NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
Earlier this year, lightning peppered the Blue Mountains sparking about a year’s worth of bushfires in just one week. The remarkable skills, experience and sheer hard work of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) firefighters and their colleagues helped prevent these from becoming another of the infamous ‘black fire days’ that lace Australia’s history.
Between 21 to 28 January 2018, thunderstorms started 74 bushfires across the Blue Mountains, Yengo and Wollemi National Parks. Normally, in an entire bushfire season the area experiences 60 fires on average.
The Singleton, Mid-Western and part-Muswellbrook LGAs were declared bushfire emergencies.
Throughout the week around 100 local NPWS firefighters were joined by 250 NPWS colleagues from other parts of the state, many remote area firefighting specialists.
It seemed just as the crews, supported by 127 aircraft, gained control in one area another fire would be reported.
Finally, after a week of non-stop firefighting day and night, these hard-working fire crews had gained the upper hand on what could have been a disastrous situation.
Controlling these fires has helped protect the outstanding natural values of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area including the biodiversity of its plants and animals.
The NPWS works with NSW Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue NSW and NSW Forest Corporation, land managers and the community to manage fires. The NPWS is a long-standing member of the NSW Bush Fire Coordinating Committee, which coordinates fire management across government and non-government organisations.
Coordination of all bushfire management activities is undertaken by a specialist section in the NPWS, with support from regionally based bushfire management officers and teams, and other Office of Environment and Heritage corporate support sections.
Early suppression of fires is crucial in containing spread. With much of the State’s reserve system being rugged and remote, it is impossible to access many fires by vehicle. Using aircraft and specialist firefighting crews trained to work in remote places, enables the NPWS to quickly reach and stop fires before they get too big.
The NPWS pioneered remote firefighting in Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Using aircraft with water buckets, and being able to insert crews practically anywhere, NPWS has become adept at fighting remote fires. The success of the NPWS’ remote firefighting crews has been a model replicated by other firefighting agencies.
Modern NPWS rapid response firefighters have proven highly effective at combatting the spread of bushfires. Remote firefighting as a technique is mostly an invisible part of what the NPWS does but is key to the success of bushfire management in NSW.
Remote area firefighting is inherently challenging and risky. Firefighters must be of the highest caliber, reaching and maintaining currency in fitness and firefighting techniques. These skilled crews are often inserted by helicopters to fight the fires directly using only the hand tools they can carry.
Recognising this, the Government has invested significantly in the NPWS bushfire suppression and bushfire hazard reduction capability, with more than $130 million being invested over a ten-year period. This includes an improved bushfire response capability through dedicated rapid response teams and additional staff including the employment of an additional 90 permanently fire-fighting staff.
The Blue Mountains has 47 national parks and reserves covering 1.35 million hectares, managed by the Blue Mountains Branch of the NPWS, part of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
NPWS undertakes a risk-based approach to managing for bushfires. This includes a program of planned hazard reduction burning, while ensuring the resources including highly skilled firefighters, vehicles and aircraft, are ready prior to the fire season.
Figure 1. Number of new fires (ignitions) in blue, and the number put out in orange.
Most of these fires were caused by what is known as dry lightning or dry thunderstorm events – where lightning strikes are not accompanied by enough rainfall to extinguish any fires that start. When dry lightning events intersect with dry, crisp vegetation suffering from too little rain, the risk of fire ignitions is high.