The Critical Importance of Expertise and Experience in Fire Management
Knowledge and experience in forest fire management is something that takes many years for people to attain. Fire behaviour is complex and the theory needs to be understood but also observed and tested in real burning and fire suppression situations to allow a person to learn and gain confidence.
Carrying out burning under mild conditions with experienced members of a burning crew is an essential prerequisite to understand fire behaviour at the low end of the scale, but also to be aware of the hazards involved and the safety measures that need to be observed.
Similarly, when actually fighting wild fires, people need to be allocated a minor role at first and under the eye of someone with proven ability. It is generally accepted that a person needs to have 15 or more years of practical experience in fire fighting to become a “fire boss’, i.e. the person in charge of the resources and fire-fighters in the field.
Because of the years involved in developing people for the roles they can be called upon to play in either fuel reduction burning or fire suppression, time needs to be set aside for training and the training planned for and recorded so that it is clear before each fire season the level of competencies in fire management each individual has reached. Similarly, as people age they need to be assessed and possibly retired from some roles for their own safety.
The decision to carry out a burn or assume control of a major fire suppression task requires a certain amount of courage. The person needs to decisive but to base decisions on the best information available on weather forecasts, intelligence reports but also on good judgement. The safety of fire fighters under his control is paramount.
Over the years there have been some tragedies in Australia where people with little practical experience in fire management have attempted to carry out a burn or suppress a fire in forest conditions. This has been most unfortunate and has sometimes led the agency involved to abandon fuel reduction burning as a means of reducing fuels and reducing the intensity of bush fires.
In Western Australia three men perished when fighting a fire in heavy fuels near Nannup in the late 1950s. Fire behaviour was much less understood in the ‘50s than it is today but it highlighted the dangers firefighters face when attempting suppression of fires in heavy fuels. Not only are these fires more intense, but also because the heavy fuel magnifies any sudden changes in wind direction.
The former Forests Department of WA led the field in Australia in fire management training and then trusting these people to carry out fuel reduction burns and lead the attack in fire suppression. Prescriptions were prepared for each proposed burn, based on extensive research, and the results from each burn were carefully assessed and mapped.
This is the right approach for an agency involved in forest fire management to take, i.e. do the research, train staff to translate the research results into field practice and then monitor the outcomes, adapting procedures as necessary.