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April 05th 2013 print

Roger Underwood & Athol Hodgson AM

Death by fire and culpable neglect

Summer has passed and the immediate threat of massive bushfires with it. But the flames will return, as they always do, and with them the likelihood of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives being lost. The time to act is now, before it is too late



Every year as the Western Australian summer approaches, one co-author of this article (Roger) is visited anew by a recurring nightmare. It is a hot day in early January, the height of the holiday season. An anticyclone is stationary in the Great Australian Bight, and a cyclone is brewing in the Indian Ocean off the Pilbara coast. Thunderstorms develop and there are lightning strikes in the long unburnt national parks near Cape Naturaliste on the south-west corner of Australia. A series of fires is started, quickly overwhelming the volunteer brigades.


The fires rapidly pick up in intensity, coalesce and then, with a powerful nor’west wind behind them, drive down through the crowded holiday settlements, bushland residential areas, hobby farms and vineyards checkerboarding the beautiful Margaret River region.

Within hours the roads are gridlocked and residents trying to escape come face to face with firefighters on the way in. The roads are narrow and twisting and their verges carry massive fuel loads and dry grass. The swirling fire winds drop trees across powerlines and roads. The fireground becomes a battleground, and then a killing ground.

To the other co-author (Athol) this shocking nightmare is also a recurring theme. For years he has observed the demise of sound, professional bushfire management in Victoria, and his colleague, Rod Incoll AFSM, has raised awareness about the "Arc of Fire" around the Melbourne metro area, extending from Whittlesea-St.Andrews to Eltham through Yarra Glen and Healesville, across the Dandenongs and along the Mornington Peninsular.

All of this nightmare has now been raised again, and brilliantly articulated by another two colleagues or ours in Victoria, David Packham and Tim Malseed. Reviewing specifically the near-Melbourne suburb of Eltham, part of a Melbourne suburb, Malseed and Packham have come up with a horrifying scenario. This has now been published in a paper entitled: Bushfire Death Trap: The Eltham Gateway.

We regard it as a landmark publication in Australian bushfire literature.

What in particular makes the paper so powerful is the calm and professional way the author’s position is presented, and its basis in bushfire history. It also demonstrates a solid and practical understanding of bushfire science, including risk management.

David Packham is already well-known, as one of Australia’s most highly respected bushfire scientists, with an Order of Australia awarded for his pioneering research into aerial fuel reduction burning. Malseed, on the other hand, is a lay person  (but also an architect and builder) whose knowledge of the Eltham Gateway has been acquired over his 34 years as a resident there. This is his first entry into bushfire management, driven by his concerns that Eltham (where he has built many beautiful houses) hasbeen proven by Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday to be on the threshold of becoming another Kinglake, destroyed by fire.

Eltham Gateway is the entry to a suburb at the urban/rural interface, approximately 20 kms from the centre of Melbourne. The dwellings in the area are mostly embedded in bushland, with tree canopies often meeting overhead, at times with fine fuels accumulating on rooftops. The topography is undulating, with some steep areas along the river banks. The area is vulnerable to high intensity fire and to falling trees on aerial powerlines, cars and roads.

In short, the whole suburb is fearfully bushfire-prone. It exemplifies that most worrying combination of risks: a heavily populated residential area with long-unburnt flammable fuels, in a climatic zone regularly subjected to severe bushfire weather, and in area that has experienced damaging bushfires in the recent past.

Worse than all this, Eltham Gateway is also potentially a death trap due to traffic gridlock. Access and egress is via two bridges, one crossing a steeply banked flood creek to the west, and the other crossing Melbourne’s main river, the Yarra, to the south. Both are significant bottlenecks, even under day-to-day ‘good’ conditions. Each will inevitably become gridlocked in the event of ‘bad conditions’ — an emergency bushfire evacuation, for example. This would trap perhaps thousands of residents on bush-lined roads.

Malseed and Packham know the area, and they know its past. They point out:

1.         That on February 7, 2009, Victoria suffered a number of extreme bushfires, which killed 173 people. This was the infamous ‘Black Saturday’, Australia’s worst bushfire disaster. The most deadly of the fires that occurred that day was the ‘East Kilmore fire’. At one stage on Black Saturday it appeared inevitable that the East Kilmore fire was going to burn right into the Eltham Gateway. Had it done so, instead of veering east thanks to an earlier-than-predicted wind change, thousands could have been killed, in excess of 100,000 people traumatised, and many billions of dollars of damage and compensation caused.

2.         All of this had been predicted. Six years earlier, in 2003, two independent expert assessments (one by David Packham and one by Rod Incoll) were made of the bushfire threat to the Eltham Gateway. In both cases, the threat was clearly identified and was formerly presented to the Victorian government, with a call for action. In both cases fuel reduction was recommended to alleviate the situation. Both the Packham and Incoll assessments were ignored by the Victorian Government.

