2020 Royal Commission Submission

Submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements from The Bushfire Front of Western Australia

March 2020

1. First principles

1.1. Prevention of large, high-intensity bushfires is the fundamental requirement for land and community management in bushfire-prone regions of Australia. Unless this is done, no other objective can be achieved.

1.2. Landscape-level prescribed burning to manage fuel build-up is the cornerstone to preventing the damage resulting from large, high-intensity bushfires, and is the key element in an effective bushfire management system.

2. Introduction

2.1. This submission is made by the Bushfire Front Inc of Western Australia. Membership of the executive committee is shown in Appendix 1. We are a voluntary, independent organisation with expertise and experience in bushfire science, administration, research, operations, ecology, history and politics. We have accumulatively several hundred years practical experience, first-hand expertise in the design, application and testing of bushfire management systems, in carrying out fuel reduction burns and firefighting, and with international and national bushfire issues.

2.2. The emphasis in this submission is on the matters that will have the most significant impact on the prevention of damaging bushfires in Australia in the future. The submission covers:

  • Recommendations
  • The basic principles applying to bushfires in Australia
  • Bushfires and climate change
  • Bushfires and fuel loads
  • The causes of the current bushfire crisis in AustraliaOur analysis of the 2019/20 bushfires
  • A blueprint for effective bushfire management in Australia
  • The role of the Commonwealth government
  • A case study: the Western Australian experience
  • The water bombing issue
  • Conclusions

2.3. We urge the Royal Commission to study the findings and recommendations of recent bushfire inquiries in Australia, in particular the House of Representatives Inquiry into the 2003 fires, the Senate Inquiry into the 2006 fires and the 2009 Victorian Royal Commission. All of the outcomes from these inquiries are relevant today, but specifically we refer you to 2009 Royal Commission recommendations 56, 57, 58 and 59.

2.4. The 2020 Royal Commission is of critical importance to the future of Australian society and the Australian environment. However, it will be a waste of time, energy and money, and a certainty that the 2019/20 bushfire disasters will be repeated, if the findings are ignored by the States and Territories, as has happened in the past. The foremost priority for this Commission will be to find mechanisms for ensuring that sound recommendations for land and bushfire management are adopted and implemented by State jurisdictions.

3. Recommendations

The Bushfire Front recommends that:

3.1. The Commonwealth and State and Territory governments will develop and commit to an agreed National Bushfire Strategy, based upon the principles outlined in the Blueprint contained in this Submission, and which will clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of the various jurisdictions in relation to bushfires. [ToR a, c, f, (i), and (iii)]

3.2. The Commonwealth government will financially assist States and Territories and Local Government Authorities with bushfire mitigation, through a new, expanded and updated National Bushfire Mitigation Program. [ToR: a (i)]

3.3. The Commonwealth and State/Territory governments, through COAG, will agree to follow the principles outlined in the Blueprint and ensure its implementation as a matter of urgency. (TOR a, c, f)

3.4. The basis of a national approach to bushfire management will be active management to systematically reduce fuel loads across all land tenures and to build the bushfire resilience of residential areas. Goals for fuel load management will be established at a National and at State/Territory levels, and reviewed every year. (TOR b, f)

3.5. The Commonwealth will establish a set of priorities governing the funding by the Commonwealth of bushfire research and will examine the need for a new research institute focused on improving bushfire prevention and resilience and improving the capacity of States to deliver fuel reduction burning goals. (TOR a)

3.6. The Commonwealth will establish a small Secretariat within the Commonwealth public service, staffed with experienced bushfire managers, whose roles will be (i) to guide the development of a coordinated and effective national approach between Australian governments to fire management and (ii) reporting on progress achieved. (TOR B, f)

3.7. The Commonwealth Government will review and amend the EPBC Act, to ensure that it cannot be miss-used to constrain responsible hazard reduction and bushfire management (TOR f(ii))

3.8. Action to ameliorate climate change will be taken in parallel with actions that minimise the occurrence of large, high-intensity fires. The former must not replace the latter.
3.9. Application of water and retardant dropping air tankers will be restricted to tactical use; wasteful use of very large air tankers against high intensity fires should be restricted pending independent cost/benefit studies into their effectiveness compared with hazard reduction ( and alternative approaches to community protection from bushfires).

