CASE NOTES


PINERY FIRE – SOUTH AUSTRALIA 2015

LESSONS LEARNED

Nigel Baum, PIRSA Biosecurity SA Animal Health, Clare SA

Posted Flock & Herd March 2016

By the time you smell smoke you have probably got five to ten minutes, tops…waiting for smoke to come over the horizon is just way too late.”

ACRONYMS

PIRSA Primary Industries and Regions South Australia
AASFS Agricultural and Animal Services Functional Service
CFS SA Country Fire Service of South Australia
SAPOL SA Police
AIIMS Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System
BIMS Biosecurity Incident Management System
SEC State Emergency Centre
LCC Local Control Centre
SAVEM South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management
RSPCA Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
PPSA Primary Producers South Australia
EM Emergency Management
IMT Incident Management Team
EOC Emergency Operation Centre
IC Incident Controller
GRN Government Radio Network
FCP Forward Command Post

INTRODUCTION

South Australia can expect serious fires somewhere in the State in six or seven years out of every ten (Luke and McArthur 1978). The recent dry finish to spring over the past few years have produced extended fire seasons with large fires occurring across the state. PIRSA Biosecurity SA Animal Health (PIRSA) is part of the Agricultural and Animal Services Functional Service (AASFS) tasked with relief & recovery in the event of a bushfire in SA where livestock are affected.

PIRSA has specific responsibilities under the State Emergency Management Arrangements as the lead agency for the AASFS. The Country Fire Service (CFS) is the Control Agency for bushfires and SA Police (SAPOL) is the Coordinating Agency. PIRSA, through the AASFS, performs a support role. PIRSA emergency management plans use the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) and Biosecurity Incident Management System (BIMS).

The lessons learned outlined below apply only to PIRSA Animal Health’s response to the immediate event involving livestock in the Pinery fire, not to the recovery operations.

WHAT HAPPENED

The fire began near the Adelaide Plains grain-growing locality of Pinery, 70 kilometres due north of Adelaide's centre, at midday on Wednesday 25 November. With winds reaching 100 km/h, the fire rapidly spread east across stubbles, crop and scrub to Mallala, Wasleys, Roseworthy, Freeling, Tarlee, Hamley Bridge, Daveyston, Greenock and Kapunda at the western edge of the Barossa Valley.  It escalated rapidly into a Level 3 incident (involving > 50 properties or > 5000 head of sheep or > 500 cattle).

Figure 1: Map showing location of Pinery fire ignition point north of Adelaide

It was an extremely fast moving fire. The fire burnt in a south/south easterly direction under very strong winds then moved in a north/north easterly direction under the influence of an afternoon wind change, with the long flank becoming a fire front over 41km wide. The fire reached Kapunda, 58km from Pinery, that afternoon. It burnt unchecked for approximately 6 hours, burning approximately 82,500ha (212,500 ac) that afternoon at an average of around 236 ha (590 ac) a minute across 4 local council areas. Tragically, two lives were lost and 16 people were hospitalized with five suffering critical injuries. Numerous properties were destroyed along with many thousands of livestock as well as significant crop losses. 

Figure 2:  Map showing fire ignition point relative to the population centres of Gawler & Barossa Valley towns
Figure 3: The Pinery fire by numbers part 1 (CFS SA)
Figure 4: Pinery fire edge prediction 90 minutes after fire began (CFS SA)
Figure 5: Pinery fire scar at 10:30 the next morning (CFS SA)

WHAT PIRSA DID

The State Emergency Centre (SEC) was activated on 25 November 2015, PIRSA activated an IMT and established a Local Control Centre (LCC) at the PIRSA office, 33 Flemington St, Glenside. PIRSA field teams were deployed on Thursday 26 November 2015, staging out of a rudimentary FCP at the PIRSA Nuriootpa site in the Barossa Valley.

PIRSA identified 296 registered livestock properties via PIC in the impacted area who were directly or indirectly assessed. All requests for assessment, destruction and disposal were completed on Friday 4th December 2015 and the PIRSA control centre closed on Tuesday 1st December. However, primary producers that required ongoing advice or assistance were able to contact PIRSA and PIRSA field staff remained available to make property visits, if requested. 

