Barriers to Best Practice in Bushfire Management in WA
By Roger Underwood, Chairman of The Bushfire Front, Inc
The development of guidelines for Best Practice in bushfire management has been one of the main achievements of the Bushfire Front. It represents a logical approach to breaking down the mammoth task of bushfire management in a huge State like WA into manageable chunks – i.e. things which can be progressively handled by those in responsible positions. It also allows priorities to be identified.
There are three pertinent questions:
(i) What is “best practice” in bushfire management? In other words, is it possible to define an ideal, or perhaps a perfect approach to the minimisation of bushfires and the damage they cause?
(ii) To what extent are systems of bushfire management currently being applied in WA meeting the requirements of Best Practice? How are we doing?
(iii) And if we are not meeting them, why not? What are the barriers preventing excellence in bushfire management in WA?
Our focus has been the southwest regions, as these encompass the main forest and agricultural areas as well as the bulk of the State’s population and economic assets. Clearly this is the area most vulnerable to bushfire damage, so it is the area in which the greatest effort must be made to ensure there is an effective bushfire management system.
The unusual nature of a bushfire disaster
Before discussing best practice, one thing must be emphasised. Bushfires are a natural disaster, like cyclones, ice storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. All of these events arise from the forces of nature to strike at human lives and values and can cause enormous economic and environmental damage. To some extent all are predictable, at least we know that they have all occurred in the past and nothing has changed to suggest they will not occur in the future. To a large degree it is also possible to predict where each of these natural disasters is most likely to occur, especially bushfires. As everyone knows, the combination of (i) hot dry summer weather with (ii) flammable bushland fuels or crops and (iii) sources of fire in the form of lightning or humans, means that bushfires are not just an outside risk, they are an absolute certainty. The fuse to the bomb is always smouldering, and the bomb always goes off – only its size and ferocity varies.
But bushfires are different from all the other natural disasters. Not only can we can predict accurately when and where they will occur, we can take very effective action to minimise the damage they caused and to maximise the ease of control. In other words, while bushfires cannot be prevented, their impact can be greatly reduced.
This is the job we call “bushfire management”. It is not rocket science. All the elements are very well known, and have been field tested. We know that an effective system starts with laws, policy and planning, and at the field level includes preparedness, education, fuel reduction, equipment, training, research, detection and suppression. Most of all, for forest areas it is abundantly well-known that to minimise the occurrence of large, high intensity “killer” fires, you must have an effective program of fuel reduction burning. The Aborigines knew this.
If all of this is so well known and understood, why does Western Australia continue to experience large, high intensity “killer” bushfires? There are two explanations. The first is that our leaders do not properly understand The Bushfire Cycle (which I will describe in a minute) and the second is that there has never been an attempt in WA to define and formally work to achieving best practice in bushfire management.
The Bushfire Cycle
The Bushfire Cycle is a phenomenon well-known to those of us who have been around for a while.
First comes a bushfire disaster. Lives are lost, there is terrible damage and the bill runs to millions of dollars. This is followed by a flurry of inquiries, Coroner’s reports, Royal Commissions and litigation. Heads roll, new appointments are made. The whole system is energised. Agencies redouble their efforts to design and implement a more effective bushfire system, always incorporating mitigation and prevention as well as suppression. Funds suddenly become available for new staff, new equipment, radios, roads, fuel-reduction burning, training and research. Bushfire law is revised and enforced.
The success of all this is striking. In Phase 2 of the cycle there is a period in which disastrous bushfires do not occur. The system works! The trouble is, a successful bushfire system is always self-defeating. Its very success leads to absence of disasters, and thence to community apathy, political complacence, agency overconfidence, foolish planning decisions, budgetary re-arrangements and a softer approach to law enforcement. In these conditions, weirdo pressure groups flourish, hamstringing land managers with unreasonable constraints. Gradually, entering Phase 3 of the cycle, come the budget cut-backs for bushfire mitigation and prevention. Firefighter numbers decline, equipment is dispersed. District HQs are closed. Fire is not a problem.
Towards the end of Phase 3, however, usually after about 10-15 years, the first unstoppable fires start to occur, and before the system can be put back on the rails, Phase 4 is reached and there is another terrible disaster. This involves loss of life, firefighters killed or injured, houses, farms, plantations and forests devastated, and cost multi-millions of dollars. We have returned to Phase 1 and the whole cycle is repeated.
Western USA, Canada and Victoria, NSW and ACT are all currently well into the inquiry, recrimination and redesign phase. WA is nearing the end of a complacency phase, with our first unstoppable fires for decades occurring in southwest forests in the last two summers and serious fires at Tenterden, Mt Barker and Bridgetown. Unless the cycle is broken, The Really Big Bushfire Disaster is not a matter of if, but when.
The bushfire cycle turns relentlessly, driven by community apathy and agency paralysis. It can only be derailed by strong leadership, intelligent action and adequate funding. Are there any signs that our government recognises this?
This takes us to a consideration of best practice, and the West Australian performance.
