Submission to the Independent Inquiry into the Wooroloo bushfire

Submission to the Independent Inquiry into the Wooroloo bushfire

September 2021

  1. The Bushfire FrontWe are an independent organisation comprising experienced bushfire scientists, and specialists in bushfire prevention and operations. Our members have spent entire careers actively involved in fire management.Our mission is to promote a system of bushfire management in WA that minimises the occurrence of large, high-intensity fires. These are the 5% of bushfires that do 95% of damage to lives, community assets and the environment. We have prepared a Blueprint that sets out the requirements for an effective bushfire management system (available here on our website).

    The focus of this submission is therefore on bushfire prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation.

  2. PrinciplesThe starting point for any inquiry into bushfires in Australia must be to acknowledge two principles:2.1 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 management or conservation objective can be achieved.

    2.2  Landscape-level management of bushfire fuels is the cornerstone to minimising the damage resulting from large, high-intensity bushfires, and is the key element in an effective bushfire management system.

    If potential firegrounds are responsibly and thoroughly prepared in the expectation of a fire on a bad day, subsequent control of a fire is easier, cheaper and safer, and bushfire damage will be limited.

    Reliance on suppression after a fire has started, without damage mitigation programs having been taken in advance, will never succeed under severe weather conditions.

    High-intensity bushfires burning in heavy fuels and in areas with ill-prepared assets, mostly cannot be controlled by firefighters until weather conditions change. This is irrespective of the number of firefighters, machines, or water bombers. Headfire suppression is impossible once certain thresholds of intensity and rate of spread are reached.

    Our basic message is: bushfires cannot be prevented from starting, but the ease of control and minimisation of bushfire damage can be massively influenced by sound preparedness and fuel hazard mitigation programs. For this reason, any bushfire inquiry that focuses only on suppression and recovery, and which ignores preparedness and damage mitigation, will be a waste of time, money and energy.

  1. The Wooroloo FireThe Wooroloo Fire ran for a week, and was never under control during the whole of its run. Thus, it was one of the longest-running bushfires in recent WA history. Only rain allowed the headfire to be finally stopped and the perimeter controlled and made safe. On the first day and night, fire behaviour was intense, mainly as a result of high winds and heavy fuels, but on subsequent days, while weather conditions continued to be adverse, control would have been possible in a well-prepared environment.It is a credit to the firefighters that no lives were lost. However, the fire was extremely damaging in terms of loss of assets (destruction of houses), and expensive in terms of cost of suppression and of repair and recovery. We have not seen a dollar figure for loss, damage and firefighting, but it would be hundreds of $millions. Nor have we any idea of the enormous psychological cost to people who suffered or were injured.

    This fire was unusual for south-west WA in that it burnt almost exclusively through private property and land under the control of Local Government. Only at the very end did it briefly enter crown land, when the headfire reached Walyunga National Park.

    The fire was attended by a massive force of career and volunteer firefighters and was attacked for day after day by water bombers, including an LAT flown over from NSW which then operated from Busselton, >300 km away. No cost of this operation has ever been revealed.

    This was the third major bushfire to occur in this exact area, the first being the Gidgegannup Fire in 1961. This bushfire history is important: it highlights that the Gidgegannup/Wooroloo/Mundaring region is seriously bushfire-prone, suggesting that it needs special attention to the mitigation of bushfire hazards/threat; this is especially important given the high population density in this region.

    Recommendation #1: The Independent Panel should investigate and report on the bushfire history of the area in which the Wooroloo Fire occurred, including the three major fires that have impacted the same district since 1961.

