One of the most puzzling aspects of modern Australia is that after 200-plus years of fighting bushfires and weeping over their impact, of fire science research, operational experience, Royal Commissions and thousands of enquiries, books, papers and reports, we still find ourselves exposed to killer forest fires on nearly every hot windy day, almost every summer.
It is not as if we don’t know what to do. Generations of foresters, farmers, bushmen, and firefighters have long had a pretty good handle on the essence of bushfire control. But only in Western Australia’s south-west forests has an effective bushfire system evolved, been implemented, tested and refined, then tested and refined again, and is today working reasonably well. This approach, developed over a century, and based on experience and science, comprises an efficient fire detection system involving aircraft, satellites and lookouts and a professional response organisation with trained and well-equipped firefighters. They are supported by heavy machinery, aircraft, and the latest in technology and incident command arrangements.
There is nothing revolutionary about the WA approach – but two things make it different. The first is that at the top there is strong leadership and commitment, political support and sound research; and at the bottom, there are tough and experienced men and women to do the job.
But the second factor is the key to the success of the Western Australian approach. This is the bushfire-mitigation program, involving periodic, mild-intensity prescribed burning in the State’s south-west forests. Based on the old maxim “prevention is better than cure”, the prescribed burning program systematically treats portions of the forest every year, resulting in a mosaic of areas with different fuel ages, starting with zero in the most recently burnt areas. The return time between burns at any one place averages about 12 years.
Prescribed burning does not prevent bushfires starting. It cannot do that. Bushfires will always occur, started by lightning, accidents or arsonists. But in areas where fuel levels are low, bushfires are easier, safer and cheaper to control, and they do less damage.
The forest still burns, but at the time of our choosing, not under catastrophic weather conditions. The aim is for low-intensity and patchy fires, contained within boundaries. This compares to the unstoppable, searing wildfires that consume everything in their path. However, in low fuel areas, wildfires can be handled under even the most extreme conditions (as was amply demonstrated during the Cyclone Alby storm and bushfire crisis in 1978), and there is significantly less damage to lives, and to social and environmental values. Economic research has shown a massive cost/benefit advantage, with money spent on mitigation easily saving the expense of firefighting and post-fire recovery.
The outcome from the “preventative medicine” approach to bushfire management is not some sort of ideology or computer simulation – it is backed by years and years and years of practical, real-world experience.
The broad-acre prescribed burning program in WA’s south-west forests has been operational since the early 1960s. For most of this time it has enjoyed cross-party political support, although the area treated each year has, for a variety of reasons, been variable. There was a period between about 2005 and 2016 in which the agency lost its way, and the program dropped away. The consequences were soon apparent: the massive bushfires of 2015/16. Unstoppable fires burning in heavy fuels consumed thousands of hectares of wonderful forest, destroyed the town of Yarloop and took two lives. The penny dropped and the bushfire-mitigation program was reinstated.
Bushfire history and bushfire science are both areas of intense study in WA. They have shown that to be effective, at least 8 per cent of the forest (about 200,000 ha) needs to be treated with mild-intensity prescribed burning each year; this is roughly the current achievement.
And it patently works. No summer goes by without examples of potentially devastating bushfires running into light fuels and being easily controlled. Unfortunately, nobody hears about this: a disaster averted is not newsworthy, journalists have no interest in reporting something that does not happen. It is only the grimy firefighters on the ground who smile mirthlessly to themselves as they see a roaring crown fire run into a two-year old burn and drop to the ground, where they can easily (and safely) take control. No TV journalist in her hard hat and hi-viz overalls is there to witness the way the real world operates. If it is not sensational, it is not news.
Fire impacts and fire ecology are intensely studied, and the outcomes are there for everyone to see: no long-term adverse effects on biodiversity have ever been demonstrated. The native flora is easily able to cope with periodic, mild-intensity fire, and the native fauna (especially in areas where burning is accompanied by control of predators like foxes and feral cats) is flourishing. Nobody hears about this either.
Another wonderful thing is that the need for periodic mild-intensity fire is supported by elders of the Noongar community. They are well-aware of the history of frequent burning of the bush by Aboriginal people, going back thousands and thousands of years, and of its cultural significance and ecological value. The fact that bushfire-mitigation burning is also “cultural burning” is something that is still to be widely understood. The development of so-called “soft-edge mosaic” burning in southern jarrah forests is an excellent example. This is just a fancy name for a burning approach that incorporates frequent ignitions so as to produce a mosaic of patch burning in one area. It mimics the pre-1829 situation where fires lit by Noongar people ran around in light fuels, and this year’s fire ran into last year’s fire, or the fire of the year before that. The wider adoption of soft-edge mosaic burning will take us even closer to the ideal forest management system – one in which assets are protected, while at the same time the bush becomes healthier and more beautiful.
