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Australia’s rural fire services are forced to find ways to fight bushfires without water

Staff writers, September 9, 2019 7:00PM News Corp Australia Network

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Fire and Rescue NSW at Tenterfield, NSW this weekend. Picture: supplied media_cameraFire and Rescue NSW at Tenterfield, NSW this weekend. Picture: supplied

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Queensland has had the worst start to the fire season on record, with more than 65 blazes burning late Monday.

Many fires are also burning across northern New South Wales, bringing the total to more than 100 fires across both states.

Continuing high temperatures and fierce wind, as well as dry conditions mean the fire danger will remain over the coming days.

Across the two states, at least 20 buildings, 15 of which were homes, are known to have been destroyed, and tens of thousands of hectares of forest and farming land burned.

Many schools are closed.

Thankfully, no lives have been lost.

VIDEO: Watch hot embers rain down on firefighters at Peregian Springs on the Sunshine Coast during a fast-moving bushfire that forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes. There are reports the fire was deliberately lit by children. 

Inside the Peregian Beach fire

Extreme drought in Queensland, NSW and other parts of Australia is forcing rural fire services to find ways to fight some of these blazes and others over the coming fire season without adequate water.

More than 65 per cent of Queensland is in drought and 95 per cent of NSW is in drought.

Fire services from both New South Wales and Queensland raised concerns about lack of water for firefighting in the Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook issued in late August.

The outlook showed a massive stretch of the east coast of the mainland — including parts of Queensland, NSW and Victoria — was at elevated* fire risk this season.

Parts of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania are also considered to be at greater than normal bushfire risk this bushfire season.

Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook map, August 2019. Courtesy Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. media_cameraAustralian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook map, August 2019. Picture: Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Though lack of rain means there is little to burn in some regions, in other areas that do have plenty to burn there is little water for fire fighting.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Superintendent James Haig said the best way to control fires was “not have them start”.

“When things are that dry it’s really important people are aware that they can start a fire even by mowing or slashing grass. A rock under a mower can easily spark a fire,” he said.

If a blaze does start, Supt Haig encouraged people to douse* it themselves if they had the capacity to do so, and to call Triple 0 quickly if they did not.

“That early stage is really important. We’ll be happy to hear from you even if we’ve already heard about it,” he said.

Severe drought means previously accessible water sources such as dams on farms were not necessarily an option for fire crews, he said.

media_cameraA crew of regional firefighters prepare to return to fight fires burning near Canungra, Queensland, Saturday, September 7. Picture: AAP

Where possible, crews don’t use drinking water to fight fires, but sometimes this is the best or only water source. 

Drought-ravaged Queensland residents who used their own tank water to fight bushfires in recent days have been assured by the government it will be replaced.

On Monday, Queensland Acting Premier Jackie Trad reaffirmed “all water that is being used, both private dams as well as drinking water, will be replenished by the state.”

In some cases where local water is unavailable, fire crews refill trucks on the fire’s frontline with bulk tankers.

Dry firefighting techniques are also increasingly being used.

A spokesman for the NSW RFS said such techniques “are not new for our firefighters, but they haven’t previously been required in such proportions as we’re seeing now in NSW.”

In addition to back burning — which has previously made some big fire events worse — one strategy being used is what the services refer to as “heavy plant”: bringing in big machinery like bulldozers and graders to construct containment lines or, in the case of grass fires, heavy plant can be used to smother fires rather than douse them.

Chainsaws are also used on fallen logs to minimise how much they will burn.

“Instead of putting a lot of water on a log, we put a chainsaw through it, and let it burn itself out,” Supt Haig said.

20/01/2003. A DSE firefighter with a chainsaw on Mt Bufflalo. North East Victoria bushfires. Digital Image. media_cameraA firefighter with a chainsaw on Mt Bufflalo, Victoria, in 2003.

Using fire retardants and gels on vegetation in a blaze’s path can also help, as the tremendous heat generated by bushfires means water deployed in the fight can evaporate quickly. The retarding chemicals make the sprayed water more effective but they are not perfect, as they can be washed or blow away in high wind.

A water bombing aeroplane drops fire retardant at the Pierces Creek fire near Canberra, ACT, November 2, 2018. Picture: AAP media_cameraA water bombing aeroplane drops fire retardant at the Pierces Creek fire near Canberra, ACT, November 2, 2018. Picture: AAP

One important tool for firefighters is information.

“The remote sensing data from our predictive unit gives us a picture of the state and how much fuel there is,” said Supt Haig.

“That lets us identify where we’ve got fuel loads — and that in turn informs the predictions of how the fire will behave.”

The data is supplemented by on-the-ground reports during a firefight, he added.

media_cameraA water tanker helicopter picks up water at Moriarty Park Hall in Canungra, Queensland on Saturday, September 7. Picture: AAP

Saltwater from the ocean is sometimes used to fight fires.

“Seawater can be used, and we do in emergencies. It just depends on where the fire is burning,” the RFS spokesman said.

“When you dump saltwater on bushland it can have a detrimental* effect, especially in areas close to rivers and creeks.”

In addition to the environmental concerns, there are practical ones.

“Pumps don’t like seawater,” Supt Haig said.

Kangaroo Island bushfires - Day 9 - "Elvis" air crane helicopter takes on water out at sea to dump on the D'Estrees fire on KI. media_camera“Elvis” the air crane helicopter takes on water out at sea to dump on bushfires on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, in 2007.

The NSW RFS stressed that landowners should continue to take responsibility for being fire safe.

“We can’t understate the responsibility of landholders to ensure their properties are well prepared,” the spokesman said. “You can’t expect a fire truck, a helicopter or a plane to appear. A well-prepared home gives you a better chance of surviving.”

NSW facing worst-ever start to bushfire season

GLOSSARY

  • elevated: higher than normal
  • douse: pour liquid over
  • detrimental: will cause harm

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. Looking at the map, which states and territories have an increased risk of fire this summer? Which have a normal risk?
  2. How does cutting a log up with a chainsaw help a firefighter?
  3. Fire retardants are useful, but what limits their success?
  4. How does information about fuel load help firefighters?
  5. Do firefighters ever use saltwater? What is an advantage and a disadvantage of saltwater?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Firefighting Without Water
Outline the types of ‘dry’ firefighting methods outlined in the Kids News article. Outline the pros and cons for each of these and when you might use these types of techniques rather than just using water.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
List some of the detrimental effects that using saltwater from the ocean to douse bushfires could have on the local environment. 

Why does this need to be considered by firefighters?

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Does your family have a bushfire plan? What about your school? Describe the parts of the plans you remember.
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in environment