By ERWIN CHLANDA
There has been a massive increase in the number of volunteer bushfire fighters in Alice Springs.
“Vollies” captain Shawn O’Toole says until earlier this year there were about five or six volunteers. Now there are about 40, taking part in training.
Meanwhile warmer weather and winds are creating dangerous fire conditions although Grant Allan, of Bushfires NT, says close to three quarters of the town’s periphery are secure now because recent blazes have already consumed the extraordinarily high fuel load there.
And the Department of Lands and Planning says it will not prosecute for a loading infringement of a truck driver taking a grader to a blaze north of town to stop a fire advancing towards buildings in a quarry.
“As a general rule, vehicles responding to an emergency such as a fire would not be required to stop at the weighbridge and this was the case on the day in question,” says the department.
“In relation to this truck, the inspector was not advised it was on its way to a fire break until after inspection, weighing and completion of the breach documentation had occurred.”
The department has not yet responded to questions from Alice Springs News Online about any liability the government may have for fires starting along roads it has responsibility for, and that may enter pastoral land, causing losses of fodder, man-hours fighting the fires and expenses for the use of graders and possible damage to them.
Members of the Hayes pastoral family say of the multitude of fires they had to fight this year, all but one had come from public roads.
(Under the Bushfires Act the owners of land have responsibilities with respect to fire on it.)
A spokeswoman says the NT Government is in charge of the Stuart Highway, as well as major arterial roads. Minor roads are the responsibility of the shires.
Mr Allan says Bushfires NT is planning “to do as much as we can” by burning fire breaks along some roads. This has started at Barrow Creek, moving south towards Alice Springs.
The Stuart Highway south of the town is mostly safe now because the recent fires there. Seven kilometers are left before the break reaches the Waterhouse Range.
Mr Allan says it cannot be estimated how much of this fire prevention can be carried out with limited personnel over “thousands of kilometers of roads” especially as crews are constantly diverted to fresh outbreaks.
The Hayeses, who have cattle stations east and south of Alice Springs, say it used to be customary for the government to grade breaks along public roads, about 40 to 50 metres from the roads, so fires were less likely to jump into cattle station country.
They say this practice was discontinued more than a decade or so ago.
The local Bushfires NT contingent, looking after all of the Northern Territory south of Tennant Creek, now has, as full time employees, Mr Allan, who is a scientist and also does some mitigation burning; the senior regional fire control officer and an administrative officer, who usually do not take part in fire fighting; plus three “primary response people”. They have a grader, three tankers and three operational vehicles permanently based here, and three on loan from Darwin.
Mr O’Toole says the new “vollies” are coming from all walks of life, government employees as well people in private enterprise. There are about 10 women and 30 men, only some with previous experience.
They took part in a two-day course on the weekend, learning about basic fire awareness, gauging the temperature of fires, safety on the “fire ground” and how to use pumps, hoses and “branches” – nozzles, to the layman. How to draught water from a pond or pool, and the use of ladders, ropes and tying knots are all part of the training.
Mr O’Toole says it costs about $1500 to kit out one person and at present there is enough gear for 16 “vollies”. The water tankers require a crew of three and the operational vehicles, two.
Pictured getting the low-down from Shawn O’Toole (second from left) on the pump mounted on an “operational vehicle” are “vollies” (from left) Diane Chanut, Wayne Phillips, Alan Leahy, Katherine Hastie and Nikolas Sestokas.