Figure 6: The Pinery fire by numbers part 2 (CFS SA). The official pig losses of 500 is greater than the actual losses.

The overall total stock loss figure will have been higher than this, these figures are those that PIRSA has been able to verify.

South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management (SAVEM), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA SA) and Primary Producers SA (PPSA) provided supporting services.  In addition PIRSA collaborated with the University of Adelaide & other private veterinarians to assist with assessment of livestock i.e. field activities.

Estimated total crop losses (grain and hay) are just under $24 million. 

These losses are lower than they could have been as harvesting had already commenced, and in some cases been completed in parts of the impacted area. 

Figure 7: Pinery fire scar overlaid a Google Earth map of the area (CFS SA)
Figure 8: Pinery fire scar overlaid a map of Adelaide to demonstrate extent of the fire (EmergencyAUS)

LESSONS LEARNED

The “lessons learned” presented in this paper are a combination of those identified by PIRSA Emergency Management’s (EM) debriefing process and by the author from personal experience & correspondence with key response participants.

FORMAL FINDINGS

A debriefing process performed by PIRSA’s EM section found that PIRSA responded very well when compared with previous responses.  This debrief determined while there are findings that can improve the management of the next event there were very few areas for improvement.  Many suggestions for improvement were related to decision making and the capability development of the response team.  This area of personal competencies can really only be improved through experience in events such as this. Continual improvement in other areas will rely on reinforcing current concepts at future training and responses and improving current systems. In addition a broad understating across the department was developed around PIRSA’s role and responsibilities in such an event.

LCC RESPONSE MANAGEMENT

The LCC in Adelaide was staffed primarily by Adelaide-based PIRSA personnel.

The management of the response was considered well executed. Recent experience as a team in bushfire response (Sampson Flat, Feb 2015) was valuable. Scaling up early including the appointment of a Deputy IC, a liaison officer in the CFS IMT at Angaston in the Barossa Valley, and a Deputy Ops Manager/Field Team Manager were thought to be major contributors to successful management of the response.

This was the first incident response run from the dedicated Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) room located at PIRSA Biosecurity SA head office. The consensus was that the room worked well but there are issues to address – none more important that the need for quiet rooms to use for communication with field teams and the public.

The Operations section considered their workload was large in comparison to other functions, with tasks assigned to it that could have been handled by other areas.

Scaling up of the capacity to contact producers and enter data needed to take place far earlier. It was a very fast moving fire thus most affected producers were affected in the 1st 6 hours – a lot of people to contact in a short period.

“Peace time” discussions must continue to take place with ancillary agencies regarding roles, expectations, chain of command etc. and how it is all going to work so no toes are trodden on and no miscommunication occurs.

An important finding was the need to bring someone with local knowledge into the Local Control Centre from the area on day 1, this would have saved precious time with some LCC operatives having little knowledge of the area.

Fire scar maps were not available for some time. Admittedly the size and speed of the fire made mapping extremely difficult but the unavailability of maps hampered the response in the early stages.

COMMUNICATION

Communications overall worked well given the situation where some GRN and mobile network towers were fire damaged. The relatively open terrain helped, and often a short drive to a nearby hill permitted clear radio communication. Having mobile phone contact, albeit patchy, was important when sensitive conversations needed to take place with the LCC, and was the only way to contact producers – no landlines, no homes.

The co-location of public information officers in the EOC was beneficial and should be implemented for future events. The use of social media was helpful and should be further explored. This needs to be decided by the IMT on a case by case basis. Increased use of SMS external communications e.g. with producers needs to be examined, this seems an excellent way to disseminate Hotline information.

Internal communications can be improved to avoid frustration of the community who call in requiring information or assistance.  The plan should be modified to prompt the public information officer to ensure all PIRSA offices have situational awareness and are giving a consistent message.

An operational communications officer to support the field team manager would have assisted with managing fatigue in the operations section. The communication load can be very high for the operations section and can become quite fatiguing.

