Bushfires are endemic on this continent due to the interaction of our hot climate with extremely combustible native vegetation. Australia's highly variable and seasonal rainfall also contributes.
The periodic experience of severe bushfire nearly always involves the same story. Homes and farms near the bush are most at risk. In dry years fires usually originate on publicly-owned land. They spread because of a failure to undertake sufficient prescribed burning, with inadequate fire breaks and fire trails also being contributing factors. According to the experts fuel load reduction needs to be done every five to seven years. In bad years fuel loads can reach 35 to 50 tonnes per hectare.
Recent bushfires in Eastern Australia were widely and accurately predicted. Again nearly all originated in public land (especially national parks), where little or no hazard reduction had taken place. A hot dry spell determined the timing, and individual fires were mainly started by lightning strikes or arson.
This summer there were never going to be major bushfires in grazing districts beyond the Divide (except maybe in the far south). This is because (with the drought) there is little grass to catch fire, and farming culture emphasises prevention and preparedness. In many rural areas ploughing firebreaks on windward boundaries is mandatory. On the other hand, the bush areas inland from the coast and extending across the highlands of the Divide are government "managed", and had been ripe to burn (along with adjacent farmlands and settlements). They did just that.
The messages from official inquiries into earlier bushfires had all been crystal clear and unanimous about what needed to be done:
- According to a 1982 parliamentary brief, there is only one factor causing bushfires that can be modified by land managers to reduce fire risk. This involves using low intensity burns to reduce fuel loads.
- Prescribed burning is easier said than done, and conditions need to be right. A big issue is that authorities are readily blamed if anything goes wrong or if urban areas are impacted by smoke. On the other hand they receive little public credit for fires prevented.
- Doubling the fuel in the forest doubles the rate of spread and quadruples the fire intensity. Low intensity fires will burn small dead fuels on the floor, while medium to high intensity fires will burn young trees, thick twigs and branches, bark and deep litter. Hot fires result in a lot of mortality in mature trees.
- The 2009 Victorian (Black Saturday) Bushfires Royal Commission highlighted the failings of the past, calling on future governments and forest managers to raise the bar and burn at least 390,000ha of public land each year. That target was forgotten in the midst of opposition to burning and green tape. Forest Fire Management Victoria only managed to treat 74,825ha in 2017-18, resulting in warnings from volunteer fighters over the past year that fuel loads were again approaching Black Saturday levels.
- The Black Saturday bushfires destroyed 43 per cent of Leadbeater's possums' habitat in Victoria's Central Highlands, reducing the wild population to 1,500. Protecting this species was the stated reason for locking up forest areas near Marysville.
- The Commonwealth inquiry into the 1983 bushfiresrecommended that "the Commonwealth ensure that states and territories have adequate controls to ensure that that local governments implement required fuel management standards on private property and land under their control, and implement to a minimum national standard adequate access to all public lands including wilderness areas of national parks".
- In the wake of the Canberra bushfires in 2003, Phil Cheney from the CSIRO's Bushfire Management Unit stated that prescribed burning using aerial ignition in the forest areas around the ACT was carried out for about a decade from the mid 1960s. It was stopped due to public pressure related to the ecology, even though ACT Forests had argued very strongly for continuing. The decision to reduce burning to almost nothing contributed to the severity of destruction in the ACT in 2003. Inadequate fire trails resulted in the initial fire not being attacked for days.
Not only did governments ignore the findings of past inquiries. The public in general became subject to an emerging green culture concerning land usage and management. This was reflected in popular songs such as "Home Amongst the Gum Trees" and "Rip Rip Wood Chip". A city-originated green culture became evident from about the 1970s and Labor administrations (especially in the States) became its political embodiment, though "moderate" Coalition administrations have also collaborated.
Labor Governments in NSW (especially under Bob Carr from the 1990s) provide a good example of what happened. Labor created large numbers of additional national parks (often with the clear intention of preventing logging) but little money was available to manage them. The Carr government declared about 100 new national parks near the coast south of Nowra. This included the South East Forest National Park (from Batemans Bay to the Victorian border). Most of these parks are currently on fire.
The State of the Parks 2004 report said that, in more than 90 per cent of national parks, attempts to manage weeds and pest animals were non-existent, non-effective, or producing only a slow change. It also noted that many of the animal and plant pests, like the fires, leave the parks and create major problems for neighbours. There are now over 870 parks and reserves in NSW, covering over 7 million hectares.
The Carr Government also implemented SEPP-46, a regulation that largely banned the clearing of native vegetation on farmland (later consolidated via the NSW Native Vegetation Act in 1997). At local government level, councils also made it increasingly difficult for occupiers to remove problem trees and areas of bush close to urban areas.
The 1997 Sydney bushfires provided mixed outcomes for fire prevention. While the fires led to much improved funding for volunteer brigades (including major equipment upgrades) it also led to a reorganisation of bush fire-fighting organisations, with professional fire chiefs from city fire services taking over control. This led to tensions between professional firemen and volunteers from the state's Rural Fire Service (who dominate frontline bush fire fighting). The Andrews Government in Victoria also had to deal with similar tensions.
Owing to the intermittency of bush fires, a volunteer service makes sense, but this represents an economic threat to unionised full-timers. The change in governance also led to the emergence of the regular mega press conferences. These have become PR sessions fronted by ministers and fire chiefs, flanked by an entourage of hangers-on accompanied by the seemingly-mandatory sign-language interpreter. In Victoria, turf wars between professional and volunteer fire-fighters hit a new low in 2016 with fears that Labor's push to have more career fire fighters would undermine the work of volunteers and lead to an exodus.
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