Red Gully Bushfire north of Perth forces evacuations in Western Australia

It is spreading toward Lancelin on the coast

map bushfire western australia
The icons on the map represent heat detected at the Red Gully Bushfire by a satellite at 2:10 a.m. AWT January 6, 2021.

A large bushfire has forced some residents in Western Australia to leave their homes. The Red Gully Bushfire has been burning since January 2 between the Gingin and Dandaragan areas about 100 km. north of Perth. The blaze stretches from Regans Ford west toward Lancelin and is burning toward Indian Ocean Drive.

Emergency WA issued the following warning at 7:44 a.m. AWT January 6, 2021:

Bushfire Emergency Warning – in or near OCEAN FARMS ESTATE, SEAVIEW PARK and surrounding areas bounded by Brand Highway to the east, Nammegarra Road to the north, the northern end of Mimegarra Road, Meadows Road, the coast to the west, Sappers Road to the south, Indian Ocean Drive, K.W. Road, Sappers Road, Cowalla Road and east to Brand Highway at the Orange Springs Road intersection across the northern edge of Moore River National Park in parts of REGANS FORD, COWALLA, MOORE RIVER NATIONAL PARK, NILGEN, MIMEGARRA, WEDGE ISLAND, KARAKIN, ORANGE SPRINGS and LANCELIN in the SHIRES OF GINGIN and DANDARAGAN

The fire has burned more than 2,000 ha (4,900 acres) and has been spreading to the west or west-northwest at about three kilometers per hour.

Two of Coulson’s C-130 air tankers that are on contract in Australia are now positioned in Western Australia.

Coulson C-130 air tankers
Coulson C-130 air tankers, 131 and 132. (They have different numbers in Australia) Coulson photo.

Red Gully Fire

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Communicating with the public during evacuations is not easy

fire Evacuation to beach
Australia Royal Commission photo.

Officials in Australia have started a process that should be of interest to fire managers and public officials in the United States. They are establishing across the continent common terminology and symbols to indicate the level of threat from an existing wildfire or other emergency and the recommended action that should be taken. Previously there was not complete consistency among the eight states and territories, which at times led to confusion about what the level of danger was and the action that should be taken. This was especially a problem near the borders of the states when a message from across the border may use unfamiliar jargon.

Australian Warning System icons
The new Australian Warning System icons, 2020.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system, “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”.  Australia recognized the inconsistency problem with their 8 states.

But not only do the 50 U.S. states have different systems for describing potential and current wildfire conditions, they also may differ city to city and county to county.

Warnings for evacuations

One of the most stressful times in a person’s life can be when they are forced to evacuate due to a wildfire, flood, or extreme weather event. This is not the time to give them ambiguous instructions, or use jargon many of them have never heard before. LEVEL TWO EVACUATION! What in the hell does that mean?  Or, EVACUATION IS AT THE SET LEVEL!  Or, WATCH AND ACT!

Recently used evacuation jargon has included:

  • Mandatory, Order, and Voluntary;
  • Level 1, 2, and 3 (or,  I, II, and III)
  • Stage 1, 2, and 3
  • Ready, Set, and Go

And I won’t even get into some that have been used for large structures such as Horizontal, Vertical, Partial, Vertical Phased, or Progressive Horizontal.

After reflecting on the massive evacuations required by wildfires in 2017 and 2018, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommended standard evacuation terminology and phrases for cities and counties to use during an emergency within the state, based in part on a White Paper written for the office in 2019.

Evacuation Order: Immediate threat to life. This is a lawful order to leave now. The area is lawfully closed to public access.

Evacuation Warning: Potential threat to life and/or property. Those who require additional time to evacuate, and those with pets and livestock should leave now.

Shelter in Place: Go indoors. Shut and lock doors and windows. Prepare to self-sustain until further notice and/or contacted by emergency personnel for additional direction.

Evacuation Order(s) Lifted: The formal announcement of lifting evacuations in an area currently under evacuation.

Hard Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire and Law Enforcement.

Soft Closure: Closed to all traffic except Fire, Law Enforcement and critical Incident resources (i.e. Utility, Caltrans, City/County Roads etc. or those needed to repair or restore infrastructure).

