Former ACT fire chief says locating and quickly quelling ignition points is the key to beating bushfires

Former ESA boss Peter Dunn works the phones at the bushfire relief centre in Lake Conjola, on the NSW South Coast, last summer. Picture: Adam McLean
Former ESA boss Peter Dunn works the phones at the bushfire relief centre in Lake Conjola, on the NSW South Coast, last summer. Picture: Adam McLean

The events of 18 years ago when lightning struck a dead tree near McIntyre's Hut in the Brindabella Valley and was a key generator for the ACT's 2003 wildfires were well-recalled by Peter Dunn as he urged priority given to a fast-strike response to bushfires.

The former ESA commissioner said that taking advantage of that "magic hour", when a bushfire first ignites and can be vigorously attacked, was as important now as ever.

Mr Dunn is a member of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action group which, 100 days on from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, has handed in a report card "disappointed and concerned" with the lack of action by the Federal government.

He said that many of the recommendations from the commission had been only supported by the government "in principle" or simply had been "noted".

"Particularly worrying is the rejection of a strong recommendation to develop a local aerial firefighting capability due to longer fire seasons worldwide reducing access to large aircraft at time that we need them most," he said.

Two large aerial tankers were this week dispatched from NSW to WA, to help the current firefighting efforts to the north of Perth.

Mr Dunn said that while this action was appropriate and commendable, he posed the question: "what if they are needed here [on the east coast]?"

"What we've learned is that we need to bolster our aerial fire-fighting capability regionally, across the country, so that resources are where we need them," he said.

In January 2003, local farmer Wayne West rode across the Goodradigbee River which ran along his 400 hectare property, Lazy Acres, right up to where lightning strikes had ignited a hollow tree near McIntyre's Hut, a shack in the forest used by weekend fishermen.

Mr West made dozens of phone calls in a bid to get fire crews out to attack the fire early but were told none were available.

Within days, the weather had worsened, back-burns had failed and the conflagration was sweeping toward Canberra.

Mr Dunn, a former Major General in the Army who was appointed the ACT's ESA Commissioner in 2003 and served in the role for three years, said there were three key capabilities which needed addressing immediately.

"The first is to have that national satellite-based ignition detection and remote sensing capability up and running as soon as possible," he said.

"The Minderoo Foundation is doing some great work in this space but we need a lot more scientific effort directed to support them," he said.

"Once we have that real-time detection, that's when we need the rapid response.

"These are teams of full-time local responders ready for immediate deployment. You combine these human resources with an aerial tanker capability - a domestic fleet of specialist fire-fighting aircraft located strategically around the country - and you have a really good shot at dealing with these ignitions early.

"And thirdly, we need to do more scientific research into fire behaviour.

"By rolling all this together, we start to have a real chance at getting on top of these fire events early, before they become almost impossible to manage."

Mr Dunn gave first-hand evidence to the royal commission of his own experience during last summer's NSW South Coast bushfires, which raged behind his home near Lake Conjola and for weeks up and down the coast.

He was part of the residents' evacuation which occurred, in which people had to be ferried across the lake to safety. The area was cut off for eight days.


He is now part of the 29-strong group of concerned people which encompasses scientists, senior firefighters, parks and wildlife experts, and emergency responders from across the country.

Its key focus is on convincing the government to act swiftly on climate change as it is creating more extreme weather events including hot days, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, coastal flooding and catastrophic bushfire weather.

The number of days with very high to catastrophic bushfire danger ratings each year are increasing across much of Australia.

The frequency is projected to get even worse.

This story 'Attacking' bushfire ignition points key first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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