The 2020/21 fire season will be influenced by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons, according to a September through November outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre.
With a La Niña ALERT now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring. Despite the wetter climate signals, parts of Queensland face above normal fire potential in the south east and central coast, extending to the north.
While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help in the short-term, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer.
In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions persist in Western Australia, with above normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.
This article was first published at Fire Aviation September 24, 2020
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has released an interim report about the January 23, 2020 crash of a C-130, Air Tanker 134, that killed the three crewmembers on board. This follows the preliminary report the agency issued in February, 2020. The aircraft was known as Bomber 134 (B134) in Australia.
“The interim report does not contain findings nor identify safety issues, which will be contained in the final report. However, it does detail the extensive evidence gathered to date, which has helped ATSB investigators develop a detailed picture of this tragic accident’s sequence of events,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood.
It was very windy on January 23, with a forecast for the possibility of mountain waves. Before the incident a birddog, similar to a lead plane, and Bomber 137 (B137), formerly Tanker 138, a Boeing 737 that Coulson sold to New South Wales, was tasked to drop on a fire in the Adaminaby area. Based on the weather the birddog pilot declined the assignment. After B137 made a drop on the fire, the crew reported having experienced uncommanded aircraft rolls up to 45° angle of bank (due to wind) and a windshear warning from the aircraft on‑board systems.
After completing the drop, the B137 crew sent a text message to the birddog pilot indicating that the conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody and we’re not going back.” They also reported to the Cooma FCC that the conditions were unsuitable for firebombing operations. During B137’s return flight to Richmond, the Richmond air base manager requested that they reload the aircraft in Canberra and return to Adaminaby. The Pilot in Command (PIC) replied that they would not be returning to Adaminaby due to the weather conditions.
B134 was dispatched to the fire at Adaminaby. While they were in route, the PIC of B137 called to inform them of the actual conditions, and that B137 would not be returning to Adaminaby.
After arriving at Adaminaby the PIC of B134 contacted the air operations officer at the Cooma FCC by radio and advised them that it was too smoky and windy to complete a retardant drop at that location. The Cooma air operations officer then provided the crew with the location of the Good Good Fire, about 58 km to the east of Adaminaby, with the objective of conducting structure and property protection near Peak View. Again, there was no birddog operating with the air tanker.
Early last week the United States requested help from Australia and Canada in battling the wildfires in California and other states. The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, through the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), asked Canada for four to five 20-person hand crews and requested 55 overhead personnel from Australia.
The three 20-person crews from Quebec will be arriving in Boise Wednesday September 2. They will receive a briefing orientation and participate in fire shelter deployment training. After a one-night rest in Boise, the crews will fly to Reno, Nevada and board ground transportation to their fire assignment on the North Complex in California. The North Complex consists of numerous lightning fires being managed as one incident on the Plumas National Forest.
As for the status of the request for 55 overhead positions from down under, “Australia is on hold for now,” Ms. Cobb said. “They are assessing the need for the types of personnel being requested as our fire situation evolves.”
Australia is approaching the beginning of their 2020-2021 summer bushfire season.
From The Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
The ABC understands anyone who wants to go to California will have to pass strict health tests and age will be taken into consideration because of COVID-19.
Those who go to California will have to quarantine for two weeks when they return to Australia, which [Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council CEO Stuart] Ellis said he expected would play a role in deciding who goes.
“That needs to be factored into each (fire) commissioner’s consideration of their people’s availability,” he said.
“Not only will they be absent for the period they are in the United States, but they will also need to spend two weeks in quarantine on return to Australia.”
Queensland will not send anyone because the state is about to enter their fire season and Victoria will not assist due to the health crisis. New South Wales, the ACT, and Western Australia are considering their options.
The final decision is up to each state and territory, but Ellis said he is optimistic Australia will either meet or come close to the requested number.
California has asked for help to arrive by September 6.
It is possible that the fire authorities in Australia may be in a very awkward position. During their extraordinarily busy 2019-2020 summer bushfire season, the U.S. deployed more than 200 U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior wildland fire staff to the Australian Bushfire response.