Resident Only Closure: Soft closure with the additional allowance of residents and local government agencies assisting with response and recovery.

In most U.S. locations fire departments do not have the authority to issue evacuation orders. It is generally stipulated they have the expertise to know when and where it should take place but they make that recommendation to law enforcement who actually issue the order to the public, and enforce it when necessary.

Notifying citizens that they are in the path of a fire has proven to be extremely difficult, subject to technical problems and human error. Many jurisdictions have purchased reverse 911 systems that can make phone calls or send texts to warn residents in a specific area of a threat. In some cases each person has to opt-in, and if you’re a visitor you may not be notified. There are a few apps available for mobile phones, some of which are not operated by government agencies and may not be 100 percent reliable for immediate notification.

Wildfire apps and services

The U.S. Forest Service has had Wildfires Near Me in development since 2016, and it is still in beta. It’s not an app, but you can sign up online, give them an address you’re interested in, and specify to be notified by email or text message of wildfires within your desired distance from that address. It does not issue emergency notifications such as evacuation orders, but you might receive a notice each time an updated Incident Status Summary form, (ICS-209) has been entered in the NIFC system, once or twice a day, about fires in that location. Then you can go to InciWeb to get more details.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a “web-based app” but it can’t be installed from the Android, Google, or Apple app stores. It can provide some information about fires managed by CAL FIRE, but it generally has no  information about US Forest Service responsibility fires or those of local jurisdiction. Colorado also has an app, Colorado Wildfire Watch App which is designed to only be available to people in the state.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

A system in the United States, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), is another possibility and can be activated by state and local public safety officials, the National Weather Service (NWS), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (think Amber Alert), and the president of the United States. Beginning in 2019 the accuracy of the geotargeting for WEA became more precise, requiring providers to deliver the alerts to the area specified by the alert originator with no more than a 1/10 of a mile overshoot.Wireless Emergency Alerts The system uses location processing in the mobile phone itself. The handset receives the alert including the polygon of the alert area, then the phone uses its GPS-assisted location to determine whether it is inside or outside the polygon. Even if you’re far from home, but in the threat area, you should receive the alert.

On August 15, 2020 the NWS used WEA to send out the first ever real time warning about a fire tornado on the Loyalton Fire about 12 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada.

“Our forecasters were tracking the plume on radar and were seeing rotation signatures comparable to that of a tornado. Factoring in public and firefighter safety, they issued a rare tornado warning associated with a large fire,” said NWS Reno Meteorologist and Public Information Officer Chris Smallcomb. Upon inspection, NWS found evidence of three different tornado paths with the largest being a low-grade EF-2. Said Smallcomb, “NWS Reno’s fire tornado warning has resulted in a robust policy conversation within the NWS and partner agencies about the utility of such warnings in a wildland fire situation, since it had never been done before!”

Between January 1 and September 14, 2020, alerting authorities sent 1,750 WEAs. The topics were for missing children AMBER alerts, severe weather, flash floods, and COVID-19 related for mask wearing, shelter-in-place notices, social distancing, and testing facility locations.

Do we need a national fire warning app specifically for wildfires?

Australia has considered the development of a national all-hazard warning app to address the limitations of the bushfire warning apps during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. Some state or local jurisdictions in Australia have apps that can push notifications and have Watch Zone functionalities.

Australia’s Royal Commission report included this about the potential for a national bushfire warning app:

Data from state and territory governments lacks consistency and this presents a challenge to developing a national warning app. Availability of nationally consistent data is a key enabler for the development of a national app by the Australian government, or a commercial provider.

The same limitation may exist in the U.S.

Australia adopts new standards for emergency warning systems

Australian Warning System icons
New Australian Warning System icons

One of the many recommendations in the report issued in October by Australia’s “Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements” was to make the country’s Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) more uniform across the eight states and territories. The goal was to ensure that there is national consistency in the visual display of the AFDRS and action to be taken in response to each rating. Since then progress has been made, which is not always the case down under and in the United States following reports and studies that urge changes to be made.

The new standardized icons representing three levels of warning for five types of events are seen above. Below is what was previously used for bushfires.

Australian Warning System icons
The various icons for bushfires across Australia that are being replaced.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system: “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”. The alert system is an important framework used by emergency services agencies to indicate the level of threat from a fire and the recommended action that should be taken. The higher the warning level, the greater the risk to life and property.

