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Experiencing Australia’s Disaster

Editor’s Note: Kim Nielsen, an ag fieldman for the County of Clearwater in west central Alberta, is part way through a six-month work experience visit in Victoria, Australia. He is writing regular reports for Grainews on his experiences during his stay.

In my last article I covered a bit of the February 2009 Victoria Bush Fires, the largest natural disaster ever to hit Australia but I think it might be of interest to stay on that topic in this submission as well as I have become involved with the gigantic agricultural recovery program that commenced after the fires and in some cases while the fires were still burning.

I work ordinarily for the State Department of Primary Industries (DPI), Farm Services Section and the Landscape Protection Portfolio on weed and animal pest related programs. Consistently across the DPI state department, however, rests the responsibility for the Bush Fire Recovery Program to quickly assess the agricultural losses from fires and prepare assistance programs.

The main scenarios are stock losses, stock gathering and confinement, veterinary assistance, fencing, crop losses, feed shortages, dwelling and farm building losses. This often is done in conjunction with the state department of Human Services and the local municipalities. Bush Fires are a part of life in Australia and preparedness is well integrated into rural communities and state departments.

The state department of Sustainability and the Environment is responsible for fire awareness, education and calculating the daily Fire Danger Index based on current temperature, humidity, drought factor, days since last rain coupled with weather forecast. The final calculation often triggers Total Fire Ban days during the summer (Dec-Mar), which was done ahead of the early February fires, to warn people to prepare to activate their Fire Plan.

The plan could as simple as evacuating when threatened by an approaching fire. It remains a choice to evacuate, but it is stated that the fire area may be cordoned off by police for safety reasons so access back in after evacuation may be restricted. The plan could also be more detailed and involve setting up of fire fighting equipment on the property. Most fires start by embers that blow ahead of the fire front as the typical bush fires involves the very hot, strong and dry winds from central Australia and at times exacerbated by a sudden wind change late afternoon shifting winds from north to south west. On a Total Fire Ban day open fires, the use of welders, cutting torches, mowers and the like are also banned.

The local Country Fire Authority, which in the rural areas are totally voluntary, assist DSE with the actual fire fighting and goes into Stand By on Total Fire Ban days to, at moments notice, mobilize some amazing manpower and equipment. The actual management of the fire fighting and also the subsequent recovery aspect is done using a similar concept to what I have been exposed to in Clearwater County following floods and fires called the Incident Management System (ICS).

I am writing this from the Benalla Incident Management Team Complex, which under the ICS concept has a designated Incident Controller (the top gun!) and below this matrix the Planning sector looking after mapping, situations reports, information and resources; Operations look after the phone team, field teams, data entering; and Logistics look after accommodation, meals and safety.

Being part of such structure has been extremely enlightening and provided some valuable experiences. The Bush Fire Recovery IMT here at Benalla deals with the recovery aspect of the largest fire, the Murrindindi Kilmore fire that covered over 500,000 acres. The team is comprised of 23 staff, but a few weeks ago when the fire was still burning I assisted in the actual fire IMT and in contrast we had 900 people deployed. I have mainly been helping with the collecting of data for the printing of the daily Situation Report, which forms part of the daily Incident Action Plan but also, saw some field action yesterday conducting some farm visits collecting loss data.

State wide the impact are truly unprecedented and validates the declaration of this being the worst natural disaster to hit Australia. Over 1.1 million acres burnt; 210 lives lost (likely to climb slightly upon further forensic work); 1,445 homes lost; 4,714 farms impacted (3,461 assessed at this time); 2,832 sheep lost, 1,392 salvaged and 810 missing; and 1,486 cattle lost, 1,709 salvaged and 6,079 missing.

The six month hosting program that I am participating in continues to offer an outstanding opportunity to share experiences and programs between Clearwater County, Alberta and the State of Victoria and I am pleased to share some of the areas of mutual interest.

Kim J. Nielsen, Pest Management Officer/ Clearwater County Agricultural Fieldman, Hamilton, Victoria, Australia contact: Kim. [email protected]au

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