In a Spectator review of one of the several books published after 2009’s horrific Black Saturday bushfires, I asked two questions: “Why, in Australia of all places, are bushfire science, the practical experience of firefighters and the lessons of bushfire history forgotten, overlooked or rejected, so that bushfire disasters are constantly replicated? And what is to be done about it?”
I have reflected again on this conundrum over recent weeks as bushfires in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania incinerated great swathes of national park and farmland and burned into residential areas, taking all before them. They are familiar scenes … we see bushfires ravaging south-eastern and south-western Australia replicated on our TV sets every summer, year in and year out.
Tragically, the fires were predictable and had been predicted (rare examples of doomsday prophecies that actually came to pass). I was one of the prophets, and it gave me no satisfaction to be right. It gives me even less to predict that more of the same, if not worse, is still to come. This is because the factors predisposing our countryside and communities to bushfire damage are intensifying, while at the same time the counter-measures from the authorities continue to fail.
Let’s be clear about two things. Firstly, I am not talking about the climate. I do not believe in accelerating human-caused global warming and, even if I did, I cannot see how it would lead to an accelerating bushfire problem. Temperature per se has an insignificant impact on bushfire behaviour, and is greatly over-ridden by the influence of heavy fuels, high winds and steep topography. The Australian climate has always been hot, windy and dry and punctuated by periodic droughts. On the contrary I regard ‘climate change’ as a gutless excuse for failed land management by our authorities and their green supporters.
Secondly, Australia has wonderful and courageous firefighters. They do a superb job controlling 95% of the bushfires that break out each summer. But it is the other 5% that do the damage. These are the so-called “killer fires” that are beyond the capacity of humans to control. Preparing the fire grounds so as to minimise the occurrence of killer fires is the key to minimising bushfire damage, and it is the failure to do this effectively that is the root-cause of the bushfire problem in this country.
When I talk about predisposition, I have the following in mind:
- The number of rural residential communities that are undefendable from high intensity bushfires is increasing every year;
- The people living in these communities are increasingly disconnected from practical, hands-on bushfire experience, and have little idea how to prepare their properties for fire;
- National parks and “conservation reserves” adjoining or infiltrating fire-vulnerable rural communities, continue to be neglected and are accumulating combustible bushfire fuels year by year (the ticking time bombs awaiting a spark);
- There is an insidious delusion that the answer to the bushfire threat lies in aerial firefighting technology, even though it has been proven over and again that water bombers are valueless in the control of a high-intensity fire, cannot operate under high winds or at night;
- The negative influence of Australian academics, especially the game-players at the ANU with their laughable GIGO computer models. Beloved of the greenies within government agencies, the anti-fire academics continue to promote a bushfire approach that every firefighter in the bush knows can never succeed under unfavourable conditions; and
- Political leaders who will not or cannot lead.
The result is inevitable. Every time there are hot, windy, dry conditions and fires start in bushland carrying decades of accumulated fuels, there is a bushfire calamity. Fire sweep through the bush, leapfrogging into paddocks and subdivisions and searing down long-unburnt road reserves. Firefighters find themselves powerless to do anything but work on the fringes, and the authorities focus on evacuation, leaving houses, stock, fences, powerlines and community assets to burn.
Can anything be done? Curiously, the answer to the Australian bushfire challenge is not only well-known, it has been successfully field-tested. From about the mid 1960s to the mid-1990s, bushfire management in south-western WA was so effective that an entire generation went by without a killer fire. The system was three-pronged: first, there was an excellent resource of well-led and well-trained firefighters whose philosophy was to get to an outbreak quickly, get a containment line around it with bulldozers, and then mop it up before the wind changed.
Second, there was a large, committed and extensive program of fuel-reduction burning. This ensured that south-west forests were subjected to mild-intensity prescribed burns every 6 years to 9 years. When a fire started it never had far to go before running into 0-3 year-old fuels, making it easy and safe to extinguish, even on really bad days. Finally, Local Government Authorities in those days were still being run by people with bushfire experience — for example old-hand farmers — and they insisted on high standards of bushfire preparedness, including fuel reduction on road and shire reserves.
All of this was dismantled, leaving the southwest of WA almost as fire-vulnerable today as Gippsland or the Tasman Peninsular. The environmentalists saw to this. Initially they operated as political activists to whom the ALP was easy prey and then, after they had captured the bureaucracies, they called the shots from deep within government agencies and local councils.
The answer to Australia’s bushfire problem is thus abundantly clear. First, governments must take charge. Root the anti-burning brigade out of the agencies and stop funding and listening to the academic ideologists. Get decision-making about land management into the hands of people with hard-won practical experience, people who understand the principle of preventative medicine, people who are not afraid to enforce bushfire regulations.
Second, re-institute or introduce a regime of broad-acre periodic, mild-intensity fuel-reduction burning in our national parks and forests. Yes, I realise there are greens and academics out there who claim that fuel reduction makes no difference to fire behaviour on a bad day, and whose idea of a good bushfire strategy is to retreat into a bunker every time smoke is spotted on the horizon. This “Abandon all Hope!”approach is not just wrong in science but flies in the face of real-world bushfire experience. Worse, it is the ultimate defeatist strategy and one which I would be ashamed to see ruling Australian society.
The simple fact of modern Australia is that a fire-vulnerable society has been inserted into a fire-prone environment. Fires are going to start, one way or another, and unless something is done beforehand, some of these fires will be unstoppable. The options are (i) to instigate a proven effective fire-management regime (incorporating fuel reduction); or (ii) accept that a huge fire will inevitably bear down upon us on a bad day, causing grief, financial pain and loss of well-loved landscapes. To me it is a simple choice, made even tastier by the fact that the Australian bushland thrives on fire.
So the question is not what to do, but whether our political leaders at Federal, State and Local levels have the guts to get on with it.
Roger Underwood is a retired forester and chairman of The Bushfire Front, a volunteer organisation dedicated to getting bushfire management in WA back on the rails