The alternative approaches

Bushfire management in Australian forests – confronting a changing environment

by Roger Underwood

There is an old saying that one of the greatest of human failings is the inability to learn from the mistakes of others. One example is that of my 2-year old grandson, who despite being warned, could not resist testing the heat of the stove, and got his fingers burned.  I have noted an identical situation in the attempts at bushfire management by Australia’s new generation of forest managers.

Yet while the new managers have suffered a lot of burned fingers over the last ten years, strangely they do not seem to be learning from it. There are three simple lessons which could be learned: First, the current approach to bushfire management is not working. Second, the current approach has been tried before and it didn’t work then either. And third, there are still a lot of people around who know all this, from whose first-hand experience much could be learned.

Another well-known aphorism tells us that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.

Sadly, when it comes to bushfire management in Australia, I see history repeating itself continuously, and even worse, because of recent changes in our forest management environment, the outlook is for more of the same. And its not just fingers getting burned. Every year over the last ten, the nation’s forests, farmlands and even suburbs have been ravaged by large, high intensity fires. The damage from these fires, the wastage, the loss of resources and the economic and ecological costs have been astronomical. There have also been great but immeasurable psychological impacts on the people in the bush who have suffered from the fires, or who have been forced to turn out, over and over again, to fight them.

The sorriest aspect is that it is all so needless. It is not as if we Australians are brand new settlers in this country, still feeling our way and guided by imported European philosophies, immature science, inexperience of the bush or impractical ideologies.

Or are we? Consider the response from officialdom to the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 fires. Our State governments and agencies are in denial, as witnessed by that monumental whitewash known as the Esplin Report, and by the refusal of State Premiers to adopt the excellent motion put to them by Senator Abetz recently. Consider the recent public statement of the Chief Officer of the NSW Rural Fire Service: he claimed there was no serious bushfire problem in Australia, it is all a beat-up by the media. Consider the way the ACT government blamed the 2003 fires on God, while the WA government blamed the disastrous fire at Mundaring Weir on an arsonist.

Meanwhile, the Emergency Services lobby is renewing its calls for ever more expensive and sophisticated equipment and suppression forces, the environmentalists are blaming Global Warming, while the intellectual leadership and credibility of our academics continues to decline. The darling of the greens, academic Robert Whelan, for example has publicly argued against fuel reduction burning, claiming that it does more damage than massive wildfires, while influential Canberra ecologist Richard Norris claims that the answer to the bushfire problem is simply to take people away from areas where bushfires occur, or make them live in some form of fireproof structure such as a concrete bunker. How he believes that these things could be achieved in regional Victoria, southwestern WA, the urban fringe of Sydney or Tasmania, he does not explain.

If all of these people were less driven by politics or ideology, or if they actually knew something about bushfires or were required to design and implement a bushfire management system and then be accountable for the results, or even if they were prepared to make a serious study of the history of bushfire management in this country, they might have a very different view.

The fact is that large high intensity bushfires result from failed land management; like a disease epidemic, they are incubated over several years during which preventative medicine could have been applied, but was not.

To go back to basics for a moment.

We are not brand new settlers on this continent. Australian land managers, land owners, foresters and rural workers have been confronting the threat of bushfires for over 200 years, and wildland fire has been the subject of very high quality scientific research over the last 50.

This experience and science have revealed that there are three basic alternative approaches to bushfire management: you can let fires burn, you can try to suppress them, or you can try to replace “feral” fires with controlled fires. All of these approaches are applicable and appropriate singly or in combination in different parts of the country. The trick is to get the most effective mixture for a particular place at a particular time.

To look at each of these briefly:

  • In the Let-burn approach nature is assumed to know best, and fires are left to burn to their heart’s content, to go out eventually if they run into last year’s fire, to be extinguished at the onset of the rainy season or tackled at the edge of the bush if human assets are threatened. The let-burn approach is appropriate for bushfires in the remote lands of central Australia and most of the rangelands where access is poor and there are few people or assets. The trouble is that it is now advocated by environmentalists for application to our high rainfall forest country. Those who advocate this approach, it should be noted, mostly live well inside suburbia, are not threatened by fires, do not have to fight them and cannot be held legally accountable for the outcome of such a policy. No government can afford to adopt the let-burn approach for the more populous forest and agricultural regions, at least not officially, although the Victorian government came very close to it a few months ago when it withdrew firefighters from the bush to protect towns.

The two biggest problems with the let-burn approach are (i) fires burning out of heavy forest country can be unstoppable when they reach the edge of the bush; and (ii) under Common Law a token effort must always be made by the land owner or manager to suppress wildfires, because not to do so lays them open to legal action.

  • The second alternative approach is the All-out Suppression approach. This requires fires to be attacked immediately after detection, using the resources of an emergency service, or “fire brigade” set up for the purpose. This approach originated in the cities of Europe in the middle ages, and was exemplified by the drama of the ringing alarm bells, galloping horse-drawn fire engines and magnificently uniformed and helmeted firefighters. The current image is equally theatrical, with water bombers and helitaks sweeping the smoky skies, convoys of tankers filing along country roads, and brilliantly uniformed Fire Chiefs being interviewed on television by breathless reporters.

