With all the wildfire news emanating from Australia this week, it’s easy to view the events through the perspective of area burned, structures lost, fuel loading, states of emergency, and evacuation protocols. The Thursday funeral for New South Wales Volunteer Firefighter Geoffrey Keaton places these wildfires in a deeper context. The 32 year old began his volunteer work with the fire service as a young boy. On Thursday, his posthumous Commendation for Bravery and Service medal was pinned on his toddler son.
Keaton and fellow volunteer firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer, died while fighting the Green Wattle Creek blaze in south-west Sydney, when their vehicle rolled missing a falling tree, on December 19. A funeral for O’Dwyer is scheduled for next week. (Update: O’Dwyer’s funeral was held on January 7th, with his young daughter receiving his service medal and helmet. The Sydney Morning Herald also shared photos from the ceremony.)
I have often felt that society as a whole over-relies on the fire service, volunteer and career, to suppress our way to the wildfire solution. I explored that reality in the May 2017 NFPA Journal Wildfire column and the expectations placed on volunteer departments to carry the burden of this communal challenge. The deaths of these volunteers in Australia once again remind us that a solution covering the entire ecosystem of agencies, services, trades, and the public is needed to truly address the current and future global wildfire risk.
Australia has been battered by wildfires over the past two months and conditions are not improving. As of January 2, approximately 5.9 million hectares (22,780 square miles) have burned across mainly eastern and southern Australia. About 100 wildfires are burning in New South Wales and another 30 in Victoria. Temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit and strong winds are driving the flames, with the heatwave expected to continue over this coming weekend. The civilian death toll is at 18, with eight killed on New Year’s Eve, as wildfires have consumed over 1,300 homes.
Wildfire in Australia is not new, but this summer season for them has been extreme. A current heatwave that began in mid-December remains and lead to the highest recorded temperature on record at 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat comes on the heels of Australia’s driest spring season on record and a persistent deficit of rain in New South Wales and Queensland since early 2017. In November, New South Wales issues a first ever, “Catastrophic” fire danger rating. “A changing climate has meant an increase in temperatures in the Indian and Southern Oceans, which in turn has meant drier and hotter weather across Australia this summer”, as explained in a recent news article.
To follow the ongoing fires - especially the current evacuations from southeast coastal communities - the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has a live blog that also provides a daily concise synopsis of events.
For further information, NFPA shared additional Australia media links to follow and the feeds and daily video briefings from the various state fire agencies in November.
Our thoughts remain with those who have lost loved ones and to all those working the fire lines to protect communities across Australia.
Photo Credit: New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Pulled 2 January 2019 from BBC News: Australia fires: Son of firefighter Geoffrey Keaton awarded medal at funeral.