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Bushfire Alarm Bells - Part 3
Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bundeena Bushfire Fighting
The last installment of a discussion paper that looks at possible solutions to preparing Bundeena for bushfires.


By Phil Clarke

Bundeena Bushfire and Emergency Issues - Discussion Paper

March 2009
 
TABLE OF CONTENTS

The argument    3
Ten Principles    3
Bundeena’s geography    4
Threatened zone    5
Lack of southern firebreak    5
Eric Street firebreak – the Eastern boundary    6
Clearance needed    6
Widening of fire break   
6
Undergrowth clearance for 500 m   
7
Wire fencing   
7
Hydrants, water sprinklers   
7
The Southern Boundary Of Bundeena   
8
New Dangers Caused by increased road use and visitors   
8
NPWS Bonnie Vale Developments and Great Pacific Drive campaign   
8
Consequences in bushfire   
8
Emergency services an election issue   
9
Water supply   
9
Government responsibility   
9
Jurisdiction And Monitoring   
9
Research   
11
Effect of deer culling   
11
Patterns of Aboriginal burning   
11
Markers for hazard reduction   
12
Conclusion   
12

Clearance needed

It is suggested that the clearance action is needed more frequently along the firebreak, that with the exception of the occasional native plant it should be totally cleared, and that this clearance zone should extend from the sea to the apex of the Bundeena triangle in Bombora Street.

Widening of fire break

It is very possible that the fire-break is not wide enough.  A widening of twenty metres to create a fifty metre firebreak could be advisable, most especially because the firebreak follows the crest of a rise for much of its length.  This would mean the loss of some trees in exchange for following the Royal Nation Park’s code that human safety must come first.

The build up of fuel in the Royal National park is a vexed question.  It is reasonably argued that such fuel also provides HABITAT for wildlife, despite the fact that its flammability threatens that same wildlife with incineration.

Along Eric Street fuel build up within the tree line has reached dangerous proportions, exceeding even the 1994 levels that preceded the last major bushfire to threaten Bundeena.

This build up has occurred, in part, because all incidental fires along its length have been extinguished for the last fifteen years.  Some years ago, Elvis the helicopter assisted in putting out a fire, that - if left unchecked - would almost certainly have cleared the undergrowth and burnt out the area east of Eric Street and possibly to the south of Bundeena.

Grateful as we are that this fire was extinguished, the fact remains that putting out all incidental fires has resulted in an artificial situation.  Clearance of undergrowth to ground level of vegetation, debris and fuel is essential to replace the natural clearance that unchecked fires would have caused.  Unless expert specialist scientific research demands for ecological reasons that clearance and hazard reduction be carried out by deliberate burning, then mechanical and manual clearance might be the preferred option.

In addition, the NPWS restricts the removal of vegetation from the Royal National Park so there is no reduction of fuel load in the RNP through people taking dead wood from the RNP.

Undergrowth clearance for 500 m
For the long term safety of Bundeena it is suggested that an undergrowth clearance zone of five hundred metres into the park from the tree line be established along the Eric Street firebreak.  This would help limit the rapid transmission of fire during an emergency and possibly significantly reduce the intensity and temperature of fires.

Victorian experience demonstrates that currently the heat radiation zone in a major fire might threaten houses along the ridge at Eric Street and pass across their land into the heart of Bundeena. Widening the break by twenty metres, and clearing the undergrowth to a depth of five hundred metres, would greatly improve the situation and make fire control measures (such as containment back-burning during a fire) far easier and safer for our volunteers.

Wire fencing

There are additional emergency measures that might be considered. A line of overlapping (to leave gaps for persons and wildlife) wire fencing, about three metres high along the tree line has been shown to be successful in preventing fires crossing the line of fencing. 

Hydrants, water sprinklers

Such a line could be accompanied with the siting of hydrants and water sprinklers along the fire break - such sprinklers perhaps being capable of using sea water in the short term emergency period by the siting of a pumping station at the Jibbon end.  In 1994 town water pressure was lost in Bundeena during the worst period of the fire.

The Southern Boundary Of Bundeena

Aerial photographs show that there are areas along this line that are already fairly clear. The suggestion would be that a firebreak should be created similar to that suggested for the Eastern boundary and similarly administered by emergency services and monitored by the public.

