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Chat: AFAC president, Euan Ferguson.

Monday, October 15, 2007
60 Minutes presents a live interview with President of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council, Euan Ferguson.

Interviewer: Euan, welcome to tonight’s interview.

Euan Ferguson: Thank you very much for the opportunity and I hope that I can help raise people's awareness about bush fires and the risk they oppose. And that managing and dealing with bush fires are a shared responsibility.

Raven asks: Has the increase of bushfires increased in recent years?

Euan Ferguson: It would appear that since 2000 that the length of fire seasons is increasing. So they are starting earlier and ending later. Also there have been a number of very severe fire seasons and fires. For a long term view, more research is required but the indication is that the fire seasons are becoming more severe.

Thomas asks: What is the main cause of bushfires?

Euan Ferguson: The cause varies across the country. Natural fires from lightening strike are still a major cause across Australia. However fires from negligence are a real problem, particularly those with created by power tools. One in particular is angle grinders, where the users create sparks without the appropriate fire fighting equipment. Unfortunately arsonists are also a problem, particularly in and around settled areas.

Andrew asks: Are there certain areas and times that are more prone to bushfires?

Euan Ferguson: It depends on the location within Australia. Each state and territory has its own system to putting fire restrictions in place. Check with your local government, state or territory concerning their rural fire services. Generally speaking, for the northern states the fire restrictions begin around August / September and end around January. And for the Southern states it begins late November/December and ends around late March/April.

Anastasia asks: What are some preparations residents can make prior to the bush fire season?

Euan Ferguson: The first decision to make when a bush fire approaches is, are you going to stay to defend your property, or leave. If you wish to stay, ensure there is a defendable space around the property where flammable fuels, such as branches and leaves are cleared from around the house.

Ensure no over-hanging tree leaves. Long grass should be cut and removed, and any flammable wood piles also removed from around the home.

For fire fighting equipment, if you have an independent water supply, you may consider drawing from it with a petrol driven or hand pump (make sure that you also have the necessary attachments to suit your tank/water source). Ensure you have fire protective clothing, such as gloves, sturdy boots, goggles, face mask or bandana and overalls.

Sprinklers may assist to help disperse the water. And ensure the gutters are cleaned, and fill them with water.

Claude asks: What preparations do local councils make prior to the bush fire season?

Euan Ferguson: It depends on the state, but generally local councils have responsibility to give out fire bush hazard booklets. As well setting limits on burning during the fire restriction period.

They should plan fire breaks and water supplies are within council areas. Local governments often provide inspectors who investigate complaints from the locals if fire restrictions are not abided by. Councils should also get involved in community education and awareness programs.

Claire asks: What actions should be taken if there is a threat of bush fire in my area?

Euan Ferguson: As a fire approaches, one needs to dress in appropriate protective clothing (natural fibre clothes, which cover all of the body). Ensure that your fire fighting equipment can be started, and make sure you have wetted down the area around the house (for example, wet towels at the bottom of doors).

Make sure that all flammable items are taken inside, like furniture. Close curtains, drink lots of water and make sure the people in your house hold are similarly prepared.

Perhaps even contact your neighbors to make sure they know there is a bush fire threat. Listen to the local radio station, such as the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) for warnings.

Ensure you have a battery powered radio and spare batteries in case the electricity is cut during the fire.

Nathan asks: Euan what are some safety tips you could share with us to help prepare for our up coming summer?

Euan Ferguson: First thing is to be prepared and have a fire action plan. Plan whether you are going to stay to defend your home or whether you are going to flee early. If you plan on leaving early, ensure you have identified where you are going, and a number of routes to get there.

Pack a small number of possessions so you can up and go in a hurry. If there is smoke in the area, the decision to go may be too late. In most cases it is much better to defend the home at that point. Last minute evacuation by car is very dangerous, cars provide very little protection in the event of a fire. Radiant heat is the killer, so by sheltering inside and wearing protective clothing, you will be better protected against radiant heat.

Once the main fire has passed through there may be a number of spot fires left over. When safe after the fire has passed you should emerge from your home and put out these fires with water.