4. Bushfire principles

4.1 Australia is an inherently bushfire-prone country.

  • Australia’s climate and weather are conducive to the occurrence of bushfires. Every year a long, hot, fire season progressively dries out the bush, readying it for ignition.
  • Periodic droughts are a feature of Australian climate history. The most serious bushfires always occur in fuels dried out by several years of drought.
  • Australian vegetation is highly flammable. Forests, woodlands and grasslands are dominated by plant species that ignite easily and burn fiercely.
  • Fuels accumulate over time. Australian bushland accumulates dry and dead plant material on the ground in the absence of fire. This material becomes the fuel for the next bushfire. Increasing fuel results in increasing fire intensity.
  • Fire prone ecosystems are adapted to fire. There is no evidence that low intensity, cool prescribed fire regimes cause any long term harm to biodiversity. On the other hand, a cycle of large, intense bushfires causes long term environmental harm and threatens biodiversity.
  • There are multiple sources of ignition. It takes only a single spark to start a bushfire. Sparks are lit by humans (accidentally or deliberately), or by nature (lightning). Irrespective of anything humans can do, bushfires will always start somewhere, every dry season.

4.2 After ignition, the subsequent intensity and behaviour of a bushfire depends on fuel, weather and topography. The most intense and damaging fires occur in long unburnt fuels on steep terrain when the weather is hot, dry, and windy.

This explains why:

  • There are “good fires” and “bad fires”. Bushfires range from low-intensity (sometimes known as “cool burns”) to bushfire infernos.
  • Bushfire impacts vary with fire intensity. The impact of a cool burn is negligible and ephemeral, while a large high-intensity fire causes long-term and sometimes permanent damage to plants, animals, soils and landscapes.
  • High intensity “bad” fires generally occur in the wake of a drought, on hot, dry, windy days, in areas of heavy fuel and in steep topography.
  • Bushfire control is only possible for bushfires of relatively low intensity. Fires burning under adverse conditions in heavy fuels cannot be stopped by firefighters.

4.3 Of all the factors that influence fire behaviour and difficulty to control, only one can be influenced by land owners and managers: the quantity of bushfire fuel.

  • Fire ignition cannot be prevented.
  • Fire weather cannot be prevented.
  • Topography cannot be altered
  • But bushfire fuel can be modified, reduced even removed. Even under high temperatures and winds, fires in light fuels are of reduced intensity, making firefighting easier, safer and cheaper.

4.4 Most summer bushfires occur during moderate weather conditions, are relatively easy to control and cause little or no damage. However where fire fuels have been allowed to accumulate, large, high intensity and damaging fires expand rapidly and become uncontrollable even under moderate weather conditions.

Only a small number of the total number of fires (less than 5%) are large, landscape-level high intensity infernos.
It is these fires that kill people, burn down houses and incinerate farms and forests
It is to the prevention of this sort of fire that bushfire management systems must be geared.

5. Bushfires and climate change

5.1. For many millennia, there has been a long association between climate, vegetation (bushfire fuel), weather and bushfires. Australia has always experienced droughts, heatwaves, hot, dry winds and lightning storms.

5.2. Currently, parts of southern Australia are experiencing a warmer and dryer period, resulting in drier fuels and lengthening fire season. The south-west of Western Australia has been experiencing a period of well-below average rainfall since the 1970s.

5.3. Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns have been attributed, at least in part, to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

5.4. However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will not ameliorate the bushfire threat in Australia. First, temperature and fuel dryness are only two of the factors that influence fire behaviour, and are far less important than fuel quantity; second, actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will only ameliorate climate change if taken at a global scale, and even then will take decades to work. Third, the Western Australian experience demonstrates that even during periods in which “climate change” is apparent, effective bushfire management, including fuel reduction, can be undertaken.

