SYDNEY - Claims that communication problems during Australia’s deadly summer of bushfires left communities dangerously exposed are coming under scrutiny Tuesday when hearings resume at a Royal Commission. With just months before the start of the next wildfire season the nation’s highest form of inquiry is looking at ways to make Australia more resilient and safer.
For almost eight weeks the huge Green Valley fire raged near the border of New South Wales and Victoria. It was ignited by lightning in December. But emergency crews called in from across Australia were using different radio frequencies and were often unable to contact each other. Some firefighters say that in the heat of battle the result was a dangerous lack of information. The Royal Commission into the ‘Black Summer’ blazes is investigating calls for an overhaul of the communications network.
Greg Mullins, a former New South Wales Fire and Rescue Commissioner, says the response to the Green Valley blaze highlighted how out-dated the current system is.
“We had fire-fighters from every state and territory assisting. But, for example, Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade units in regional New South Wales not being able to speak to the local units on their radio channels. Country Fire Authority from Victoria, the same issue,” he said.
Emergency authorities say that liaison officers were deployed to boost cooperation between crews from different jurisdictions that included volunteers and professional firefighters. But the New South Wales Rural Fire Service concedes there is plenty of work to be done to fix the problems permanently.
The Black Summer blazes in Australia killed more than 30 people, destroyed 3,000 homes and scorched 12 million hectares of land.
It is estimated that one billion animals died in the disaster. South-eastern Australia is one of the world’s most fire-prone regions. The fires last summer were exacerbated by a long drought, and were the worst in the nation’s modern history.
The impact of climate change on bushfires is also being examined by the commission, as well as land management. Scientists say that global warming is influencing the frequency and severity of the fires in Australia.