The all-out suppression approach is appropriate in cities, where there are permanent firefighters on standby 24 hours a day and who are able to get to any fire within minutes. In earlier days in rural Australia the suppression approach was implemented by volunteer brigades of farmers and bush workers, and was largely successful in developed farmland and country towns.

However, in rural Australia these days the small local bushfire brigades have morphed into the highly sophisticated paramilitary organisations such as the CFA and the NSW RFS, complete with their decision-making headquarters in the city and their armies and air forces. Increasingly they are being expected to fight full-scale forest fires. This is partly because of the loss of experienced full time agency firefighters and also the loss of firefighters from the former hardwood timber industry.

But the main reason is that the all-out Suppression Approach is fast becoming the dominant philosophy in most of Australia, especially NSW and Victoria.

The amazing thing about this is that it flies in the face of practical experience and bushfire science. This approach does not and cannotwork in Australian eucalypt forests unless it is supplemented by other measures (discussed below). Fires on hot windy summer days in long unburnt forests simply cannot be put out by humans, no matter how many, how courageous and how hard they work and how good their technology. Even under relatively mild conditions, the intensity of fires burning in fuels over about 10 tonnes per hectare is simply too great to allow them to be attacked successfully. The 2007 Victorian fires demonstrated that the entire firefighting resources of Australia, plus international assistance from NZ, Canada and the USA, were inadequate.

This is a situation which was once well understood by Australian forest managers. Which is why in the 1950s there was a general move to adopt a third approach – the substitution of controlled mild fire for uncontrolled high intensity wildfire.

  • I call this the green burning approach.  It recognises two simple facts: Firstly, that bushfires cannot be prevented – even if we eliminated all mankind from the forest, there would still be lightning. And second, periodic mild, patchy fires prevent the build-up of heavy fuels, so that when a fire does start it is easier and safer to suppress, does less damage, and costs less. A regime of green burning also produces a healthier and more vigorous forest and is better for biodiversity. This approach was applied rigorously in WA forests for nearly 30 years, with tremendous success. Unfortunately since about the 1980s green burning has been under constant attack from environmentalists and academics. As a result, in Victoria and New South Wales, especially in forests which are now national parks, almost no effective prescribed burning is done.  Even in WA, where green burning was once championed, the area burnt each year has now fallen well below that required to ensure an effective fire management system. Here the annual burning target is 8% of the forest – simple arithmetic allows you to calculate that this equates to a turn-around time of 12 years, which in the jarrah forest at least is nearly twice the recommended burning rotation length if summer wildfires are to be manageable. The anti-burners have achieved this irresponsible situation not through special expertise in fire prevention or suppression, not through being able to put in place an alternative and equally effective system, but simply by gaining control of government policy and by the capture of the new forest management agencies.

There are two other problems, which I will mention only briefly…..

Opposition to prescribed burning has been accompanied by two further problems in the forest: a decline in the standard of road and fire trail maintenance  – in some cases due to lack of funds, in other cases as a result of deliberate policy –  and fewer permanent agency staff in the bush. The first of these factors has meant it is harder for firefighters to get to fires; the second has meant an increasing reliance on volunteers and on part-time and less experienced firefighters.

What Can be Done?

My experience is revealing. I am the Chairman of a small independent group in WA called the Bushfire Front, and for nearly 5 years we have tried to influence government policy by logic, science and the weight of our >400 years cumulative practical experience in all aspects of bushfire management. We have had one meeting with the Premier and numerous meetings with many Ministers and senior agency staff and have made dozens of submissions. The result is that we have moved from getting the cold shoulder (where we were simply ignored) to getting the warm shoulder (where they agree with us, but do nothing). The government feels very comfortable about this response because we pack no political punch. Ministers and agency bosses know where the real political clout lies. This is with the green pressure groups who control voting preferences and thus are able to determine government forestry policy. In fact their influence extends beyond policy to management plans, and any burning that is done is subjected to ludicrous constraints and environmental audits which focus on trivia and serve only to make it harder to accomplish an effective program. The prescribed burning program is submerged in a bureaucratic jungle, deliberately designed, it seems to us, to prevent burning being done.

The most the Bushfire Front can say we have achieved is that we are well positioned to produce evidence of our warnings and the way these have been ignored to the inevitable Royal Commission after the inevitable bushfire disaster. This will give us no satisfaction.

Similarly we have had almost no success in motivating the media over the issue. We have found that journalists are interested in bushfires only as sensational disasters and theatrical drama; they find issues like damage mitigation and bushfire preparedness boring and un-newsworthy.

I am well aware that our forest managers today must operate in a greatly changed environment to that in which I worked 15 years ago. Here I am not referring to the hysteria about global warming. The big change is that bushfire management has moved from the business of land management to the business of politics. In the business of politics, history, science, practical experience and logic seem to count for nothing.