5.5. Actions aimed at ameliorating climate change can always proceed in parallel with actions to reduce today’s bushfire threat, but must not replace them.

6. Bushfires and fuel loads

6.1. The dominant factor influencing bushfire behaviour (intensity and rate of spread) is fuel weight, dryness and structure.
6.2. In bushland carrying light fuels, bushfires can be readily and safely controlled by ground forces. On the contrary, fires burning in areas with heavy fuel loads burn with high intensity, and can be impossible to control.
6.3. Regular application of low-intensity prescribed burns, carried out under mild weather conditions by experienced personnel, will significantly reduce the risks of a high intensity fire damaging the community and the environment. Moreover, because native ecosystems are adapted to mild-intensity periodic fire, the bushland subjected to this regime is healthier and more beautiful.
6.4. The value of a fuel reduction program was conclusively demonstrated in Western Australian forests in the decades since about 1970, where a landscape-level, tenure-blind approach to fuel load management has been the key element of the bushfire system.
6.5. Fuel load management by itself is not enough, it must be part of a comprehensive, integrated management system … but without it, nothing else works.
6.6. Almost 60 years of historical data from south-west forests shows that when the area of prescribed burning trends down, the area burnt by bushfire trends up. This is because bushfires are more difficult to put out in old fuels, i.e., fuel reduction burning greatly assists fire suppression.
6.7. The graph below, based on 50 years of data from south west forests, shows the inverse relationship between area burnt by prescribed burning and area burnt by bushfire.


Proportion of the SW forest region (2.5 M ha) burnt by prescribed fire (mean of 4 yrs)
with proportion burnt by wildfire (mean of succeeding 4 years) (Source: Sneeuwjagt 2008 + updates to 2016/17).

6.8. The data also show that that unless at least 8% of the forest in the region is prescribed burnt each year, there is an escalation in the area burnt by bushfire because suppression becomes much more difficult. Burning <5% per year is virtually ineffective in reducing the area burned by wildfire.

6.9. Indigenous burning practices are appropriate for application in remote areas such as the central deserts and the Kimberley, and should be encouraged.


7. The essential requirements for an effective fuel reduction burning program
7.1. If a fuel reduction burning program is not done properly it will be virtually useless. For it to be effective in helping to control of large, high-intensity fires, a number of requirements must be met.

7.2. Burns must be located so as to protect communities and nominated high-value assets (including parks and forests)

7.3. Burns should be located so as to intercept likely fire runs under the worst fire weather conditions.

7.4. Burns should be bounded by roads/tracks to enable access by ground forces and making burn perimeters safe.

7.5. Burns must be conducted according to a prescription drawn up by experienced personnel with a sound knowledge of fire behaviour, and taking into account risks associated with each burn. Burns must only be done at the right time, as set out in the prescription

7.6. Burns aimed at landscape protection need to be large – at least several thousand hectares- to ensure sufficient area of reduced fuel so as to allow the spread of large fires to be retarded and controlled

7.7. At least 8% of the bushland in a region needs to be burnt each year, so that at least 40% of the bushland in the region carries fuels ≤ 5 years old.

7.8. Burns must be of sufficient intensity to ensure adequate fuel removal. Burns that are too patchy (less than 50% burnt) may not slow an intense bushfire. To achieve a more complete burn in mixed forest types may require multiple ignition events.

8. The current bushfire crisis

8.1. In many parts of Australia bushfire management is ineffective. Every summer, large, high-intensity bushfires are taking lives, burning residential areas, destroying community assets, causing significant environmental damage and incurring enormous costs.

The crisis arises from a number of fundamental problems in relation to bushfire management. These are:

8.2. There is confusion about jurisdiction. Under the Australian Constitution, States and Territories are responsible for land and bushfire management, but the Commonwealth and Local Governments play roles. However, the various roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined.

