A helicopter helps firefighting efforts at Walyunga National Park. Picture: David Ridgway. Taken from www.thewest.com.au
A helicopter helps firefighting efforts at Walyunga National Park. Picture: David Ridgway. Taken from www.thewest.com.au

My wife and I were returning to our home when we witnessed helicopters swoop down on the ponds outside our home, scoop up water in their helicopter buckets and speed away in tight formation towards the billowing smoke clouds from dangerous fires around our area.

The Northeastern parts of the greater Perth metro area and towns beyond the boundary have been threatened by massive and intense 20 metre high walls of flame that have blanketed thousands of square kilometres in towering plumes of smoke, charring the otherwise perfect blue skies. Strong easterly winds have excited the flames and kept them out of the control of firefighters for more than two days.

More than 300 firefighters have so far gathered to battle the blazes, making them a full battalion. 6 helicopters, 4 fixed wing aircraft support an intense effort. The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) in WA have transported several demountable buildings to serve in the crisis management headquarters. SMS messages, emergency broadcasts, regular radio broadcasts via national (ABC) radio, website updates have all been used to notify people in danger. Not to mention the word of mouth actions of neighbourhoods, schools and towns in taking care of one another and preventing the tragedy of loss of life – human and livestock. This is an exceptional effort from local and state emergency services, with many lessons learned from tragedies of the past – both in Western Australia and around Australia.

(You can read about the fires at the news site of our major state newspaper.)

In the midst of all this, there have been problems that had been anticipated and voiced by locals, but not attended to by other related government and local agencies. A long section of a major  North-South trade highway has been closed to all non-emergency vehicle traffic to safeguard travellers as well as emergency personnel. The problem is that our trade routes provide food, fuel and other resources to our remote northern communities. Road trains (long haul trucks) have been sitting on the roadside for one or two days, instead of being diverted by carefully chosen routes that will support their weight and traffic challenges.

The effect of this is that other communities start to quickly run dry on their basic supplies. Instead of clearly planning for the shut-down of the one major trade route through the area, the authorities have been caught flat-footed. That is a failure of contingency planning.

In your own business, career or life, there are many fires that can suddenly flare up and threaten your existence.

Some things you should do fight the flames you may encounter:

Consult. Consult beforehand with people who have “been there” in order to anticipate potential pathways and consequences in the event of crisis. DFES’s continuing work in analysing the nature of bushfires and successes and failures across Australia and around the world have been important in planning for such an emergency. And when you are confronted with the situation, make sure you have people you can consult with at hand.

Prepare. Develop processes that serve as warning stages for different levels of events. Emergency Services have created a series of Levels of warning for residents – Preparation, Watching/Acting, Surviving and All Clears – that leave one in no doubt about what to do. Prepare the kinds of actions required.

Resource. Set up the resources and network required to put your action plans into place. Put in place the people needed – whether permanently or on-call.

Educate. Warning levels, preparation, resources are all no good if the people involved are not educated on an ongoing basis. They need to know well enough so that reactions are automatic. When a fire is racing towards your area, it’s not time to wonder whether you should pack the XBox or the PlayStation. It’s time to get out of there or take shelter in the prepared bunker.

Communicate. Maintain clear communication. DFES has used as many methods and means of communication as modern technology allows in order to alert people. If your mobile phone is registered in the area, you will receive a text. TV and radio broadcast alerts. Local sirens blare outdoors. Websites keep up to date. Community meetings are held. Neighbourhoods are activated and local agencies informed and used to communicate. Be CLEAR in your communication – e.g. stay, get out, fight, come back.

Persist. Persist in the path of obstacles. Bulldozers fighting some blazes have been hampered by the terrain. Going downwards along steep slopes, they are able to clear paths and build up barriers, but they cannot get back straight up the hill, instead going around and back up to the top. This slows down firebreak building, so it’s important to schedule a line of bulldozers consistently working through and around the terrain to achieve goals.

Call for Help. It’s no time to be a Lone Ranger and flaunt your ego. Swallow your pride if necessary and ask for as much help as you can get. Help others if you’re able. Pull together to create wins for everyone. Over 300 firefighters have descended on the region and more keep arriving. Western Australia is an area of over 2.5 million square kilometres. You could fit Spain, France and Germany in our state and have room to move. It’s more than 3.6 times the size of the state of Texas. Even if those firefighters are coming only from our Southwestern corner, they’re coming from a very wide area to fight a local fire!

Hopefully the firefighting teams (thank God for their willingness to put themselves at risk for others), will be able to control the flames by this afternoon. People will return to their homes and livestock – hopefully. The traffic will flow through to the areas that need them. The service crews will keep a watch on the fires and keep working on them till they die out.

Next summer it will happen all over again. Perhaps a different spot, but it will happen. We need to be prepared to act.

Fighting Fires
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