Doomed Planet

An Inferno of Incompetence and Obfuscation

The most frequent question I have received over the last month is “who is to blame for the bushfire mess up and down the east coast?” There is a school of thought, mostly put about by state premiers, that the blame game is bad form. We should put the whole bushfire business behind us and move on, they say. Forget the past, the future will be wonderful. I reject this concept, because in any disaster situation lessons must be learned (or rather re-learned) and those lessons applied to improving the way things are done. I also believe those who need to be accountable for the current mess must be identified and the ways they have let us down highlighted.

The trouble with side-stepping accountability is that mistakes are perpetuated. The same people go back to business as usual, and the same disasters re-occur. If nobody has done anything wrong, as the premiers maintain, no changes need to be made.

This, of course, is the beauty of the “blame it all on climate change” position. If climate change caused the bushfires, no individual can be pinned, not even those “fire chiefs” who were in charge during the entire time the current disaster was incubating and who now suddenly know what was the problem.

I reject the ‘blame it on climate change” position because it has two killer flaws: firstly, it ignores fuels, which are the main contributor to uncontrollable fires during a drought; secondly, it provides no practical solutions to the immediate problem. Both of these factors render the climate change argument utterly unsustainable, indeed ridiculous.

It is very obvious who the people are who should be held accountable for the current mess.

At the top of the list are the premiers and ministers responsible for land management, such as it is, and bushfire policy, and the public servants in their departments with jurisdiction over forests and national parks. State governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have palpably failed to do the most important job they were elected to do: protect the lives and livelihoods of their citizens and the health of their environment. And their public servants have failed to do the job they are being paid to do: serve the public.

Under the Australian Constitution land management, and therefore bushfire management, is the responsibility of the states. It is state governments which decide how crown land will be managed, and how the protection of communities and their assets from bushfire damage will be organised.

Local government authorities are also high on the list of those accountable — and here again state governments bear responsibility, as they should never have allowed them to get away with the nonsenses we have seen coming out of town halls over recent years with respect to vegetation clearing and building approvals. Some premier or minister should have cracked down hard on this foolishness, and cracked down hard.

Of all the things that perplex me about the current mess the most significant is this: the blatant ignoring  by premiers, ministers  and agency bureaucrats of the warnings of bushfire scientists  that a disaster was imminent and, on top of that, their failure to study bushfire history.  Our climate, even the ‘pre-climate-change climate’,  our vegetation and the abundant sources of ignition mean that we are inherently a bushfire-prone country. And even on top of all that,  our governments and bureaucrats have been provided, over and over and over again, with evidence that killer bushfires will occur in Australia unless pre-emptive action is taken.  Not just here, but in California, Canada, Greece and Portugal — anywhere in the world with hot dry summers, periodic droughts and flammable vegetation.

Yet despite the science, the evidence presented by bushmen, the dramatic history of this contininent’s relationship with fire, and the findings of numerous inquiries, successive governments in Qld, NSW and Victoria over the last 25 years have consistently failed to prepare potential firegrounds in the expectation of the inevitable. Not only this, they seem to have actually go out of their way to make things worse: the cut-backs to fuel reduction burning, the closure of access roads and trails in national parks, the decimation of professional forestry and fire management expertise, the turning of the blind eye to the creation of residential subdivisions in capable of being defended, the funding of “research” in the universities that is aimed at making the job of the firefighter more difficult, and the erection of a complex bureaucratic edifices that hinder sensible bushfire preparedness and make fuel-reduction burning almost impossible.

One of the consequences of the deliberate destruction of the forestry profession and forestry district structures and crews has been that governments now have to fall back on volunteers to fight forest fires. My heart goes out to the vollies who are being sent into our state forests and national parks to tackle high intensity forest fires burning amid heavy fuel loads. They are being asked to do the impossible.

On top of all this, those of us who have spent a lifetime dealing with bushfires have watched with dismay the way the state agencies, one after the other, have been seduced into thinking that more and bigger water-bombing aircraft is the answer to the bushfire maiden’s prayer.  The almost laughable futility of the water and retardant bombers in NSW over recent weeks has only been surpassed by one other shocking statistic: the astronomical cost of this wastefulness. And it is not as if the high cost and minimal utility of such aircraft was unknown. Below, part of what Victoria’s Black Saturday royal commission concluded about water-bombers (emphasis added)

During the summer of 2009–10 Victoria funded the trial of a very large air tanker to assess its fire-bombing suitability in Victoria. A DC-10 aircraft was contracted from the United States by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and trials were assessed by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, whose final report is due in late June 2010. The total cost of the trial was about $10 million.

