COVID-19 could cripple capacity to fight even moderate fires, RC hears

Dominic Giannini 16 July 2020 18
Orroral Valley fire

The Orroral Valley fire burnt around a quarter of the ACT. Photo: Gary Hooker ACT RFS via ESA Twitter.

Even moderate fires will be a struggle to fight during the pandemic as COVID-19 has the ability to incapacitate units and prevent assistance arriving from overseas, the bushfire royal commission has heard.

The ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) admitted that it has been working on worst-case scenario contingency plans where the Territory would not be able to rely on resources and aid from other jurisdictions.

“We are planning for the worst-case scenario, which is that we may not be able to rely on cross-border relationships subject to quarantine requirements, and just workforce availability,” ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

It’s a concern shared by the Acting Chief Officer of the ACT Rural Fire Service (RFS), Rohan Scott, who also appeared at the royal commission.

“There has been some concern from volunteers that if they were to deploy to assist another jurisdiction, what would then be the quarantine arrangements on their return from a cross-border operation?

“With regard to a bigger protracted incident, if we were required, we would not do a hot changeover of vehicles in the field. Those vehicles would go back to the station and we would send out fresh vehicles,” he said.

The spread of COVID-19 could also impede Australia’s aerial capacity and firefighting capability during the next fire season because of quarantine requirements, exacerbating a scarcity of resources as fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres begin to overlap.

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan says COVID-19 may impact the ACT’s ability to receive support during a fire. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Over the course of the black summer fires, a record-breaking 1000 firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the United States came to Australia to help local forces, the royal commission was told.

Australia is also heavily reliant on sourcing fire-fighting aircraft internationally.

“We have had difficulty in getting aircraft, particularly in that early part of the season, which predominantly probably more affects Queensland and NSW,” Commissioner of the NSW RFS Rob Rodgers said.

“I think that just goes to highlight the risk of the country relying on overseas-sourced machines.

“If you suddenly start getting a few people that had confirmed COVID cases, then your assumption of who may be infected could be quite large … you could take out potentially hundreds of people who need to isolate … in case they are infectious.”

Substantial personnel absences and a disease spread with a high rate of infection would “affect the ability to maintain an adequate response” in a moderate fire season, the royal commission was told.

While the fire season officially starts on 1 October, some parts of NSW could see their fire seasons start as early as 1 August. The South Coast’s upcoming fire season is also expected to be higher than average around unburnt areas because of “ongoing dry conditions and a reduced chance of above-median rainfall,” according to the seasonal bushfire outlook.

Social distancing requirements have already impeded some hazard reduction activities over winter while some older and more vulnerable volunteers are being asked to step back from volunteering for the time being.

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18 Responses to COVID-19 could cripple capacity to fight even moderate fires, RC hears
Sean Bishop Sean Bishop 1:04 am 18 Jul 20

It's getting to the point where the government will just turn around and say "Goodluck" you're on your own.. survival of the fittest..

Elizabeth Wadsworth Elizabeth Wadsworth 8:25 pm 17 Jul 20

I think there is enough negativity around at this present time , you dont need to post this now - 😡

    Sally Bopping Sally Bopping 9:06 am 18 Jul 20

    It’s called reality 🙄 whether you want to hear it or not.

Kerri Hallas Kerri Hallas 7:35 pm 17 Jul 20

Well lucky there isn’t much left to burn near me.

Anura Samara Anura Samara 10:35 am 17 Jul 20

If there are no hot shift changes and vehicles need to be cleaned before a new shift, this will reduce the time on the fire ground. We might have to go to staggered shifts to ensure a continual presence.

Steve Sass Steve Sass 10:06 am 17 Jul 20

So why don’t we have a permanent aerial fire fighting presence?

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 10:34 am 17 Jul 20

    Steve Sass because we don’t need it permanently. We only need it during bushfire season. It costs money to maintain the equipment and the skills required to fly them, so having them sitting idle for 4 months or so would be a cost. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, I just can’t see anyone willing to pay for it.

    Lisa Bishop Lisa Bishop 11:38 am 17 Jul 20

    Steve Sass Excellent idea! Self sufficient aerial firefighting capabilities purchased with the money donated to the RFS - what is being done with all that money? People will be hesitant to donate to any organisation going forward.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 11:42 am 17 Jul 20

    Anura Samara that was a reasonable justification when the bushfire season only went from November to March but now that it is much longer, this argument no longer holds water (pun intended). This was one of the suggestions that the PM ignored prior to the events of 2019.

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 12:01 pm 17 Jul 20

    Annie Mills that’s why I said 4 months. Even if we allow for an earlier start in the north, the total time needed probably doesn’t extend beyond 9 months. So that’s a cost. Not to mention the pilots who need another job during that downtime if only to maintain their flying hours. It’s all do-able, but as I say someone needs to pay for it.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 12:09 pm 17 Jul 20

    Anura Samara the last fire season went from September to March. That is 7 months. And it is not going to get easier. How much did this season cost vs having an aerial appliance? You realise that as seasons overlap more and more we will no longer be able to access these planes from other regions? You seem to be wilfully ignorant of the cost involved with longer and more devastating fire seasons. How much is a human life worth? Or 34?

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 3:38 pm 17 Jul 20

    Annie Mills I’m a volunteer firefighter (look at my profile pic) and rather than being “wilfully ignorant” I actually spend a large part of my year living out the impact of lengthening seasons. While the cost of equipping us is paid by the government, luckily for you the hours I put in come for free. All those costs you raise are important and real, but are ‘off the governments books’ whereas the cost of a permanent aerial fleet are immediate and obvious. Governments increasingly make decisions over an electrical cycle. It’s hard to tell people that their taxes or rates will go up now, but we might save a life or a property in 4 years time. Personally, I think this sort of long term view is what our society needs but recent history doesn’t suggest it will.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 3:53 pm 17 Jul 20

    Anura Samara you make absolutely no sense. There are no costs ‘off the government books’ and the ACTRFS are the only ones fully equipped by the ratepayer. In NSW where I was a volunteer, we had to raise funds for equipment so think yourself lucky that ACT foots the bill for your equipment. Secondly an aerial fleet would be paid for by the feds so that it could be deployed to where it was most needed during times of crisis. Just because you are a volunteer doesn’t make you an expert in emergency management at either a state or federal level, which you have clearly shown here.

    And before you make any assumptions about me, I have experience and training in emergency management at both levels of government as well as working with frontline services.

    Monty Ki Monty Ki 4:40 pm 17 Jul 20

    Steve Sass because we have to spend money on missiles instead.

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 8:43 pm 17 Jul 20

    Monty Ki you’re right. It’s funny how they can find billions for a hypothetical threat in the future, but for a real threat here and now they suddenly go quiet!

    Eric Anthony Lucas Eric Anthony Lucas 6:17 am 18 Jul 20

    Steve Sass we do. But we also lease aircraft from overseas, and that will continue to make sense. Those aircraft are available for the worst part of our fire season. The fire season is getting longer, so we need to think about what resources we need at the margins, but when we needed extra planes last season, they were available within weeks.

    Steph Burgess Steph Burgess 8:07 am 18 Jul 20

    Insurance companies are considering it. Risk analysis telling them it would be worth it.

    Carol Gainey Carol Gainey 8:26 am 18 Jul 20

    Monty Ki exactly right. And what's the bigger threat? Answer fires and climate related weather events.

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