In mid-2000, Victorian foresters were among Australia’s first contingent of forest fire specialists sent to the US to help fight several huge wildfires. Upon returning, they regaled bemused stay-at-home colleagues with stories of so-called “campaign fires” of monstrous size and duration. Apparently, despite huge industrial-scale fire suppression efforts featuring large fleets of aerial water-bombers, controlling large US wildfires was typically slow and often thwarted by over-zealous firefighter safety protocols.
At the time, Australia’s foresters collectively shook their heads in amazement and basked in the presumed superiority that our whatever-it-takes determination to quickly contain bushfires would surely save us from this fraught US path. But just twenty years later, huge US-style “campaign fires” have become a regular feature of south-eastern Australian summers, and are being popularly portrayed as irrefutable evidence of a “new normal” under rampant climate change.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Twenty years ago, climate change was barely mentioned as a cause of forest fires. Instead, internationally acclaimed US wildfire analyst Stephen Pyne was attributing them to the evolution of an aircraft-based “paramilitary emergency response culture” that was displacing the traditional wildfire mitigation approach of balancing off-season land management with in-season fire suppression. In contrast to the cost-effectiveness of the traditional approach, the shift to an approach dominated by in-season emergency response based around the use of expensive water-bombing aircraft was massively increasing the costs of dealing with US wildfires.
Pyne argued that the domination of this aircraft-based emergency response had arisen because of a need to protect burgeoning US suburbs, towns and other assets that were increasingly abutting flammable forests. But while this justified the approach, he contended that it was failing to improve wildfire outcomes because: (1) it is focused on treating the symptoms rather than addressing the factors that underpin fire risk; (2) massive expenditure on aircraft reduces the budgetary resources for off-season fire mitigation activities such as fuel hazard reduction and maintaining forest access that is integral to containing fires while they are small; (3) aerial water-bombing, while effective at saving houses and other community assets, is relatively ineffective in controlling most forest fires; and (4) an over-reliance on aerial water-bombing was partly displacing ground-based fire-fighting which, although carrying a higher degree of firefighter risk, is integral to containing wildfires.
According to Pyne, these consequences of a dominant focus on an aircraft-based emergency response foster a self-sustaining cycle of massive wildfires which is regularly reinforced as each big fire increases community and political demands to further expand the fleet of fire-fighting aircraft. Recent research in Mediterranean countries refers to this phenomenon as the “fire-fighting trap” because nowhere in the world has increasing the numbers of fire-fighting aircraft ever reduced the incidence and extent of large forest fires.
As Australian forest fire management has followed the US example, the concerns identified by Pyne are now also applicable to the Australian context. That the Morrison government has become ensnared in this “fire-fighting trap” is exemplified by its recent commitment of a further $20 million to lease four very large air tankers from North America for the duration of the 2019-20 fire season—a commitment made under the duress of media-driven community and political pressure to do more under a supposedly “new normal” of regular climate-driven bushfire catastrophes.
Unfortunately, the public and political focus on climate change as the primary reason for this season’s bushfires is largely obscuring far more obvious explanations. Indeed, it could well derail the serious examination of state-controlled land and fire management that is necessary to start rebuilding systems to cope with expected longer and drier fire seasons.
The answers as to why Australia is more frequently experiencing larger bushfires are largely already contained in the many formal public inquiries, reviews and a royal commission that have examined large damaging bushfires and their management since 2003. However, the public narrative associated with the 2019-20 bushfires has largely seized on just one factor universally noted by these past investigations—inadequate levels of land management—as an alternative to the “climate change equals bigger bushfires” rhetoric.
In reality, there is a complex tangle of factors that explains the 2019-20 fires, with climate change only one influence. Land management (mostly encompassing fuel hazard reduction and maintaining forest access) is undoubtedly a key factor. But arguably of equal importance is how forest fires are now being fought in an era dominated by an aircraft-based emergency response. After all, the benefit of restoring land management back to and perhaps beyond former levels will be largely wasted if the fire-fighting system is incapable of taking advantage of the increased opportunities for bushfire control created by lower fuel loads.