There are practical constraints on using a very large air tanker in Victoria. Because of the weight and size of the DC-10, Avalon Airport (near Geelong) and Melbourne Airport (the main airport in Melbourne) are the only suitable air bases from which the aircraft can operate. The DC-10 requires a smaller lead plane to fly ahead and provide assessments before aerial firefighting. The DC-10 might also have limitations during poor weather. Once airborne, the aircraft must discharge its load of up to $45,000 worth of aerial suppressant to enable a safe landing. This has economic and environmental costs if the suppressant is not used on the fire and needs to be jettisoned.

The Commission notes that a number of witnesses were ambivalent about the very large air tanker. NAFC General Manager Mr Richard Alder stated that, given its limitations and requirements for operating in Australia, the DC-10 may not be a cost-effective option

Cost effective or not, the ABC reports today that such planes are shortly to return. As Talleyrand is said to have remarked about the Bourbons, our leaders forget nothing and learn nothing.

And what of the greenies and the ivory tower academics from Murdoch, Curtin and Wollongong universities? The anti-fuel reduction burning academics have no understanding of practical bushfire management. They are misguided, misinformed and, by my reckoning, dangerously mischievous.  But they have not been running the show. The premiers, ministers and senior public servants overseeing the land-management agencies could have, and should have, simply rejected the academics’ green ideology and its foolish precepts. Bitter experience should by now have made it blindingly obvious that the green approach to bushfire management can end only in tears. Instead, those who shirked their responsibility to protect their communities kowtowed and pandered. They played political games — Greens preferences in inner-city electorates can make or break governments, don’t you know —  so they swallowed the utter bilge of academic theorists, people who have never in their lives had to fight a fire, let alone take responsibility for the design and implementation of an entire fire-management system.  In genuflecting before the intelligentsia (the word is used advisedly), our governments knowingly sacrificed the community and the bush. The phrase “criminal negligence” comes to mind.

I am contemptuous of these academics, especially those who do their undermining while being funded by government grants. Yet they only affect what happens in the bush if foolish premiers and ministers and bureaucrats choose to apply the intelligentsia’s bizarre and impractical ideas, instead of doing what every experienced bushfire expert in the country knows works.

Finally, the Federal Government cannot escape accountability. Repeatedly over the years, successive Commonwealth governments have been told that their bushfire funding model is  pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In funding fire suppression and recovery, rather than helping the states to invest in prevention and damage mitigation, they are rewarding  failure. There is plenty of money (see the $10 million squandered on the DC-10 test plane cited above), and the Federal Treasury seems able to come up with millions more at a moment’s notice to help rebuild ravaged communities. How much better it would have been to spend a fraction of this to prevent the communities being ravaged in the first place.

If the Feds were to set up a system where states were encouraged, through targeted funding, to establish effective bushfire management systems (with the emphasis on preparedness and damage mitigation), the eventual outcome would be less money needed for firefighting and post-fire recovery — a bill that these latest fires will likely see run into the billions.

Will those who are really accountable ever be named and shamed or, better still, sacked? Based on past inquiries and reviews, they will not. We will be urged to move on, to look forward to the sunlit uplands, to forget the past from which we will be told nothing useful can be learned. More academics will get more grants to conduct more pointless experiments and field studies. Our states’ leaders and their senior public servants will look after us! It will be business as usual. Those who should, at the very least, have had to answer for their negligence in a coroner’s court will quietly fade away.

A final note: this article is specifically directed at the bushfire and land management jurisdictions in Qld, NSW and Victoria. In Western Australia, the penny dropped after the 2016 Yarloop disaster, and our Premier, ministers and public service agencies are now on the right track.

