Comments on the NSW and Victorian Fires at New Year, 2020
by Roger Underwood AM
Although deeply invested emotionally, I am lucky in two respects: (i) to be observing the NSW and Victorian fires from afar with no danger of being burned; and (ii) being too old to be called up to help. However, I am in touch with dozens of colleagues who are involved, and (like everyone else), I have been aware of the impending disaster for some years, and I have been watching events unfold on television.
Four things are really hitting home.
First, the degree to which the fires have become mixed up with politics. The blame game started very early, even before the fires got completely out of hand, and it has intensified to a degree of political toxicity I have not seen before. The attack on the Prime Minister has been relentless, especially from those who consider he is to blame for the whole affair, and politicians on all sides have engaged in point-scoring at the very time they should be pulling together. The political fall-out around these fires is a serious distraction from the business of getting them out, from putting the recovery process on track and getting improved management systems in place.
The second, and related issue, is the claim by a group of “fire chiefs” and university academics that the cause of the bushfires is climate change. This statement has been given extensive publicity in the media, is being trumpeted internationally, and has taken on a life of its own. Whether or not the climate is becoming hotter and drier, and irrespective of the cause of changes, the concept is flawed. It ignores the contribution of fuel to bushfire intensity. This is absolutely crucial, and is determined very largely by fuel, slope and wind. Even if we knew what to do to make the climate cooler and wetter, nothing can be done which will fix the current fire threat.
The third thing that is so blindingly obvious has been the ineffectiveness of the aerial water and retardant bombing fleet in the control of high-intensity forest crown fires. The water bombing strategy being applied in NSW is difficult to understand. Plane load after plane load of water or retardant powder is dropped onto raging fires, making not one iota of difference. Water bombers do have a tactical role to play in bushfire control: they can “hold” a small fire under relatively mild conditions until firefighters arrive on the ground, or they can saturate a burning house. But they do not and they cannot put out a fierce forest fire, or even hinder its progress. The astronomical cost of these aerial operations is simply money wasted. There is very little footage shown on TV of time-tested fire control techniques such as creating mineral earth breaks to contain the flank and tail-fires … yet this is the only way in which forest fires can be controlled, and stay controlled.
Fourth, it is hard to believe how poorly prepared many NSW communities were in the face of an incoming bushfire. To see whole towns having to resort to the Dunkirk Strategy, or being evacuated along clogged highways, reminds me of something out of Europe in the 1940s. You would think that every rural community adjoining bushland would have a bushfire risk management plan, and a well-rehearsed emergency strategy where people can move to prepared and defendable safe havens. You would think that every Local Government would have emergency generators that, at the very least, would keep the power up for mobile phones. You would think that people living in bushfire-prone areas would have self-defense plans in place, just as do those who live in cyclone-prone regions.
The most puzzling thing of all, is that this calamity has not just arrived out of the blue. NSW has been in the grip of a terrible drought for years. On top of this the amount of fuel reduction burning in national parks and forests in NSW and Victoria has significantly declined and the majority of their forests are long-unburnt and carrying massive fuel loads. The combination of drought and heavy fuels has been at the root of every major bushfire crisis in the history of Australia. This crisis should not have come as a surprise.
Heavy fuels cured by drought are one thing. If you add multiple ignitions, and this is what happened, thanks to lightning strikes and arson, firefighters are soon overwhelmed. Also not a surprise.
No doubt there will be enquiries and coroner’s courts. The findings are predictable. They have been spelled out many times in the wake of previous fire tragedies. I could write them now. What will be a surprise will be if any of the real villains in all of this will be found to be accountable.
Finally, I do not want to be accused of throwing stones from a glass house. The situation in WA is better (in my opinion) than that in NSW and Victoria. The policy and the intent of the current government and its agencies is sound. But there is a backlog of heavy fuels, especially in the southern forests and between the Capes, and there are numerous ill-prepared communities which are sitting ducks for a terrible fire. Our fire season is still ahead of us (as I write this in early January 2020).