In my opinion, until the voice of the bush is heard more loudly than the voice of the urban greens and impractical academics this situation will not change. We will continue to be unable to expose the policy vacuum, the flawed ideology, the lack of leadership and incompetent governance which characterise the current approach to bushfire management in this country.

There is one bright light on the horizon: this is the possibility that the Federal Government will become more involved, and will institute a new system in which the States are financially penalised for failed bushfire policies and management, rather than being rewarded as at present. I welcome the leadership in this area being shown by Senator Abetz, Garry Nairn and one or two others, and commend to them the simple template for Best Practice in Bushfire Management which we have developed.

In conclusion

Australia does not need more helitaks, more water bombers, more infra-red gizmos or more overseas firefighters. What is needed is a fundamental change in bushfire philosophy and governance. Forest managing agencies and fire services must shift their focus from suppressing running fires to the critical long-term work of pre-emptive and responsible land management. Their job is to make the task of the firefighter easier and safer, not harder and more dangerous. Arson, Acts of God and possible Global Warming can all be anticipated and steps can be taken to minimise their impact. We know what to do and how to do it.

Finally, I would like to return to my theme about the lessons from history. At a conference of forestry officers in Perth in 1923, the Conservator Stephen Kessell was laying down his philosophy to departmental staff. “Preventing large high intensity forest fires,” he said “is the most fundamental requirement for forest conservation in Australia”. Kessell recognised that without effective bushfire management, no other management outcomes can be achieved.

It’s that simple. Sadly, 80 years later, many of the people who today are responsible for conserving Australia’s forests have not grasped this fact. They fiddle, while Australia burns. And they will continue to do so, until influential rural groups like TCA take up the cudgels on behalf of their forests and their communities.

 2. Australian Bushfire Management: a case study in wisdom versus folly

One man’s wisdom is another’s folly……..Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Roger Underwood

Many years ago, still a young man, I watched for the first time the grainy, flickering black and white film of the British infantry making their attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The stark and terrible footage shows the disciplined soldiers climbing from their trenches and, in line abreast, walking slowly across no-man’s land towards the enemy lines. They scarcely travel a few paces before the German machine gunners open up. They are mown down in their thousands. They are chaff before a wind of fire.

I can still remember being struck nerveless by these images, and later my anger when I realised what that calamitous carnage represented.  It spoke of the deep incompetence of the Generals who devised this strategy of doom and then insisted upon its implementation. It spoke of front-line men led by people without front-line experience. It spoke of battle planners unable to think through the consequences of their plans, and who devalued human lives. It spoke of a devastating failure of the human imagination.

Worst of all, the strategies of the World War 1 Generals demonstrated that they had not studied, or that they had forgotten, the lessons of history. In the final year of the American Civil war, 50 years earlier, the Union army had been equipped for the first time with Springfield repeating rifles, replacing the single shot muskets they had previously used and still were being used by the Confederate army.  The impact on Confederate soldiers attacking defenders armed with repeating rifles was identical to that later inflicted by machine guns on the Western Front. But it was a lesson unlearnt, of collective wisdom unregarded.

None of you will have any difficulty in seeing where this analogy is taking me.

The catastrophic bushfires in Victoria this year, and the other great fires of recent years in Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia are dramatic expressions not just of killing forces unleashed, but of human folly. No less than the foolish strategies of the World War 1 Generals, these bushfires and their outcomes speak of incompetent leadership and of failed imaginations. Most unforgivable of all, they demonstrate the inability of people in powerful and influential positions to profit from the lessons of history and to heed the wisdom of experience.

But just a minute, I can hear some of you thinking. Is this fellow going too far here? What about the malignant influence of global warming on bushfire conditions, making things impossible for firefighters? What about the unprecedented weather conditions on the day, making the fires of February 2009 “unstoppable”. What about the years of drought making the bush super-ready to burn?  Does he not realise that conditions beyond human understanding have now arisen in Victoria, making killer bushfires inevitable? And what about the promises of technology, the super-aerial tankers and so forth, that will give the initiative to our firefighters for once and for all?

I have thought long and hard about all these issues. I am well aware of the drought, of the terrible conditions on the days of the fires, and of the view from some quarters that all of this is a result of global warming. I accept that drought and bad fire weather increase the risk of serious bushfires. What I do not accept is that “unstoppable” bushfires are the inevitable consequence.  And while I will always welcome improved firefighting technology, I know from experience and from an understanding of the simple physics of bushfire behaviour, that technology can never be a substitute for good land management. The serious bushfire is like a disease that is incubated over many years; good land management is the preventative medicine that ensures the disease does not become a killer epidemic.

To me, the epidemic of recent killer bushfires in Victoria are not an indicator of what is inevitable in the future. To me, they are an indicator of the inevitable consequences of what has happened in the past. To me, these fires toll like bells: they toll for failed leadership, failed governance and failed land management.

