Behind the fire line: how RFS fights the flames

The Deans Gap bushfire on Saturday.
The Deans Gap bushfire on Saturday.
The Deans Gap bushfire on Saturday. Pictures: NSW Rural Fire Service

The Deans Gap bushfire on Saturday. Pictures: NSW Rural Fire Service

Fighting a bushfire isn't just about firefighters facing the flames on the ground.

They are also fought away from the fire front, where strategies are planned and implemented and efforts are made to ensure the crews have what they need.

"There are a whole range of things that go on behind the scenes, not necessarily on the fire ground," Illawarra Zone Rural Fire Service Superintendent Richard Cotterill said.

Each fire had an incident management team led by an incident controller who oversaw everything.

In that team were three cells - planning, operations and logistics.

"The planning cell determines what the fire is going to do in the next hour, the next 12 hours the next 24 hours," Mr Cotterill said.

"We've got a number of people who are specialists in that field working with people from the meteorology bureau and all the feedback from the fire ground to work out what the fire is likely to do and what strategies need to be implemented over a given period of time.

"What the operations cell does is take that information and actually implement it. They control the resources; they have the firefighters, trucks and aircraft moving to where those strategies need to be put into place.

"Sitting behind everyone is the logistics cell. They work on things like resourcing; getting additional crews and firefighters in, supporting the firefighters who are already on the ground with fuel and food, working with the aviation people to make sure the aviation resources are backed up with fuel. Even down to mobile mechanics to do running repairs on tankers."

Whatever plan was created and implemented would depend on the size and type of the fire, he said.

Some might call for a direct attack, which would see fire crews pouring water onto the flames.

Others might call for an indirect approach.

"An indirect attack might be conducting backburns to remove fuel from the path of an oncoming fire," Mr Cotterill said.

"Sometimes a fire is too remote or too hard to get to. Or if conditions don't facilitate putting firefighters on the ground directly in front of an oncoming fire, they'll fall back to a variety of containment lines and backburn from those containment lines.

"So they'll light the fuel up in a very well thought-out manner to remove the fuel and starve the oncoming fire of fuel."

Containment lines were part of the strategy used to bring the fire at Deans Gap on the South Coast under control.

Mr Cotterill said these lines could be something that was already there, like a main road, a creek or a fire trail. They could also be man-made - scratched out of the dirt by bulldozers and graders or even by firefighters wielding rakes. Often more than one containment line would be identified, in case a fallback position was needed.

Mr Cotterill said he had seen a fire jump the F6 freeway in bad weather conditions. Yet, in less intense conditions a one-metre-wide containment line scratched out with rakes could be quite effective.


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