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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Risky Links: More Sydney Bushfires

The fires keep on coming and so does the coverage. Here’s more of the best commentary:


State of Emergency – What powers does it add?

For the second time in 18 months NSW is under a State of Emergency due to a natural disaster. You can read the wording of the declaration here.

From memory, before the flooding in 2012 there have only been two declarations of a State of Emergency in NSW under the current legislation.

A State of Emergency is declared under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act to give emergency services extraordinary powers to combat an emergency situation. These powers are usually more extensive than those available to the emergency services under their own acts (in this case the Rural Fires Act).

I thought it might be interesting to do a play by play comparison of the powers under each act. This is necessarily a simplification, if you’re interested or need to use this stuff you need to read each Act, their Regulations or even get legal advice.

A few quick notes. Not all RFS Members are Officers for the purposes of the Act. I’m not sure which rank confers these powers or whether they’re delegated in another fashion, but if anyone knows I’d appreciate it. An Emergency Services Officer for the purposes of the SERM Act include RFS members of or above the position of Deputy Captain.

Coordination and Direction

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it?: The Commissioner of the RFS (s44)

What is it’s extent? When a Section 44 bushfire emergency is declared the Commissioner or delegate (in reality, the incident management teams) take control of the bushfire response. Directions can be issued to the RFS, Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Police Force and other persons in connection with fire fighting operations. (s45)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: The Minister

What is it’s extent? The Minister gains the ability to direct the entire resources of government in the emergency response – even if those directions are contrary to other legislation or law (with the exception of the Essential Services Act). (s36)


In my opinion this is one of the most important provisions of the State of Emergency powers – Michael Eburn covers it in his excellent post on the State of Emergency declaration here.


Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? Only if a person, vehicle or thing is interfering with RFS Operations. (s22A)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister

What is it’s extent? Evacuate and remain out of the emergency area, these powers include the use of force. (s37)


The RFS does not have any power to evacuate people for their safety, so if they believe it is necessary They could rely on common law powers of the Police to detain and remove people from an area for their own safety, but a State of Emergency is likely to produce much greater levels of compliance and require less use of force. However this does raise the question of whether the RFS should have the power under their own act to ‘force’ evacuations. The traditional paradigm in community response to fires has been to leave it up to the community to decide. Recently we’ve seen a trend towards strongly advising people to evacuate in the worst fires – and an overall preference to evacuation as the safest measure. The State Emergency Service has significant evacuation powers under their Act in the case of flood emergencies, which can even include the use of force. To give the RFS greater powers to evacuate people would give them more options in the event of a fire without needing to resort to a State of Emergency.


Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers in the possession of a written authority (s32) and in some circumstances providing notice (s29)

What is it’s extent? Any premises to exercise their functions. (s23)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Any person in possession of a written authority (s37F) and in some circumstances providing notice (s37C)

What is it’s extent? To comply with a direction to undertake safety measures in section 37.

Road Closure

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? Officers in charge of RFS brigades

What is it’s extent? Any road in the vicinity of a fire (and the RFS do not need to be controlling that closure – they can instruct somebody else to do so) (s24)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister

What is it’s extent? Any road in an emergency area (and the emergency services officer does not need to ‘man’ the closure) (s37A)

Pulling down buildings and other safety measures

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? To protect life and property destroy buildings, fences, vegetation or establish fire breaks (and the RFS can instruct somebody else to do so) (s25)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister can direct actions to

What is it’s extent? Pulling down or destroying damaged walls or premises. The destruction or removal of any material or thing that threatens life or property or inhibits the emergency response. (s37A)

Use of Force

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers where authorised by the Commissioner

What is it’s extent? Only for the purpose of gaining entry (s31)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Persons where authorised by the Minister.

What is it’s extent? Only for the purpose of gaining entry (s37E)

Commandeering Property

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? Take and use without payment any water on any land. (s26)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: The Minister

What is it’s extent? Take possession of and use any property. The property owner may receive but is not entitled to compensation.

Disconnection of Utilities

Under the RFS Act


Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister can direct actions to

What is it’s extent? Shutting off of any main supply of gas, water or other substance or gas or electricity to premises in the emergency area. (s37A)

Protection from Liability

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? Any officer or member of the RFS, other fire fighting agencies or those acting under their direction

What is it’s extent? Protected persons (or the Crown) cannot be held liable for actions done in good faith.

