Wildfire news, February 13, 2009

Australia fires: finger pointing begins

Some people are saying that IF the land managers in the state of Victoria had done something different over the last decade or two, the impacts of the Black Saturday fires would have been less severe.

Rod McGuirk, in an AP story, says this, in part:

Some experts argue the death toll of last weekend’s fires in Victoria state, which exceeds 180, might have been lower if the fuel load — mostly fallen branches and other flammable debris on the forest floor — had been torched in controlled burns.

Wildfire behavior specialist Phil Cheney feels that wildfire safety in Australia has fallen victim to the growing political influence of city-based conservationists. He says all Australia’s six state governments except Western Australia have buckled to pressure by reducing their forest burning programs since the 1980s.

“As soon as there’s a bit of smoke in the air, they are on the radio and saying what a terrible thing the department is doing, it’s ravishing the countryside and killing animals,” Cheney, a retired chief scientist from the Bushfire Research Unit of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Many conservationists, in fact, support controlled burning. Though David Packham, a Monash University research fellow and wildfire scientist, said that some local groups pay lip service to the practice but fight it when it comes to their own neighborhoods.

“Some say a little prescribed burning is enough,” Packham said, though he personally thinks the practice should be used more.

An article at nzherald also points to prescribed burning as an issue:

As the analysis of the latest fires continues across the Tasman, commentators and experts have been pulling back from actually saying the words “told you so”, though the blame game is well under way.

Amid consternation over the lack of warnings for people in towns that have been consumed by massive fires, there are those who condemn the green movement for objecting to the controlled burning of bush, and councils for forbidding locals to clear combustible trees and other “fire fuel” from around their properties.

The Australian also piles on:

LONDON: Outspoken academic Germaine Greer has branded Australian authorities arsonists for failing to carry out regular burn-offs, which she says could have prevented the deadly Victorian bushfires.

Greer said Australians were paying the price for repeatedly ignoring the lessons of past bushfires — the need for burn-offs in cooler months to lessen the risk of blazes in the summer.

“I was born in 1939 and Melbourne was under black clouds of smoke with cinders sifting down everywhere and we were already there on Black Friday,” she said in London on Thursday.

“We get taught the same lesson again and again and we just think: ‘Oh no, that’s a bit drastic.’ No, it’s not a bit drastic, we have to do it.

“It’s the same old story. We need to educate people, we need to also have a bit of courage and we probably need somebody to direct the operation.

“It’s useless running around looking for arsonists. The arsonists are us. They are our Government and our administrators. We have been stupid.”

Families of the firefighters who died in the northern California helicopter crash file suit

Here are some excerpts from an article at oregonlive.com:

The families of two firefighters killed in a fiery helicopter crash last August filed wrongful death, negligence and product liability lawsuits Thursday against an Oregon-based helicopter company and three other firms.

The suits seek $10 million for each of the victims, plus funeral costs.

The Aug. 5 crash is considered the deadliest air tragedy of working firefighters in U.S. history, killing nine men, including seven contract firefighters with Grayback Forestry of Merlin.

In addition to Carson Helicopters Inc. of Grants Pass, the suit names Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the maker of the S-61 helicopter and its parent company, United Technologies Corp.; the engine’s manufacturer, General Electric; and Aurora, Ore.-based Columbia Helicopters, which performed maintenance on the aircraft .

The suits were filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by the estates of Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass and Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford.

[…]

Officials with the NTSB said witnesses “consistently reported that the helicopter lifted off slower than they would have expected before striking trees and crashing more than 100 yards from the lift-off point.” Sikorsky S-61s have gone down four other times in the past 15 years under similar circumstances to last August’s crash, leading some safety officials in the United States and Canada to raise questions about a part in the aircraft’s clutch system.

When the piece — known as the input freewheel unit — fails, power to the helicopter’s main rotor can go out entirely, according to the NTSB, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and lawyers who have sued the manufacturer on behalf of crash victims.

Sikorsky — and defendants that included either the engine maker or transmission maker — settled at least five lawsuits out of court related to crashes allegedly caused by failures of the freewheel units, but never admitted fault.