Malseed and Packham revisit this dark history of neglect in the shocking light of Black Saturday. But in addition to highlighting anew the threat to thousands of lives, the authors examine what is being done about it. Alarmingly, they conclude that (as we write)

  • No formal, professional bushfire threat analysis has been made for the Eltham Gateway by government authorities to address the current situation. At the very least, a bushfire risk analysis should have been made for all of the areas bounded by the two death-trap bridges (identifying the places most at risk and the sites where bushfire damage will be most severe), but it has not.
  • No landscape-level fuels management program has been developed for the area, nor has any authority been assigned responsibility for drawing up or implementing such a program. As a result, most bushland properties in the Eltham Gateway are carrying fuels in excess of 10 tonnes to the hectare, the level above which any attempt to attack and control the fire’s main front usually fails.
  • No effective systems have been developed to promote fuel reduction by landowners and to train and assist them to safely implement a fuel-reduction program.
  • In addition to the heavy fuels on private land, there are fuel accumulations on road verges and parklands, all of which are the responsibility of government. Heavy fuel loads on bushland adjoining narrow roads are particularly worrying. When they burn, they generate a massive radiant heat load, turning roads into corridors of death. Few bushfire evacuees attempting to drive down roads in this area will survive in their cars.
  • Many road verges in the area are also dotted with ‘bushfire dangerous’ trees. These are trees, sometimes dead, dying, hollowbutted or diseased, which will fall across powerlines and roads when a hot fire comes through. No program has been put in place to identify and remove these inevitable ‘widow-makers’.
  • No Extreme Bushfire Emergency Strategy for the Eltham Gateway has been developed. At the very least, such a strategy would be looking at pre-empting the inevitable grid locks at the evacuation bottlenecks, by expanding the egress roads to four lanes, and installing an emergency access crossing on the river.

Malseed and Packham go beyond outlining the problem. They point the finger at those who they regard as responsible. These include Premiers Bracks, Brumby and Baillieu, and Planning Ministers Delahunty, Hulls, Madden and Guy. All of these Members of Parliament could have taken action to minimise the bushfire threat to the Eltham Gateway. In the Victorian Government, “specific responsibility” for bushfire mitigation rests with the Ministers for Planning.

They also identify the influence of the greens on fire and planning policies. They point out how, over many years from the mid-1980s:

… Cool burning was dangerously downgraded. The green movement attracted a new spectrum of supporters, happy to join an established political power base. Discussion about extreme bushfire was generally not welcomed by green bureaucrats, and was mostly shut down. For many in government, green faith replaced reason.

Elsewhere the green influence was even more disastrous, as Government policies were promulgated that actually prevented sound bushfire management. The result was loss of life, biodiversity going up in smoke, and lovely landscapes converted into fire-ravaged battlegrounds.

As the famous historian Bill Gammage wrote about the Eltham Gateway, it looks as if you are “…trying to set fires, rather than prevent them”.

To our minds, Malseed and Packham have achieved two important things in their Bushfire Death Trap paper. Firstly, they have highlighted the severity of the bushfire risk at the Eltham Gateway, and with any luck this message will sink in with the residents and cause them to demand action. Secondly, they have clearly identified the failure at ministerial level to accept accountability for the problem and, more important, for fixing it.

In Victoria, as is the case throughout Australia these days, identifying bushfire risks and taking accountability for minimising them, has mostly slipped through the cracks of governance. If there is another Black Saturday (as all bushfire specialists predict) and heavily populated places in the Arcs of Fire around our major cities cop another horrendous bushfire calamity, there can now be little opportunity for  State Planning and Emergency Services Ministers to say they were not warned.

We regard the Eltham Gateway paper as another wake-up call for bushfire managers in rural residential areas all over Australia. Once more, it calls for accountability to be identified, and for individuals to be brought to task. We are appalled that no one was found to have been accountable for the Black Saturday disaster. How can that possibly be? Until this situation changes, and public officials clearly responsible for the protection of communities from bushfires are held to account for their incompetence, or failure to accept their duty of care, there is little hope that the situation will improve.

And what of Roger’s nightmare, the unstoppable bushfire ripping through the lovely but high risk Margaret River region in the south-west corner of Australia? Well, at least they are on the coast, and a Dunkirk Solution can be attempted. If warnings are given early enough, some residents will be able to retreat into the sea … a last resort that will not be available to the residents of the bushfire death trap that is the Eltham Gateway.

For a copy of Malseed and Packham’s paper, email Tim Malseed at  [email protected]

Roger Underwood is Chairman of The Bushfire Front Inc and Athol Hodgson AM is President of Forest Fire Victoria. Both have had long careers in bushfire management in Australia and formerly were senior government officers with extensive bushfire responsibilities