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Members manning portable weather stations
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 three portable automatic weather stations (PAWS) with fire brigades in Hazelwood North, Wangaratta Northand Horsham, 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.
Ray Beaton is an ex captain of Hazelwood North brigade and a member for 35 years. This retired control systems instrument maker used to work for the State Electricity Commission in the maintenance of Loy Yang power station, so he has the technical nous so valuable in PAWS crew members.
“We’ve got farmers, engineers and other members with valuable background knowledge in the crew who have had to maintain equipment all their working lives too,” says Ray, “and they’ve also got a lifelong interest in the weather and rainfall.
“We were approached by our operations manager to see if we’d take on a PAWS unit. We’re an active rural brigade with the membership to support it so we said ‘yes’ and we have an ultralight tanker with firefighting capacity assigned to pull it.”
The crew limit set by the BoM was 10 and that’s exactly the number of trained up members now in Hazelwood North. Initial training was conducted by 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. The brigade also conducts regular training on the equipment.
When it comes to deployment, a crew of two is tasked by the operations manager, then reports to the incident controller from their assigned location. Ideally this is on a cleared hilltop, not under trees or in a sheltered area. 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.
Deployment requires extensive communications because all incident managers need to know that the PAWS and crew are on the fireground although not too close to the fire. Verbal communication is usually conducted via trunking radio.
“We also talk a lot to DELWP,” says Ray, “because they have intimate knowledge of the lay of the land. We all have a good general knowledge of the Gippsland area although we might be deployed anywhere from Pakenham up to New South Wales.
“We went to a gas leak at Longwarry, up to Noojee, Dargo, Orbost, Cann River, Goongerah and Wilsons Prom. We spent a few days at Mt Useful during the Licola fires when Phos-Chek was dumped on the PAWS – that took a lot of cleaning. We were up against the open cut during the mine fire last year and had to clean the solar panel every day to keep the soot off.
“The most idyllic deployment was to Glen Falloch on the McAllister River in the Licola Valley where the farmer put a fence around the unit to keep the sheep away.
“We get fantastic cooperation from farmers – they need a pat on the back. Our guys always seem to know somebody somewhere to negotiate access.
“It’s an excellent way for retired chaps like me to keep on as active brigade members.”
The BoM’s Kevin Parkyn is proud of the work done by the crew.
“Weather intelligence from the fireground improves situational awareness and increases firefighter safety,” he says. “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 Ray and the team at Hazelwood North brigade. They've been involved from the start and know how to set the units up for reporting, sometimes in extremely remote, rugged locations.”