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Any person acting under the execution of a State of Emergency.

What is it’s extent? Protected persons (or the Crown) cannot have legal proceedings brought against them for actions done in good faith.

Worst Case Scenario: Evacuation of the Blue Mountains

The NSW Government has declared a State of Emergency with regard to the bushfires in the Blue Mountains and the forecast deteriorating weather conditions. One of the reasons given for the declaration is the additional evacuation powers this grants the Rural Fire Service (once the actual wording of the declaration is published I’ll be making a post on what exactly are the additional powers it grants). Large areas of the Blue Mountains could come under threat. Though the likelihood of a complete evacuation of the Blue Mountains has been played down the RFS says that it is looking at the planning.

So let’s look at the feasibility of a large scale evacuation. I’ll use a back-of-the-envelope version of the evacuation timeline method developed by the NSW SES.

NSW does have a plan for a large scale evacuation – in the event of an extreme flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River (incidentally this plan also calls for the declaration of a State of Emergency – primarily to convey the seriousness of the situation). If there was to be a whole-scale evacuation of the Blue Mountains I would expect some elements of the evacuation planning around a Hawkesbury-Nepean flood to be utilised.

But is an evacuation even possible. Everyone would need to exit via the Great Western Highway, presumably to Sydney

Though the Great Western Highway is mostly double lane, dual carriageway it narrows to a single lane each way in a number of places, notably at Hazelbrook and Woodford. Single traffic lanes can carry 1200-1500 vehicles per hour. Standard practice is to halve this figure to account for emergency conditions, smoke, emergency vehicles, accidents etc. Census figures estimate a total of about 50,000 vehicles owned by households in the Blue Mountains area – experience shows that households will use all available vehicles to evacuate.

The math is pretty simple:

50,000 vehicles / 600 vehicles per hour = 83 hours or about 3.5 days. If Wednesday were indeed going to be catastrophic the evacuation would need to start now.

Even with perfect traffic conditions, contra-flow arrangements (which I highly doubt would be used as they would prevent emergency vehicles from coming in) and only 1 car per household it would still take a long time:

33,000 vehicles / 2400 vehicles per hour = 14 hours

What about trains?

Seated capacity of 6 car V set trains (those normally run on the Blue Mountains Line) is 608. At the peak they run at four trains per hour. Assuming double capacity and an increase to 6 trains per hour you have the ability to move about 7300 people per hour. The census gives a population of 75,000 for the blue mountains. So by train:

75,000 people / 7300 people per hour by train = 10 hours

Now if you could convince a whole lot of households to leave their cars at home, travel with only what they could carry (both of these are pretty unlikely assumptions) and take the train it might be possible to evacuate all the Blue Mountains in about 6 or 7 hours. Still too long?

If it did come to it, an evacuation of the Blue Mountains would be a multi-day round-the-clock operation involving massive coordination of transport assets, traffic control and a huge effort to convince the community of the need to leave very early. It would need to be called long before the fire was directly threatening properties – in the worst case the decision would need to be happening now.

Risky Links: NSW Bushfires

I was going to write a post on the Bushfires in NSW, links to climate change and the media discussion after Adam Bandt’s comments (though I do wish to point out the irony that many of those criticising Bandt’s timing are more than happy to blame the fires on Green ideas about land clearing) but others have said it better than I. Here’s a wrap of some of the best coverage to date on the fires:

David Holmes in the Conversation looks at the media discussion of the bushfires and climate change. Despite calls not to ‘politicise’ research shows that now is the best time to talk about extreme weather and climate change. Also read Adam Bandt’s article that started it in The Guardian.

In the Guardian Josh Taylor outlines the benefits of social media in keeping tabs on what’s happening, but that it has its drawbacks too.

Although the fire season is likely to lengthen in the future detecting historical changes in seasonality is difficult as David Bowman examines in Crikey.

Also in The Conversation Ross Bradstock looks at the reasons why the Blue Mountains is so vulnerable to bushfires and Janet Stanley covers climate change, arson and land use as three areas that need a greater focus on prevention.

The Australian argues that despite losses and the early arrival of the bushfire season we are getting better at Bushfire Management. Technology is improving how fires are fought as detailed in the Daily Telegraph but models are far from reliable, as pointed out by David Bowman in the Conversation.

