Wallowa-Whitman's Own Aids in Australia Wildfire Efforts

Q&A session with Wallowa Fire Zone's Fire Management Officer, Nathan Goodrich, after his return from Australia. 

Why did you volunteer to take on this assignment in Australia?A smoke filled sunset beams over rolling mountains in Australia. 

The opportunity to go to Australia and help manage fires is pretty much a once-in-a-career opportunity. The last time the US sent anyone was 2010, and before that it was 2002, I believe…so doing the math…I would be retired before the opportunity came up again. 

Before putting my name in the hat of the few hundred others that were willing to support Australia during the holidays, I first discussed the potential of being selected with my family.  They were supportive but not especially happy that I wasn’t going to be home for Christmas and gone for over a month.  It was not an easy time to be away from home, but it was also an honor and privilege to be chosen as part of the first group from the US – the first in almost a decade and the first-ever to New South Wales (NSW).

The US and Canada each sent 20 fire managers on assignment to NSW for a period of four weeks during late December and early January.  Since then, I think there have been four other groups from both countries to various states in Australia.

Have you done an international assignment before?

I went to Canada in 1998 to fight fire, and I was able to take a 10-day assignment to Spain in 2013 to instruct Spanish fire and emergency managers in the use of the Incident Command System.

Where in Australia did you go? 

After an in-briefing in Sydney by the Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner and other RFS department heads, I was assigned to the Lower Hunter and Hunter Valley Fire Control Centers that are in Maitland and Bulga, New South Wales, approximately 2.5 and 3.5 hours north of Sydney.  I was at Lower Hunter for approximately two weeks and Hunter Valley for the last two weeks.  These offices would roughly be the equivalent of a National Forest Supervisor’s Office, but with a larger land base, and they only coordinate and manage fires out of these offices.  There are other entities like the NSW “Forestry Corporation” (a government entity) and the “National Parks and Wildlife Service” that do resource management on state-owned lands.  RFS only does fire management on state and private lands in NSW.

My US colleagues were either assigned to the air base in Sydney or “sprinkled” into other incident management teams that were operating further to the north and west of my location or south of Sydney about 2-3 hours.  The Canadians were assigned to multiple fires mostly in the northeastern part of NSW. 

What did you do to help the Australians?  Did you need to adapt to anything different about their approach to fire management?

Fire managers work together to formulate a plan in a room full of large monitors showing fire data.I served as an Operations Officer for incident management teams (IMT). That is a little different role than an Operations Section Chief in the US, but after some training and a few mistakes I was able to fill the role effectively.  Later in the first two weeks, and for the majority of the rest of the assignment, I and the other Operations Officers from the US were given field assignments to manage resources and tactical operations for the IMT’s.  We and our Australian counterparts discovered that US Operations Officers could be most effective on the ground, where firefighting equipment and operations are similar, rather than spending our limited time learning different systems and processes at the coordination center.

Tactically we felt right at home.  The Aussies have good firemen and women, and they know what works best for their fires and country.  We were not there to change anything -- only to help and make suggestions if appropriate.  Their operating systems and resource management system is different than ours, however, so that took some getting used to.  The NSW RFS relies on over 70,000 volunteers for their day-to-day resources on large fires, including IMT’s and initial attack resources.  There are approximately 1,000 full-time employees with the NSW RFS who end up being the Incident Controllers, Planning Officers, Logistics Officers, etc. on IMTs. Essentially, the FMOs, AFMOs, and administrative clerks during initial attack.  The Forestry Corp. and National Parks also have full-time employees that help to shore up the IMT’s and initial attack.  When a large fire hits they join forces together in an IMT or on the ground to suppress the fire. A firefighter in Australia drags a drip torch alongside a dirt road as part of a back burn operation

RFS remains the “authority” or “lead” for large fires in NSW, and they work under a Section 44 authority (we would call it a delegation) from their Council Area Commissioners (county) to manage the fires within that council area regardless of land jurisdiction.  We had private, parks, and forestry land all within our IMT’s Section 44 delegation.  So, if we had to adapt to anything, it was the volunteer resources (engine crews): They are typically only on your fire and under your command for a day or two, and then a new set of volunteers show up the next day.  It may be the same truck from same brigade station but different people.  Or if you were in an IMT setting then every five days the personnel would rotate out for a day or two off.  That makes it hard to have continuity in your resources and team when you have to practically start over each day with your operations. It is also difficult to plan out a bigger operation because you don’t know who or how many resources you are going to get to help you back burn or hold a section of line, etc.  This system works for the Australians most of the time, but this season they are so busy with fires and have been going for months with resources stretched thin, so the system was overtaxed and isn’t working as effectively as it usually does.