The issues of leadership and of good governance are central to my position. What these terrible fires point to is that the leaders of our society, Victoria’s politicians and senior bureaucrats, have palpably failed to do the most fundamental thing expected of them: to safeguard Victorian lives and the Victorian environment in the face of an obvious threat. They have failed to discharge their duty of care. Just as we now look back with incredulity at the amateurish strategies of the Generals in The Great War of 1914-1918, so will future Australians look back on the work of those responsible for land and bushfire management in this country (our bushfire Generals) in the years leading up to The Great Fires of 2003-2009.

The toll of the 2009 Victorian fires is shocking. Over 200 lives  – lost. Thousands of homes  – destroyed. Millions of dollars worth of social and economic infrastructure  – reduced to ashes. The work of generations, the farmlands, stock, fences, woolsheds, yards and pastures  – dead and gone. Native animals and birds  – killed in their millions. Beautiful forests – cooked, in some cases stone dead. Catchments – eroding. The costs – multi-millions of dollars. Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the equivalent of a year’s supply for the whole of Australia. Psychological damage to children and families – uncountable.

Our bushfire Generals……. those Premiers, Ministers and senior bushfire bureaucrats in whom the people of Victoria put their trust….. can have no excuses.

They cannot say they didn’t know we have serious bushfires in Australia. This is no soft, green island where no bushfire ever burns. Australians have not arrived only recently in this hot, dry sclerophyllous land. Even if we overlook for a moment the fire management experience of Aboriginal people, accumulated over 40,000 years or so, non-Aboriginal Australians have been here for over 200 years, with 200 fire seasons, thousands of hot, dry and windy days, dozens of prolonged  droughts, tens of thousands of thunderstorms, millions of lightning strikes, and hundreds of thousands of bushfires. This is no new or unique phenomenon. [Note 1]

They cannot say the impacts of intense bushfires on human communities were unimaginable.  We have known for 200 years that European settlement represented the insertion of a fire-vulnerable society into a fire-prone environment.  We have seen the consequences of mixing hot fires and settlements on many….. too many….. occasions, to doubt the result. [2]

They cannot say that Australians are powerless in the face of the bushfire threat, that bushfires are “unstoppable”. From the earliest days of settlement, through to the evolution of the fire management systems developed by experienced land and forest managers in the 1950s and 1960s, we have known what is needed to minimise bushfire intensity and bushfire damage [3], even under extreme conditions. From at least the 1960s we have known how to build and maintain houses in fire-prone environments so as to optimise their survival.

They cannot say that the relationships between fire and the Australian bush are still unknown.  There have been 200 years of observation and records and over 50 years of scientific research on this very subject. This experience and this research has confirmed that fire is not an alien visitor, but a natural part of Australian bushland ecosystems. The right sort of fire is an agent for rejuvenation, regeneration, recycling and bushland health, a stimulus for biodiversity.  Fire is to the Australian bush as are the waves and tides to Australian seaweeds and marine life.  It is the absence of fire, especially of mild fire, that is the real threat to the Australian bush, because the inevitable result is a landscape-level holocaust, from which it might take a century or more for recovery.

And they cannot say that they were not warned. Warnings have emerged from the aftermath of every damaging bushfire for the last 70 years or more…… from inquiries, commissions and reports, from independent auditors and from land managers, bushfire scientists, foresters, farmers and firefighters. In recent years the warnings have come thick and fast. Magnificent books have been written on the subject [4]; there have been dozens of scientific papers and popular articles written by our very own world-respected bushfire experts like Phil Cheney. There have been detailed submissions by professional groups such as Forest Fire Victoria, the Bushfire Front and the Institute of Foresters of Australia. As recently as 2008 the Victorian Parliament undertook its own review and produced one of the best reports I have ever seen. Its key recommendations were simply…… “noted” in passing.

Can anyone say that no clear lessons have emerged from the bushfire calamities of the past? Can anyone say they are unaware of the previous fires that have burned Australian farms, settlements and suburbs, incinerated our national parks, nature reserves, rangelands and forests, or scorched our northern savannahs? Did no-one notice all those bushfires over the years that cut power supplies, burned out bridges and roads, destroyed schools, churches and hospitals, interrupted or fouled water supplies, destroyed observatories and threatened species, plantations, orchards and vineyards?

No, there is no shortage of lessons. They have even flowed in, for those who should have listened and learned, from Greece, from Portugal, and from the western United States and Canada during the last few years.

Over and over again, the same words have rung out, the same message has been sent:

  1. In our climatic zone with hot dry summers and periodic drought, and with our flammable vegetation and frequent lightning strikes, bushfires are inevitable.
  2. If fuels are allowed to accumulate, bushfires in eucalypt forests rapidly attain an intensity that exceeds the human capacity to extinguish them, notwithstanding the most modern and massive suppression forces.
  3. Communities and economic assets in the path of high intensity fires will suffer horrible damage.
  4. But! Potential damage can be minimised by application of a fire management system that incorporates responsible planning, and high standards of preparedness and damage mitigation, especially fuel reduction.
  5. And! We have a choice: fires are inevitable, but we can chose to have mild controlled fires, or ungovernable infernos.

No, our politicians and bushfire generals cannot say they have not been warned. They cannot say there were no lessons to learn. They cannot say the message had not been sent.

