Another summer, another bushfire disaster.
They have been coming thick and fast in recent years – Canberra, the Victorian Alps, Black Saturday, south-west WA, East Gippsland, western NSW, Tasmania, and now the Blue Mountains. Each time, the ingredients are identical: dense, long-unburnt bushland intermixed with poorly-prepared dwellings on narrow (often dead-end) roads occupied by people who have no idea about the speed and ferocity of a high-intensity bushfire. All that is needed to complete this toxic cocktail are a few of days of hot windy weather and multiple ignitions. Firefighters are quickly overwhelmed and terrible damage ensues.
As expected, the most recent disaster has thrown up the usual heroes and villains. The difference is that the heroes are feted (as they should be) while the villains get away with it. This is because they always seem to avoid accountability, either sliding away into invisibility, or making a cunning misdirection play and shifting the blame. And also, as usual, the media (especially the ABC) sucks it up. Global warming is the culprit of choice for bushfire villains these days; it excuses every excess of mismanagement and government incompetence. And although we no longer have Bob Brown blaming the Queensland coal industry, we do have Adam Brandt suggesting that the fires would not have occurred if only Tony Abbott had agreed to the Carbon Tax.
Putting the silliness of the Greens aside for a moment, the mention of Tony Abbott reminds me of one of my favourite themes. Where is the Federal Government when it comes to bushfire management in Australia – what is it doing and what should it be doing?
The first thing to remember is that under the Australian Constitution, land management, and therefore bushfire management, is a direct responsibility of the States. This requires them to be responsible for bushfire legislation, administration, fire prevention/preparedness and suppression, as well as applicable standards applying in residential areas. These are accomplished in different ways in different States, but the basic pattern is the same: there are people who respond to fires after they start (uniformed career firemen in the larger urban areas, volunteers in rural areas) and there are agencies that manage Crown land (the government departments in which national parks and State forests are vested). The latter both respond to fires, but their key responsibility is to prepare public lands in the expectation of bushfires. Local Government also plays an important role, especially in planning and approvals of residential developments and, in some cases, enforcement of fire-related law.
The Federal Government basically plays no part in any of this. But this is not to say that it has not taken on various roles for itself in relation to bushfires. For example when there is a bushfire crisis of sufficient enormity the feds help to pay the costs of suppression and post-fire recovery. They also fund bushfire-related research, and there have been occasions when they have intruded into the states’ bushfire affairs via the Federal Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Act.
The use of federal money for fire fighting and for post-fire recovery is politically justified; cries for help cannot (and should not) be refused. The danger is that after a while these rescue missions amount to rewarding state governments for failed land management. The most damaging fires will always occur in places were poorly-prepared dwellings sit within or adjacent to long-unburnt bushland on Crown land. This is clearly the product of mismanagement by state and local governments. By stepping in, time and again, to meet the costs of defending or rebuilding these planning and management cock-ups the Federal Government is providing no incentive for change.
I would not like to see bushfire management taken away from the states. Experience has shown over and over that shifting responsibilities to Canberra is rarely beneficial in the long run. I believe in the old saying that those who own the fuel own the fire. Furthermore, the transfer of responsibility for fire to the feds would only provide yet another excuse for mismanagement. But there is a role the Federal Government can play. What I would like to see is greater leadership in three particular fields: policy, damage mitigation, and research.
Development of a national bushfire policy
Australia has no national-level strategic approach to bushfire prevention and control. This has allowed the states to develop their own policy settings (or not as the case may be), and it is a complete mess. For example, Western Australia has no overarching Bushfire Policy, but instead a mishmash of uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting policies has developed within different government agencies and local government authorities. I suspect this situation is replicated in all states.
A policy statement can be just a collection of platitudes, or (as is the case with many national policies) the aims are set so high that they cannot be implemented at the local level. But a well-constructed policy will establish measurable objectives applying on a regional basis, and set priorities for research, planning and operations that will dictate funding. Furthermore, the process of developing a bushfire policy would provide an opportunity to debate, define and commit to a statement of Best Practice in Bushfire Management, something that has never been done in Australia. A best practice template would not only guide action on the ground, but would allow performance to be systematically audited and reported upon. This is another thing that has never been possible, let alone done.
Neither the policy nor the process will happen if left to the States. The Federal Government must set the agenda and manage the process. The critical thing will be to ensure the job is put in the hands of people with first-hand, practical knowledge about fire management, and kept well away from the sort of out-of-touch academics responsible for the embarrassing COAG report of several years ago.
Funding for bushfire damage mitigation
The Federal Government could help to fund the implementation of approved fire-management plans whose objective is to prepare the potential fire grounds in the expectation of fire (including fuel reduction and road and track maintenance programs), to the employment and training of permanent bushfire staff in bushfire-prone districts and to the protection of key infrastructure.