8.3. There are conflicts in policy. Different arms of government assign varying priority to bushfire management as opposed to other objectives. Some Federal and State agencies, for example, promote biodiversity protection as having a higher priority than bushfire protection; many Local Governments penalise land owners for taking measures to protect their properties from bushfire damage. At an operational level, there is major conflict between those authorities who focus on emergency response (fighting fires after they start), and those who focus on land management (fire prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation).

8.4. There is conflict about strategy. There is a major split between those (principally firefighters and land managers) who promote fuel reduction burning as the key measure for preventing uncontollable wildfires and those (principally academics and environmentalists) who oppose it. A subset of this confusion is the debate between those who believe water bombing aircraft are the solution to the bushfire problem (the more and bigger the aircraft, the better) and those who regard water bombers as having a minor, tactical role.

8.5. There is conflict about bushfire cause. The community is split between those who nominate “climate change” (hotter, drier weather resulting from CO2 emissions) as the primary cause of the bushfire problem, to those who consider there is a far wider and more complex range of issues involved, but principally lack of preparedness, poorly prepared communities and heavy bushland fuels.

8.6. There is a drastic lack of capacity. Public land use changes (e.g. from State forest to national park) and associated structural changes in the public sector have resulted in a decline in the capacity of public land managers to carry out fuel hazard reduction programs. Volunteers with little forest firefighting experience are increasingly being asked to do the job formerly done by experienced agency bushfire fighters.

8.7. Governments are influenced by political opportunism. The Australian electoral system allows pressure groups (e.g., environmentalists, developers) to dominate bushfire policies which in effect sacrifice rural people and rural environments.

8.8. The net effect of the confusions, conflicts and opportunism is a society pulling in different directions. While nobody wants damaging bushfires, progress cannot be made towards preventing them if there is no agreement about how it must be done or who must do it. It is abundantly clear that what has been done over the past 30 years or so in south-east Australia, has failed. It is time to do something different. The over-riding policy, driven from the top, must be a management system that gives the highest priority to the protection from large, high intensity bushfires of human life and property, followed by other community assets, industry, infrastructure, and the environment/biodiversity.

8.9. The missing elements are leadership (at State/Territory and LGA level), sound governance, a systematic and integrated approach, and agreement over policy and priorities.

8.10. These are the issues we attempt to resolve in the Blueprint, in Section 10 of this submission, below.


9. The 2019/20 bushfires

Our analysis of the 2019/20 bushfires in Qld, NSW and Victoria reveal the following factors as being of over-riding significance:

9.1. The prolonged drought preceding the fires. Almost without exception in Australian bushfire history large, damaging fires have come at the end of a serious drought.

9.2. The lack of a sufficient proportion of the landscape subjected to fuel reduction burning in forests and national parks. Many of the prescribed burns that were done were too small and too patchy. Most of the large, high-intensity fires were associated with heavy and dry fuels.

9.3. Poorly prepared rural communities, especially residential subdivisions located within dense, bushfire-prone bushland.

9.4. Poorly prepared national parks, especially non-maintained access roads and fire trails.

9.5. Failure by emergency services to “go hard” on fires in their early stages. Many fires were allowed to burn for weeks before suppression began and then it was too late.

9.6. Over-reliance on water bombing, which is futile in the control of high-intensity fires.

9.7. Multiple simultaneous fires, some probably lit by arsonists, which overwhelmed the firefighting resources.

9.8. We reject the proposition that the fires were solely the result of climate change. Even if the climate along the eastern seaboard has become warmer and drier over recent decades, these changes would not have over-ridden the four most critical causal factors: the drought, the accumulations of fuels. multiple ignitions and poor preparation.

9.9. We conclude that the main “cause” of the bushfires was failure by the governments of Qld, NSW and Victoria to take steps to establish an effective bushfire management system …. by which we mean a system based on preventing bushfire disasters, rather than responding to them after they occur.

9.10. We also conclude that part of the current problem derives from a confusion of roles between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories.