They can only say that it was not received, or that it was received but ignored. Neither excuse is acceptable.

So what are the explanations? Why were sound messages not received, or received but not acted upon? Why,  after 200 years of experience and 50 years of world-leading research, after working examples of how to set up an effective system of bushfire management have been established…… how was it possible that our political and bureaucratic leaders opted to adopt a bushfire system that does not work, that fails to protect Victorians from death, disaster and environmental calamity?

There are two answers.

  1. The first is political. Put simply, in the last 25 years and when it comes to bushfire management, Australia governments have failed to govern. The focus of politicians has been on getting elected or staying in power, not in providing intelligent, tough and effective governance. This has led to political parties courting the preference votes of pressure groups and of city-based electors who are in the thrall of pressure group philosophies.

Despite the protestations of environmentalists over the last few weeks, there is no question that the influence of green activists at Federal, State and Local government levels has resulted in a steep decline in the standard of bushfire management in this country. Their influence is exemplified by two things: (i) opposition to prescribed burning for fuel reduction, resulting in unprecedented fuel build-ups in parks, forests and reserves close to population centres; and (ii) rural residential developments, in which developers and residents have been prevented or discouraged by environmentalist-dominated local councils from taking reasonable measures to ensure houses are bushfire-safe; and where people are living in houses in the bush where there is no effective enforcement by councils of building codes or hazard reduction. [5]

The situation where a Government fails to govern is, of course, made worse when communities and individuals fail to self-govern. People building houses and choosing to live in the bush also have a personal responsibility – to look after themselves and their neighbours. This responsibility, it seems to me, has also been discouraged by modern governments.

  1. The second explanation is technical. In recent years many Australian bushfire authorities have been seduced by the siren call of technology. This has lured them into a fatal trap. Their assumption is that any fire can be contained so long as they get it early and then have enough hardware to throw at it.This approach arose in the United States in the years after World War 2, and is thus known to Australian land managers as “the American Approach”.

The American Approach is fundamentally flawed. Fifty years of its application in the United States and ten years in Australia has demonstrated that no force of firefighters in the world, indeed the fire-fighting resources of the world could they be marshalled into one place, can stop a crown fire in heavy forest which is generating a jet-stream of spotfires downwind, each spot fire also landing in heavy fuels, and starting new crown fires. The best and the bravest men and women, armed with the most munificent, the most magnificent and the most expensive equipment, is totally overwhelmed [6].

This is a reality that still appears not to have penetrated the Australian bushfire Generals and our political leaders. Not only have we seen the American Approach increasingly supported in this country, and then watched as it invariably fails when pitted against multiple hot fires in heavy fuels…… despite this!….. it seems to have taken on a life of its own. Every year more money is poured into the purchase of super-expensive equipment, but the outcomes on the ground just get worse. As recently as last week, Australian emergency services experts were launching new and strident calls for more and more expensive technology, completely ignoring the need for preventative measures.

Adoption of the American Approach has been accompanied by an equally disastrous institutional re-arrangement: the progressive transfer of bushfire responsibilities on crown lands from land management agencies to the emergency services.  In this scenario, beloved of politicians and bushfire Generals, the focus of funding is shifted from preparedness and damage mitigation to emergency response. What this means in practice is less emphasis on fuel reduction and more on building up fleets of water-bombers, tankers, and other high tech firefighting gizmos, an enormous paramilitary force (overseen by technocrats in Head Office) whose function is to put out fires after they start… but which is doomed to failure whenever they are faced with multiple fires burning in heavy fuels under hot windy conditions.

These new and deleterious institutional arrangements persist because they are supported by powerful vested interests. The emergency services have a vested interest in maintaining a huge fire suppression machine and in making every fire – even an inconsequential fire – an emergency.  I have watched over recent years as they have created a state of dependence on their firefighting forces, which, when things go bad, they cannot deliver upon. And they have encouraged the belief in the public mind that all fire is bad and has to be suppressed or avoided.

Politicians also have a vested interest in the American Approach. It is easier and simpler to finance suppression systems than damage mitigation, and they can bask in the glow of measures which are highly visible to the public and the media, and give the impression that they are doing something useful, irrespective of the fact that it will not succeed under bad fire conditions. I ask you….how often have you seen a politician lighting the first match of a prescribed burn, compared with the occasions when you see them breaking the champaigne over a newly purchased helicopter water bomber?

In saying this, I need to make an important point: I am not critical of the firefighters on the ground, professional and volunteer. I know these people, and I know them to be brave, resourceful and tough. I admire them unreservedly. But they are increasingly being asked by their own leadership to do the impossible.

But what of the assertions from groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society that because of global warming, big unstoppable bushfires are here to stay, and we might just as well get used to them. I totally reject this line of argument. It is an insult to human intelligence and to the human spirit. If the computer projections are correct and it does become hotter and dryer, this means we have to make even greater efforts at fire prevention, further improve our state of preparedness and take even more serious measures to minimise potential bushfire damage. The idea that there is nothing we can do in the face of global warming but retreat into the CFA shed and wait for the next fire to come at us over the horizon is defeatist and in the end, inhumane. And suggestions that everything will be OK if only Australians reduce their carbon dioxide emissions is surely an example of kindergarten-level thinking.