To date, the public commentary surrounding the 2019-20 bushfires has not even considered the effectiveness of current forest fire-fighting strategies, protocols and practices being employed by government land management agencies which are responsible for large forest fires burning on public lands. As any questioning of current forest fire-fighting must by necessity be rooted in comparisons with the past, it can be easily dismissed by superficial presumptions that today’s changed climate has created unprecedented difficulties for fire-fighting that invalidates the relevance of any better bushfire outcomes achieved in the past.
However, at least in Victoria, the presumption that the 2019-20 fire season has provided hitherto unprecedented difficulties for firefighters is challenged by an examination of the 1982-83 fire season. While it has historically been defined by a single day—February 16, 1983 (“Ash Wednesday”) on which forty-seven people died in Victoria (and twenty-eight in South Australia)—the 1982-83 season was long and arduous, extending from the first fire in August through to mid-March.
Like the recent fire season, the 1982-83 season was underpinned by severe drought. According to the 1984 report of Victoria’s Bushfire Review Committee, the severity of the drought was reflected in the fact that the ten-month period to January 1983 was the driest on record for most of Victoria, with water storages in many rural areas virtually depleted. In East Gippsland, only 1944 and 1979 had recorded lower rainfall. Due to the dryness of the landscape, seasonal fire restrictions were imposed six to eight weeks earlier than usual.
The season’s first major forest fires occurred in November 1982 on what was the state’s earliest declared day of Total Fire Ban for forty years. In January and March 1983, two separate fires each burned over 100,000 hectares of forest near Cann River in East Gippsland. On Ash Wednesday itself, the fire danger conditions exceeded those of “Black Saturday” (2009), and anything experienced during this recent fire season. Late in the season, during a period straddling the last week of February and the first week of March, dry lightning ignited ninety-five forest fires which were mostly quickly controlled—the largest burning just 3300 hectares in the Grampians.
Given where fires occurred in East Gippsland, the 1982-83 season has some parallels with the recent season, and those who fought them thirty-seven years ago reported similarly intense fire behaviour with attendant difficulty in containing fires and holding back-burns. Based on the similarity of the conditions experienced then and now, there appears to be no reason why the bushfire outcomes achieved in East Gippsland in 1982-83 cannot be a baseline for comparison with current fire-fighting outcomes.
Concerns about forest fire-fighting strategies, protocols and practices have been building since 2003 when questionable tactics were employed in some Victorian and New South Wales national parks. These have grown stronger in recent years due to publicly documented investigations into large fires at Harrietville (2013), Wye River (2015) and Geeveston (2019) in which inexplicably missed opportunities to control small, easily accessible lightning strikes enabled them to grow into large and damaging conflagrations. Collectively these three fires burnt around 120,000 hectares when they should have burnt perhaps twenty hectares or less.
Among the 2019-20 fires, there are already whisperings of small fires growing large and uncontrollable due to avoidable human factors such as lack of attention, urgency or experience; as well as fire-fighting tactics being diluted by adherence to disturbance-averse national parks management philosophy. In New South Wales, allegations that national parks firefighters gave insufficient attention to a small fire are at the heart of a class action by local farmers whose properties were burnt when the fire escaped and grew to uncontrollable proportions.
Particularly in East Gippsland, it is staggering to consider how much of the massive burnt area could have been spared given that four lightning strikes ignited on November 21 were unable to be contained despite fire-fighting being favoured by five weeks of mostly benign weather before blow-up conditions arose on December 30. Until there is a rational explanation for this, older experienced forest fire practitioners will continue to regard this as almost incomprehensible.
Overall, in the 1982-83 season, Victoria’s then Forests Commission attended 878 fires which burnt 486,000 hectares across the whole state. This is dwarfed by the extent of the 2019-20 fires which have already burnt over 1.4 million hectares in Victoria before the season has even finished.
To make some sense of this, the far greater area burnt during this current season needs to be considered in the light of several disparities in fire-fighting and preparedness compared to the 1982-83 season. First, the current fires were fought around far greater use of aerial water-bombing (a national fleet of 144 planes was drawn upon, versus only seven planes contracted for fire-fighting in Victoria during 1982-83), and yet it did little to contain the fire spread. Second, there are now far fewer experienced timber industry contractors and machinery operators in Victoria compared to the past (only about twenty-five to thirty now, versus 133 during 1982-83) which has reduced the capability of ground-based fire-fighting. Third, in the five years before the 1982-83 season, around 1.3 million hectares of forest was fuel-reduced and therefore able to assist bushfire control, whereas in the five years before the 2019-20 season only about half as much (around 690,000 hectares) had been fuel-reduced.
