by Nick Goldie
The title of this new book — Incident Management in Australasia — doesn’t do it justice. It deserves something much more dramatic, like: Disaster! How our Blokes coped with Fire, Flood, Fear! But then it would be for a different audience.
Ten chapters deal with ten major emergencies: floods in Queensland (2013) and Victoria (2011), a road-train cyanide spill at Tennant Creek (2007), major structural fires in Tasmania (2007) and South Australia (2012), the Christchurch (NZ) earthquake (2011) and of course the deadly bushfires at Eyre Peninsula, SA (2005), Kuring-Gai, NSW (2001), Linton, VIC (1998) and Canberra, ACT (2003).
Some of us were directly involved in the Canberra fires, which started and finished in the forest and farmlands of NSW, after destroying 488 homes in the national capital, and we have followed the drawn-out inquiries, rich with accusations and counter-accusations that followed.
This book perhaps suffers from the fact that the different chapters are all written by Incident Controllers and Chief Officers, rather than firefighters on the ground, but that gives us a great insight into who and how decisions were made — incident management, in fact.
The Canberra chapter is written by Mark Crosweller, Director General of Emergency Management Australia, previously Assistant Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
It’s a deeply personal account, starting with the disastrous lack of communication between the ACT and NSW services.
“I’m not interested in blame,” says Crosweller, “but I am interested in accountability.”
It was apparent that the Canberra fires went beyond anything that fire managers had previously experienced (being only slightly less intense than the well-documented Chisholm fire of 2001, described by McRae and Sharples in their 2015 “Extreme Fire: A Handbook” as “the most intense even yet recorded.” http://www.highfirerisk.com.au/extras/extreme_fire.pdf). This in itself meant that the emergency services let people down. Only some years after the event was the fire science able to explain what had actually happened, notably in the work of Jason Sharples and Rick McRae, who, despite some skepticism, brought the ideas of pyrocumulonimbus clouds and pyrocyclonic winds into mainstream Australian fire science.
Crosweller is emphatic that we need to change how we perceive the inevitability of natural disasters, and how the failure to learn from Canberra in 2003 had a direct bearing on Victoria’s Black Saturday in 2009.
The book opens in South Australia in 2005, on the flat windy grasslands of the Eyre Peninsula. Nine people lost their lives, farmers and firefighters. The fire was timed by CSIRO researchers at a constant 30 km/hour, and in four hours, some 70,000 hectares were burned along with more than a hundred buildings. Author Euan Ferguson, at the time Chief of the South Australian Country Fire Service, is careful to state that allocating blame is not productive, though he himself was the victim of media finger-pointing and even death threats.
Most firefighter entrapments are the result of major bushfires in extreme weather. The fatal events at Mt Kuring-Gai were the result of a routine hazard reduction burn in benign weather conditions, on a parcel of land between a suburban National Park, a residential suburb, and a major motorway. What could be safer?
There are some steep slopes, covered with dry eucalyptus scrub, and the local Council had been asking for a hazard reduction burn for some years. All the firefighters involved were members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which maintains its own bushfire-fighting unit. The Coroner’s subsequent recommendations suggested that in some cases, training and protective clothing were inadequate, and the maps which were issued were also inaccurate and lacking in detail. The Coroner also suggested that hazard reduction burns involving ground crews should not take place until the designated area had been inspected and the maps “ground-truthed.” Ultimately, the NPWS was prosecuted under the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Act, found guilty, and fined.
A name that all Australian firefighters know is Linton. The Linton fire happened in December 1998, and has been used ever since as a tragic and dire warning, notably in the scary instructional video created by CSIRO’s Phil Cheney, called Dead Man Zone — a must-see for all firefighters. Firefighters need to be very aware of the consequences of wind change — two fire trucks from Geelong were moving parallel with the Linton fire, the wind changed, and five men died. Incident Controller at the time, Greg Leach, gives a graphic report on the events that happened, the consequences, and the lessons learned. Like the other accounts in this book, there’s technical detail, operational reports, and some very personal recollection.
All of the disasters described in this excellent book have led to improvements in safety, in training, and in equipment. Perhaps surprisingly, Mark Crosweller, writing about the Canberra fires, emphasizes the human element. An effective emergency manager can’t be constrained by emotional baggage or concealed resentment. The most important thing to learn, says Crosweller, is forgiveness.
Incident Management in Australasia: Lessons Learnt from Emergency Response. Ed. Stuart Ellis & Kent MacCarter, CSIRO 2016. http://www.publish.csiro.au/book/7543.