From a war room, the Rural Fire Service plans defence of state

A strict chain of command … is how the RFS saves lives and properties.THEIR weapon might be only water, but the Rural Fire Service’s fight against bushfires is a strategic military operation.

There is a strict chain of command, aircraft continually taking detailed aerial maps, weather forecasts, aircraft water-bombing runs, along with a stream of radio updates from volunteers on the front line.

Such co-ordination is how the RFS saves lives and properties.

At RFS headquarters in Lidcombe, in Sydney’s west, Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers oversees a hive of technology providing updates of the 130 fires still raging across NSW.

It’s the war room to monitor and inform the public.

He says, like SAS soldiers, firefighters can be winched into the fire by a helicopter. Mountain-tops are often lit before the racing fire reaches the peak. Sometimes it can be as simple as using a rake to separate the fuel from the fire or fighting fire with fire.

All these techniques are employed when appropriate but the response to the fires this week, which were labelled ”catastrophic” in many areas, was less about strategy and more about defence.

Considering the extreme heat, dry conditions and high winds on Tuesday, the RFS took the extraordinary step of proactively having volunteers ready and waiting in areas in case bushfire broke out, rather than just calling in crews once one had already developed.

”It’s planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Mr Rogers said.

”Firefighters will use water to calm the fire down before it reaches the home. [But] once the fire escalates we look at prioritising fires that are actually going to provide the biggest threat to life and property.”

Sometimes the only method that can be used is to tackle the fire from the air.

Aircraft water-bombing runs become crucial and are often described by RFS officials as of the same strategic importance as bomber planes in war.

All the while, the co-ordination is similar to that of a military operation.

On the ground, every fire is divided into five sectors, and each truck sent to those sectors updates a sector commander who, in turn, informs the divisional commander, who radios the operation centre. This is where all emergency services base themselves in times of crisis.

Each operational centre across the state liaises with the RFS headquarters in Sydney and a complete picture is formed of the overall threats.

RFS volunteers work in 12-hour shifts around the clock, but all that can change considering the potential for a rapid variations of conditions and the haphazard behaviour of fire.

They work on various-sized trucks that can carry up to six volunteers at a time. Alongside them have been professional firefighters from the NSW Fire Brigade, who work rotating 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts, regardless of fire conditions.

But Mr Rogers said on cooler, less dangerous days, fighting fires was a matter of strategy and careful planning.

RFS inspector Alex Chesser said they were pleased with the response and handling of fires this week.

”The RFS at all levels is constantly preparing for a worst-case scenario,” he said. ”That really dictates a lot of the work that we do through community safety, through operations and training of the volunteers and making sure that the equipment is up to scratch.

”Then also, a final push to get the message out into the community that they have to prepare and take responsibility for themselves.”

During the next few days the RFS will start looking at ”campaign fires” – employing a longer-term approach to the burning fires. ”When conditions calm down or during the night, that’s when you employ the back-burning technique,” Mr Rogers said.

But had these techniques been employed this week, firefighters would have faced terrifying consequences.

”It’s pretty awful conditions and some of the worst I can recall in 30 years of doing this stuff,” he said.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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