Templates for telephone scripts for those making and receiving calls from affected producers would be helpful to surveillance staff and call centre personnel.

INFORMATION MANAGEMENT

Although the livestock assessment forms were more user friendly compared to those used in the Sampson Flat response, the layout, content and workflow is subject to continuous improvement. This should be integrated with the new emergency management software.

The data input capacity at the LCC was inadequate early in the response until personnel assigned to assist could travel to the LCC.

Accessing timely maps of the fire and prediction maps remains an ongoing issue. Mapping officers were underutilised and are best positioned at the EOC initially in order to analyse how their services can be applied. The use of emergency-specific email addresses and logbooks needs to improve to allow better record keeping & facilitate handovers.

FIELD STAFF

Staff operating out of the Forward Command Post (FCP) at Nuriootpa were drawn from PIRSA’s regional offices at Pt Lincoln, Clare, Nuriootpa, Murray Bridge, Naracoorte and Mt Gambier. Clare & Murray Bridge based staff were required to travel to Nuriootpa each day, others were accommodated nearby. While normally getting to Nuriootpa from Clare takes just over an hour, with road closures and speed reductions due to the fire it took sometimes twice as long to get there. This travel time at each end of a long day on the fire ground added to fatigue levels, and staff need to be accommodated nearby in suitable accommodation.

As noted in the response management section, the dearth of maps early in the response hampered efforts. While PIRSA staff were not yet permitted to enter the affected area the availability of maps earlier would have allowed early identification of affected properties and planning of field activities.

Local knowledge is vital. The presence of two key local field staff saved significant time and confusion on the fire ground. 

Access to the fire ground was problematic early in the response due to road closures. It is understood that SAPOL and the CFS needed to restrict access to some areas by the public, however access could have been granted to PIRSA staff adhering to WH&S guidelines. Local knowledge was useful in situations such as this where a short detour would get you where you needed to go.

Due to the immediacy of the requirements for stock assessment following a bushfire it is better to send too many resources initially, and then scale back down, than to send too few. The alternate argument to that is that there is no point scaling up if you don’t have any decent staff to scale up with. All PIRSA field staff involved come from either a past or current primary production background so their rapport with producers is excellent & empathetic. Consideration should also be given to ensuring there is a competent shooter in each field team.

The inclusion of admin or support staff at the FCP must be looked at. As well as handling the administrative work required with managing an FCP, having someone to deal with the information flow between there and the LCC, and to interrogate the PIC property database and the iMap mapping programme would have increased the efficiency of FCP operations. The transfer of information such as sitreps to field staff was delayed due to the FCP being empty for most of the day.

The importance of a suitable person in the Field Team Manager role was evident. Field staff had complete confidence in the person involved, who at times acted as a circuit breaker between the LCC management & field teams.

The conflict between the LCC’s (& politicians’) thirst for “numbers”, the media’s thirst for everything and the emotional welfare of affected producers must be managed. Field staff must not be asked to set up opportunities for commercial television news crews with producers just managing to keep it together.

Several unauthorised public groups self-activated and entered the fire-affected area without authority. The presence of these groups must be managed.

DISPOSAL

Disposal during bushfires remains an evolving area. Policies & procedures need to be further developed along with finance considerations and information management.

Councils were quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task of burying on farm or carting stock to landfill sites, despite their initial assurances. Their efforts ended up concentrated on clearing fallen trees from roads to allow access through the fire ground. Local private contractors stepped in to assist with burial and cartage. The lack of subsoil rock facilitated digging of pits on-farm in some areas, while off-farm disposal sites may be better located closer to the affected area. This cooperation between PIRSA, local government & private contractors seemed to work well.

SUMMARY OF OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS

The following recommendations arose from the official review:

REFERENCES

  1. Luke RH, McArthur AG. Bushfires in Australia. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1978.
  2. Country Fire Service SA. Pinery – A summary of the major fire of November 2015. CFS SA, Adelaide, 2016.
  3. PIRSA Biosecurity SA. PIRSA Pinery Bushfire Response Report. PIRSA, Adelaide, 2015.
  4.  


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