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As bushfires worsen and towns dry up, fighting fires is becoming almost impossible

By national regional and rural reporters Caitlyn Gribbin and Jess Davis, Wednesday September 11, 2019 - 13:24 EST
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Drought-stricken parts of the country are grappling with the problem of how to fight fires without water. - ABC

Fighting bushfires is only going to get more difficult for country towns close to running out of water.

Some of the worst drought-affected areas have been sacrificing the little water they have to fight blazes and are employing dry firefighting strategies because water sources are so scarce.

That has made fighting sometimes uncontrollable blazes these past few days extremely difficult and the precious water that remains has been sucked out to fight this fire.

"Nearly every dam is bone dry," said Queensland's Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Tracy Dobie.

"There's no water in any creeks."

The towns of Stanthorpe and Warwick are in severe drought, with .

"There was three to four months water left in Stanthorpe's Storm King Dam (which supplies urban water) but I'm not concerned about using it, because the number one priority here has been to fight the fire," Cr Dobie said.

She said water may need to be trucked into Stanthorpe if dam levels are lowered significantly after the firefighting efforts.

Dry firefighting a possible solution

Because there is not enough water to extinguish the fires, crews around Stanthorpe and other drought-affected councils in the Tenterfield and Armidale regions have been forced to find solutions.

"We are moving into unprecedented conditions here, with very few sources available for firefighting," Armidale Regional Council Mayor Simon Murray said.

"The crews have been using dry firefighting techniques to provide a barrier so there is no organic material to burn."

Dry firefighting means using hand tools like rakes and hoes, putting in containment lines and using fire retardant.

Cr Dobie said the practice was essential in lieu of water.

"They've used excavators and bulldozers to clear a 20-metre wide containment line around the west of ," Cr Dobie said.

"It also means there's now a permanent firebreak around the western side of the area, so that's great forward thinking to use mechanical devices because it saves water; it's thinking short and long term."

It is likely to be a crucial firefighting strategy in the coming months, in what is tipped to be a long fire season, with more than 97 per cent of New South Wales and 65 per cent of Queensland in drought.

The New South Wales Fire Service has already urged its members to consider using dry firefighting techniques when working in areas experiencing drought.

Water bombing planes dropping fire retardants are also being used in , which mayor Peter Petty said was effective in "putting out fires in a large area".

He said recycled water was also being put to use.

"We offered to the firefighters all through this fire the water from our sewerage treatment plant [and] the crews have used a substantial amount of that," Cr Petty said.

"It has been a relief and it means everything not to use town water; we can't afford to be using it."

'Nightmare scenario'

Fire ecologist David Bowman said what was happening in Queensland and NSW was "a nightmare scenario for firefighting" and that dry firefighting could only go so far.

"[Fires] can't be defeated using the sort of technologies that you would normally fight fires with, because you've got such incredible extreme fuel dryness," he said.

"There's not some technology that you just spin up and you can go and put the fire out.

"Fires like this are hugely complicated things to fight and very difficult to the people involved in fighting them."

Aerial firefighting is increasingly relied upon by firefighters, but Professor Bowman said that was incredibly expensive and not sustainable.

He said the current bushfire situation was a wake-up call and now was the right time to start talking about a mind-shift in how we think about landscapes and fire.

"I think that we're now at a really interesting transition, where we're no longer talking about what could be, we're talking about what is," he said.

'Retrofitting' the landscape

Professor Bowman said where people lived and how houses were built needed to change because it was no longer safe to live in fire-prone landscapes.

"We have to get the community and all levels of government on board for basically, a gigantic landscape retrofit to get safe," he said.

"The landscapes we're in, with climate change are becoming increasingly dangerous."

He said it was extremely irresponsible to deny these events were not related to climate change.

"Highly experienced firefighters are seeing fire behaviours completely outside their worst imaginings and this is not just an Australian problem," he said.

"We're seeing this all around the world, these new five behaviours.

"This is an expression of climate change [and] we've got to understand what's happening."


© ABC 2019

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