10. A blueprint for effective bushfire management in Australia

10.1. The blueprint incorporates seven critical elements. These are: leadership; consistent policy; investment in damage mitigation; firefighting capability; planning and regulation; economic policy; and promotion of excellence.

10.2. All of these elements are important. No element by itself will do the job; no element can be ignored. The system will only work as a holistic, interlocking and coordinated approach.

Elaborating on the key elements:

10.3. Leadership and policy: To be effective the bushfire management system (BMS) requires clear-headed leaders who will take charge. Their job will be to devise policy, assign priorities, fight for budget allocations, build capacity, oversee outcomes, and ensure system feedback and correction. Effective leaders will maintain focus and effort during the good times, and they will keep their heads when things go bad. They will insist on proactive, rather than responsive bushfire management. This is the ultimate requirement: there can be no progress without a strong leader promoting sound policy and sensible action.

10.4. Consistent policy: Effective bushfire management cannot be achieved if there are opposing policies, conflicts between the different arms of government and no sense of priority. In every government agency, and every Local Government Authority, it must be accepted that prevention of bushfire damage is the first priority, and that this objective over-rides all others. Policies for the protection of endangered species, biodiversity, water catchments, landscapes, waterways, air quality, farms and so on are all important, but if they are allowed to constrain effective bushfire management, they will be self-defeating.

A critical requirement is that State governments must be able and willing to over-ride inappropriate policies adopted by Local Governments, in particular the prevention by LGA of land owners from taking bushfire prevention/mitigation actions on their own properties.

10.5. Preparedness and mitigation of bushfire damage. An effective BMS requires significant investment in damage mitigation and in preparing communities and bushland in the expectation of fire. The objective is to reduce the killing power of a future wildfire, and to increase community resilience – and doing these things at a time of our own choosing, well before a fire starts.

Reducing bushfire fuels through a well-planned, science-based prescribed burning program, with (for example) 8% of forests treated annually, is the fundamental underpinning of the entire system. It is the only measure that humans can take to shift the balance of power away from a fire and towards the firefighters.

10.6. Firefighting capability. An effective BMS demands the maintenance of an efficient fire detection capability, rapid response from well-trained and equipped firefighters, a managed collaboration between the various land management and fire response agencies, good access to firegrounds, and the capacity to call on experienced, trained incident teams to command firefighting operations and to fight fires on the ground.

10.7. Bushfire-resilient communities. Rural and semi-rural communities must be hardened-up, so that they can better withstand an incoming bushfire, and recover from it with less disruption. We advocate adoption of the two-phase Bushfire Risk Management Planning process currently being rolled out within local government areas in Western Australia.

This process has the advantages of tenure-blind analysis, professional planning, funding tied to an approved action plan, funds available from the Emergency Services Levy, and clear accountability for plans and action.

In addition we advocate an independent statutory planning and regulatory process to ensure that bushfire risks for proposed new residential developments are minimised. The regulatory process must also be extended to retrofitting under-prepared “legacy housing”, the older suburbs at the rural/urban interface where sensible bushfire planning measures and constraints were not imposed years ago.

For these processes to work, LGA must be prepared to take hard decisions, to resist pressure groups opposed to responsible bushfire management and to enforce bushfire legislation.

10.8. Economic and financial decision-making. In an effective BMS, State Treasuries will play a role in decision-making about bushfire policies and management. The aim will be to see that taxpayers’ money is spent where it will do the most good, i.e., in the prevention of bushfire disasters rather than dealing with them after the event. Cost/benefit analyses will be used continuously to inform decision-making about alternative approaches and technologies and to provide feed-back.

10.9. Promoting excellence. The final essential element of an effective bushfire management system is fostering constant improvement through investment in recruitment, mentoring, training, education and research. The aim must be to achieve a capability for implementing the fire program on the ground with professional competence, confidence and practical know-how.

Young people need constantly to be brought into bushfire operations, absorbing appropriate culture and gaining experience and an understanding of bushfire science. Research is needed that seeks ways to increase the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of firefighters and to reduce the killing power of bushfires.