  2. The preparedness status of the firegroundsApproximately three weeks before the fire, members of the Bushfire Front had inspected areas that were subsequently consumed by the fire during the first day and night. We found:
    • Very few, probably only 1 in 50 properties had been prepared in the expectation of a bushfire; most properties were not just under-prepared, but invited destruction by bushfire.
    • Lack of preparedness was demonstrated by: houses embraced by long-unburnt bushland; houses and other buildings overtopped by eucalyptus trees; extensive areas of well-cured grass in paddocks that had not been grazed or mown; road verge bushland carrying continuous, heavy and aerated fuels and long-unburnt grass trees with skirts down to the ground.
    • The area is naturally difficult for fire suppression, being hilly, and with access/egress confined to narrow, often twisting and steep roads.
    • In one area, a relatively newly established residential subdivision which was subsequently virtually destroyed in the fire, all of the street trees were tall eucalypts; these highly flammable trees would have contributed massively to fire rate of spread and the ember storm that hit the houses in this subdivision.

While a small number of responsible land/property owners had made sound preparation, they were let down by the apathy of neighbours and the failures of the authorities. Clearly no coordinated, determined and responsible effort had been made either by land owners or by LGAs to prepare this area in the expectation of a bushfire on a bad day. On the contrary the entire area could be described as a sitting duck.

This is all the more remarkable considering the history of serious bushfires in this area, going back to 1961, and the recent tragic bushfires in eastern and south-western Australia. The occurrence of fast-moving intense bushfires burning on hot, windy summer days is not a rarity, an unprecedented event, but is an inherent part of the Australian scene. The LGA and residents in the Wooroloo Fire area were seemingly ignorant of this … or if they knew it, they thought that “it would never happen to them”.

This is a philosophy many city-bred Australians take with them when they move into the rural/urban interface. Deep-seated apathy and resistance to lesson-learning is the reason why professional agencies like DFES must come in over the top and require LGA and residents to prepare responsibly for the inevitable bushfire, or pay a penalty. This concept has long been resisted by DFES and its predecessors, citing a lack of legislative support, and by LGA who do not want to be seen as being tough on their ratepayers.

We see no possibility that communities or residents in bushfire-prone areas in WA will respond adequately to “warnings” or education or communication programs. They never have in the past. Community education must be coupled with enforcement of good laws. This is the only approach that will work.

Recommendation #2: The Independent Panel should inquire into the lack of preparedness in the firegrounds, and why this was so inadequate. The Panel should determine whether failure of LGA to enforce the Bush Fires Act, and the failure of DFES to require LGA to enforce the Bush Fires Act (for whatever reasons) were significant factors in making the fire so hard to control and so damaging.

Recommendation #3: The Independent Panel should acknowledge that Australians living in bushfire – prone areas are frequently apathetic or ignorant of the need for bushfire preparedness, and are resistant to messaging from the authorities, and should advise the government that this will never be overcome except by incorporating strict enforcement of bushfire law into bushfire management.

Recommendation #4: The Independent Panel should inquire into the policy of the LGAs in relation to fuel management on road and Shire reserves. The Panel must determine whether a failure by LGA to prepare bushland on road and Shire reserves in the expectation of a fire (through fuel reduction) was a significant factor in making the fire so hard to control and so damaging.

5. The state of readiness on the day

A week before the fire, the Bushfire Front reviewed weather patterns developing in southern WA. With a low-pressure system lying over the southern half of the state, and a cyclone off the Pilbara coast, all signs pointed to serious fire weather ahead. We sent a written warning to the Minister for Emergency Services, the Commissioner of DFES and the CEO of DBCA. It was very obvious that difficult conditions were imminent.

We estimated that the peak day would be late in the following week, although in the event, it was the Monday on which the fire broke out. We recommended that all firefighters should be on full alert, and that Incident Management Teams be established in advance and heavy machinery placed on standby.

Although we did not predict the way in which the RH/dew point collapsed on the first day, we did see very clearly that any fire occurring at that time would be driven by high easterly winds, and if burning in heavy fuels could become unstoppable within two hours of ignition. Immediate and powerful response to any outbreak was the clearest path the authorities should have been ready to take, and then taken.