One more difference in the Australian approach to fire management is the number of “HR burns” (hazard reduction).  These burns make our prescribed fire efforts in the US pale in comparison.  They do these in the spring and fall like we do, but the scale is much larger than in the US, up to 10-25,000 acres in size.  They have the fire adapted landscape for it.  The fire regime in NSW is very conducive to prescribed burning, and I would compare it to the Southeast region of the US.  Australia also has gained the social license for large-scale prescribed burning in that the people of Australia generally understand that off-season burns are necessary and support firefighting efforts during the fire season.  We routinely “herded” the wildfires into or towards these HR burn areas to use them as a “catcher’s mitt” of sorts.  They would hold or at least slow the spread of the wildfires.  However, HR burn areas are only effective for 2-5 years, depending on the intensity of the HR burn, as the brush grows back quickly and leaves from the overstory are continually falling on the ground. Because of this, there is a recurring need for spring and fall burning. 

Was there anything that surprised you about the situation?  (feel free to consider ecosystem conditions, fire behavior, smoke impacts, community responses, evacuations)

Just how dry it was on the ground was surprising to me, bringing a whole new meaning to “dry”, and the size of these fires were amazing. If we have a 100,000 acre fire in the US it is considered big.  A 250-500,000 acre fire is a huge once-in-a-decade kind of event. The fires in Australia were generally all over 100,000 acres. One was 1.3 million acres and burned for 2-3 months.  Normally these fires have a mosaic pattern, where creek and river drainages hold the fire due to higher humidity or running water, but not this year.  Massive areas burned out completely of ground fuels, leaving very little unburned areas in the fi res path. Larger rivers could hold the fire back unless it spotted across to the other side.  Managers had to adjust their mind-set on tactics and recognize that if the fire escaped initial attack it was going to get big and you had to do some strategic planning for that.  

Smoke billows over rolling mountains in Australia.As previously mentioned, I would compare my assignment location to the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains in the US. Similar to north Georgia, Tennessee or North Carolina.  The fuel types, (with the exception of eucalyptus trees),  terrain (rolling mountains with rock outcroppings), and fire behavior (mostly ground fire with concentric fire growth in all directions, without the wind) are all similar. However, when the wind blows, it’s a whole new ballgame. The fuels types and dryness when aided by the wind make the fires unpredictable, extremely hard to control and exponentially increases their rate of spread.

Additionally, conditions closer to the coast, towards the southern part of the country (South NSW, Victoria) typically has more brush and mid-story species that add to the fire behavior and crown fires. What is mostly shown on the news reflects the urban interface amongst all these conditions. For the most part, I was not near dense urban interface situations, mostly less density and scattered structures similar to the wildland urban interface (WUI) of NE Oregon. The entire country is suffering from a three-year drought causing extremely dry fuels conditions. Trees and plants are suffering from very low live fuel moistures making  them very flammable.  Add in the wind and the scene is what you see on TV.  The dry tree bark will float around in the wind creating several spot fires often many miles away from the flaming fire front.

Ground fire burns through a forest of eucalyptus trees.Smoke was definitely a problem, but given the size and number of fires the country was experiencing that was to be expected. The wind helped move it out, but also fanned the fires. The weather has changed now bringing in rain which has brought some relief, however with two months of fire season to go, they can expect to be busy for a while.

What are some key insights / learning experiences that you brought home with you and hope to apply on the Wallowa-Whitman? 

I think the importance of pre-season relationship building and inter-governmental cooperation and agreements was reinforced. That was something that I saw was lacking between the agencies that I worked with while on this assignment. I believe we do a good job of that here locally and in the US as a whole.

The public in Australia is familiar with fire. There has been a huge effort to make the public aware of the hazards of wildfire and their responsibility as landowners who live in the “bush” or urban interface. Varying from the US, private land owners must take responsibility for being a landowner and not rely on a government entity.  However, this year has been an exception due to the size and intensity of these fires. Generally the “stay and defend or leave early” concept works for those living in these areas.

Australia has a warning system that the country abides by:

 1. Advice. A fire has started and is active in your area. It’s up to you whether you leave now or stay.  

2. Watch and Act. A fire becomes active and is threatening personal assets you should leave immediately.

3. Emergency Warning. A fire is actively threatening or burning houses and the homeowner should actively defend their property or know that on some portion of this fire, homes are being affected. 

The beauty of this system is that the entire country uses it and follows the same protocol. The systems in the US generally differ in every state and sometimes vary by each county.  It is certainly easier to accomplish in a country with only 25 million people, but I would like to see more landowners in the US follow a similar protocol by taking accountability for their private land and create defensible space in the event of a wildfire. I think that we would benefit from a similar warning system if adopted by the US.

Firefighters in Australia put out hot spots along a road using the hose from their truck.Despite having been at it for months, the people were extremely nice, welcoming and accommodating.  They kept a generally positive attitude and just kept plugging along with the work that needed to be done. 








All photo credits: Nathan Goodrich