The first two disparities add weight to the contention that ground-based fire-fighting is far more important than aerial water-bombing in containing the spread of forest fires, and magnifies additional concerns about an apparent decline in traditional ground-based techniques such as hand-trailing and night-time fire-fighting. The third disparity supports the contention that more fuel reduction plays an important role in mitigating bushfire spread by facilitating easier control.
In Victoria, the relative success of fire-fighting in the 1982-83 fire season, despite its comparative lack of today’s high technology fire-fighting advances, primarily reflects a stronger land management organisational structure and culture. Compared to today, higher levels of experience and local knowledge meant that firefighters could take calculated risks free from the hindrance of today’s risk-averse occupational-health-and-safety attitude. This translated into greater success in containing fires quickly when they were small, thereby sparing the landscape from much of the severe fire that more regularly impacts it these days.
Drawing upon the successes of the past, the royal commission into the 2019-20 bushfires should be asking just how committed today’s state governments are to dealing with the bushfire threat when:
# they elevate advice from eco-activist groups and academic ecologists—neither group with any practical fire management experience—above the advice of forest fire management practitioners and bushfire science specialists?
# they consequently lack enthusiasm for fuel reduction burning and are prone to using national park declarations as a political mechanism to close timber industries that have always been integral to ground-based forest fire-fighting through provision of equipment and experienced bush operators?
# they do not adequately resource land management agencies to maintain numbers of field officers engaged in forest management?
# their land management agencies have centralised organisational structures that micro-manage fire from cities or large regional centres remote from the field, thereby fostering a decline of local bush and fire knowledge and informed on-the-spot decision making?
# their land management agencies no longer insist on fire-fighting as a condition of employment and there are no restrictions on key personnel taking annual leave during the fire season?
# they are obsessed with eliminating personal risks to firefighters to the point where safety protocols can restrict the capacity to quickly contain fires while they are small, thereby counter-productively allowing more fires to grow larger with exponentially increased risks to firefighters and the broader community?
While there is a real danger that the royal commission will be overwhelmed by climate change concerns, the past shows that the answers to the bushfire problem are primarily rooted in human factors that determine the effectiveness of land and fire management in enabling quick control of fires while they are small. Unless we learn from the past when fire-fighting was primarily ground-based, more initially aggressive, and consequently more effective; the Australian landscape will be doomed to regular repeats of what has occurred this season.
Mark Poynter is a retired forester with 40 years of experience. His second book, Going Green: Forests, Fire and a Flawed Conservation Culture, was published by Connor Court in July 2018, and can be purchased from the publisher’s website.
Morgan, G. et al (2020), Prescribed burning in south-eastern Australia: history and future directions, manuscript accepted for publication in March 2020 edition of Australian Forestry.
Moriera, F. et al (2020), Wildﬁre management in Mediterranean-type regions: paradigm change needed, Environmental Research Letters, 15: 011001 (January 2020).
Parliament of Victoria, Report of the Bushfire Review Committee on bushfire disaster preparedness and response in Victoria, Australia, following the Ash Wednesday fires of 16 February 1983, April 1984.
Pyne, S., The Burning Bush – A fire history of Australia, University of Washington Press, 1991
Pyne, S., The Still Burning Bush, Scribe Publications, 2006
Rawson, R., Billing, P. and Duncan, S. (1983), The 1982-83 forest fires in Victoria, Australian Forestry, 46(3) 162-173 (1983).
Ryan, M. and Runnalls, R. (2015), Does timber harvesting in natural forests have any influence on fire management at the landscape level? Paper presented to the Biannual Conference of the Institute of Foresters of Australia, 2015.
*Williams, J., The Mega-fire Reality: Re-directing Protection Strategies in Fire-prone Ecosystems, Key Note address to the Bushfire CRC Forum, Are big fires inevitable? Canberra, 27th February 2007.
*Williams, J. (2013), Exploring the onset of high-impact mega-fires through a forest land management prism, Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 294: 4 – 10, April 2013.
*Note: Jerry Williams is a retired former National Director of Fire & Aviation Management, United States Forest Service.