Roger Underwood is a former district an regional forester in Western Australia with over 60 years experience in bushfire science, planning and operations

20 comments
  • Andrew Campbell

    During the Tingha Plateau fire in February last year, without many fires in NSW, landholders like me (alone) were in a front seat to observe the full range of fire fighting tactics … inadequate backburning with a rumour that the National Parks crews knocked off at 5 pm (x); water dropping helicopters that stopped an outbreak in it’s tracks (!); one independent acting small fixed wing water bomber that saved our shed (!); a RFS truck with a crew of two that took off after an hour (x); and a long line of fire suppressant laid down by the huge plane (x). But what actually stopped the fire before it got to our house was a wind change for which we thank God (!) and a cooler evening, and then myself and my son, using a 4WD with a pump and tank and working all night. My take home lesson is that nothing beats being well prepared, and two determined blokes, four boots on the ground.

  • Peter OBrien

    Let me name and shame one of them, putative ‘hero’ RFS Commissioner Shane FitzSimmons, who should be on the front foot over this PC nonsense. Here is the text of a letter I sent to The Australian (not published):
    What astonishing statement, reported in The Australian, from RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons :

    “Hazard reduction is absolutely an important factor when it comes to fire management and managing fire in the landscape but it is not the panacea. When you’re running fires under severe, extreme or worse conditions, hazard reduction has very little effect at all on fire spread. It’s only when the conditions back off a bit that you’ve actually got some prospect of slowing the fire spread.” Mr Fitzsimmons said the RFS was now achieving up to 90 per cent of its annual burn program.

    Experts are talking about hazard reduction in the off-season, NOT during the bushfires themselves, which is termed back-burning. Fitzsimmons is deceptively conflating two concepts. He does refer to genuine hazard reduction in the last sentence when he claims that the NSW RFS is achieving up to 90 per cent of its annual target.

    But what is that target? According to its 2018/19 Annual Report, the achievement for that year was 199,248 ha, primarily by burning. So far in this bushfire disaster, 4,900,000 ha has been burnt out in NSW alone. So hazard reduction in NSW represents just 4% of the area already burnt. It is hard to see how Fitzsimmons can judge that hazard reduction is not a panacea, since he hasn’t actually tried it yet.

  • PT

    But, but, but it’s climate change. I mean the media tells us so. And it’s all Morrison’s fault for “not doing enough”. The media says so; the “experts” say so (like Greta Thunberg); protestors say so; those abusing him in fire districts obviously hold him responsible (as presented in the media anyway). And CC is stopping them doing fuel reduction burns in Victoria according to Andrews.

  • Alan Barber

    Hi Mr Underwood
    It seems our old ‘most-read’ weatherman of yore might be saying give me sunspots. Well Inigo there is a sign this week. Is it the new cycle. More rain with the storms please. AlanIO

  • Lawrie Ayres

    The greatest problem we, hopefully sensible people, have is our inability to get on the media which is dominated by left wingers. The ABC will interview anyone with the correct attitude toward the Coalition and the correct stance on climate change but will turn off the mikes if an opposing point of view comes along. We have our blogs, such as this one, but our audience is small and already like minded. Those blogs however are important and need our support. If the MSM won’t listen then we have to find an alternative and we have to be prepared to pay a few bucks to do so. We already pay the ABC to distort the science and give voice to the left so a few bob more should not be a burden. The other positive thing is to write to our representatives and give them praise where deserved and criticism with solutions. All Morrison hears are the noisy left telling him to do more when we need to assert the need for him to hold firm and build the power stations and dams. A prosperous country can adapt more readily than a poor one. He needs encouragement and so do his right wing parliamentarians. The Photios mob should probably just join Labor.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    PT – 17th January 2020
    “But, but, but it’s climate change….”

    With regard to the claim “climate change is to blame” – that is so-called human-induced CC allegedly caused by carbon dioxide emissions – – research by Dr Weng Cai et al. (CSIRO) during the past decade identified the Indian Ocean Dipole as the “main driver” of Australia’s heatwaves and droughts.

    “The connection to bushfire conditions is very strong,” Dr Cai said in a recent interview. “They are much more strongly connected to IOD than to El Niño.”

    There have been 11 negative (good) and 10 positive (bad) IOD events between 1960 and 2016, based on Bureau of Meteorology data. There is no good data prior to 1960. Reference: BOM website.

    My take:: there is no causal relationship between observed IOD negative-positive switching pattern over the past half century and the 27 per cent increase in global atmospheric “carbon” (dioxide) emissions – from 317 to 403ppm – over the same period.