Many people have been able to save their homes and their neighbours' homes by doing this. Remember to check gutters and under eaves.

ariele asks: What is the difference between the mega fires we have seen in California and "normal" bushfires?

Euan Ferguson: There is still more research required to properly define what a mega fire is and what the causes are. However it is clear that the increase in the number of large fires in many parts of the world is linked to an accumulation of fuels, particularly on public land such as national parks, and also privately owned land. It should also be noted that they are also linked with an increase in number of droughts and the increase in temperature.

alexia asks: What lessons can be learned from the recent fires in California, if any, or is it too soon?

Euan Ferguson: There are some very strong lessons. The first is that if you build flammable houses in bush fire prone areas, then it is likely they will be consumed by fire.

So you need to plan your house and ensure that it is designed to withstand fire and that you continually maintain the environment and have cleared any flammable materials in the area.

In Australia we try to educate people concerning bush fires, giving them information on bush fires so they are able to protect their own property or leave early. It is proven that with able bodies, individuals that stay to protect them home have often been successful.

The difference is that in California the residences were all encouraged to evacuate. There will always be limits to our capability to suppress these fires, we will never have enough helicopters or water trucks. But again, a well prepared home with able bodied people to defend has proven to be very successful.

fakey asks: I have such admiration for the volunteers who give of their time to the rural fire brigade. What can we do to support their efforts?

Euan Ferguson: If you are interested in supporting them, then contact them and volunteer. These agencies don't just have fire fighters, they have support services, drivers, people who provide logistics and communications.

So there are many roles. Another way to support them is to be prepared for bush fires and be aware that if you live in a fire prone area that you also have a responsibility.

We have seen many well prepared people assist our volunteers by protecting their own properties and allowing the fire fighters to fight the main fire. It should be noted that there are tens of thousands of volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, and we hold them in the highest regard.

They are truly professionals who give their time selflessly for the community. We all stand in awe of their achievements and they deserve all the thanks and recognition.

alexia asks: How important is it to have clean gutters in the lead up to summer? I have heard that leaves in gutters can be a hazard if there is a fire near.

Euan Ferguson: It is very important. Leaves in the gutter will obviously be dry and if a burning ember lands on those leaves, it will catch on fire and most likely result in the fire being transmitted into the ceiling space of the dwelling.

If you keep your gutters clear (ensure you check your gutters every two weeks over Summer) then it minimises the chance of the fire getting into the house. Keeping the gutters clear, and when a fire comes into area, blocking them off and filling them with water is the most effective solution to reduce that hazard.

vix asks: Do I need to have buckets of water or hoses on hand in case fires come near my home?

Euan Ferguson: Yes, one should have buckets that you can fill with water. If you have a hose, ensure it is connected to working taps and can reach around your home. If you have your own water supply, it may be worthwhile purchasing a petrol pump and fittings to be able to draw from that source.

jacko asks: How much water do you usually go through when fighting a fire?

Euan Ferguson: It depends on the size and intensity of the fire, as well as fire fighting tactics. One tactic is dry fire fighting, which doesn’t use water. It relies on hand tools (rakes, spades etc) to be able to create natural fire breaks. We can also use machinery to cut fire breaks, and often use fire to back burn in front of a bush fire. So there are some fire fighting techniques that use very little water, but we would usually use water in grass areas if there is access.

We also use water with a number of additives, from aeroplanes and helicopters to help fight the fire.

hams asks: If I see fire near my home, how important is it to wait for instructions from fire-fighters?

Euan Ferguson: If you see fire near your home, and you’re not aware that it is being attended to, ring 000 and report it. They will be able to arrange a response to that fire if its not already being fought. Once you've called 000, start to activate your bush fire action plan. If you've chosen to go early, then leave immediately.

If you've chosen to stay and defend, follow your plan, dress in the appropriate clothing, drink lots of water, prepare your house, make sure your fire fighting equipment is ready and prepare to extinguish spot fires or the main fire as it approaches. And most importantly, listen to local radio for updates on the fire.

hams asks: How do I know if it is safe to remain with my home in the event of fire being near? Must I leave if I am told to?