Firefighters in Australia asked to travel to America could think they would be entering a more risky environment by accepting an assignment where the COVID-19 death rate is 21 times higher per 100,000 population — 2.63 in Australia compared to 56.12 in the U.S. The death rate in Canada is less than half of the U.S. rate, 24.75.
Australia and New Zealand sent 44 fire specialists to assist the United States in 2008, and 68 in 2015. They may have helped out in other years also.
The United State is reaching out to Canada and Australia, hoping to get more than 130 firefighters to assist with the battling the 93 uncontained wildfires in the country.
In spite of the travel difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group is “working on a request for 55 overhead wildland fire personnel from Australia and about four to five crews from Canada”, said Kari Cobb, an Acting Public Affairs Officer at the National Interagency Fire Center. In the United States, hand crews usually consist of 20 people.
If the Australian’s accept the assignment, they will be leaving a continent where the virus has been nearly controlled, to come to a country where the opposite is true.
The international assistance has worked in both directions. In July, 2008, 44 Australian and New Zealand firefighters came to the United States to assist with fires in California. The first deployment of firefighters from Australia to the U.S. was in 2000.
Although Australia is no stranger to wildfires, the 2019-2020 season was one of the worst fire seasons on record. Major bushfires began in June, 2019, and by September were stronger, more intense, and more frequent. The fire situation continued to worsen, and by November, Australia requested international assistance to suppress the thousands of fires on the landscape.
Over a span of four months, the United States responded to the request for firefighters by providing personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. In total, The U.S. deployed more than 200 USFS and DOI wildland fire staff to the Australian Bushfire response.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC, has put together the story of the largest bushfire in the recorded history of the continent. When the spread of the Gospers Mountain Fire finally halted during the 2019-2020 bushfire season, it had merged with four other large blazes to ultimately burn 1,071,740 hectares (2,648,323 acres).
Sometimes in the United States we call a fire that reaches 100,000 acres a “megafire”, but the prefix “mega” means a million (106). Last bushfire season the Aussies had a legitimate megafire.
The article at ABC is well researched and interesting. It includes details that previously were not widely known — such as the fact that firefighters were worried that the fire could burn into the northern suburbs of Sydney, the state capital of New South Wales.
Although Australia is no stranger to wildfires, the 2019-2020 season was one of the worst fire seasons on record. Major bushfires began in spring 2019 (June), and by September were stronger, more intense, and more frequent. The fire situation continued to worsen, and by November, Australia requested international assistance to suppress the thousands of fires on the landscape.
Over a span of four months, the United States responded to Australia’s request for firefighters by providing personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. In total, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provided 11 individuals to assist in suppression efforts.
FWS employees filled important roles, including engine captain, situation officer, aircraft officer, task force leader, fire behavior analyst, division supervisor, planning section chief, operations section chief, air support group supervisor, and public information officer.
“Our mission was to support the Australian government in suppressing the bushfires and keeping the Australian people and communities safe,” said Reynaldo Navarro, Assistant Fire Management Officer, South Texas Refuge Complex. “Our tasks included firing operations, engine support, mopping up or blacking out, hand line construction, hazard tree felling, and structure triage and protection.”
“Being in Australia was a great, yet very humbling experience,” said Kyle Bonham, Engine Captain at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, of his time in Australia.
Although the Australia bushfires brought great destruction and impacts to the country, FWS personnel were welcomed with cheer and open arms.
“What stands out to me are the Australian people,” said Richard Sterry, Fire Management Specialist, Lakewood, Colorado. “I was assigned to a more rural area, and the Australian people were wonderful to work with. They always had smiles on their faces and were constantly going out of their way help us learn their system.”
By mid-February, more than 46 million acres (72,000 square miles) burned since the first fires in June, 2019. Overall, 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in New South Whales, and 53 percent of the Gondwana World Heritage rainforests in Queensland burned.
Fighting bushfires in Australia provided a unique opportunity for FWS firefighters to learn new firefighting skills, as well as hone the skills required to fight fire in the United States. Due to Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere, fire season occurs at a time when much of the U.S. is out of danger of wildfire. Firefighters helping with suppression efforts in Australia were afforded a unique opportunity to polish firefighting skills needed during wildfire season in the U.S.
Kari Cobb is the acting public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.