Future planning on fire

“Apropos of nothing”, my mother said to me, “J– died last night. We’re all a little shocked.”

I’m down visiting the family farm, and despite (or because of) not having lived here for decades now, Mum always tries to catch me up on the local gossip. Who the neighbours are, what they’re doing. It’s a way of keeping me connected to the area so that there’s not a sudden disconnect if, well. I’m really bad with names though, so it’s always hard to keep it straight. So I said “Who’s J–?”. And she said “He’s the one who was probably going to be convinced to take over as fire brigade captain.”

My mother is secretary of the local Bush Fire Brigade. The current captain is someone my mother did seasonal labour for when I was a baby – I think we have pictures of her picking onions in his fields with me in a basket under a tree nearby. So he’s been in the brigade a very long time, and is a bit ready to retire. Losing his likely replacement, at an untimely age no less, is a problem. They don’t have a lot of other possible candidates.

Many years ago I worked in the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA)’s communications centre. I was one of the people who answered 000 calls, dispatched fire brigades and kept track of incidents around the state – we covered and coordinated the largest fire district in the world. So I know this state’s physical geography in a way not so many people do, and especially as it relates to fire. I know that this region of the state doesn’t suffer nearly the fire frequency that many other regions do due to its shorter summer season and higher / more frequent rainfall. I asked Mum how often they went to fires. She said “About three a season”. In state-wide terms, that’s nothing. But at a local BFB level, that’s enough to get people basic experience in leading the effort to put out a fire. And make no mistake, firegrounds are intense places. Decision-making “under fire” or “at the firefront” is a test of self. So I said “So it’s not lack of experience then”. And Mum said “No, it’s lack of people”.

One of the things that’s changed in the last few decades is how many people are on farms. How many people are physically out here, day in, day out. The mining boom’s drawn a lot of people away. Changing practices have reduced the use of labour. Farming’s not trendy. All those things, but especially the fact that you can get paid a lot more for doing a job that doesn’t rely on the weather and that gives you time off. Most of the farmers around here are older, and Mum’s talked before about how few of them have children willing to take over the businesses. Ok, she may have been making a subtle nudge in my direction, but the point stands. There aren’t many people in the area. And those that are here, are working. Farming’s not Monday to Friday, unless you hire casual labour, in which case you probably try and avoid paying weekend rates if you can. So when a fire starts, the brigade gets onto it, gets it out and goes back to work. That doesn’t always mean a good spread of experience across the brigade, it means the handiest people do most of the fires. But when your numbers are low anyway it’s not the defining factor of the problem, just a factor.

What makes this demographic problem particularly interesting to me is that the fire frequency down here is going to change. It already is changing, just not so obviously yet. Climate change hits this corner of the state disproportionally – I think we’re the fastest-drying part of the country. Which means that over the next couple of decades we will lose a lot of the summer rainfall that keeps the number of fires down. We’ll lose a chunk of the winter rainfall too, which may mean less vegetation and weeds to burn. But what’s here now in our local bushland corners tucked on every farm is thick, thick bush. Some of it is karri forest, which we may lose over time through lack of regeneration as its range retreats west with the rainfall isohyets. Some is jarrah and marri forest. Some is sandy heathland taller than human height, of a similar type to that preserved in the Cranbourne Botanical Gardens in Melbourne. And this stuff all burns. It just hasn’t needed to very often in the last few thousand years. A swift change in fire and rainfall frequencies will drive a noticeable ecosystem change over the next century, I’ll bet. That’s an aside of the issue though. More crucial to the question of fire is that as fire numbers increase the water needed to fight fires will also increase. Farms here need to plan for catching and holding an increased water supply available for firefighting on top of their own increasing summer needs, even as the water available to catch decreases.

I am most interested in what will happen to the local fire brigades as fire frequencies increase, if the number of people available to fight them continues to drop. The growing global push for the agricultural strategies of increasing the number of small farms, concentrating on the “mosaic” approach and altering our agricultural/economic systems to ensure support for smaller farmers would mean more people in a farming area and could help reverse the population decline. If people wanted to take up farming, that is. Which is a question I should probably look at sometime. However people here are already moving away from labour-intensive options for social reasons, and the drying climate will encourage taking up more of the large-scale broad-acre types of farming in this area which means consolidating small holdings into larger ones.

It would be interesting to see what planning has been done in this direction at local levels and at the state-wide Authority level. You look at equipment, personnel and water needs for a typical season and most areas around the state currently have the balance they need or close to. If an area changes, it will still end up with the balance they need. But do we have the ability to change from one state of balance to another?

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