We have no evidence that our warning led to any particular directions from government or preparations by the agencies. Certainly, we saw no evidence at all that our warning was adequately communicated to the public. As far as we could see, the Wooroloo/Gidgegannup/Swan community was caught completely unawares by the fire. This resulted in a deadly cocktail of unprepared residents on unprepared properties, interspersed by unprepared Shire road and other reserves.

Recommendation #5: The Independent Panel must investigate the degree to which DFES took on board warnings about approaching severe bushfire weather, and the extent to which these warnings were communicated to LGA, brigades and the public.

Recommendation #6: The Independent Panel should examine the degree to which DFES was alert and ready to act in the event of an outbreak, and the speed and make-up of the initial response.

6. Firefighting strategy

We were initially privy to the firefighting strategy adopted for this fire only through media reports during the fire. Later we received a briefing from the DFES Commissioner and Director of the Rural Fire Division.

DFES was active during the fire with media reports. Statements from and interviews with the fire controllers appeared regularly on radio and TV. At the time of the fire, and on the basis of media statements, it appeared to us that DFES had adopted the strategy of trying to protect assets rather than fighting the fire, in other words, controlling the spread and movement of the fire was of a lower priority to saving houses. According to the briefing we received later from the Commissioner, it is more likely that a mixture of strategies was actually adopted. The result would have been a dilution of work on stopping the fire.

We reject the policy of giving priority to protecting assets over stopping the fire. This approach will always be self-defeating, because the fire perimeter will continue to grow exponentially, threatening more assets. A point will quickly be reached when there are insufficient firefighters to protect all assets under threat, meaning substantial losses are inevitable. Firefighters will always be “behind the game”, and worse, they will always be placed in the most dangerous situation, i.e., in front of the advancing fire and ember storm.

In the case of the Wooroloo Fire, attempts to save assets from an approaching fire front were made more difficult by the hopelessly ill-prepared nature of most properties. Firefighters performed with courage, but in many cases were attempting the impossible.

Statements made on TV during the fire that “it was so intense that nothing could be done” are not credible. Direct attack on an intense headfire is rarely feasible, but there is always somewhere on the fire’s perimeter that can be attacked by direct, indirect or parallel attack. Useful work includes controlling the tailfire and working progressively up the flanks, the objective being to pinch-in the headfire. Opportunities for safe suppression increase if the fire is burning in low fuels and/or when the Fire Danger Rating falls. The most effective work will usually be done at night between midnight and dawn. Bushfire Front members have fought many fires in heavy forests under severe conditions. Using bulldozers in the bush and graders in the paddocks, both supported by tankers, it is always possible to do useful work, minimising the spread of the fire, hastening the final attack on the headfire and minimising the size of the fire and damage caused.

We are (of course) aware of the politics of fire. Residents in areas where a fire is burning expect to have firefighters arrive and save their house for them. If this does not happen, they make a fuss to a sympathetic media, and embarrass the government and the firefighters.

It is incumbent on government and on agencies to make sure people know this will not always happen. The first responsibility of bushfire firefighters is to stop the fire; the first responsibility of home owners is to prepare their property so that they can defend it themselves, or at least to see that damage is minimised.

“Fight the fire first” was long the catchcry of people with bushfire experience. It is still the policy adopted by Parks and Wildlife firefighters. However, the advent of DFES has seen many firefighters who come from a suburban Fire Station background in charge of bushfires. In the bush, a different approach is needed than the one successfully used by urban firemen to drown burning buildings in water.

Recommendation #7: The Independent Panel must investigate the firefighting strategy adopted by DFES at this fire, whether there was a focus on saving assets rather than fighting the fire, or at least a lack of priority to fire suppression, and whether this was a factor in the fire persisting for so long and doing so much damage.

The Panel must also look at the need for the authorities to explain clearly to residents in fire-prone areas that protection of their assets is their responsibility.