The Royal Commission’s report indicated that there was some confusion about the meaning of “Watch and Act.”

Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
From the report by the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, page 296.

Research released in November, 2019 showed that nationwide only 53 percent of Australians surveyed understood the required behavior of Watch and Act. On the other hand, only 57 percent understood the behavior required under Emergency Warning.

But the new standards recently issued retain the same three levels, including Watch and Act as the middle level of warning:

Advice (Yellow). An incident has started. There is no immediate danger. Stay up to date in case the situation changes.

Watch and Act (Orange). There is a heightened level of threat. Conditions are changing and you need to start taking action now to protect you and your family.

Emergency Warning (Red). An Emergency Warning is the highest level of warning. You may be in danger and need to take action immediately. Any delay now puts your life at risk.

The video below released December 1, 2020 describes the “New national approach to information and warnings during emergencies and natural disasters like bush fire, flood, storm, extreme heat and severe weather.”

Our take:

Standardizing the icons is a major improvement. However there is still opportunity for confusion about the difference between “Watch and Act” and “Emergency Warning”.

The United States could benefit from some of the lessons learned that are described in the Royal Commission’s report.

Australia’s Defense Minister defends Army helicopter crew’s 45-minute delay in reporting details about bushfire started by its landing light

The helicopter was damaged by the fire

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. February 4, 2020.

As we reported in February, a helicopter operated by Australia’s Army inadvertently started a bushfire January 27, 2020 in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It was caused by heat from the landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter as it set down in the remote Orroral Valley for a crew break.

In the coming days, the Orroral Valley Fire grew very large, covered about 80 percent of the National Park, and crossed over into New South Wales where it burned homes. Wildfire Today’s very unofficial estimate based on satellite imagery is that the blaze burned over 250,000 acres.

New information uncovered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reveals that the crew did not report the specific location of the fire until they landed 45 minutes later at Canberra Airport.

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

From ABC:

When the blaze threatened to consume the aircraft, the crew took to the skies — only to watch as their helicopter downdraught fanned the flames into what would become a formidable firestorm.

But internal Defence reports on the incident, released to the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, show the helicopter’s pilot did not radio the coordinates in the time it took to return to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport.

That lack of information sowed confusion as ACT fire crews were dispatched to different parts of the park in a desperate scramble to locate and extinguish the blaze.

In documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, Defence made it clear the top priority for the helicopter crew was safety, given the aircraft had been damaged in the fire.

Today, in a statement from the Defence Minister’s office, Ms Reynolds defended the aircrew returning to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport before relaying the fire’s location to authorities.

She said the airport was the “nearest safe landing area with access to emergency services” for the fire-damaged aircraft.

“Defence advises that the crew were focussed on the immediate safety of the passengers and the flight emergency situation,” the statement from Ms Reynold’s office said.

“Defence advises that during the flight, the crew relayed the in-flight emergency situation to Canberra Air Traffic Control and their commanders.

“Immediately following an emergency landing at Canberra Airport, the aircrew passed the location of the fire to ACT Emergency Services Agency.”

The ACT’s Emergency Services Authority has said the Australian Defence Force’s actions were appropriate.

But others, including former ACT emergency services commissioner Peter Dunn, said the 45-minute delay robbed ACT emergency services of the crucial first hour to stop the fire from growing beyond control.

Today current ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan again defended the Army helicopter crew, saying they were following safety protocols.

But Ms Whelan acknowledged the 45-minute delay in firefighters being provided the location of the bushfire was “disappointing”.

“It is very disappointing and I know the entire Canberra community, as was I, we would love to have had information within seconds of that occurring,” she told ABC Radio Canberra.

“What we do know is the aircraft and the pilot focused on the safety of their team and got them back to the ACT airport very safely and we deployed our assets within a very short timeframe.

“It is very unfortunate, it was a really challenging season for all of us.

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. January 30, 2020.

Large fire burns much of the northern half of Fraser Island in Queensland

The blaze is about 46 miles long

map fire Fraser Island Queensland Australia
Map showing heat detected by satellites at the fire on Fraser Island in Queensland, during the period November 16 through 23, 2020. The large gap shown between the burned areas is because the satellite heat data between October 14 and November 15, 2020 was not available.