The need for mitigation of bushfire damage through fuel reduction by prescribed burning is absolutely central to effective bushfire management in dryland Australia [7]. I support the concept unequivocally, although I set some clear parameters: burning must be based on sound research into fuel characteristics, fire behaviour and fire effects; burns must be conducted professionally by trained personnel using the best-available burning guides; and every burn must be part of an overarching strategic approach, the carefully designed and constantly updated jigsaw known as the Strategic Burning Plan.

This is how it is done in Western Australia and could be done in Victoria.  But even in WA the system slipped in recent years, as foresters battled to keep a fuels management program going in the face of cunning opposition from environmentalists and compliant politicians. WA has also seen an almost complete abandonment of effective bushfire management on private land over the last decade, with Local Government opting out and no-one else filling the vacuum.  This is a situation people like me are trying to address as we speak. Would it not be better, we say to the WA government, to sort things out in advance, rather than after a disaster?

Nevertheless, 50 years of hard experience in Western Australia and world-class research [8] has demonstrated beyond argument that  while fuel reduction by prescribed burning does not prevent bushfires, it ensures fires do less damage, and it makes them easier and safer to extinguish. In gambler’s terms, it shortens the odds in favour of the firefighter. In human terms, it means people living in bushland areas where fuels have been reduced, are less likely to be burnt to death than are people living amongst heavy fuels.

Victoria, New South Wales and to a lesser extent South Australia are years behind Western Australia when it comes to the critical business of fuels and fire management. There is a no need for new research to demonstrate the value of prescribed burning, as some academics are suggesting [9]. The need is to apply existing knowledge in a vastly expanded prescribed burning program on the lands that burn. The need is to upgrade the fire skills of field staff in parks and forests so that they can handle burns confidently and efficiently. The need is to develop comprehensive planning and control systems to ensure burning is professionally carried out, and the results are properly monitored and recorded. Above and beyond all this is the need for governments to recognise these needs, to act on them and to support their staff in the field.

And here’s the rub. Based on history, you could be excused for asking will anything change, or will we see just another revolution of the bushfire cycle? [10]

My fear is that governments, however much they make the right noises, will in the end want to stay in office, and unless things change, this will mean pandering to those who (despite their current protestations) have consistently opposed responsible bushfire management.

My fear is that the forces who benefit from the status quo will already be marshalling their resources in its defence. These will include the bushfire Generals who will not want to lose their power and influence, or to see funding going to land management (which they do not control) instead of new helicopters, water bombers and tankers (which they do).

I fear that  all-knowing academics from the Fenner School of Environmental Studies at ANU, and members of the Canberra and Melbourne intelligentsia will emerge from their leafy campuses to tell us that actually there is no problem at all…. surely, everyone knows that killer bushfires are simply Mother Nature at work, or the planet’s revenge for our despicable environmentally-unfriendly behaviour. This line will be pushed over and again, helping to massage the consciences of politicians reluctant to make substantial changes to policies and practices which they think will be electorally unpopular  [11].

Yes, I am fearful. But I am also hopeful (in a pessimistic way!) My intense hope is that this time things might change. Notwithstanding the whining of the effete intelligentsia, and opposition to change from the green bureaucracy, the powerful environmental groups and the emergency service chiefs, I think that this time it is going to be hard for the Victorian government to find excuses for doing nothing. In turn, I think that it is also going to be hard for State governments in NSW, SA, Tas and WA to ignore the carnage in Victoria and the fact that fingers are being pointed very directly at the politicians and their bushfire Generals.

I also think that the Federal Government might finally decide that it is high time they reviewed their approach, which is basically one of rewarding State governments for failed land management. And I think that a great many Local Governments are going to realise that the planning buck stops with them….. if they knowingly put people into danger through their town planning and environmental policies, and the people are then killed, they cannot escape accountability.

Finally, I think that this time, it will finally dawn on governments and their advisers that in  the Australian bush if you do not manage fire, you cannot manage for anything else.

Think about that for a moment. In  the Australian bush if you do not manage fire, you cannot manage for anything else.

It is all very well to say that the management objective for our parks, forests and reserves is “protection of biodiversity”, as most national parks agencies say these days. The trouble is, this objective cannot be achieved without first having put in place an effective bushfire management system. Where is the biodiversity today in those thousands of hectares of bushland without a green leaf to be seen, those “bare ruined choirs where no bird sings”?

It is the same in areas where the stated management priority is to protect water catchments. But to say this, and then adopt a strategy that allows fuels to build up until the day comes when the catchments are reduced to dead trees and ash – is blatantly self-defeating. And it is the same for every other land management objective, whether this be protection of aesthetics and lovely forest landscapes, protection of recreational areas, protection of commercial values and residential areas or the conservation of soil, remnant bushland on farms or threatened species.

Therefore, the first rule of land management in Australia is this: get your bushfire management right, or be prepared to lose the lot.