New Dangers Caused by increased road use and visitors


A government department has a particular duty of care to citizens.  NPWS tends however to not properly consider “consequences” of actions it takes for its own benefit, or in the name of a disputed “conservation” policy.  This is a major reason why the matter of securing Bundeena should be undertaken by the Fire Brigades and emergency services.

Bundeena welcomes tourists.  They are regarded mostly by locals as “fun” - we love to see them enjoying themselves in our suburb, although we do get a bit grumpy about parking problems and when the odd person from another culture complains about our wearing swimming trunks on the beach.

NPWS Bonnie Vale Developments and Great Pacific Drive campaign
In the last eighteen months NPWS has greatly increased its tourist operation in Bonnie Vale, building new toilet blocks and extending the camping site.

In addition, the State Government has introduced a campaign, with accompanying road signage, to encourage those driving to Wollongong or further south from Sydney to take the ‘Great Pacific Drive’ which is the new name for the road through the Royal National Park to Stanwell Tops and further south.

Unfortunately however, no-one has thought enough about the consequences of encouraging more people to come to Bundeena and to use the road though the Royal National Park.

There is only ONE road into Bundeena.  It is not wide enough to serve as a fire break and in bushfires it has to be closed, being far too dangerous to use.  It can easily be cut off for days, as it was in 1994, and there may be no warning of imminent closure possible.

Consequences in bushfire

Potentially therefore, thousands of tourists could be cut off in Bundeena with

•    NO evacuation plan,
•    no catering plan,
•    no after hours medical services, and (despite the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Ambulance Service recommending the opening of a Bundeena Ambulance Station)
•    no certain Ambulance and paramedic service. 

The appointed “first responders” in Bundeena, when officers of the Ambulance service resident in Bundeena are not available, are the fire brigades whose officers would presumably, in an emergency, be putting out fires. 

Emergency services an election issue

All attempts to get the local State Government Member, Paul McLeay – whose lives with his family in Bundeena close to the most dangerous probable firefront to the south of the village –to show due interest and take remedial action have failed.  This is despite the fact that he himself is a fire brigade volunteer.

As a result emergency services in Bundeena are set to become one of the constituency’s major election issues.

Water supply

In 1994 Bundeena actually for a few hours even lost its water supply.  The present one hopefully does not have the same problems as its predecessor; however it is likely that pressure and therefore water supply would drop to houses higher up the hill as all houses access the water supply at the same time.

Government responsibility

With thousands of people encouraged to come to Bonnie Vale and Bundeena during the high fire risk period, the need to minimise and isolate that risk is obvious.  Again this points to hazard reduction and fire breaks being essential.  The alternative could be thousands of threatened, trapped, and panicking people, who do not have the first idea of how to behave in a bushfire and necessary action to deal with the dangers of items such as fireballs.

I suggest that once again a potential question of culpability through negligence is possible here.

Worse still, we could lose a child, or many children - and as I say, Bundeena people welcome the tourists they play host to - and feel this risk personally.

Jurisdiction And Monitoring

There seems to be a growing tradition of inappropriate allocation of responsibility in relation to the Bundeena area.  Attempts are being made to replace Ambulance officers with fire brigade ‘first responders’ and for a long time the decisions about fire safety appear to have been left in the hands of NPWS officers, who seem to have a particular eccentric theoretical and urban based view about conservation, owing more to ideology than to practical common sense and experience.

In this view the reduction of hazard – especially through controlled burning - is apparently seen as a threat to conservation and as a breach of the natural burning cycle of the land, whereas  the artificial human extinguishing of the very fires that constitute such “natural burning cycles” is not seen as interrupting the natural cycle of things.

It is suggested here that this attitude is life threatening nonsense that breaches the Royal National Park’s primary concern for the safety of human life.  It is time that NPWS themselves reigned this view in and recognised its conflict with their own primary concern.

Since 1978 practically every area of the Royal National Park has been “visited” in some form by bushfires - most of which have been extinguished or controlled by the fire brigades. Burnouts of the park would be far more frequent without their heroic efforts and this paper would probably not have been written.  As during the aboriginal occupation period, there would be no undergrowth and dense tree lines to argue about!

Throughout NSW we are talking of thousands of such incidents each year – tens of thousands over the period since 1978 – all coming under fire brigade and emergency services control and mostly involving fires being extinguished by those services.

It is long past time that the matter of human safety was placed, as far as jurisdiction is concerned, in the hands of the emergency services – in particular the fire brigades.

