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A second line of defence – a call for the establishment of Community Fire Units

by Terry McGee It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. We got hammered by last year’s bushfires, we’ve just re-entered the bushfire season, and what are we doing that’s different? Nothing immediately apparent. Is that wise? Is that enough? Yes, we do have a few things on our side. There's less to burn, but still plenty. We are expecting a damper summer, but that just means more fuel growth for following years. Meanwhile every summer gets hotter and longer, due to the currently unstoppable march of climate change. As temperatures go up, the drying goes up, the wind speeds go up, and the probability of another disastrous fire season goes up dramatically. This is not a time to be complacent. This is a time for action. Possibly the last opportunity. What did we learn? Clearly, we were totally outgunned by the 2019/20 fires. ESC Council website tells us that in Eurobodalla, bushfires destroyed 461 homes, 76 facilities, and 716 outbuildings, with damage sustained to a further 226 houses, 27 facilities and 224 outbuildings. Consider the cost in dollar terms of these losses. Now, add the costs in human and animal terms. And all this, despite having RFS fire stations in every town, and some aerial resources. It clearly wasn’t anywhere near enough. If we do the maths, we can see why it isn’t enough. Taking Malua Bay as our example, the local RFS brigade has three trucks, but has to cover 133 or more streets. Ignoring for the moment that two of the trucks were out-of-area on the morning of New Year’s Eve, battling for Mogo and Nelligen. Even if we had 6 or even 10 trucks in area, the chances of one of them being in your street during an event like this are still very slim. And outside your door when you need them even less. That’s not a denial of their value. It’s just recognition that, in a situation like this, they can’t be everywhere at once. They have to gravitate towards where they can be most effective. A second line of defence So what do you do when the fires overwhelm or sneak by your first defenders? Give up and let it all burn, like what happened this time? No! We need to mount a secondary line of defence, complimentary to but different from the first line of defence. The RFS is small in number, so this has to be large in number. The RFS is a highly mobile force, so this should be a focus-on-the-street force. The RFS is expensive to equip and run, this needs to be more economical, but still effective. It needs to pack value for money. A model already exists – the Community Fire Units (CFUs) set up in the ACT and many parts of NSW after the devastating 2003 Canberra fire. There are over 650 of these units, involving over 7000 volunteer members. Some are as close to us as Merimbula. Essentially, CFUs comprise groups of residents, trained and equipped to protect their street should fire get past the first defenders and endanger lives and property. The equipment isn’t exotic – it might just be some Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help keep them safe, some fire hoses and fittings to enable them to fight the fire, standpipes to access hydrants, a firepump if tankwater or swimming pool water is available but mains power or town water pressure cannot be guaranteed. And perhaps a trailer to keep it all in and make it easy to relocate for best effect when say the wind changes, as it did so dramatically this time. And perhaps you don’t have to have a CFU in every street? If you were prioritising, streets like ours on the urban/rural fringe would seem to stand out. Lets make the stand there. Don’t let the fire into the suburbs. By then we’ve lost. At least equally important is the training. CFU members need to be taught how to tackle fire, how to operate the equipment, what dangers to look out for, how to assess and report the situation, and so on. Nobody should be expected to face down a threatening fire without having had the confidence-building experience of proper training and the opportunity of tackling one under controlled circumstances. An informal trial I have good reasons to believe in the CFU model. Back on New Years Eve 2019, we stayed to defend our Malua Bay urban/bush interface home, confident that we were well prepared (10,000L of water, a petrol fire pump, 3 fire hoses that could be used separately or joined end-for-end for greater reach). We had good reasons to believe the property was defendable, or that, in the worst case, we could safely shelter and escape after the firefront passed. We soon found we were unexpectedly in the midst of an informal Community Fire Unit thrown together by chance for the occasion. All were residents in the street, apart from three who were sons of residents. Four - us and two of the sons - had prior RFS experience, the others were handy, confident people. We quickly agreed on arrangements and protocols. We would work as a pack, identifying and servicing the point of greatest need. Strident blowing of car horns would alert us to dangers and needs. (By now, all comms – mobile phones, landline phones, internet and radio – were out.)