Euan Ferguson: If you're uncertain, you should be seeking advice from your local fire authority or council. They can provide you with expert advice as to whether your house has been prepared or not.

However if you have reduced the flammable fuels and removed them to a distance of min 20 metres and you have prepared your home following the advice of fire services around Australia, then your house is more than likely able to handle a bush fire.

Regarding evacuation, different states have different legislation about who can and can't evacuate. Generally though, across Australia all the fire and emergency services agencies have adopted the "stay or go" principal. That is if you are prepared to stay and defend, then that's the best thing to do then you will not be evacuated.

If you aren't comfortable, then leave if safe. If you are returning to a bush fire area, you may not be able to pass through any road blocks until risks have diminished, and that is because it is very dangerous to travel on roads during a bush fire.

ppsnake asks: What sort of equipment do you use to fight bushfires? What sort of equipment should I keep at home in case of fires?

Euan Ferguson: You should have personal protective clothing. Clothes with natural cotton, gloves and boots. Torches, battery powered radio, spare batteries, drinking water and goggles and face mask. Ensure you have receptacles to carry water and consider investing in knapsack to spray water.

Make sure that you have things like shovels or rakes to use to tidy the area around your house and rake away burning emblems, and perhaps wet towels to put under doors or wet down areas. If you have a petrol powered water pump, make sure you have the right connections to your water supply.

schools asks: Often roads get blocked because of bushfires in my area, and I have found myself caught in the car for long periods of time while fires are cleared before roads are reopened. What should I always have in my car with me in the event of hold ups? I am sure water is the obvious thing, but is there anything else?

Euan Ferguson: Cars are very dangerous places to be during a bush fire. At all times, try to avoid being caught in a vehicle in the open, during a bush fire. However if you are in one, you should have a number of woollen blankets, drinking water, a first aid kit and be prepared to very quickly put in your car any valuables.

The main thing is to ensure you are able to move away very quickly, and the woollen blanket is very important to shield yourself from any radiant heat. Try and move to an area with low fuel, such as on the road.

Turn on your head/hazard lights and park off the road in a low fuel area. If there is heavy smoke, don't drive through it as there have been many examples of people who have collided with fire fighting vehicles or have injured themselves seriously.

Frederick asks: What sort of summer are we in for based on weather predictions? Do you anticipate there will be a lot of bushfires this year?

Euan Ferguson: We can get a severe bush fire in any year, it doesn't need to be an extreme year for this to occur since they are often started with lightening. However the prediction is normal to above normal fire potential.

In areas with above normal is eastern QLD, northern and far western NSW, large sections of WA (south west), central NT, south eastern TAS and most of VIC and most of SA.

smokey193 asks: Euan - when is there going to be a national policy on Stay & Defend or Leave Early - e.g. NSW still has the power to forcibly evacuate like in the US?

Euan Ferguson: There is a national policy that has been adopted by every state and territory and very policy agency across Australia also adopted it. There are some jurisdictions where police have the power to evacuate, and we need to remember that that power is to deal with other emergency other than bush fires.

Peter asks: Euan where can I go to get information related to my area in regards to BushFire safety?

Euan Ferguson: First place to go is to your local council. Or to enquiry with your local fire service or emergency service authority. A good place to look is on the website, such as www.afac.com.au .

It links to alot of information regarding bush fires, including plans. So go to your local shire, local fire services or emergency services to learn more about how to best to educate yourself on BushFire safety.

Interviewer: Euan, thank you for joining us tonight, do you have any last comments you would like to share with our chat guests?

Euan Ferguson: Thank you all of those who have participated in the chat tonight and reinforce that protection from bush fire is everybody's responsibility and that there is a real partnership that needs to be made between individuals, community, fire fighting agencies and governments.

And that working together we can learn to live with bush fires and be more resilient to bush fires. There is no doubt that the risk is changing and we will continue to encourage more research to better inform and protect the community, and I thank them very much.

This concludes our chat with Euan Ferguson, Sunday October 28, 2007.

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