. The army and air force also have their own firefighting crews, which would be useful to help on the ground under the same direction as everyone else.

Can you comment on the length of the bushfire season now compared to previous years?

There are two issues: a longer season affects those putting in time on a fireground and the ability to share stretched resources between states — both material and human.

The NSW bushfires have been going for more than five months. Many people at the Incident Management Team level have been working solely on these fires for that amount of time. Firefighters too, particularly full-time firefighters, have been there since the start.

Volunteer and part-time professional firefighters tend to be heavily involved when a fire is in their area, with occasional trips inter- or intrastate to help out.

The longer seasons mean that more firefighters are working for longer and fatigue sets in a lot earlier. Volunteers also lose more time at work, and income, which places pressures on them, their families and communities.

The impacts are felt across the communities. Tourism is down in NSW, which puts great stress on a tourism-reliant community. Others are needed to work huge hours and through public holidays to provide support for the firefighters.

Our system shares resources between states as the fire season moves down the east coast.

But we are now finding that aircraft as well as interstate firefighters are not available when they used to be. This impacts greatly on our ability to get necessary machinery and on the fatigue levels of firefighters as help from other agencies is reduced as they face their own fire season.

PM Scott Morrison’s attempt at catch-up, with the late deployment of the army, does not seem to have dampened down the anger among firefighters and communities. Is that your feeling too?

On the fireground, we feel we’re being kicked in the teeth by governments that try to deflect the issue or go on holidays. They lack the will to act — both to support the communities and to act on climate change.

The Coalition government seems to be trying to ride this one out. Its popularity has nosedived, and anger against Scott Morrison is building. But once the cooler season comes, and the danger recedes, the government will look for distractions to shore up their credibility. Right now is definitely the time to talk about the climate crisis, but so is winter.

We need to be able to prepare for the next fire “season” during the cooler months, in case it is as bad or worse. We also need to make sure the government is held to account for its failures.

What other problems come in the wake of these fires?

There are other environmental issues such as the amount of carbon released by these fires. Generally, it was believed that fires are carbon neutral, as the carbon released would, eventually, be absorbed back into the bush. But the extent of these fires means may yet propel us towards another tipping point.

The regeneration of the bush is another. We’ve always had the belief that the bush will recover, but without sufficient rain, that remains a question. Certainly wet forests that have burnt will not recover as they once were.

While the impact of these fires tends to be seen in rural areas, the changing weather is impacting heavily on cities too, and especially those with health problems and older people who are more vulnerable to heat and smoke. The human cost of ignoring climate change-driven fires is too great. The economic cost is too.

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