A Blueprint for Effective Bushfire Management in Australia
A Bushfire Front Paper 2020
The 2015/6 bushfire disasters in Western Australia and the 2019/20 calamities in NSW and Victoria have brought into sharp focus the need for a revolution in bushfire management in Australia.
In this paper we discuss the background to, and then set out the key ingredients of an effective, proven approach to minimising bushfire damage. Our proposal will not stop bushfires from starting, but will make them easier, safer and cheaper to control, and will ensure they take fewer lives and do less harm to community assets, infrastructure and our environment.
The paper is based on our personal experience with, and intimate knowledge of bushfire science, bushfire operations and bushfire politics. Our experience spans more than five hundred years of accumulated first-hand management of forests, and on firefronts, since the 1950s.
The essence of our proposal is this: bushfires will still occur, but if an intelligent, integrated system is applied, driven by firm leadership and with professional governance, the potential damage and losses caused by high-intensity bushfires will be minimised.
A word about climate change and bushfires
Before setting out the blueprint we need to address questions about the impact of “climate change” (by which is meant rising temperatures and increased incidence of drought) on the occurrence and severity of bushfires.
For many millennia, there has been a long association between climate, vegetation (bushfire fuel) and bushfires. Parts of southern Australia are experiencing a mildly warmer and a significantly dryer period, attenuating the bushfire environment. This has been attributed, at least in part, to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will not ameliorate the bushfire threat. Governments must also take appropriate action to manage the hazard associated with heavy fuels in our bushlands. Properly done, this is the cornerstone to breaking the cycle of devastating megafires.
Our view is that irrespective of any significant past or future changes to the Australian climate, the bushfire crisis is real, immediate and serious. It must be addressed now. We do not object to governments taking actions aimed at ameliorating climate change, so long as those actions proceed in parallel with, and do not replace action to effectively manage today’s bushfire threat.
Background: the Four Great Truths about bushfires in Australia
Four Great Truths about bushfires in Australia provide the intellectual underpinning of an effective bushfire management system. They are:
First, 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. This seasonal climate is overlain by occasional heat waves and periodic droughts. This pattern is not new. It is the standard weather in southern and eastern Australia, experienced and recorded for centuries.
Second, the Australian vegetation is highly flammable. Forests, woodlands and grasslands are dominated by plant species that ignite easily and can burn fiercely. Additionally, 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.
Third, there are multiple sources of ignition. Bushfires will always start. With the bush primed to burn by the climate, the weather, the natural flammability of the vegetation and accumulated fuel, all it takes to start a bushfire is a single spark. Sometimes the spark is lit by humans (accidentally or deliberately)or by lightning.
Finally, there are “good fires” and “bad fires”. Bushfires can vary in their intensity, size, rate of spread, impact and difficulty to control. At one end of the scale are the “cool burns”, trickling through the leaves with ankle-high flames; they leave unburnt patches, do not ignite trees or logs, and are easily controlled. At the other extreme is the bushfire inferno, the high-intensity fire with flames taller than the tallest tree, burning through the canopy, and generating a jet-stream of burning embers downwind. These fires are uncontrollable.
High intensity “killer” bushfires are always associated with drought, hot dry, windy weather, heavy fuels and multiple ignitions. Of these only the fuel can be controlled by humans. Fuel reduction is therefore a primary constituent of an effective bushfire system.
The fundamental weaknesses in Australian bushfire management at the moment
We do not want to focus on the negatives in this paper, but it is important to review the major weaknesses in the current approach before setting out a desirable future approach.
Bushfire management in Australia at the moment is largely ineffective. Every summer, large, high-intensity bushfires are taking lives, burning residential areas, destroying community assets and incurring significant environmental damage. The fundamental problems are:
- Confusion about jurisdiction (who is in charge?). Currently jurisdiction is seen to be shared by the Commonwealth, the States and Local Government, but there is a lack of clear definition of roles and responsibilities.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Political opportunism. The Australian electoral system allows urban pressure groups to dominate bushfire policies which in effect sacrifice rural people and rural environments.
The net effect of these 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. The fundamental problem in Australian bushfire management therefore is lack of leadership and a failure of basic governance. The over-riding policy, driven from the top, must be a management system that gives priority to protecting human lives, community assets, infrastructure, and the environment from the damage caused by large, high intensity bushfires. Such fires make up only about 5% of all bushfires, but they cause 95% of the damage. Their prevention must be the number one priority.
The Blueprint incorporates six critical elements. These are: leadership; consistent policy; investment in damage mitigation; firefighting capability; planning and regulation; economic policy; and promotion of excellence.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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 high intensity bushfires is the first priority, and that this objective over-rides all others. Policies for the protection of biodiversity, water catchments, landscapes, waterways, air quality, farms and so on are 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 role played by LGA in preventing land owners from taking bushfire prevention/mitigation actions on their own properties.
3. 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 8-10% of bushland 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.
4. 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, and the capacity to call on experienced, trained incident teams to command firefighting operations and to fight fires on the ground.
5. 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 (in WA 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, local governments must be prepared to take hard decisions, to resist pressure groups opposed to responsible bushfire management and to enforce bushfire legislation.
6. 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.
7. 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.
The essence of an effective Bushfire Management System:
Bushfires will still occur, but if an intelligent, integrated system is applied, driven by firm leadership and with professional governance, the potential damage and losses caused by high-intensity bushfires will be minimised.
Implementation of The Blueprint
For the system to work, it requires a champion. Someone must be in charge, not for actually running the system, but to make sure it runs smoothly. The champion should work with politicians and bureaucrats but will be independent, responsible to Parliament, not to a Premier or Minister.
The role of the Federal Government
Bushfire management should continue to be the responsibility of State governments.
However, the Federal 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 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.
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 local government) to carry out approved bushfire mitigation works, on a cost-sharing basis.
Other areas in which the Commonwealth can assist with bushfire management:
- Better targeting of research funding, away from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC/universities, and into a new body with a clear focus on assisting land managers and firefighters
- Supporting the work of the Bushfire Centre of Excellence in Western Australia, making this a national resource for building expertise and capacity
- Review and amend the EPBC Act, which is already being miss-used to constrain responsible bushfire management.
- Promoting and funding international and national exchange programs for bushfire operations personnel so as to build experience and professional networks.
- Cost/benefit analysis of aerial firefighting.
The year-by-year loss of lives, destruction of homes, farms and community infrastructure, and the incineration of beautiful forests and our wildlife by bushfires …. all of these things are unacceptable in modern Australia.
However, unless there is a radical change to the way we prepare for bushfires and manage the risk, it will all happen again. Irrespective of projected climate change, our bushland and rural communities are inherently bushfire-prone and our climate and vegetation means fires will always occur. The task is to reduce their killing power, to make the inevitable fires easier, safer and cheaper to control and ensure they do less damage.
In this paper we have presented the essential components of a system that is designed to minimise the damage caused by high-intensity bushfires. It is based on long experience and observation of what works and what does not, and our intimate understanding of the bushfire threat and its management.