Behind the doors at Incident Management Team at Lower Hunter Fire Control headquarters

With the flick of a match on a hot day this East Maitland office transforms into the epicentre of fire control across the Hunter. 

The Lower Hunter Fire Control Centre suddenly became home to an Incident Management Team last week when the several major fires that engulfed the region were upgraded to a Section 44

The severity of the blazes, which broke out on Tuesday and spread rapidly on Wednesday, resulted in the Section 44, which allows firefighters to draw resources from all other areas in the state. In other words, it was all hands on deck to the East Maitland headquarters.

And on Thursday, with the operation in full swing, they invited Fairfax Media in to see the coordinated response.

The scene at fire control HQ 

Up to 30 people were on hand at the Lower Hunter headquarters at one time to take care of every part of the fire situation outside of the actual spraying of hoses and driving of trucks.

Their job was to ensure the 200 firefighters on the ground had nothing to focus on except fighting the blaze in front of them.

In one room the communications team was re-allocating trucks and crews to different fires and updating the Fires Near Me app.

In another area, the logistics team organised bulldozers, helicopters and food for firefighters on the ground.

In the middle of the room, people were creating maps outlining each individual fire and tactics to use.

In a separate office the incident management team was overseeing the entire operation.

Their team also included a safety adviser, public liaison officers, an analysis team and a fire investigator.

On top of all of that, police, Roads and Maritime Services, ambulance officers and alike were on deck at various times coordinating with the team.

“It’s not just firetrucks,” says media spokesperson Stuart O’Keefe, who was brought up from the Central Coast for the operation.

“Any activity is managed out of here. Everything needs to work together.

“Days like yesterday (Wednesday), when the fire activity is intense and large scale, it obviously needs the support of multiple firefighters, multiple brigades and multiple agencies.”

An Incident Management Team is only called on in times of major emergency.

Infernos that tore through Kurri Kurri in February required the assistance of a similar team, but only the most severe incidents do.

“There’s fires and then there’s fires,” Mr O’Keefe said.

The technology

The modern facility at East Maitland provides the team with the best technology to control the operation.

At the front of the room were several touch-screen monitors, each detailing different information that was critical to firefighters’ response.

An interactive map outlined the current situation – where the fires were and where containment lines had been set up.

When Fairfax Media visited, a visible back-burn was in effect on the edge of the fire.

“We try to keep the control lines as tight as possible,” Mr O’Keefe said.

There were also backups in place in case the fire overpowered containment lines, which was the case on Wednesday when a fire jumped Leggetts Drive.

“There’s lots of planning.”

This data was uploaded to the screens with the use of an aircraft that snapped infrared photos showing the hottest spots.

On Wednesday, the aircraft provided three updates throughout the day, which were uploaded within five to 10 minutes and on-screen within half an hour.

The maps were used to make short, medium and long term decisions, which ranged from what should be done in the next hour to four days away.

Another screen showed a dryness map, with much of the state coloured black. 

“It doesn’t get any higher than that.”

The conditions

Wind speed and temperature were also detailed on other screens, which are two of three main factors the contribute to high fire danger.

The thresholds include temperatures above 25 degrees, winds above 25 km/h and humidity below 25 per cent, all of which occurred on Wednesday.

“These are the conditions where we are going to experience high intensity fires,” he said.

“If we get an ignition on a hot, windy day we are going to experience fires that are difficult to control.”

Mr O’Keefe also used the maps to point out how hazard reduction burns were executed.

Pointing to a specific area, he said a hazard reduction of 100 hectares, which was a smidgen of the size of Wednesday’s blaze, could protect 500 houses if it was done in the right area.

“Hazard reductions need to be very strategically placed,” he said.

And the conditions need to be the opposite of those that lead to high fire danger.

“The prescription is less than 25 degrees, winds less than 25km/h and humidity greater than 25 per cent.”

In comparison, a hazard reduction operation burns up to one metre high, whereas Wednesday’s blaze was burning up to 20 metres high in some areas.

More to come

Although Wednesday’s fire was one of the worst to hit the Hunter in a while, the conditions point towards further serious incidents later this season.

“The writing is on the wall,” Mr O’Keefe said. “The conditions are going to lead into a difficult fire season.”

Mr O’Keefe urged everyone to be prepared for fires and have a plan, no matter where they lived.

“You don’t know where the ignition is going to start.”