A large wildfire is burning on Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Since it started October 14 it has grown to 46 miles in length, north to south, covering much of the 76-mile long island.

Officials from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) believe it started from an illegal cooking fire that was not completely extinguished.

Satellite photo showing the fire on Fraser Island in Queensland, October 16, 2020
Satellite photo showing the fire on Fraser Island in Queensland, October 16, 2020 a few days after it was reported.
Satellite photo showing the fire on Fraser Island
Satellite photo showing the fire on Fraser Island in Queensland, November 20, 2020.

At of 2:15 p.m. Sunday November 22, the QFES reported the fire was north of Moon Point Road East, and was west of Northern Road.

Crews from the QFES are assisting Parks and Wildlife rangers working to contain the blaze with the use of back burns, assisted by Conair’s Q400 air tanker which has been dropping on the fire, reloading at Bundaberg.

No homes or private property were directly threatened as of November 20.

Judging from the satellite data, the fire appeared to burn in a mosaic pattern, leaving unburned areas scattered throughout the fire’s footprint.

Fraser Island, a World Heritage-listed national park, is the world’s largest sand island (covering 410,000 acres), with rainforests, pristine freshwater lakes, seafront rock pools, colored sand cliffs, massive dunes and more than 75 miles of unspoiled beachfront facing the Pacific Ocean.

Australia’s Royal Commission on bushfires recommends aerial firefighting fleet

Proposes national emergency warning app

Australia Royal Commission
Australia Royal Commission photo

The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia resulted in the devastating loss of life, property and wildlife across the nation. After the smoke cleared a Royal Commission was directed to work out not only how to prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons, but all natural disasters.

The Chair of the Commission, Mark Binskin, is a former Chief of the Air Force and Chief of the Defense Force. In the foreword to the report he wrote:

There are lessons for us all. Governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals should consider what steps they must take across all phases of natural disasters to improve national natural disaster arrangements. It is undoubtedly in the national interest to do so.

The findings of the commission are extensive and comprehensive, as are the 80 recommendations in the 594-page report. During the 2019-2020 fire season, Australia experienced a live stress test of their system and identified lessons they learned, many of which can be also be applied to North America and the Mediterranean area where residents have to learn to live with wildfires.

Here are excerpts from the report.

National Emergency Response capability

  • Over 9,800 fire personnel were deployed on bushfires during the 2019-2020 season.
  • National resource sharing arrangements need to be strengthened to support resource sharing in times of crisis. We consider the development of a national register of resources would support situational awareness, and resource sharing, and inform national capability development.
  • We consider that states and territories should update and implement plans to achieve interoperable communication for emergency services. We also recommend expediting efforts to create Public Safety Mobile Broadband to improve communications capabilities for emergency responders.
  • Volunteers make up the majority of the fire and emergency services workforce in Australia. Volunteers need to be supported and enabled to participate in a way that respects the values of volunteerism, and considers the competing demands on their time. Increasing employment protections for fire and emergency services volunteers represents a way to support volunteer participation into the future.
  • Some states and territories use data modeling and forecasting, or are working on planning tools to forecast resource needs. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have been working with CSIRO to develop a planning tool to forecast firefighting resources requirements for 2020 and 2050 for all fire regions in Australia based on the Forest Fire Index and two climate change scenarios. State and territory governments should have a structured process to regularly assess the capacity and capability requirements of fire and emergency services, in light of both current and future natural disaster risk.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should consider whether national training for incident management roles would assist to increase numbers of trained personnel and support interstate deployments. These governments should also consider the development of an appropriate base standard of training or competency for roles that would obtain automatic national recognition.
  • Australian, state and territory governments should conduct multi-agency, national-level exercises, not limited to cross-border jurisdictions. These exercises should, at a minimum: (1) assess national capacity, inform capability development and coordination in response to, and recovery from, natural disasters, and (2) use scenarios that stress current capabilities.
  • Fire and emergency service volunteers should not suffer significant financial loss as a result of prolonged periods of volunteering during natural disasters. State and territory governments should continue their work to support and recognize fire and emergency services volunteers, including self-employed volunteers. State and territory governments should continue to support, recognize and incentivize employers who release employees to serve as fire and emergency services volunteers.

