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Bushfire management: where to from here

By Roger Underwood - posted Friday, 13 February 2009


Now is not the best time to be talking about what went wrong. Detailed analyses will be made, the relative contribution of different factors will be weighed and conclusions will be drawn. Some of these will be based on science, measurement and fact; others will be coloured by politics and ideology. There will be a lot to wade through, and many conflicting assertions.

I take a fairly simple view. Hot summer weather, dry winds, drought and flammable vegetation are all part of the Australian environment. So are lightning strikes and (cruelly) arsonists. Living in Australia, especially living in the bush, therefore represents an inherent challenge: unless we effectively protect our lives and our human values from bushfire damage, ultimately we will suffer. European settlement in Australia represents the insertion of a fire-vulnerable society into a fire-prone environment. Unless we act before a fire arrives so as to minimise its impacts, there is no question that we will burn. The focus for human society must therefore be on response and positive action, not despair or fear.

The foremost requirement to enable the development of an effective bushfire response for a region like Victoria or south-western Western Australia concerns two sets of people. First, governments. We expect them to design an overarching policy, ensure (and if necessary enforce) the adoption of sensible and practical damage mitigation strategies, and provide the means to implement them. In short we need governments to provide strong leadership and professional governance.

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The second requirement is for the owner-occupiers of land to realise that they own the fuel and thus the fire that burns that fuel. Their primary responsibility is to ensure their own, and their neighbours’ bushfire safety. To sit back, do nothing and rely on the men and women in the yellow overalls to turn up in their tanker, is little more than civic irresponsibility.

Australian governments have failed to provide either leadership or good governance over fire management in recent times. This failure is at first glance perplexing when you consider the horror of fire, but is readily explained by the Australian political system. Voting is dominated by our large inner-urban population who are mostly not threatened by fire, nor do they have to fight them; and governments can be held to ransom by pressure groups who control a voting block. If a powerful pressure group takes a position, for example, opposing effective fire management in national parks, Australian governments listen and obey. I can foresee no advances in Australian bushfire management in the future unless we get back to a system where governments act as leaders, rather than followers.

A second issue is that people who live in the bush (and here I am targeting the so-called “tree-changers” who have moved into rural areas from the city), must learn more about bushfire behaviour, bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation. For example there is a basic law of bushfire physics understood by almost no one outside the fire community: a four-fold increase in fire intensity occurs with every doubling in the tonnage of fuel on the ground. If you are living adjacent to a national park which has not been burnt for 20 years and is carrying 30 tonnes of leaf litter, twigs, dry trash and tree bark, then you need to know that if a fire gets into this stuff the fire brigade will most likely be unable to put it out. Furthermore, the fire will throw spot fires miles downwind, and if these land in long unburnt fuel the result with be a coalescence of small fires into a massive fire, totally destructive and utterly unstoppable.

There are three simple messages my colleagues and I try to get across in public seminars:

  1. Once a bushfire “crowns”, that is, starts to burn through the tree canopy rather than along the ground, no force of firefighters on earth will stop it. Crown fires in eucalypt forests have a speed and intensity that overwhelms human effort.
     
  2. There is only one way known to science and experience to stop a crown fire: this is to run it, or allow it to run into an area where the fuel has been reduced by prescribed burning. Decades of experience shows that when a crown fire hits an area that has been recently burned, even by a mild controlled fire, the wildfire drops to the ground, giving firefighters a chance.
     
  3. Our bushfire management system therefore must focus equally on preparedness, damage mitigation and fire fighting. To focus only on the third element is a recipe for disaster … tragic experience has demonstrated over and again that it is futile to try to fight bushfires in heavy fuels under hot dry conditions. Preparedness and damage mitigation are the two forgotten elements of bushfire management in Australia.

Looking ahead to the coming months we can envisage the long-drawn-out inquiries, recriminations, commissions and reviews. In the short-term I expect there will be the usual covering of backsides, back-pedalling, looking for scapegoats, and attempts to blame it all on global warming and arson. Some of our prized academics will emerge briefly from their leafy campuses with their inhumane message “not to fight fire with fire” while offering no practical alternative. We will have to live through this.

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In the longer term I would hope for an honest admission that large, horrible bushfires are a consequence of failed policies, failed leadership and failed administration (at all levels), plus the fact that Australians still do not realise that the Australian bush is designed to burn. I have seen enough of politicians, academics and government agencies in my time to doubt any real admissions of failure will be made.

To me, the most fundamental question is not whether we will have bushfires in the future. Of course we will. This is Australia, not the soft green hills of England. The real question is what sort of fires will we have.

Needless to say, I can see no single redeeming feature of a massive, high intensity landscape level fire. Instead I favour periodic managed fires lit under mild conditions, aimed at keeping fuels down, and producing an ecological mosaic of different fire intensities and frequencies. This is the only, and I repeat only, landscape-level option, if we are not to continue down the path of huge killer fires devastating our society and forests every few years.

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About the Author

Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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