The Western Australian system, with its basic stepping stone of preparedness/mitigation rather than reliance on emergency response, is feted internationally, held up as an example of positive and intelligent bushfire management.
It is not perfect. There are many constraints, including the necessity to manage smoke, and to adjust burning around other land uses to minimise unwanted impacts. Sometimes burns are too hot; this is especially the case where burns are being conducted in the heavy fuels of long-unburnt forests. Prescribed burning is tricky, and it must be in the hands of experienced and fire-hardened staff. Regrettably the numbers of people with these skills has been allowed to decline drastically in recent years. Budgetary and staffing constraints have resulted in a backlog of long-unburnt karri forest, and until this is reversed, these glorious forests are highly vulnerable. However, new technology and new approaches are constantly being developed, and these will ensure the job can continue, even with diminished resources. A rule of thumb that soon becomes obvious to anyone involved in the burning program is that “the more burning that is done, the easier, safer and cheaper it becomes”. The hardest and most dangerous task is to introduce a burning program in long-unburnt forests. Putting good fire into a landscape is nearly as difficult as keeping bad fire out.
I need to point out that in all of the above I am talking about the situation on crown land. The level of bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation on privately owned “rural interface” land in WA remains deplorable. Little wonder that all of our major fires in recent years have been predominantly on private property.
Nevertheless, WA is setting a benchmark for bushfire management on State forests and forested national parks. If they wished, other Australian states could follow, and the whole nation would benefit.
That is the good news.
THE BAD NEWS is that this environmentally-friendly and cost-effective bushfire-mitigation program is under sustained assault by elitist university academics, supported by green zealots. They are tiny in number but loud in voice. The campaign has intensified since the election of the second McGowan government, and the elevation of green-tinged MPs to the Ministry. One new MP for example, the ALP’s Jane Kelsbie, who represents the area encompassed by two of the three most bushfire-threatened towns in the state and the beautiful karri forests, is clearly under the influence of the academics, and refuses to give the bushfire-mitigation program her support. All of a sudden, the political situation is becoming fragile, and responsible governance is threatened.
The anti-mitigation campaign spearheaded by university academics is inherently dishonest. Firstly, they claim that periodic burning destroys the forest’s biodiversity. To assert this, the thousands of years of frequent burning by Noongar people are denied. The views of the Aboriginal people themselves have been insultingly referred to as “anecdotal” history, and therefore suspect. They also ignore the inconvenient fact that not one single species of native flora or fauna has ever been shown to have become extinct as a result of prescribed burning. “Name them!” I cry when they say the biodiversity has been decimated, “Which plants, what animals?”. But they do not name them, and they cannot, because there are none.
They next assert that fuel reduction has no value in controlling wildfires. This flies in the face of firefighter experience in every part of the world, across the whole of history. It is inconceivable that anyone who has seen a wildfire burn from an area of heavy fuels into an area of light fuels, would make this absurd assertion. They expose themselves as grievously inexperienced and utterly arrogant.
Finally, it is claimed that prescribed burning actually makes the bush more flammable. If you leave the bush long unburnt, it is claimed, eventually it will not sustain a damaging bushfire. This is patently untrue, but has now been said often enough by people with dreadlocks and “Professor” attached to their name, that increasingly it is being taken as gospel. It is interesting to look at what the real bushfire scientists in the CSIRO had to say about Professor Phillip Zylstra’a Forest Flammability concept, the computer model on which this nonsense is based:
… the Zylstra … paper is a clear example of the incorrect application of an inappropriate fire behaviour model to bad data and the conclusions drawn from it are as a result erroneous …
These are hard words, enough to make Professor Zylstra weep, you would think, yet he goes from strength to strength, lauded as a guru by his colleagues at Curtin University, the lead speaker at green seminars and a prolific writer of letters to newspapers promoting his invention.
But there is some grim humour to be gained from the situation. The same academics who claim that fuel-reduction burning makes the forest more flammable also advocate that, if burning is to be done at all, it should be confined to areas adjacent to towns and residential settlements. Urging the authorities to Increase the flammability of bushland adjacent to residential areas would seem to me to be verging on the inhumane.
Where will all this end?
If the government holds its nerve, WA will continue to have the best forest bushfire management system in Australia, possibly the world. If the academic’s campaign succeeds, and bushfire-mitigation burning is severely curtailed or shut down, the situation in WA forests will revert to the way it was in 1961, when killer bushfires swept the south-west, and the way it is today in south-eastern Australia. If the bush is left to look after itself, I can guarantee there will be devastating bushfires every summer. Mother Nature, in the form of a lightning storm on a bad day, will see to that. This has nothing to do with climate change; it will be because bushfires burning in heavy, dry fuels, even under “standard” Australian summer conditions, are nearly always too hot to handle.
Roger Underwood AM is Chairman of the Bushfire Front Inc, and a former district and regional forester and bushfire specialist.