I started this paper with a reference to World War 1, and the futility of the strategies adopted by the Generals throughout the first three and half years of the war. It is significant that the breakthrough in 1918, the new strategy, was designed by an Australian, indeed a Victorian, General Sir John Monash. The Monash strategy was based on firstly establishing clear priorities and unambiguous objectives – he knew exactly what he wanted from amongst the options of what could be achieved. It was based on excellent planning, anticipation of difficulties and attention to detail [12]. It was based on the advice of experts, men who had been at Gallipoli and in the trenches in France and Belgium, and who spoke from experience on the ground, not from ideology. Above all, Monash was not prepared to sacrifice human lives needlessly. With all of this behind them, the troops on the ground did the rest. Monash’s new approach provided the blueprint for the end to the slaughter on the Western Front.

What Australian bushfire management is crying out for is a new General Monash, a leader who understands that the current approach has failed and is doomed to continuing failure, that the influential advisers have no front-line experience. An effective new leader will know that if we clarify and properly rank our objectives, listen to the voices of experience and the lessons of history, and act accordingly, the odds favouring success will be massively shortened.

But the great General Monash himself would not succeed without the support of Prime Ministers, Premiers and Ministers, prepared to stand firm behind him when the Wilderness Society, the Canberra intelligentsia and the ABC current affairs people gang up on him. A good response to this lot might be  “Sorry, mates, we are doing what is best for Australia and Australians, based on good science, experience and the word from the people who have most to lose”. Politically incorrect, of course, but it is the approach adopted when it comes to defence of the country against external enemies and national security, and which most Australians accept in that context.

Nor will a new general succeed without legislative and policy backing to enable land management agencies to win back the ground they have lost to the emergency services. Our parks and forests agencies must be empowered and resourced to manage fuels, indeed they must be required to do so, if necessary by legislation. Australia must abandon the American Approach, replacing it with an Australian Approach, a system in which equal weight is given to prevention and suppression, rather than trying, helplessly, to pile all our eggs in the suppression basket.

For any of this to happen our political leaders need to hear from the people whose lives and assets have been sacrificed or recklessly put at risk by the failed policies of the past.  It is essential that the people who have suffered demand systemic change, not just window dressing, more helicopters and overseas firefighters. Unless they speak up, there is no chance they will be heard. Politicians will take the political way out. [13]

I think we can say that the environmentalist approach to bushfire management, including reliance on aerial firefighting, has been given a very fair go. It has had a good test.  Regrettably, and predictably, the results reveal that it has been a failure [14]. The excuses put forward, especially that fires are unstoppable because of global warming, are simply that: excuses. They do not allow for the capacity of intelligent humans to foresee a threat and to forestall it.

To conclude. The choices before us are straight-forward: do Australians, and especially Victorians, want our bushfire and land management planning done by professionals with front-line experience, or by campus intellectuals and ideologists? Is it smarter to manage bushfire fuels by burning them at times of our own choosing when conditions are mild, or to stand back, do nothing and risk being engulfed by fire at the worst possible time? If fires are inevitable, which is preferable: a controlled or a feral fire? And do we see humans as part of the ecosystem and plan accordingly, or do we see them as interlopers, as illegal immigrants in the Australian bush?

Do we opt for Wisdom or for Folly?


