BOM funding better than 'flashy new trucks': ACT fire official

Bureau of Meteorology funding better than 'flashy new trucks': ACT fire official

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NSW Rural Fire Service trucks in Bungendore. ACT fire officials say year-round access to the Bureau of Meteorology's forecasters would be more useful to them than new trucks. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

NSW Rural Fire Service trucks in Bungendore. ACT fire officials say year-round access to the Bureau of Meteorology's forecasters would be more useful to them than new trucks. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

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Senior ACT officials say extra funding for the Bureau of Meteorology would help them more in future fire seasons than "shiny" new trucks or helicopters.

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Senior ACT officials say extra funding for the Bureau of Meteorology would help them more in future fire seasons than "shiny new" trucks or helicopters.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements heard from state and territory fire officials on Wednesday about the role the national forecaster played in their fire preparedness.

Bushfires Northern Territory's director of policy and planning Ken Baulch said his jurisdiction relied heavily on the BOM's spot weather forecast when conducting prescribed burns, and its longer-term forecasts for determining safe windows for undertaking hazard-reduction activities.

NSW Rural Fire Service chief Rob Rogers said that his state paid for a BOM forecaster to be in-house all year round.

But the ACT Parks and Conservation Service's senior director of fire management, Neil Cooper, said smaller jurisdictions were disadvantaged by the bureau's "user-pays" model.

"I think over the years ... there's been a refocus, sort of ... funding cuts et cetera, to a user-pays system," Mr Cooper said.

"That has a real impact on a small agency such as [the ACT] and other land management agencies to the point that a lot of the BOM's focus is during the fire suppression period and not the shoulder periods which is crucial for us to have that information to be able to deliver prescribed burning.

"Embedded meteorologists are great but we can't really afford those."

We can't treat the ACT as an island in the middle of nowhere. - ACT Parks and Conservation Service senior fire management director Neil Cooper

Mr Cooper said there was a real need for BOM data on smoke modelling when the ACT undertook prescribed burns.

"All of us are under pressure to manage smoke during prescribed burning. There was some work done towards the smoke modelling component that a number of us put significant money into," Mr Cooper said.

"For a small agency that takes money away from boots on the ground and actually delivering stuff in the field."

Mr Cooper said the Commonwealth should step in to help pay for states and territories to access BOM data.

"From my view being a land manager, I tend to think that we should focus a lot more on prevention and tools that provide that value rather than big flashy new trucks and shiny helicopters," he said.

ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan told the commission it would be better if the ACT could access the BOM's expertise all year round.

"Where there is a key role for the Commonwealth is in ensuring and supporting that each state and territory has access to best practice," Commissioner Whelan said.

"We heard consistently ... that the fire didn't behave in the manner which it was predicted, it was so extreme, variations were so profound and that's where I think the subject matter expertise all year round, such as those in the Bureau of Meteorology [should work] side by side with the practitioners within the agencies, particularly in the planning, and the planning of the risk-mitigation strategies."

Mr Cooper said what prevented the Orroral Valley fire being a "damn sight larger" was some of the fire mitigation activities the ACT had undertaken, off the back of fire modelling.

The ACT ran over half a million simulations of fire across the landscape with different fuel loads and weather scenarios.

Mr Cooper also said there needed to be funding for a national bushfire research centre. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre will lose funding next June.

"It would be not a good look if nationally we didn't have some entity to take on that role, because that area there in particular that developed not only our research but our future scientists," Mr Cooper said.

"I don't plan to be around another 10 years, I'm hopefully down the coast writing letters to the editor about why people aren't doing prescribed burning, but we really need that next generation of PhD students to come through to take over."

Commissioner Whelan also said the ACT"s Emergency Services Agency had a strong relationship with fire agencies across the border.

It came after NSW Rural Fire Service brigade captains called the cross-border relationship "terrible".

The captains claimed they hadn't been told when the Orroral Valley fire crossed the border into NSW, becoming the Clear Range fire. The fire destroyed 12 homes in NSW.

Mr Cooper said ACT Parks had an "exceptional relationship" with their colleagues in NSW Parks.

"We can't treat the ACT as an island in the middle of nowhere," Mr Cooper said.

"Any activities or any risk reduction that we try and achieve in the ACT is greatly influenced by what our neighbours in NSW do. Likewise, anything that we do in the ACT greatly impacts our neighbours to the east of the ACT."

  • The article 'BOM funding better than 'flashy new trucks': ACT fire official' first appeared in The Canberra Times
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