News & Media

District 17 HQ brigade's weather monitors

By: Leith Hillard

Category: Operational Information

  1.05 PM 5 February, 2015

Location: District 15 News, District 16 News, District 17 News

Views: 1698

A Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) initiative 10 years ago to gather more accurate weather readings close to going fires has led to the strategic long-term placement of five portable automatic weather stations (PAWS) with fire brigades in Horsham, Wangaratta North and Hazelwood North, and two with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) at Altona.

A PAWS trailer comprises two independent weather stations, a solar-powered tripod and battery with a computer system to record temperature, humidity, dew point and rainfall, an aerial to record wind speed and direction and an iridium phone which transmits all the data to the BoM.

In Horsham, the PAWS trailer is managed by CFA but two members of DELWP and three from SES can also be called on.

Kevin Bolwell has been a CFA member for 42 years and a member of the Horsham PAWS crew since the unit was first introduced. It’s fortunate he’s ‘retired’ from farming: how would he find time for it away from being the captain of the District 17 Headquarters Fire Brigade who also volunteers in incidents control centres as a Level 3 planning officer when he’s not out in the field as a ground observer or a PAWS team member?

“Farm training is the best in the world to operate the PAWS trailer,” says Kevin. “Every hour of our working lives is influenced by the weather. We’ve worked with technical gadgetry like autosteer and yield mapping so we tend to have technical minds. We have the practical knowledge to keep machinery going in the paddock. If we have a problem we fix it with a piece of wire or tape.”

Initial training to man the PAWS trailer was conducted by BoM Senior Meteorologist Kevin Parkyn who also conducts annual assessments involving assembly, erection of the aerial, fault finding, advising the BoM of the location and disassembly.  

When it comes to deployment during a fire, “sooner rather than later” is best according to Kevin. “We tend to be triggered once a fire goes past the 24-hour mark.

“Spot weather reading is where the PAWS comes into its own. It’s essential when planning a backburn because it can give you a very specific reading from a single area. We generally deploy close to a fire and are given free rein to select a site that won’t give false indications. We want quality results that aren’t influenced by environmental factors like creek or river lines. We look for an open, flat spot where the wind has consistency and it’s interesting when the PAWS verifies some of our pre-conceived ideas about what’s occurring.”

From arrival through full assembly to first transmission via iridium phone back to the BoM takes approximately one and a half hours. The PAWS might then be left in place for days at a time and monitored remotely.

“We’ve gone to recent large fires like the Grampians, Black Range and Little Desert complex fire,” continues Kevin. “We get unusual weather around here like katabatic winds when the hot air rises all day from the fire until it reaches the cold air which forces the hot air back down in a rush. Most of our big disasters come at night.”

Deployment requires extensive communications because all incident managers need to know that the PAWS and crew are on the fireground. Verbal communication is usually conducted via trunking radio.

While the weather data is fed into the back of the BoM, Kevin is hopeful that it will soon be put into the public domain.

“In the Black Range,” he says, “there were 20 or 30 landowners around who wondered what direction the wind was going. Our data could help their decision making about moving 1000 sheep 10 kilometres down the road, for example.”

The BoM’s Kevin is proud of the work done by the crew.

“Weather intelligence from the fireground improves situational awareness and increases firefighter safety,” says Kevin. “PAWS units are an ideal way of getting regular, consistent and high quality weather readings to everyone involved in the firefight. When PAWS are required, we know we can rely on Kevin and the team at District 17 Headquarters brigade. They've been involved from the start and know how to set the units up for reporting, sometimes in extremely remote, rugged locations.”

As for CFA’s Kevin, “it’s very satisfying. We’re fortunate our managers had the foresight and flexibility 10 years ago to get CFA, DELWP and SES working together as a PAWS team. We’re all equal. We all have genuine respect for each other and that is even more important for teamwork than our standard operating procedures.

“I joined CFA for self-preservation but this high level of involvement keeps me active and young and doing some good.”

The dedicated crew would welcome more members in the Horsham area interested in PAWS training. If this is you, talk to your local district office.

Last Updated: 05 February 2015