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Today the Rockefeller Foundation announced its latest group in the 100 Resilient Cities program. I was surprised to find Sydney as one of the cities who are now part of the program.
Except it’s not Sydney it’s the City of Sydney, one of the 40 or so local governments that make up the real Sydney metro area. Depending on how you want to measure resilience it’s probably one of the more resilient, if not the most resilient LGA in the Sydney Metro area. And with the possible exception of terrorism it would be on the lower side in terms of hazard profile too.
It contains 4% of the population and just 0.2% of the land area in the metropolitan region. It does however account for 28% of the Gross Regional Product, 25% of the jobs and 13% of the businesses of the Sydney metro area. However this economic contribution is heavily dependent on the rest of the metro area. Extreme interconnectedness is one of the things that reduces resilience and improved collaboration is one of the best ways to build it.
If City of Sydney is really serious about being a resilient city it will need to engage heavily with a much broader set of partners including the State Government and the other 40-odd local governments in the metro area. It will also need to ensure that the benefits it gains from being part of the Rockefeller collaboration are shared amongst these partners.
There is currently no city-wide emergency management or resilience forum in Sydney. Perhaps this grant will be the impetus that establishes one.
Highly fragmented local government is not unusual according to data from the OECD, with the average across 275 metro areas being 74 local governments (and that’s not even counting other levels or single purpose local governments). A number of other cities in the 100 resilient cities campaign have similar problems of fragmentation, and it’s not clear whether its something that’s even being considered.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the City of Sydney handles this issue moving forward with the program (and for that matter who gets the Chief Resilience Officer job). I’ll be staying tuned.
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.
|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)
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:
|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.
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.
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.
The fires keep on coming and so does the coverage. Here’s more of the best commentary:
- Lateline: Fire expert, Professor David Bowman, discusses the latest bushfire emergency. Lateline (in fact the whole ABC) is doing some rather excellent coverage. Check it out.
- The Conversation: Fire and climate change: don’t expect a smooth ride
- The Conversation: Living with fire: deciding where to build
- Australian Financial Review: Controlled burns to manage bushfires won’t work: expert
- Sydney Morning Herald: NSW Fires: If You Live in the Bush, build for the Bush
- Sydney Morning Herald: Waiting for the Fires Reveals What’s Really Important
- Sydney Morning Herald: In the land of bushfires we need a national plan
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.
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.
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
Today the NSW Government released its planning white paper. Reforming the planning system was one of the election policies of the O’Farrell Government. I feel that a lot of the discussion about ‘resilience’ are thinly veiled distractions from what we know works best – not building stuff in harm’s way.
I’ll be leafing through it and posting my thoughts (and perhaps making a submission), but at 214 pages it’s going to take me a while.
The closing date for submissions is the 28th of June, so if you’re thinking about making one get cracking. There’s a variety of other consultative mechanisms including a series of discussion forums.