The global coronavirus pandemic has impeded Australia’s preparations for the bushfire season and could undermine response efforts with thousands of volunteers at risk from the virus, authorities have warned.
Bushfire season has already begun in Queensland and a blaze burning along the NSW border has experts concerned about an early start to the season in NSW too.
In ‘worst-case scenarios’, local fire crews will be left to fend for themselves as COVID-19 makes help from interstate impossible.
Chief Superintendent of the NSW Rural Fire Service Ben Millington told The New Daily that states and territories were planning to ensure they could get firefighters on the ground where needed, despite boarder closures and social distancing measures.
“Moving people from different states and territories poses a risk,” he said.
“At a national level, there are discussions about interstate resources. Queensland and Victoria have border closures, but there’s an exemption for emergency service workers.
“In NSW, 6500 firefighters came from interstate or overseas last year.
“And then the movement of firefighters across NSW, from the southern areas all the way to the northern, we’re going to have to monitor to ensure we’re not moving people unnecessarily.”
In the ACT, they’re preparing for a worst-case scenario where they have to go it alone.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements heard last month that the Capital Territory is preparing for the possibility they would not be able to call for help due to quarantine restrictions.
“We are planning for the worst-case scenario,” ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said.
Volunteer firefighters from different states and territories have also raised concerns about being forced to quarantine if they cross borders, which is another option being considered.
“There’s a number of things being discussed, options and considerations,” Chief Superintendent Millington said.
“It could be quarantine, one suggestion has been similar to sporting teams, which have the ‘bubble’ arrangement – where firefighters are put into a motel and segregated.
“They’re given one part of the fire and another state is given the other part. There’s a number of options that are being proposed.”
The Royal Commission also heard fire-fighting-related activities made for “an ideal environment” for the transmission of infectious diseases.
“If we’ve got fires that are being managed, you could take out potentially hundreds of people in the need to isolate those people in case they are infectious,” RFS commissioner Rob Rogers told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
“In the event of a high disease-spread scenario with a high rate of infection, the associated loss of individuals from service will, in a moderate fire season, severely affect the ability to maintain an adequate response,” a document presented to the commission said.
Fire crews across the country have had to be trained in physical distancing, making sure equipment is cleaned and how to operate the trucks efficiently with less crew.
A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services spokesperson (QFES) told The New Daily that frontline firefighters are required to wear additional PPE while also restricting non-essential travel and limiting face-to-face activities.
The QFES will also continue Operation Cool Burn activity in the lead up to bushfire season.
Commissioner Greg Leach said crews were taught social distancing and how to help people suffering from smoke inhalation who were also recovering from COVID-19
“We’ve had to undertake physical distancing requirements as best we can with our crews,” he said.
Chief Superintendent Millington said crews were now trained to take fewer firefighters in trucks, wipe down equipment and not share anything that could help the virus spread.
“We’ve had to adapt, we can still respond to fires, we’re able to respond but maintain that COVID-19 safety,” he said.
Australia’s firefighting crews have found themselves without ‘a rule book’ and wanted the community to know that no matter what, they would always send help, Chief Superintendent Millington said.
“At the end of the day, our focus is the safety of the community. We will turn out a fire truck regardless of the risk.”