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Lessons learnt from NSW deployment
Mark Gunning from Colac brigade and Jamie Mackenzie, senior wildfire instructor, felt like they’d been dropped in a war zone when they arrived in Nowra, New South Wales, in temperatures upwards of 45 degrees and a 75 kilometre-an-hour wind change.
The pair returned with their DSE colleague Richard Beokel on Monday, enthusiastic about all they had learned.
“A DSE team had been up before us so they paved the way,” says Mark. “We were really well looked after by the RFS. They were very generous with their time.
“We were working on the Deans Gap fire which got to about 10,000 hectares. It was inland from Jervis Bay in escarpment country which meant some 50 to 70 metre cliff faces. It burnt across the Princes Highway and was also burning towards parts of Morton National Park that used to be a military training area so we couldn’t get in because of the unexploded ordnance.”
So, a few challenges…
“Our job was going in on foot and ground truthing the operational plans,” continues Mark. “We’d check if the plans were viable based on the actual terrain and report back to the incident management team. Jamie also prepared some burn plans.
“The vegetation would change within a few 100 metres – it was very changeable. Some parts were almost rainforest but there was a lot of dry undergrowth and the trees would carry fire across the top.”
Working in hard-to-access areas gave the pair the chance to see the RFS and National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Remote Area Firefighting Teams (RAFT) in action. Unlike the DSE rappel crews, these firefighters are winched in with tools such as small axes, rakehoes and even chainsaws in their backpacks.
With an almost-Special-Air-Service-Regiment level of fitness, Mark reports that the work of the RAFT crews was “phenomenal – it was truly incredible how much they were able to achieve. They were just completely black and one of them had blood running down his face. They’re tough stuff.”
While the incident management team was using infra-red technology to identify hot spots from the air, the thick canopy challenged the reliability of the data, made the hot spots difficult to access and often presented crews with additional work when they arrived. Firefighters were working with up to five helitaks which, unlike their Victorian counterparts, don’t sound a siren before the water is dropped.
“Stay very alert when the helitaks are working in your area,” advises Mark.
“The differences were interesting. They used manual mapping and sometimes they might not be completely accurate but, at the same time, when the power goes out they’re worth their weight in gold. That’s what we faced as a result of the 75 km/hr wind change when falling trees caused a power outage that shutdown the IMT’s computer system at a critical time in the operation.
“They had a huge operational focus whereas I’d say we have a balanced focus in our incident management teams. Their incident action plans were really concise and team-focussed. It meant that you knew what your neighbour was doing and there was great continuity between the sectors, divisions and units tasked on the fire. It was easy to read and easy to brief people with.
“Their IT systems were really intuitive and easy to use too.
“By chance we met up with ex-CFA Station Officer Paul Gooey who’s now living up there and working in the local RFS headquarters, and we had a good conversation about the differences.”
Mark was first deployed to NSW in the 1990s with this being his third visit. For a day job, Mark is emergency management fire coordinator at Surf Coast, Colac Otway and Corangamite shires.