Australia: government being sued for tactics used on bushfire

GavelThe government of New South Wales is being sued over their choice of firefighting tactics used on a fire in 2003 that burned through Canberra’s southwestern suburbs on January 18.

The legal proceedings have been going on for years and have advanced to the Australian Capital Territories Court of Appeal.

Below is an excerpt from the Canberra Times:

…Four people were killed, 435 injured, and 487 homes and 23 commercial and government buildings were lost.


On Thursday morning, counsel for QBE Regina Graycar criticised the approach taken to backburning near the Goodradigbee River containment line, which was being used to stop the fire spreading. Firefighters did not get time to carry out their plan to backburn near the river.

Ms Graycar said they must have known they didn’t have time to backburn before the next hot day, which is generally considered to be seven days away.
Backburning is generally needed to finish two days before the next hot day, she said.

Failing to recognise the time needed, Ms Graycar said, broke one of the basic rules of firefighting, something she described as “bushfire 101”.
The ACT Court of Appeal will hand down judgment at a later date.

Documented fire tornado

Fire Tornado path, Australia
Fire Tornado path, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae

We have previously written about events described as “fire tornadoes”, but research led by Rick McRae in Australia has us convinced that those should be more accurately called fire whirls, not tornadoes. We were never very comfortable using the term “fire tornado” for those events, but it has become common and we were not aware, until now, that a phenomenon many times more powerful existed.

Fire Tornado documentation, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae
Fire tornado documentation, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae

Mr. McRae documented what was unquestionably a real fire tornado that occurred near Chapman, ACT, Australia during the McIntyres Hut Fire January 18, 2003.

Researchers had speculated about the ability of a fire to produce a tornado, but this is the first documentation of the creation of a true tornado by the convection column of a large fire.

In a video interview (scroll down and view the second video) and in a paper published October, 2012 in the journal Natural Hazards, he described a fire tornado as occurring over a vegetation fire, a process now known as the phenomenon of “pyro-tornadogenesis”. Under certain conditions, a fire can cause a pyro-cumulus cloud to form, which is not in itself unusual over a large fire. If the cloud continues to build, it can generate lightning, rain, and hail, much like a conventional large thunderstorm. And large thunderstorms can sometimes propagate a tornado, which is what happened over the McIntyrres Hut Fire.

Mr. McRae’s research determined that the fire tornado was moving across the ground at 30 kph (19 mph), had horizontal winds of 250 kph (149 mph), and vertical winds of 150 kph (93 mph).

Fire tornado, broken-off trees
Aftermath of a fire tornado, showing 12-15 meter tall trees broken off 2-3 meters above the ground. From research led by Rick McRae.

Dr. Jason Sharples, also associated with the research, described the differences between a fire tornado and a fire whirl:

Tornadoes are associated with thunderstorms and as such they are anchored to a thundercloud above, and are able to sporadically lift off the ground. Fire whirls, on the other hand, are anchored to the ground and do not require the presence of a thunderstorm.

Rick McRae is a Special Risks Analyst at the ACT Emergency Services Agency.


Thanks go out to Chris