Probably the most frustrating thing to experienced Australian forest managers is the way governments focus energies and funding on bushfire response — the suppression of going fires — rather than on bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation — preparing the fire grounds so as to make a future fire easier and safer to suppress.
The classic example of this fallacious thinking and false economy is the massive investment in water bombers at the expense of fuel reduction burning. Water bombers are virtually useless in the suppression of high-intensity fires, especially those burning at night and in high winds. Meanwhile, allowing fuels to accumulate by failing to undertake prescribed burning makes high-intensity wildfires a certainty.
Curiously, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (“BOM”) is, perhaps unwittingly, a contributor to this folly. This is because while BOM provides free weather forecasts for organisations engaged in bushfire suppression, it charges a fee for the forecasts that are needed to plan and conduct fuel-reduction burning.
The following summarises the situation:
1. A range of fire weather services are provided free of charge by BOM to the emergency response and fire-fighting agencies (including the forest management agencies) in the States. These services include preparing and updating site-matched forecasts for areas where fires are being fought.
2. These free services are provided by the regional offices of the BOM, whose operations are governed by an annually updated Fire Weather Directive which sets out the various weather-related and other technical parameters for each region so as to ensure the highest possible quality weather information.
3. During a bushfire emergency, BOM provides dedicated officers to work within the fire operations centre or, during a period of extreme bushfire conditions when fires are expected, they make an officer permanently available in constant phone/fax contact. This provides fire commanders with up-to-the-minute fire weather forecasting and analysis of the synoptic situation [Note: in some cases BOM does charge for services not directly associated with a running fire; this basically amounts to a State government agency hiring personnel from a Federal government agency to provide services related to the protection of State communities and asssets].
4. Land management agencies require very detailed weather forecasts for planning fuel reduction burning, including site-tailored seven-day forecasts, and specific-site forecasts on the morning of the day-of-the-burn. The success of a large aerial burn is almost completely determined by being able accurately to forecast the fire danger for the day in the locality of the burn, including potential shifts in wind strength or direction.
Highly complex situations abound. For example, a Western Australian forester trying to decide to commence a burn in mixed karri-marri-heathland forest (with the different vegetation types drying at different rates) requires an accurate and reliable weather outlook for the next 4-7 days. The window of stable weather must be sufficient to complete the burn (often involving three separate ignitions) and make the edges secure before the onset of potentially dangerous fire weather conditions. These are typically associated with the passage of a trough bringing strong northerly winds.
5. The BOM does not provide free forecasts for prescribed burning operations. They have chosen to draw a line between the provision of services for wildfire suppression (no fees apply) and services for wildfire prevention (fees are charged). A single agency can be faced with forecasting fees in the order of several hundred thousand dollars every year.
6. This presents a dilemma to the agencies.. Essentally they have three options: (a) pay BOM for weather forecasts, with money that could be used for fuel reduction burning or for employing fire management staff; (b) use the more broad-brush regional forecasts broadcast on the ABC or published in the newspaper, and take the risk that the burns could fizzle out or be too hot or difficult to control; or (c) cancel the burns due to uncertainty about the weather.
None of this makes sense from either a bushfire management or an economic perspective. The BOM may make money out of the State agencies, but ultimately the Federal government will have to help fund the firefighting or damage bill resulting from severe fires in areas where fuel reduction had been cancelled or delayed. Moreover, one of the most important roles of a federal agency like the BOM should be to provide an incentive for wildfire prevention, rather than the reverse. The current BOM policy actually punishes the States and can lead to more serious bushfires, because it discourages high standards of bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation.
Most Australian bushfire specialists believe that the BOM has made flawed (but probably politically-dictated) decisions about funding priorities in recent years. For example, millions of dollars have been poured into computer modelling of future climate change. As far as I can tell, this has produced no useful outcome. It is all very well to predict the average fire danger for NSW fifty years hence, but (a) this has no practical application today; and (b) there is no way that the prediction can be validated – except after fifty years, and what good is that?
In fact predictions of a marginally hotter or hotter/drier climate way in the future tell us nothing that we do not know already about the bushfire situation in Australia. We already know that there are going to be droughts every few years and heatwaves every summer and that in these situations bushfires are going to be hard to handle, especially if they are burning in heavy fuels. We also already know that by investing in a sensible, professionally-designed program of fuel reduction (among other things) we can largely mitigate the risk of bushfire calamities.
Speaking as someone who is concerned about minimising bushfire damage tomorrow and next summer, the millions of dollars spent (and continuing to be spent) by the BOM on climate change modelling seems to me to be a shameless waste of money. The Federal Government should demand that these funds are redirected into providing free high quality meteorological services to forest management agencies to assist them with their fuel reduction programs.
None of this should be construed as a criticism of the officers of the BOM who do the day-to-day work analysing the weather and developing forecasts. I have nothing but the highest regard for their professional work, and their readiness to help when the occasion demands. The problem is with the policy, which presumably was developed by some past Minister or the BOM’s corporate executive. What I am calling for is a new policy, and a change to funding priorities so that the new policy can be implemented. This will produce immediate and tangible benefits to bushfire managers in Australia.
Roger Underwood is a former district and regional forester, now the chairman of The Bushfire Front, a voluntary organisation dedicated to minimising bushfire damage in Australia