Every state is having difficulty funding bushfire-preparedness and -damage mitigation, especially fuel- and hazard-reduction in forested bushland … or they are choosing to not fund them, and the whole system of fireground preparedness is slowly degrading. This means that the focus of bushfire management is constantly being shifted from preparedness to emergency response, even though everyone knows that emergency response always fails the ultimate test. The numbers of full-time trained employees who can undertake fuel reduction burning in national parks and State forests for example, has declined massively over the last 10 years, and this trend is unlikely to be reversed if left to state governments alone. This loss of personnel and experience has coincided, incidentally, with the demise of the hardwood timber industry, which once provided a magnificent resource of well-equipped and competent firefighters, a point well-made in the report of the inquiry into the latest Tasmanian bushfire disaster.
However, simple largess, the writing of cheques on the Federal Treasury, is not sustainable. The sustainable approach is for the Federal Government to attach strings to funding bushfire operations. States should not expect a hand-out, but would need to know that funds are tied to performance. Federal funds would go only to State or Local Governments who are meeting the Best Practice standards laid out in the National Policy. In other words, Federal funds should be a reward for sound land management, not the reverse.
The Federal Government has provided substantial funds for bushfire-related research over the years. At one time there was a Bushfire Unit in the CSIRO that did wonderful work and won the respect of every Australian firefighter — but then it was gutted and virtually disbanded. Unfortunately in recent times, a great deal of research money has been seriously wasted. Some good work was done for a while by the Bushfire CRC and its successor organisation, but they seem to have lost focus and been drawn away from critical operational and economic issues, such as the development of prescribed-burning guides.
Worst of all has been the wasted funds given to academics at institutions like the Fenner School of Environmental Studies at the ANU or the Centre for Environmental Risk Management at the University of Wollongong. This has been money straight down the drain. I cannot nominate a single positive research outcome from either of these institutions in the field of bushfire management over the last ten years, despite the multi-millions of dollars they have received in research grants. On the contrary, their work often seems to be deliberately directed at making bushfire prevention and fire control on the ground more difficult.
Similarly, the dollar-gobbling climate-modelling and projection of future bushfire scenarios by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology is money utterly wasted. Of course we need to be well-prepared, given the utter certainty that droughts, high temperatures and bushfires are going to coincide sooner or later and produce bad fire weather. But a high state of preparedness is needed anyway, not because of a computer-generated vision in which temperatures go up a couple of degrees over the next 50 years. And even if the climate modellers are correct and things do get slightly hotter and drier, this means that we should be redoubling our efforts at damage mitigation, not casting them aside.
It is time the Federal Government took a very hard-eyed look at the way it funds bushfire research. The people responsible for the firegrounds and those fighting fires are not interested in computer-generated theories of what might happen to the fire danger index in fifty years time. They are not interested in people from inner-city campuses telling them that fuel reduction does not reduce fire intensity, that bushfire smoke is toxic to humans or that if only people cleared a few metres around their house they would be OK. What is needed is a comprehensive set of prescribed burning guides tailored for different forest types, documentation of the effectiveness of prescribed burning programs and economic analysis of different approaches to wildfire damage mitigation. In particular I would like to see cost/benefit studies into the relative value and costs of prescribed burning versus large high intensity fires. This work has never been done properly in Australia, but is central to an underpinning of policy.
Another critical issue requiring objective research is the cost-effectiveness of aerial water bombers, including the Elvis helicopters hired at enormous expense from the USA. Water bombers appear to me to be useful during daylight hours in mild to moderate weather conditions but are useless at night or under high winds. And yet State agencies are continuing to cut back on fuel reduction burning programs (to save money) only to spend millions of dollars hiring aircraft and helicopters for firefighting. I have never seen a cost/benefit analysis of this situation.
Bushfire management in Australia is in a parlous situation, probably the low point since European settlement. Millions of people have been allowed to settle in areas that have been allowed to become indefensible. Millions of hectares of beautiful bushland has been, or is awaiting incineration. This is not the result of ‘global warming’ but of mismanagement and incompetence by state and local governments.
In Tony Abbott we now have a Prime Minister who knows about fire. He also has access to people like Senator Chris Back, who was formerly CEO of the Western Australian Bush Fires Board, a man uniquely placed to provide leadership, help with policy development, encourage a better approach to damage mitigation by state and local government, and who can make sure research funds are sensibly allocated.
If action like this is not taken, we can expect more of the same: every new summer a new bushfire disaster.
Roger Underwood is Chairman of the Bushfire Front in WA, a voluntary organisation promoting professional bushfire planning and operations. He is a former District and Regional Forester with the WA Forests Department. His article “Flaming Idiocy” was published on QOL in 2012