  1. The question of Aboriginal burning is still debated. According to the accounts of early explorers and settlers and to present-day Aborigines, pre-European burning was widespread and frequent. This information is rejected by environmentalists as “hear-say”. Western Australian ecologist David Ward has found a unique way to unlock the history of pre-European burning, through his study of fire scars on grass trees. Ward’s work in the jarrah forests of Western Australia, indicate that fire occurred there at intervals of 2-4 years, and combined with his understanding of fuel dynamics and fire behaviour, he concludes that these fires would have been of mild intensity and patchy. Academics from Melbourne University, without ever having worked in the jarrah forest, have dismissed Ward’s findings, preferring the print-outs from a theoretical computer model.
  2. Not everyone agrees about the environmental impact of large intense wildfires. Dr Ross Bradstock who lectures to undergraduates at the Australian National University, has written in an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper that that there was no scientific evidence for the claims that millions of birds and mammals died, or that forest diversity was reduced in the Victorian Alpine fires in 2003.
  3. Laura Meredith, writing of her home in Tasmania in 1840, records a time when her husband was away and bushfires were threatening her home. She discovered with relief that her husband had taken the wise precaution of burning the ferns over the whole of a wide span of the forest which surrounds us and thus the home was rendered safe.
  4. The best book written on fire in Australia is Stephen Pyne’s Burning Bush (first published in 1991 and updated following the 2003/4 fires) but there are also numerous books on fire science and history, including the excellent Fire and Hearth by the anthropologist Sylvia Hallam. Hallam quotes Lort Stokes, a fellow traveller with Charles Darwin on the Beagle who watched as Aboriginal people near Albany carried out their routine burning of the bush, replacing (in Stokes’ words) fires of “ungovernable fury” with those of “complete docility”.
  5. In the very week leading up toVictoria’s Black Saturday, Western Australian bushfire managers found themselves dealing with a Greens Member of Parliament who was threatening to organise a protesters’ camp in the bush to prevent a prescribed burn. The burn was planned to protect two local townships plus some very lovely forest from wildfire.
  6. As Shakespeare pointed out: A little fire is quickly trodden out, but being suffered, rivers will not quench.Many of those who oppose prescribed burning believe that if we simply had enough firefighters, permanently waiting in the bush for fires to start, and able to tread on them at the instant of ignition, no large fires would ever occur. Firefighters regard this as impractical. In eucalypt forests carrying heavy dry fuels, a fire can become too fierce to allow direct attack by firefighters within minutes of ignition, indicating that the “treading out” approach would require several million firefighters on standby throughout Australian forests for several months of every year.
  7. “Dryland Australia” is the bulk of the continent, outside the tropical rainforests of the north, some of the wet temperate rainforests of southern Tasmania, and coastal mangroves. It is the Australia that burns.
  8. The Project Vesta research, a 10-year study completed in Australia in 2007, involved a collaboration of CSIRO, government agencies and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. It represents the most comprehensive and technically defensible bushfire research program ever carried out anywhere in the world. The results unequivocally support the value of prescribed burning as a means of reducing bushfire intensity, and puts forward new approaches to fuel measurement and characterisation.
  9. “More research is needed” is the standard response of academics and scientists to any issue. This is because they depend on research grants to pay their salaries and expenses. In Australia the fundamental questions about fire behaviour and fuels management have already been answered, going back to the work by Alan MacArthur, Phil Cheney, George Peet and Rick Sneeuwjagt in the 1960s and 1970s, and on building design by the CSIRO going back to the Tasmanian fires of 1967 and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983. The pressing requirements today are for refining fire behaviour tables and developing prescribed burning guides for various forest types, in other words for applied or operational research which builds on current knowledge.This sort of work can only be carried out by bushfire experienced researchers in the field, not by theoretical analysts and computer experts in academia.
  10. The Bushfire Cycle runs thus: first there is a disastrous bushfire. This is followed by inquiries, commissions and reviews and the system is greatly upgraded. Over subsequent years, the new system is so effective that there are no serious bushfires. Apathy and complacency set in, weirdo pressure groups arise, governments lose interest and funds and staff are reduced. The system degrades. Then there is another bushfire disaster and the wheel revolves once more.
  11. According to the doyen of Canberra intellectuals Professor Clive Hamilton, speaking on ABC’s Radio National recently; “the most interesting thing about the recent Victorian bushfires has been the attacks on greenies.” Apparently he did not find the loss of over 200 lives as interesting as the ruffling of the feathers of a few environmental activists.
  12. Les Carlyon in his magnificent book The Great War, notes that Monash’s final planning conference before the attack on Hamel in 1918had an agenda of 133 items. Elsewhere it is recorded that the then-Colonel Monash, commanding Australian troops at Gallipoli in 1915, set up his command HQ thirty metres from the Turkish front trenches.
  13. The fundamental issue, and the basis of the whole difficulty facing professional bushfire managers, is very well summed up by Jim Hacker, fictional Minister for Administrative Services in the television series ‘Yes Minister’: “There are times in a politician’s life when he is obliged to take the wrong decision. Wrong economically, wrong industrially, wrong by any standards – except one. It is a curious fact that something which is wrong from every other point of view can be right politically. And something which is right politically does not simply mean that it is the way to get the votes – which it is – but also if a policy gets the votes then it can be argued that that policy is what the people want. And, in a democracy, how can a thing be wrong if it is what the people will vote for?” The ultimate test for the Victorian government in the wake of the recent fires is whether or not it caves in to green demands on bushfire issues in order to win preference votes and stay in power at the next election.The ‘Yes Minister’ scenario, and past performances, suggests that they will fail this test, and will cave in, unless there is a dramatic outburst of political courage and responsible government.
  14. It was notable that some of the worst of the recent fire damage in Victoria occurred in the dark, at night or under gale force winds when aerial waterbombers were grounded. This is consistent with my own experience. In 1978 I was the Officer in Charge in the karri forest in Western Australia during the Cyclone Alby bushfire crisis. The first thing we had to do as the cyclonic winds approached, was to ground all our aircraft and tie them down.

Roger Underwood is a forester with fifty years experience in bushfire management and bushfire science. He has worked as a firefighter, a district and regional manager, a research manager and senior government administrator. He is Chairman of The Bushfire Front, an independent professional group promoting best practice in bushfire management.

Unsafe Places

  While there is a severe fire hazard in many places in Western Australia, there are several standout places where the hazards are very high, and the potential for loss of life and property is also very high. Local governments need to…

Read More…

The Sawyers Bushfire – Disaster Averted

The January 2018 Sawyers Valley bushfire occurred under moderate temperature but windy conditions. Believed to have been started by an arsonist, the fire started at about 8 AM alongside Gorrie Road and moved rapidly to the west-south-west in jarrah and wandoo forest,…

Read More…