Australia volunteer firefighters

Capabilities of national aerial firefighting

  • The Victorian Inspector-General for Emergency Management observed that, “The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts including first attack would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect.” The governments of ACT, SA and Victoria also told us that they consider further research is required to improve aerial firefighting tactics, products and their effectiveness.
  • Aerial firefighting capabilities vary between the states and territories, with some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, not owning any aircraft. Other jurisdictions own aircraft. For example, NSW owns a fleet consisting of three helicopters and the ‘Marie Bashir’ LAT, and has purchased a further four aircraft (two fixed-wing and two helicopters) which are expected to be available in 2020. [Note from Bill: The LAT is a 737 air tanker recently purchased from Coulson Aviation. The two fixed wing aircraft are Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence jets; the two helicopters are Bell 412s. More info.]
  • There is merit in considering what further benefits could be derived from even greater [interstate] collaboration in the use of available aerial firefighting resources.
  • We heard that the current terms of aircraft service contracts are a disincentive for some Australian-based service providers. The majority of the providers we heard from told us that short contracts and minimal work during the off season make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment. Contracts traditionally engage providers for 84 service days (70 in Tasmania) within the fire season, but we heard that more contracted service days would allow providers to invest in more equipment and offer greater value for money to fire agencies.
  • The Aerial Application Association of Australia also told us that the length of contracts is insufficient to encourage industry to invest in aircraft and creates significant uncertainty in securing long-term finance. The Aerial Application Association of Australia also criticizes the short lead times for developing contract proposals with NAFC.
  • The limited availability of aviation support personnel in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season limited the sharing of personnel between jurisdictions and led to a greater reliance on personnel sourced from overseas.
  • The optimal use of aerial firefighting is in the early stages of a bushfire. For an aircraft to provide effective assistance in the suppression of a bushfire it needs to be rapidly dispatched with minimal travel time and with necessary logistical support systems in place. Victoria, SA and WA each employ ‘pre-determined dispatch’-the purpose of which is to reduce the time for the aircraft to reach the fire -described as a ‘game changing system that should be adopted nationally’.
  • On some occasions during the 2019-2020 bushfire season states and territories were unable to call upon additional aviation services when needed.
  • Aviation services funded, in whole or in part, by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.
  • The availability of overseas-based aviation services during Australian fire seasons, particularly LATs, may be reduced by the increasing convergence of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • We also heard that Australian-licensed pilots were not licensed to operate foreign-registered aircraft used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. For example, with the exception of the NSW-owned LAT, none of the LATs used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season were Australian-registered, and therefore Australian-licensed pilots were precluded from operating them.
  • The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told us that it has approximately 5,000 Australia-based members employed as commercial pilots. This suggests Australia may have the potential to recruit and train the necessary expertise to operate firefighting aircraft currently sourced from overseas, including LATs, if such aircraft were owned and registered in Australia.
  • Australian, state, and territory governments should work together to continue to improve Australia’s collective, Australian-based and operated, aerial firefighting capabilities. Though we see merit in the continued use of overseas-based aviation services and air crew in some instances, Australia’s current reliance represents a vulnerability, as demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.
  • The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT [Very large Airtanker/Large Air Tanker] aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach. Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability should be supported by ongoing research and evaluation to inform specific capability needs, and the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
  • Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services, where additional capacity is forecast to be required and available.

Australia Air-Crane helicopter fire

Role of Australian Defense Forces

  • Improve understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
  • The ADF has finite capacity and capability. The capacity and capability of the ADF to respond to natural disasters can be affected by its commitment to its priorities, both domestic and international. The ADF should not be seen as a first responder for natural disasters, nor relied on as such.
  • There should be greater representation by the ADF in state, territory and local government exercises, briefings, and planning for natural disasters.
  • State and territory governments should take steps to ensure that there is better interaction, planning and ongoing understanding of Australian Defense Force capabilities and processes by state and territory fire and emergency service agencies and local governments.
Evacuees are transported
Evacuees are transported from Mallacoota, Victoria to awaiting ships as part of Operation Bushfire Assist. ADF photo.

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