Promoting excellence must be a deliberate policy, targeting staff in government agencies and Local Government, members of bushfire brigades, landowners and school teachers.

10.10. In practical terms, an effective national bushfire management system requires:

  • Acceptance by all jurisdictions that unless we can avoid large scale bushfires, all other land management objectives, including biodiversity protection, will fail.
  • A common approach to fire management over all States and Territories (based on an agreed National Bushfire Strategy) that commits to fuel load management across all land tenures.
  • State and Territory administration ensure all arms of government and Local Government Authorities to comply with the nationally agreed policy and approach to bushfire management.
  • Systematic programs of fuel reduction through a well-planned, scientifically-based prescribed burning program, with a target off 8-10% of the whole forest area treated annually in forest land.
  • Legislation in each jurisdiction which obliges all occupants, landowners, local government and State government agencies in rural areas to conform to practices that minimise the risk of large high intensity bushfires.
  • Maintenance of efficient bushfire detection capability, rapid response from well-trained and equipped rural firefighters. This will require close collaboration between land management and fire response agencies as well as volunteer firefighters.
  • Strategic planning at local government level and funding of action to reduce fire hazards so as to insulate the area against large, high intensity bushfires.
  • A commitment to capacity building and training to lift the expertise of people involved in bushfire management across the nation.


11. The role of the Commonwealth Government

11.1. Bushfire management should continue to be the responsibility of State and Territory governments.

11.2. However, the Commonwealth Government has a role to play and this needs to change dramatically from the present approach. Instead of funding firefighting and post-fire recovery, the Commonwealth should fund the States and Territories to implement the sort of Bushfire Management System described in this paper, i.e., a system based around preparedness, damage mitigation and competence, not simply response, and monitored to ensure compliance with standards and accountability.

11.3. An ideal arrangement would be for reinstatement/upgrading of the former National Bushfire Mitigation Program, in which the Commonwealth provides funds to States (and through the states to LGA) to carry out approved bushfire mitigation works, on a cost-sharing basis, according to agreed conditions.

This arrangement should emerge from a National Bushfire Strategy, initiated by the Commonwealth and developed in consultation with the States and Territories.

11.4. The Commonwealth should monitor and report on national bushfire preparedness, collect and collate data from the States about bushfire mitigation, and make an annual report to the nation on the state of preparedness.

11.5. The Commonwealth should revise its priorities for research funding, giving the emphasis to research that assists land managers and firefighters and the implementation of fuel reduction burning programs. Key priorities are for work on:

  • Fuel accumulation models for major vegetation / fuel types.
  • Surface fuel moisture content models / prediction systems.
  • Fire behaviour models and burning guides for major fuel types.
  • Field studies of patchy, low intensity prescribed fires and persistence of fire sensitive plant species.

11.6. The Natural Hazards and Bushfires CRC should be disbanded and replaced by a new research institute that has a clear remit to study preparedness and damage mitigation, especially issues relating to improving the capacity of the states to carry out effective fuel reduction burning.

11.7. The Commonwealth should support the work of the Bushfire Centre of Excellence in Western Australia, making this a national resource for building expertise and capacity

11.8. The Commonwealth should (urgently) review and amend the EPBC Act, which is susceptible to being miss-used to constrain responsible bushfire management.

11.9. The Commonwealth should promote and fund international and national exchange programs for bushfire operations personnel so as to build experience and professional networks.

11.10. The Commonwealth should fund cost/benefit analysis of aerial firefighting.

11.11. The Commonwealth should not be involved directly in firefighting operations, for example using the Army to fight fires. The Defence Forces can play a part in a national emergency providing communications, engineering (roadworks), and assisting with evacuations and post-event recovery.


12. The Western Australian experience

12.1. Western Australia provides a working case study of the application of the blueprint. Although still far from perfect, the current approach has a number of features that contribute to an effective bushfire management system (at least for the most highly populated and forested south-west of the State):

12.2. The current government has adopted a responsible pro-active policy, and the two major departments (Fire and Emergency Services, and Parks and Wildlife Service) are committed to bushfire mitigation.