    Carbon dioxide emissions – whether national, regional or global – therefore do not determine IOD behaviour (type, frequency), and hence Australia’s bushfire vulnerability.

    IOD behaviour is beyond human control. It is unpredictable and determined by natural climate variability, not a consequence of so-called “human-induced climate change.”

  • Tricone

    Blaming it on climate change, as you say, Roger “provides no practical solutions to the immediate problem”.

    That is surely something that – I use the media caricatures -“alarmists” and “deniers” alike can agree on.

    However the media seems determined to have everybody waste time talking about climate change and running in circles.

  • talldad

    A long time ago in the days of gallons and miles, I was a young volunteer firefighter with the CFA Vic.

    I can still recall a summer up country, when I was sitting on the back of an older firetruck clinging to anything I could as we chased down a running grassie at 30mph, and wondering if we were actually going to stop it.

    Before I got to that stage, the first thing I had to learn was that the purpose of the CFA was “the Prevention and Suppression of fire” – in that order.

    Fortunately, winter firebreaks (Prevention) helped us to trap and dowse the flames (Suppression) without too much trouble – merely some discomfort for the crew on the back of the truck.

  • ianl

    Prediction:

    The Q’ld, NSW and Vic Govts will dodge a Royal Commission, sneakily of course to avoid headlines, in favour of their own State inquiries.
    This is so that the “hazard reduction cool burn” issue gets short shrift, so avoiding the accountability of State Govts and their green bureaucracy, and nebulous climate change waffle will take headline space.
    Truly corrupt … Palaeochook, Berejiklian and Andrews are vomitous – and so, so sneaky.

  • rod.stuart

    “the ‘blame it on climate change” position because it has two killer flaws”
    It has a third flaw.
    The third flaw is that “climate change” is imaginary nonsense.
    The blame could be equally attributed to witches, goblins, and black magic.

  • pgang

    Alice, whatever happened to the good old Southern Oscillation Index? That used to be the explanation for all weather events until AGW turned the world into a moron. This pandemic of logical paucity was demonstrated by a piece in The Australian which claimed that it wasn’t an act of God that caused the recent rain, but the IOD. It never occurred to the writer that the mysterious shift in the IOD may have been in itself an act of God.
    Andrew Campbell my brother-in-law saved his own Hahndorf property during the Ash Wednesday fire. He said that having a few trees in the way of the fire actually helped to slow it down as it came up the hill towards him. Whilst he was well prepared, he said that he was lucky and that next time he would leave it to burn.

  • rod.stuart

    Is it the IOD or the MJO? (Madden-Julian Oscillation) or are they one and the same?

  • rod.stuart

  • DG

    I’ll post two:
    1. The attribution of a complex multiple factor event to a omnibus cause is nonsensical. Which bit of ‘climate change’ and to what extent is it causal over the ‘non-climate-change’ factors. So is it 5% warmer, drier, windier? If so, then is 95% of the loss is due to normal factors and only 5% due to CC.
    2. Aside from hazard reduction agnosticism, lack of preparedness has been appalling. Local councils should have prepared exposed settlements; the Autumn 1973 edition of the NSW Bushfire Bulletin shows how; disaster resilience precautions should have been guided by the Victoria disasters and Cyclone Tracy experiences. But no, they’ve all pretended it won’t happen here. So, it seems, no local response plans, safe refuges, communication fall-back (ref. the military PACE doctrine: primary, auxiliary, contingency, emergency channels), or support from council on a social service level, ensuring food, water and medical support provided. Worse than ‘third-world’. Criminally negligent.
    State governments should have mobilized civic and social support responses the moment the forecasts were in. Community services response teams should have been placed on stand by, briefed and equipped ready to go and serve. Instead, a shambles that suggests that the state government (NSW particularly) emergency support agencies (not the combat agencies) are only good for bureaucratic posturing and preparing exculpating ‘ministerials’. Did the local Displans cover these events? Were they used? Had they been trialed in exercises in calmer times? No, didn’t think so.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    pgang – 18th January 2020

    “Alice, whatever happened to the good old Southern Oscillation Index? That used to be the explanation for all weather events until AGW turned the world into a moron.”