What our informal CFU faced on the day and dealt with As the fire approached, we tried going forward with mops, buckets and two backpack sprayers, but couldn't get near enough because of the intense heat. We were forced back. But once the fire had swung round to behind our place, within range of our 3 fire hoses (NOT the garden hoses!), we had the upper hand. We set up southerly and easterly containment lines, policed those and then systematically blacked out everything we could get to beyond them. That did require hacking through the dense undergrowth with a machete. And getting up through several nights to deal with flareups…. In the following days, a helicopter water-bomber and Malua Bay RFS arrived to control the bits beyond where our hoses could reach. Stumps were still burning there, at risk of flaring up in a wind change. Our bit was already fully blacked out and needed no further attention. But it had required the combination of willing, capable, confident, knowledgeable people, and adequate and appropriate equipment. Neither was enough by itself. Sounds like the very definition of a CFU

What our “informal CFU” faced on the day, and dealt with Make haste slowly But should we race out, invest in and dump 133 trailer loads of CFU equipment onto an unsuspecting public? (Keeping in mind that that would only be enough for one in every street in Malua Bay, not the rest of Eurobodalla!) That might be a bit pre-emptive, and potentially wasteful. I think we should move quickly, but prudently. I’m calling for the establishment of a Council-based CFU Working Group to investigate and advance this notion. Like any well-formed working group, it should have representation of all stakeholders, which in this case I’d suggest includes: - Council, who I’d hope would take a constructive advocacy role, and who would offer to provide administrative support for the Working Group during the establishment and trial phase. - NSW Fire & Rescue, the agency responsible for urban areas, and the traditional agency behind CFU deployments - RFS, the agency responsible for “rural areas” such as Malua Bay. The RFS does service some CFUs but not in this area so far. - A selection of residents interested in being involved, ideally drawn from a range of areas within Eurobodalla (one size probably doesn’t fit all). I would hope to be one of those resident representatives. - Others, to be determined as we progress. What happens next? Clearly a matter for the Working Group to decide, but I’d hope we’d move extremely quickly to establish a number of trial CFUs in exposed areas. And then expand from there. Expeditiously Who am I sending this to? It's not immediately obvious whose bailiwick this falls into, and it can be expected to cut across agencies, so I'm casting my net wide, in the hope that the notion will be seen to have merit, and will get followed up. I'll be sending this to:

my local council, who I hope will take the running of it.

RFS, for their technical and administrative perspectives on rural firefighting, and primacy in a lot of our region.

NSW Fire & Rescue, for their technical and administrative perspectives on urban firefighting, and their very considerable investment and experience in CFU deployment.

NSW Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, the Minister responsible.

NSW Member for Bega, Andrew Constance; Federal Member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips; and Federal Member for Eden Monaro, Kristy McBain, all of whom for their support from the political arena. If keeping your constituents safe isn't sound policy, what is?

Shane Fitzsimmons, Resilience NSW, and the ESC Bushfire Recovery Support Service. Empowering people for the future builds their resilience and aids their recovery.

What do I expect? I'm hoping that this proposal for trialling CFUs in our region will be taken seriously and put to the test, or be rejected on good, compelling, damning evidence. I'm not interested in promoting something that won't work, but I'm not prepared to give up without trying. Judging from their long and continuing investment in them, Fire & Rescue NSW and the ACT Government have a lot of faith in the CFU approach, so why shouldn't we?

And if this proposal doesn't provide the clearly needed second line of defence, we need to press on to find out what will. We don't want a repeat of New Year's Eve, 2019. Ever.

Further reading You can see how the ACT and NSW Community Fire Units work at: NSW - https://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=133 ACT - https://esa.act.gov.au/join-us/volunteering/community-fire-units and plenty more if you Google "Community Fire Unit".

Conclusion I reckon we only have a few years at most before the overheating climate, increasing fuel loads and narrowing windows for hazard reductions conspire to throw us another live grenade. Now is the time to start preparing. We saw how easily the front can overwhelm and get past the first defenders, especially because their numbers and resources are so slim, and our urban/bush interface is so large.

We need a second line of defence, and, as best as I can see at this time, that is the Community Fire Unit. I remain happy to consider any alternative or variation.

I'm happy to discuss this at any level.

I can be found at terry@mcgee-flutes.com, or 4471 3837.

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