When he talks about bushfires the easy laughter leaves Shane Fitzsimmons and he is intent and systematic. His words are urgent; his expression, solemn. Fire management, he tells me, is complex, difficult and extremely emotive. Fire is different from any other hazard or disaster: it has a high-risk tempo and an intensity that is unique. Unlike with storms or earthquakes, you’re not dealing with the consequences – managing fire means you’re making decisions as it ignites and flares in front of you.
Fitzsimmons has been the commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service since 2007. The reality of his job, he says, is that he doesn’t really get a break from it. “My job, and that of so many of our people, is one of 24 hours… It is a business that doesn’t conform to the conventional working week. If I look at the past six weeks, we are averaging 500 to 900 people deployed across fire grounds every day. We have more than 72,000 volunteers – that’s 90 per cent of our workforce – working shoulder to shoulder with salaried counterparts. For all fire practitioners the responsibility weighs very heavily.” Fitzsimmons’ father was killed in a bushfire during a hazard-reduction burn a few kilometres from where we meet, beyond Sydney’s north at the Rural Fire Service at Cowan. We are surrounded by the grey-green reaches of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, spreading over 14,882 hectares from St Ives on the north shore to the Hawkesbury River at Brooklyn and Barrenjoey Head at Palm Beach.
Fire behaviour is driven by underlying conditions, Fitzsimmons says. The structure, composition, terrain and aspect of the vegetation, and the condition of available fuel, determine the risk and danger. How dry is it? Is it surface fuel, intermediate-level fuel or forest canopies? Overlay the weather: is it hot, dry and windy? Strong winds result in spotting activity: embers burn kilometres ahead of the fire front and start new blazes. The pyro-convective influence of large fires can create their own weather system, resulting in lightning activity and more ignitions. Spot fires accelerate the main fire front. Fire will spread faster with an increased slope. Grassfires burn and spread two to three times faster than bushfires. Ninety per cent of homes catch fire and burn down through ember attacks – living streets away from bush or grassland still puts you and your property at risk.
We have settled our homes and townships in fire paths, and we travel through places where fire naturally burns, Fitzsimmons says. The Australian vegetation and ecosystem has adapted through fire and much of it relies on fire for renewal and regeneration. “The earliest of stories from our Indigenous people … will demonstrate time and time again that Australia was a landscape that was often on fire,” he says. “The real challenge we have today is that right across Australia we have people in areas where, traditionally, fire would have burnt through. You get fires today – no matter where they start – that impact very quickly upon people and property and the natural environment. It is difficult to access some of that country. There are a lot of people who love their remoteness and isolation, but with that comes an extraordinary inherent risk.”
Climate change, Fitzsimmons says, has been a consideration in the Rural Fire Service’s planning for more than a decade and the business is underpinned by that thinking. “The research indicates, and our experience validates, that fire seasons are becoming longer … and with a drought scenario you get increased intensification. The science indicates increased likelihoods of more frequent, more intense weather events, and longer, hotter, drier fire seasons – and with that comes more organisational planning. Longer and hotter fire seasons equate to shorter periods of opportunity to do critical hazard-reduction burning to reduce fuel loads. More than 50 per cent of that is done in the autumn period, but if that is being compromised we have shrinking opportunity for controlled burning. Our seasons are starting earlier and finishing later, but so too is the northern hemisphere’s… The seasons are starting to overlap each other. When we look at global resourcing: trying to access significant assets like aircraft – if the Americans or Canadians or Europeans are holding them longer, then our ability to get them earlier becomes compromised… You have competing contracts around the world.”
He continues: “This summer we are expecting above-normal fire conditions driven by this extraordinary drought. The moisture level in the landscape is the lowest on record. Large tracts of NSW are absolutely moisture depleted. We are already experiencing a very early, a very intense, very devastating start to this fire season. The outlook for the next three months is dominated by above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall – there is simply nothing in the predictions for any meaningful rain: no normal rain, let alone drought-breaking rain. The risk is real – for people living in urban areas, too. As we hit the December–January period when we traditionally see some of our most intense and damaging fire seasons, there will be many more communities that come under threat.”
It is the sound and the feeling of fire, Fitzsimmons says, that is not often spoken about: the intense heat and noise, the furious winds, blanketing smoke… Your visibility is gone, your breathing is compromised, your throat is dry, you are coughing, your eyes are full of smoke and dirt, you can be standing beside someone and they won’t hear you scream or shout.
Research by the Rural Fire Service shows every time a fire impacts a community the overwhelming response is that the people affected didn’t think it would happen to them – and they wish they had done more, prepared more, Fitzsimmons says. He wants people to be on the front foot. Prepare. Log on to the website. Have a bushfire survival plan. Download the app. Doing those things now, he says, rather than when fire is bearing down on your property, can, and does, make all the difference.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 2, 2019 as "Heat of the moment".
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