7. The cost/effectiveness of water/retardant aircraft

Millions of dollars were spent at this fire by State and Commonwealth governments to fund water and retardant dropping missions by a large and diverse air force of aircraft. There is no evidence that this made any difference to the progress of the fire until the last day, when conditions had moderated. At this stage DFES organised two LAT drops of retardant lines ahead of the fire, and later claimed that this made the difference between controlling the fire or not.

Water bombing has a place in bushfire management. We support the strategic use of small aircraft to attack and hold small fires in remote places until ground firefighters arrive. But their effectiveness on intense, fast- moving fires burning in heavy fuels under windy, smokey conditions, is low, and mostly a waste of money.

Antecedent fuel hazard reduction will significantly leverage the effectiveness of water bombers (and ground suppression) because fire intensities and rates of spread will be considerably lower. Reliance on water bombers to control fires in heavy fuels, on the other hand, is to rely on something that will always fail.

The effectiveness of the obscenely expensive LAT is also negligible. Firefighters who were at the Wooroloo Fire have reported to the Bushfire Front that the LAT is regarded with contempt by field personnel, and that its role is seen as purely political, i.e., to demonstrate that “the authorities are doing something”. The claim by DFES that the retardant trails laid by the LAT in front of the fire on the last day saved the Shady Hills area justified its deployment from NSW is not supported by the observations of firefighters on the ground. The fire was actually burning away from the Shady Hills subdivision at the time, and this subdivision would have been relatively easily defended by the mass of firefighters assembled there at the time, under moderating conditions.

It is also to be noted that some of the worst damage caused by this fire happened at night or under strong and gusty winds, when water bombing aircraft did not operate.

The Western Australian government has been pouring more money every year into the expansion and use of aerial firefighting. No economic analysis or justification on the grounds of cost/effectiveness is ever provided. Indeed the costs of aerial firefighting are a well-kept secret. The Wooroloo Fire offers an excellent opportunity for economic and effectiveness analysis to be done and to be made public.

The basic question we ask is this: if water and retardant dropping from aircraft is so effective, how did this fire become so large and burn for so long given the massive expenditure on water and retardant dropping aircraft?

The obvious answer is that the effectiveness of the water/retardant bombing fleet was trivial. Similar findings are continually being made in the USA where water bombing is seen as theatre, not as effective fire control.

An equally basic question is the degree to which the bushfire situation in WA could be improved if the money wasted on water bombers was spent instead on fuels management and damage mitigation.

Recommendation#8: The Independent Panel should undertake, or call for, an independent cost/effectiveness study of water/retardant dropping aircraft at the Wooroloo Fire and should insist that the outcomes be made public.

8. The use of water versus the use of heavy machinery in bushfire fighting.

Bushfire Front members have (accumulatively) hundreds of years of experience with fighting fires in bushland fuels, including heavy forests. This has taught us four lessons:

  • If bushland fuels have been reduced by strategically located prescribed burning, with a mosaic of fuel ages between 0 and about 5 years, even on the worst days, fires can be attacked and relatively quickly controlled;
  • The most effective method of bushfire fighting is to use heavy machinery (bulldozers in the bush, heavy graders in grassland) to construct firelines, working from the back to the head of the fire, with priority on the most potentially dangerous flank (assessed on the basis of wind change forecasts). Heavy machinery will be followed by firefighters with tankers who will first cool and then extinguish and then progressively mop up the edge, or undertake burning-out operations in the event of the parallel attack method being used;
  • The best time to construct firelines is at night, especially between midnight and dawn. In many cases it is better for machines and firefighters to rest during the day, and then concentrate on fireline construction and mop-up during the coolest part of the night; and
  • Attempting to fight intense bushfires with water, either dropped from above or delivered through a hose, is mostly futile. It is physically impossible to deliver the quantity of water, over the length of time it takes, to stop a bushfire burning in heavy fuels under high winds.Our observations of the Wooroloo Fire indicate that these lessons are not yet fully understood or applied.

Recommendation #9: The Independent Panel should examine the way in which heavy machinery was immediately brought to bear on this fire so as to maximise its effectiveness and minimise fire size.