A best practice bushfire management system has the following characteristics:
(i) It will deliver protection of community assets and human values from large, high intensity bushfires;
(ii) It will avoid or minimise undesirable long-term environmental impacts, especially to water catchments;
(iii) It will minimise the risks to firefighters;
(iv) Fire use and fire suppression will be based on credible science, and protocols and prescriptions will be continually updated in the light of research and field experience;
(v) There will be provision for independent monitoring of outcomes, and public reporting;
(vi) The approach to bushfire management will have community and media support, stemming from strong political leadership and a high level of public understanding of the issues.
The Best Practice Approach
In terms of implementation, a best practice bushfire management system would address ten key elements. These are set out in the table below, not necessarily in order of importance:
1. A national strategy. There will be a national bushfire strategy signed off by all the State and Territory jurisdictions.
2. A State Bushfire Policy. There will be a State Bushfire policy for WA, providing strategic leadership and guidance to all agencies and land managers. The Bushfire Policies of individual agencies and LGA will be required to comply with the State Policy.
3. Accountability. There will be clear accountability at State government, Local government and agency level for bushfire outcomes, and a unified and consistent approach to prevention, preparedness, damage mitigation, suppression, recovery and community education
4 Legislative authority. Bushfire legislation must be up-to-date and unambiguous in assigning accountability, responsibility, priorities, standards and setting out the hierarchy of leadership and control
5. Competent, effective and cooperative agencies. Land use planning must be in the hands of people with bushfire expertise and experience, and land management agencies provided with adequate resources. Volunteers need to be supported by a professional agency able to deliver on equipment, training, and fire event management.
6. Philosophy. Bushfire management must adequately address prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation, not just suppression.
7. Dealing with fire on private land. There must be a high level of professional bushfire expertise in Local Government Authorities, supported by strong legislation and adequate funds to ensure the volunteer firefighter system is sustained, bushfire regulations are implemented, and fuels managed on private land.
8. Good governance. The government must set and publish clear expectations, performance outcomes, standards and targets for bushfire management on crown lands, and insist these are achieved. The focus must be on the Big Picture i.e., protecting life and minimising the number and size of high intensity “killer” fires.
9. Monitoring and reporting. The government must put in place a system of annual, independent monitoring of bushfire management outcomes, plus public reporting so that the wider community is aware of actual performance against standards and targets.
10. Community education. There must be an effective Sate-sponsored and professionally conducted communications strategy aimed at educating the community about fire and fire preparedness. This is on-going, year in and year out for ever, and combined with education programs aimed at university lecturers, school teachers and students.
How are we doing?
Western Australia does not match up in almost any of these requirements. Parts of the system are being achieved, but I would give a compliance score of only 10%. Worse, there is no coordinated attack on the problem, no real recognition of how bad things are. A telling inditement is that despite the fact that WA is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world, the general community is deeply ignorant about fire, and persist with their “it can’t happen to me” attitude. Individually we have some very fine people working in agencies, local government and volunteer brigades, but there is not enough of them and they are not properly supported.
The following three issues are probably the most critical:
The first is the lack of accountability at State government level. No one is in charge when it comes to fire. At the last count there were 5 different Ministers with a finger in the fire pie (Environment, Emergency Services, Planning, Police, Local Government) plus there are the Ministers with regional responsibilities – South West, Great Southern etc, the Energy Minister who controls Western Power and the Minister for Water Resources who worries about protection of catchments. When it comes to prescribing and implementing an overall system of bushfire management, there is no single Minister whose job it is, and. It is my view that the Ministers like it this way, because if there is a bushfire disaster, none of them can be blamed. I do not necessarily advocate a one-Minister end-of-line responsibility, but a Ministerial Council, comprising Environment, Emergency Services and Planning could easily be established.
The second worry is the emerging tendency, world wide, to treat bushfire management as an emergency event, rather than as part of good land management. Certainly we must have rapid and effective response arrangements, but these must be coupled to effective fuel reduction programs and to all the other elements associated with preparedness, damage mitigation and law enforcement. There are distinct signs that WA is moving down the wrong path here. This is demonstrated by the degree to which the government is prepared to fund firefighting equipment and fires, but not prescribed burning or community education.
The third worry is the powerful influence of city environmentalists on fire management policy. It is absurd to have a situation in which people living in Nedlands who are never threatened by fires, and do not have to fight fires, should be able to influence government policy and land management practices, putting at risk the lives and assets of rural people. One of the main reasons why CALM has not been able to meet its burning targets, and the main reason why these targets are so low in the first place, is because of the government’s fear of upsetting the environmental activists. It is high time that rural West Australians made a stand against this.
WA needs a best practice bushfire management system if we are to protect ourselves from the inevitable and horrible consequences of large high intensity bushfires.
But we are locked in the ridiculous bushfire cycle, unable to break out of it through ignorance, apathy, political correctness and lack of incisive and forward-looking leadership.
We have a template for Best Practice, and none of it is rocket science. We know what to do and how to do it. The problem for the bushfire community is that our numbers are small and we have little political influence. Except in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we are not news and the politicians have always got other priorities. This, to my mind, is the greatest barrier to effective bushfire management in this State.