  • The bulk of the south-west forest is subjected to periodic mild intensity fuel reduction burning, with the objective of burning 6-8% of the crown land forests annually.
  • There is an effective fire detection system, and a small, but relatively efficient firefighting capability.
  • A sound Risk Management Planning scheme has been evolved and is progressively being introduced across Local Government Authorities, with approved Action Plans funded out of the Emergency Services Levy
  • Work has commenced on the development of a Bushfire Centre of Excellence.

12.3. Bushfire management in WA scene still has some deficiencies, including policy conflict between some government agencies (bushfire protection versus biodiversity protection); dereliction of responsibilities by some Local Government Authorities; the fuels backlog in the karri forest and parts of the jarrah forest; undefendable rural residential areas; and a growing over-reliance on aerial water bombers. Fire management in the remote areas of the State, outside the south-west, is still primitive, completely constrained by lack of resources.

12.4. WA experienced serious bushfires in 2015 and 2016. These reflected the outcome of a period in which the standard of bushfire management by government and agencies fell away, other objectives taking priority. This valuable lesson was learned, and in 2017 the government reaffirmed its policy and reinforced an effective approach.

12.5. It is revealing that the 2015 and 2016 bushfires were a blip in an outstanding era of successful bushfire management in WA over the period since about 1970. This has been achieved despite the south-west being subjected to a prolonged drought, stretching back to at least 1975.

13. The water/retardant bombing question

13.1. In the wake of the fires it has been suggested that the bushfire problem in the future can be tackled by the acquisition of more and larger water/retardant bombing aircraft. This is a fallacy.

13.2. Water and retardant bombers have a role to play within a bushfire management system, but can never be a solution in their own right. They have numerous limitations, for example, they cannot operate under high winds or at night, and they have no impact on a high intensity forest fire.

13.3.Very Large Air Tankers are enormously expensive, and draw away funds from more useful pursuits such as bushfire preparation and damage mitigation.

13.4. Aircraft can play a useful tactical role in “holding” a small fire until ground forces arrive, or in dousing a burning house. They sometimes can assist in the control of a running forest fire when working in conjunction with ground firefighters on a lower intensity flank fire.

13.5. There were no instances during the 2019/20 bushfires where a water or retardant bomber extinguished a high-intensity bushfire.


14. Conclusions

14.1. Western Australia apart, bushfire management in Australia is in a parlous situation. This is exemplified by the lack of preparedness and damage mitigation in Qld, NSW and Victoria leading into the 2019/20 fire season, when it was clear that fire fighters would be faced with severe challenge of heavy fuels dried out by years of drought, and ill-prepared rural communities.

14.2. Attempts to blame the bushfire disaster on climate change cannot be sustained. On the one hand, climatic conditions leading up the fires were not unusual in the context of Australian climatic history. On the other hand severe fire weather conditions have been survived in the past where bushfires were burning in generally lighter fuels and rural communities had a greater awareness of the need to prepare for fire.

14.3. We conclude that the cause of the bushfire disaster was lack of leadership at the State level in NSW, Victoria and Qld; poor governance; and incompetent land management. All of these factors came together to allow a situation in which there was no effective preparation for an inevitable bushfire threat.

14.4. We offer a way forward. This will involve adoption of:

1. A clear definition of the role of the Commonwealth government, and a prescription for Federal action that will encourage the development of effective bushfire management by States, Territories and Local governments; and

2. A blueprint for an effective bushfire management approach at State and Territory and Local Government level.

14.5. Blaming the fires on climate change and pouring resources into reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not address the fundamental weaknesses in bushfire leadership and governance. Business-as-usual will have no affect other than to ensure a repeat of the current disaster next time there is a drought to dry out heavy fuels in the bush.

14.6. The current approach to bushfire management in eastern Australia has failed. It needs to be replaced by a system that we know will work.


Perth, Western Australia, March 2020