9. Climate change

Commentators from government, academia and the media have blamed the Wooroloo Fire on “climate change”. This term is taken to mean a dramatic increase in the occurrence of extreme bushfire weather, making fires hotter and harder to control, and brought about by the concentration of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere. The people who claim this then go on to say that “action on climate change” is the only way disastrous bushfires can be prevented in the future.

We reject this view. The southwest of WA has been experiencing a period of below-average rainfall, and over the last century there has been a miniscule increase in mean average annual temperature. On the other hand, this region has always experienced hot, dry summers with periods of extreme fire danger.

There was nothing “unprecedented” about the weather during the Wooroloo Fire. Similar weather patterns are familiar to all Western Australian bushfire specialists. The coincidence of a high pressure system in the south and a cyclone in the north is associated with most of our severe bushfires in the past. We also note that “taking action on climate change”, by which is meant minimising CO2 emissions, will only (it is hoped) modify climate many years in the future, and will be effective only if taken at a global scale. The “taking action on climate change” approach to bushfire management offers no panacea to residents of bushfire- prone regions for next summer or the one after, and is a distraction from the job in hand.

In short, we regard blaming a bushfire on “climate change” as an excuse for failed land and bushfire management. The Gidgegannup/Wooroloo/Mundaring/Swan urban-rural zone that was consumed in this fire was vulnerable to serious bushfire damage not because the weather pattern was unique or unprecedented (thanks to “climate change”), but because it was so poorly prepared in the expectation of an inevitable bushfire.

Recommendation #10: The Independent Panel should find that “climate change” had nothing to do with the intensity and size of this fire and point out that even if extreme and costly “action on climate change” is taken by the WA government, it will not make an iota of difference to the bushfire threat to rural communities in the immediate future.

Conclusions

The 2021 Wooroloo Fire was notable for : (i) the long duration; (ii) the extent of the damage; and (iii) the cost.

Bushfires on bad days are always difficult and every fire can throw up lessons for the future, things that can be done better or differently. This is part of the normal learning curve of land and fire management.

What cannot be overlooked is that this fire demonstrated, yet again, that there is an absolutely fundamental weakness in the WA bushfire management system. This is the fact that the authorities at State and Local government level continue to allow large areas of private land, in highly bushfire-prone zones, and with a history of serious bushfires, to be a bushfire “sitting duck”.

The merest investigation reveals that the city of Perth and many country centres are surrounded by a zone of rural/urban interface in which the residents and landscapes are unprepared for fire. These areas enter every new fire season with the risk of bushfire destruction hanging over them. Clearly for this to be allowed, someone or some public agency is not doing its job.

There have been significant improvements to bushfire management in Western Australia over the last 5 years and credit is given to DFES leadership and the work of the Rural Fire Division. Nevertheless, the single most important factor relating to the Worooloo fire becoming so large and doing so much damage is that the firegrounds were not prepared in the expectation of fire.

Had we seen …

  • Houses free from overhanging and flammable vegetation and sealed to prevent ember entry;
  • Grassy paddocks grazed or slashed/mown, enabling easy fire suppression by residents or brigades;
  • Fuel reduction of privately-owned bushland either by mild intensity prescribed burning or grazing;
  • Shires committed to and implementing DFES-approved cross-tenure Bushfire Risk Management Plans aimed at minimising hazards and fuels, and maximizing preparedness;
  • Systematic fuel reduction on road and other reserves under the control of LGA so as to reduce fire intensity and spotting, and make roads safer;
  • Strict enforcement of the Bush Fires Act by LGA and DFES during the previous months to maximise bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation on private land;
  • The preparation, implementation and enforcement of DFES-approved site-specific bushfire management plans for all residential subdivisions;
  • Residents who clearly understood that protection of their own lives and properties was their responsibility and that they could not rely upon, or even expect firefighters to save them and their assets;
  • The entire community braced for a bushfire as the predicted fire weather developed …

… there would still have been a fire, but the outcome in terms of damage and cost would have been very different.

