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Ground observers get ahead of the fire
There’s a changing landscape of risk in District 2 and CFA ground observers (GOs) operating out of Bendigo are helping fire services stay a step ahead.
“We try to fill in the blanks in information flow from the fireground back to the incident control centre,” explains Leading Firefighter Ash Baker who has been a GO for four years.
“We can do grid references showing where the fire is, what terrain is in front of it, assets under threat, where the flanks are, fuel type, fuel loads and fuel moisture, fire behaviour, point of origin, best access points, and forward rates of spread.
“We can also gather live fire weather data and give detailed weather readings. The location of a fire perimeter is really important for making predictions. Accuracy in reporting the point of origin and the local wind direction improves fire spread predictions and that flows right into community warnings.
“We can only pass on facts; not what we think will happen.”
It’s an exhaustive list that gives an idea why the role continues to expand and how it is proving its worth.
On days of pre-determined risk such as Total Fire Bans, a ground observation team is assigned in advance to an incident management team. When a band of lightning is coming through, GOs are deployed before any fires start. But how do they know where a fire might start?
“From Bendigo we head south to the granite and track that rock,” says Ash. “On a PFIT [personal field information technology] we can see a current map of where lightning is striking and we’re deployed just off that. When a change is coming through, we will be repositioned to avoid the danger zone. We’re self-supporting so we have to make the right decisions so we’re safe.”
The crew is made up of a driver and one GO in a dedicated ute stationed at Bendigo Fire Station. There may also be a PFIT operator on board mapping live data and uploading photos, and there is the capacity for a fourth person to be embedded in an incident management team as liaison.
Ground observers are a State all-hazards resource and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and SES are now asking for them. SES was sold after GOs worked for three straight weeks on the floods in Kerang, conducting rapid impact assessments of how many houses were unliveable and the power and sewage situation.
GO teams report to the rostered duty officer, but if it’s a large event they will likely report to the planning and intelligence section of an incident control centre.
Ash has learned how critical it is to gather local knowledge including that held by local CFA volunteers.
“You get out there and talk to the farmers and they tell you about access, they know tracks,” he says. “They can tell you about local effects of wind in gullies where fire becomes unpredictable.
“You have to build trust in the role and build rapport. We will also make contact with strike team leaders and the incident controller and we might ask them if there’s anything they may need to know.”
Senior Station Officer Craig Houlahan credits Regional Commander Mark Gilmore and Warrnambool’s Rob Howell with the foresight about 10 years ago to push for timely and accurate intelligence gathering in the field.
“If ground information about weather and fire behaviour conditions is collected in a standardised, scientific way, it can be used to help improve Victoria’s fire spread prediction models,” says Craig. “We have to conduct experiments under moderate conditions for safety reasons, so the results only represent moderate fire behaviour. Any information from more severe fire conditions will greatly improve our predictive capacity.”