NSW Bushfire History

Well it’s a smokey morning in Sydney, thousands of firefighters are still working hard and about a hundred fires are still burning with many out of control. I’ve been following the news here in Italy.

If indeed hundreds of homes have been lost, this could very well be the most damaging fires in the state’s history and I would expect there to be strong pressure for the Government to establish some sort of inquiry. So I’ve pulled together some information on past fires in NSW and some of the inquiries that they triggered. The data is taken from the COAG Bushfire Inquiry, a few RFS publications, the Insurance Council’s disaster statistics and my own lists of disaster inquiries.

In terms of property loss and insured loss the worst bushfire disaster in the State’s history was the 1993-94 fires that destroyed 206 homes. These fires killed four people and led to three separate inquiries. Since then there have been ten separate audits, inquiries and reviews into bushfires in NSW. There’s also been numerous federal inquiries and in other jurisdictions which have driven policy change in NSW. The most deadly bushfire in NSW’s history was the 1968-69 fires which killed 14 people and also destroyed 161 homes. I hope all the lessons we’ve learned through these fires and inquiries will not lead to a toll that high.

And the Australian fire season still has a long way to go. Click here to look at the full table as a google spreadsheet.

Other Bushfire related inquiries

1996 – Audit of New South Wales Fire Brigades : fire prevention

1998 – Audit of The Coordination of Bushfire Fighting Activities

2000 – Parliamentary Inquiry into the NSW Rural Fire Service

2001 – Follow up of Performance Audits: Coordination of bushfire fighting activities

2003 – Coronial Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Fire(s) in the Brindabella Range in January 2003

2004 – Parliamentary Inquiry into Fire Services Funding

2005 – Statutory Review of the Rural Fires Act 1997

2009 – Review of Bushfire Arson Laws

Risky Links: IDDR 2013

Today is International Day for Disaster Reduction, check out the website here and be sure to look at the results from the IDDR survey which looks at the contributions and needs of people with disabilities in disaster risk reduction. Their number one priority? Information.

Meanwhile in India Super cyclonic storm Phailin: the strongest cyclone ever in the North Indian Ocean Basin, made landfall yesterday – this piece in The Conversation gives some background. Check out the Hindustan Times for ongoing coverage.

And unseasonably hot weather in Australia has sparked a string of damaging bushfires predictably leading to calls for greater prescribed burning. However, planned burning is not necessarily as effective as many think. The design of bushfire mitigation activities needs to take science into account. These fires come as research to be published in Nature on Monday suggest the El Nino Southern Oscillation cycle will strengthen as a result of climate change, intensifying drought and bushfire risk. Even more concerning is new research showing that more than two-thirds of people would adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach when deciding to evacuate or defend in the face of a bushfire. Less than 1% would leave their homes on days of catastrophic or extreme fire danger – the safest option.

Risky Links

  • The WDR 2014 and its Relevance for Disaster Risk Management – The World Bank’s GFDRR takes a look at the World Bank’s 2014 World Development Report titled “Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development”. This is the latest in a string of reports increasing the focus on risk management within development. The 2014 GDR argues that improved risk management can better protect development outcomes and create new opportunities to eradicate poverty. This is an important report in the lead up to the post 2015 development agenda which I expect to have a much greater focus on disaster reduction and risk management than the 2000 Millennium Development Goals.
  • Video games and law of war – In this post the ICRC argues for greater implementation of the laws of war in realistic war simulation games (like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and America’s Army). They note that they are working with some video game developers to implement this.
  • Fukushima’s Worst-Case Scenarios – In this lengthy piece on slate.com the worst-case scenarios developed by scientists in the US and Japan during the early days of the Fukushima disaster are put under the microscope. Unsurprisingly the media’s treatment of these scenarios at the time didn’t accurately communicate them.

Risky Links

  • Financing Disaster Risk Reduction: A 20 Year Story of International Aid – This new report from the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the Overseas Development Institute finds that over the last 20 years a meagre $13.5 billion of development expenditure (less than 0.4%) has been spent on disaster risk reduction. This contrasts to the $862 billion in damage experienced by developing countries and the $93.2 billion the international community spent on emergency response, recovery and reconstruction. The report also reveals huge inequities in the expenditure of this development assistance.