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Do we really need double the firefighters?

The reborn Climate Council has recently put out a new report on the projected impact of climate change on bushfires. Most of the content is backed up by sound research and pretty decent science, but some of the media coverage is focussing on a supposed doubling in the need for fire-fighters by 2030.

I’ve long been wary of claims that climate change requires massive investment in the emergency services – the problem of increasing bushfire or flood risks are better dealt with using disaster mitigation measures like land-use planning, building controls

Let’s unpack this claim a bit. The executive summary of the Climate Council report says it as thus:

By 2030, it has been estimated that the number of professional firefighters will need to approximately double (compared to 2010) to keep pace with increased population, asset value, and fire danger weather.

This was sourced from a 2013 report titled Firefighters and climate change: The human resources dimension of adapting to climate change prepared by the National Institute for Economic and Industry Research for the United Firefighters Union (I’m going to leave aside the obvious question of bias here and stick to the content).

It focusses on full-time firefighters of which there are about 11,500 in Australia in addition to the FTE of 1700 part-time firefighters and 220,000 volunteer firefighters. It’s these 11,500*  who are counted as professional firefighters in the report.

I’m going to focus on the projections for NSW for time constraints.

In its future projection of fire-fighting resource requirement the NIEIR report examines two drivers:

  • Population and asset growth
  • Increased response due to climate change

First, population and asset growth. Here’s the projections of firefighter numbers that the report says would be required to maintain existing levels of firefighter cover of population and assets in NSW.

2010 2015 2020 2025 2030
NSW Firefighter projections(NIEIR) 3604 3999 4424 4706 4991

This is an annual growth rate of 2.1-2.2% to 2020 and 1.2-1.3% between 2020 and 2030.

But the population of NSW is not growing this fast. Over the next 20 years the ABS estimates that population growth will average somewhere between 0.9% and 1.3%. So that leaves the rest of the projected growth due to increases in asset value. But does asset value make sense as a basis for estimating fire cover?

Not really – assets are property and a property will increase in value over time (due to inflation, rising replacement costs, increasing land value etc.) even though the property itself (and thus the number of firefighters needed to put it out if it’s on fire) remains unchanged. Population growth should be able to account for the increasing physical units of stuff (houses, businesses, vehicles etc.) that firefighters provide protection to. Maybe, though there’s other drivers?

So let’s look at responses by Fire and Rescue NSW over the last 15 years. The following chart shows their activities per 100,000 of population (culled from their annual reports)

FRNSWStats

Click to engraphenate

The first thing we notice is that fires make up a relatively small proportion of the overall activity of Fire and Rescue NSW (and this is similar to other urban fire organisations across the country). The second thing we note is that the total number of incidents as a proportion of population is unchanged over the last 15 years. That is – population alone can explain any increase in the activity of Fire and Rescue NSW.

One thing that might be harder to see on the graph is that the number of fire incidents is actually going down. This is particularly the case with structure fires which have decreased by 32% over the last 15 years, per 100,000 population. Other fires have also dropped, by 42% – though the reduction in fire response has been offset by increases in non-fire rescue (57%) and Hazmat incidents** (20%). The increase in non-fire rescues is likely due to expansion in the land rescue areas that FRNSW is responsible for.

The decline in structure fires makes sense – we’re building safer buildings (code compliant, better electricals, fire safety measures etc.) and we’re also behaving safer (mostly because fewer people are smoking in bed). Landscape fires (bush and grass fires) make up about a third of the ‘Other Fires’ category, but I don’t have enough data to break this category down across a decent time series to identify any trends.

The Total Incidents tells the story though – there’s no basis for assessing growth in overall demand of full-time firefighters on anything but population. So on the basis of population growth the resource requirements for FRNSW full-time firefighters looks something like this:

2010 2015 2020 2025 2030
NSW Firefighter projections(population based) 3516*** 3572 3807 4042 4230

This produces a much more sensible growth rate.

Now let’s turn to climate change. Again here are the NIEIR projections for NSW, this time with added rows for a Low (H2) and High(H3) climate change scenario.

2010 2015 2020 2025 2030
NSW NIEIR 3604 3999 4424 4706 4991
H2 NIEIR 4741 5728
H3 NIEIR 5175 6759

The NIEIR methodology hinges on a correlation they found between the number of Landscape fires in Victoria as set out in the 2012 Report on Government Services and the number of total fire ban days (both partial and statewide) declared in Victoria in any one fire season as enumerated in the CFA Annual Reports. By my count that’s a measly 5 data points.

Here’s the plot of the number of total fire ban days versus the number of landscape fires in Victoria.

firestfb

There’s a reasonably strong positive relationship there (correlation coefficient ~0.9) – but it’s only 5 data points. NIEIR could really have done better than that. The response could be substantially more noisy than appears or even non-linear. They’ve also assumed that this relationship would hold everywhere.

NIEIR then uses an excellent report prepared in 2007 by the Bushfire CRC, CSIRO and the BoM for the Climate Institute which examined, amongst other things the expected change in days with FFDI>50 (on which Total Fire Bans are generally declared) under a variety of climate change scenarios.

Now here the outline of the methodology begins to get a bit shaky. They seem to have applied some sort of modifier to take into account fewer bushfires in urban and arid areas (which is sensible) and matched similar sites in western and northern Australia with those in the Lucas paper (which is not sensible – the climate regimes are unlikely to change in similar ways) to produce area estimates of the increase in firefighters due to both climate change and population/asset growth.

Now here comes the kicker – best as I can figure out (by reverse engineering the math) NIEIR has assumed that the increase would apply to all incident types responded to by professional fire fighters, not just the landscape fires that make up about 5-10% of all incidents responded to by full-time firefighters. Even a doubling in the number of Extreme fire danger days, which is likely in some but not all areas, would only increase the overall taskload of NSW full-time firefighters by 4-6%. This is actually within the annual variation in incident numbers in NSW, suggesting that on this crude measure it would be possible for additional response to climate change to be handled within population adjusted resourcing.

On the other hand the resource requirements of the volunteer fire services (where a much larger propotion of the taskload is made up of bushfires) could be more severely impacted. Unfortunately I don’t think that these type of analyses really provide much information for emergency managers to plan future resource requirements in response to climate change. The impact of climate change on emergency services will be most keenly felt in extreme events – where you’re more interested in surge capacity and where part-time firefighters and volunteers play a much larger role. A scenario approach to modelling resource requirements during these extremes would provide much more insight into what we really do need for the greater amount of extreme weather in the future.

In the meantime it sadly seems that the Climate Council lacks the resources to adequately check its sources, especially when they come from the gray literature. Here’s hoping that they can encourage some work to get the real answers on human resource requirements for extreme fires under climate change.

* The report also discusses some of the problems in counting how many full-time firefighters there are in Australia, it uses a figure of 12,041 which is calculated from Census responses. I’ve taken the figure from the Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services  – so this is an approximate figure.

** I’m not very confident about this figure – FRNSW have changed their way of categorising hazmat incidents over the years, so a small change here may have been offset by a small change in one of the other incident categories – probably other. I’ve applied all the usual statistical tests and these changes are significant – just as there is no significant change to the Other incidents category or the Total incidents overall.

*** Here I’ve used the number of full-time firefighters contained in the FRNSW Annual Report.

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)

Comments

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.

Evacuation

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)

Comments

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.

Entry

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

None.

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.