It is worth noting that Western Australia was very lucky that week. Had another fire or two fires occurred in the south-west at the same time as the Wooroloo Fire, for example in the Shires of Denmark or Augusta-Margaret River, the State’s firefighting resources would have been overwhelmed. The need to anticipate multiple fires on bad days is critical, and sharpens the focus on the necessity to have potential firegrounds responsibly prepared.

We conclude that the Independent Panel will find numerous ways in which the firefighting strategy and operations for the Wooroloo Fire could have been improved. But unless it confronts the problem of failure to prepare and mitigate bushfire damage in fire-prone areas, the events and consequences of the Wooroloo Fire will be repeated over and again in the years to come. The key to future bushfire safety will be a recognition by government and the authorities that the “soft” approach (communication and education, P/R campaigns, advertisements) will never succeed by itself, because it will not overcome community apathy, short memories and resistance to lesson- learning. Only if bushfire safety messages are accompanied by strict enforcement of bushfire law will there be significant change in community behaviour in bushfire-prone areas, and a reduction in the number and size and severity of summer bushfires.

A summary of recommendations, cross-refernced to the ToR, is set out in the Appendix to this submission. We Offer to appear: Members of the Bushfire Front will be very happy to meet with the Panel and speak to this submission and answer any questions.

 

Roger Underwood AM

CHAIRMAN, The Bushfire Front

 

Appendix: Summary of Recommendations

 

  1. The Independent Panel should investigate and report on the bushfire history of the area in which the Wooroloo Fire occurred, including the three major fires that have impacted the same district since 1961. [ToR #9]
  2. The Independent Panel should inquire into the lack of preparedness in the firegrounds, and why this was so inadequate. The Panel should determine whether failure of LGA to enforce the Bush Fires Act, and the failure of DFES to require LGA to enforce the Bush Fires Act (for whatever reasons) were significant factors in making the fire so hard to control and so damaging. [ToR #1]
  3. The Independent Panel should acknowledge that Australians living in bushfire-prone areas are frequently apathetic or ignorant of the need for bushfire preparedness, and are resistant to messaging from the authorities, and should advise the government that this will never be overcome except by incorporating strict enforcement of bushfire law into bushfire management. [ToR #9]
  4. The Independent Panel should inquire into the policy of the LGAs in relation to fuel management on road and Shire reserves. The Panel must determine whether a failure by LGA to prepare bushland on road and Shire reserves in the expectation of a fire (through fuel reduction) was a significant factor in making the fire so hard to control and so damaging. [ToR #1]
  5. The Independent Panel must investigate the degree to which DFES took on board warnings about approaching severe bushfire weather, and the extent to which these warnings were communicated to LGA, brigades and the public. [ToR #5]
  6. The Independent Panel should examine the degree to which DFES was alert and ready to act in the event of an outbreak, and the speed and make-up of the initial response. [ToR #1]
  7. The Independent Panel must investigate the firefighting strategy adopted by DFES at this fire, whether there was a focus on saving assets rather than fighting the fire, or at least a lack of priority to fire suppression, and whether this was a factor in the fire persisting for so long and doing so much damage. [ToR #9]The Panel must also look at the need for the authorities to explain clearly to residents in fire-prone areas that protection of their assets is their responsibility
  8. The Independent Panel should undertake, or call for, an independent cost/effectiveness study of water/retardant dropping aircraft at the Wooroloo Fire and should insist that the outcomes be made public. [ToR #9]
  9. The Independent Panel should examine the way in which heavy machinery was brought to bear on this fire so as to maximise its effectiveness and minimise fire size. [ToR #2]
  10. The Independent Panel should find that “climate change” has nothing to do with the intensity and size of this fire and point out that even if extreme and costly “action on climate change” is taken by the WA government, it will not make an iota of difference to the bushfire threat to rural communities in the immediate future. [ToR #9]

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