It is recommended that:

•    jurisdiction over periodic clearance of the Eric street firebreak to a depth of five hundred metres from the tree line into the park be placed in the hands of the Fire Brigades with NPWS advice as to methods to be used. 
•    Similar powers should be granted to the Fire Brigades in relation to a new Southern Boundary fire break – this break being the most important immediate one in relation to Bonnie Vale tourist area and campsite.

Should the NPWS express a preference for manual and machinery clearance then, if the fire brigade is agreeable to such plan, the resources and facilities should be provided, which might include volunteers and work gangs – possibly provided by corrective services from supervised trusted prisoners on day release.

The one power that must be taken away from NPWS is the power to REFUSE a clearance.  Neither the Local Council nor the NPWS should have that power.  Issues relating to the firebreak itself and debris and undergrowth up to a depth of five hundred metres into the park should be the prerogative of the fire services.

Research

Ongoing local research is needed into best methodology for reducing hazard, protecting wildlife, and dealing with fires.

Effect of deer culling

One area that might be examined is the effect of deer culling on undergrowth.  NPWS reasonably claimed that the effect of the deer on flora was wide ranging.  Has the reduction in their numbers perhaps contributed to park fuel build up, especially around Bundeena, where vast herds of deer once ranged free, these mostly now being a memory of older residents?

Patterns of Aboriginal burning

An academic question worthy of research is the likely pattern of aboriginal burning and species extermination that shaped the present ecological balance of the Park region in particular, and Australia in general.  The effects of this pattern should be closely examined in order to correct historical misconceptions on which present policies and attitudes are based.

Academically, it might be argued that a revegetation of Australian parkland to the style of the ancient continent of Gondwana prior to human habitation might be desirable.  This would be a major adjustment involving large scale human intervention, which would include reduction of fire hazards to make intense bushfires at ground level less frequent during the restoration period.

One final historical point needs to be made and possibly researched in the archives.  When white explorers first wandered through many areas of bushland, these areas were often not as we know them now.  We rightly see the land they wandered through - and frequently got lost in - as almost impassable from the viewpoint of the present day.   Records suggest that explorers in fact benefited from aboriginal fire clearance of undergrowth and bush, clearances that may have taken place regularly over a period of between 40 thousand and 120 thousand years.  These clearances have now stopped.

It is suggested that Australia may well have been the land that has for the longest period in human history experienced the process that science fiction calls “terraforming” – the shaping of an alien environment to suit human will.

The millennia of aboriginal “terraforming” are over for our area.  We, as the present guardians, must take over those processes - whether to make them suit our own requirements better, or to wind back the effects of millennia of intervention in natural cycles.

Markers for hazard reduction

It could be argued that the present ecological balance of the Park region is indeed fire dependent and that, where unregulated burning is extinguished, regulated controlled burning should replace it, using as a deciding marker climatic conditions and fuel levels per hectare.  What should constitute such markers?  What should be the “numbers”?

Conclusion


It is suggested that hazard reduction must now become a cornerstone of practical environmental policy.  It is agued that jurisdiction changes and changes in methodology are long overdue, and now essential, in the interests not only of our people but also in the interests of the wildlife whose lives and environment it is our pleasure to share.

The Victorian tragedy is a call to rethink basic ideology, strategy and priorities.  Let's not have the situation that the victims of the recent disasters have died in vain through others unnecessarily repeating their tragedy.

I would particularly ask those who routinely oppose all hazard reduction to take a careful look at the present situation, relying on their own on the spot observations of the fuel build up and making a personal re-assessment of the potential avoidability of the fire threat to themselves and their neighbors.

Once again it is suggested that the Victorian bushfires of 2009 must urge a rethink of basic ideas and prejudices, just as the fires of 1994 (which our villages survived by the skin of their teeth and through the staggering work on the part of the fire brigades) made many of us think again.  During that emergency many officers from outlying brigades did not think they would be able to save Bundeena.  We are still here because they did.

Let’s make their job easier, and our lives safer. 

We should all be able to live in this area without the need to abandon our homes in a bushfire because the failures of various government departments have made our homes indefensible.

We should all be able to go away with our families during the summer holidays without the fear that we might return to our homes to find a blackened ruin and all the memories, heirlooms and photographs lost with our home - and without the fear that we might perhaps lose even our friends, neighbors and pets.

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