    Some say the southern girl ran off with a miner from Carolina; or was it a one-legged sailor from Venezuela? No, that was Nina from Argentina, not flighty young SOI.

    God’s got a lot on his plate these days, but he may well have time to create a pIOD and nIOD in a random fashion to bamboozle the readers of atmospheric-ocean “coupled” stuff.

    God knows, but Dr Cai also may be able to answer your question. He discovered its importance as the “dominant driver” of SE Australia weather in 2009. Published this paper: “Positive Indian Ocean Dipole events precondition southeast Australian bushfires”. It concluded:
    “The devastating “Black Saturday” bushfire inferno in the southeast Australian state of Victoria in early February 2009 and the “Ash Wednesday” bushfires in February 1983 were both preceded by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (pIOD) event. Is there a systematic pIOD linkage beyond these two natural disasters? We show that out of 21 significant bushfires seasons since 1950, 11 were preceded by a pIOD. During Victoria’s wet season, particularly spring, a pIOD contributes to lower rainfall and higher temperatures exacerbating the dry conditions and increasing the fuel load leading into summer. Consequently, pIODs are effective in preconditioning Victoria for bushfires, more so than El Niño events, as seen in the impact on soil moisture on interannual time scales and in multi‐decadal changes since the 1950s.”

    BOM have classified most years since 1960. Check out IOD frequency timeline on the website. Note there was a nIOD in 2010, 2014 and 2016, a pIOD in 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019, with a “spurious’ pIOD in 2017. Extrapolating three or so years of pIODs insufficient to infer a trend, while (only) 50 years of data suggests a random pattern.

  • pgang

    Gotta love the random pattern. Hmm. Alice, you might want to re-word that one 🙂

    Frankly I’d say Dr Cai is talking out of his or her bottom. 11 fire seasons presaged by a pIOD; 10 not. What that tells us, if anything, is nothing. As the Cheshire Cat might say to Alice.

    Maybe a bushfire season just needs a few years of fuel build-up, some hot weather and a bit of lightning. Do we really know why this year was so widespread? Well, lots of fuel, yes, but there’s always fuel. The uncontrolled organic buildup to last year certainly didn’t help. I’d say the vagaries of the wind had a lot to do with it this time round though.

  • Les Kovari

    Question to the climate change fanatics; if the Australian bush fires are or were the result of climate change, i.e.: global warming, why are there no similar fires in New Zeeland, South Africa or South America above the 44S parallel or on the Northern Hemisphere, in Summer below the 44N parallel.
    Another thing, would someone please put a sock between the aging lips of David Attenborough, we have our own lunatics here, we don’t need him as well.

  • wstarck

    Another instance of irrefutable evidence based advice blocked by the hypothetical objection of imaginary experts.

    A core difficulty in the effective address of any problem by government is that we live in an era of certified “experts” for every occasion. Even in matters about which virtually nothing of any useful certainty is known, there are “experts” with firm opinions which government dare not ignore.

    The complete lack of a formal independent mechanism for assessment of the uncertainties, conflicting evidence and likely cost/benefits of any information to be relied upon for policy is a glaring deficiency in the current form of democratic government. This is eminently doable, could make a major contribution to better governance and is begging to be addressed.

  • Rob Brighton

    Weather is what is happening outside your door, climate is measured over 30 year time spans, or at least that was the argument put forward by one of the talking heads when all this climate carryon started.
    Funny how the argument flips to support one direction.
    I don’t know one way or the other, my math is not good enough to gainsay what is claimed, but I can tell when someone is helping themselves to my wallet. Like used car salesman, they spruik they obfuscate and when you don’t bend the knee..then they abuse, not even dodgy car sales guys do that.
    None of which makes me remotely interested in what they are telling me. Dams never filling again anyone?

  • whitelaughter

    If the occasional govt can get it right, as we are told in the article that WA has, then perhaps it is possible to aim for a govt that insists that the super funds of academics and politicians are invested in forms that will be destroyed when fires get out of control? This would ensure that they would be motivated to get it right. Obviously no politician would want their super threatened by the actions of future govts, so perhaps only needing to be invested in threatened areas for the term of their govt and the following year or so; this might appeal greatly to the Nationals and other pollies living in the country, as a spur to control their ‘fellows’.

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