In an article published on this site a few months ago, I wrote with some pride that bushfire management in Western Australia was on the right track, at least compared with the situation in QLD, NSW and Victoria where the standard is at an all-time low. I pointed out that although things were still far from perfect here, at least the basic policies were sound, and well-supported by politicians on both sides, and by the bureaucracies.
However, I also pointed out that WA (like Victoria and NSW) had its “fire management opposition” – the tiny, but vociferous cadre of university academics and urban environmentalists who disdain responsible fire policies and back those that would take WA back to the bushfire dark ages. Instead of adopting the classic philosophy of the firefighter (hope for the best, but prepare for the worst), the opposition instead promotes “hope for the best, and then respond to the worst – after it happens”.
The opponents of responsible bushfire management have two things going for them. First, because they are ignorant of bushfire history and ignore the constant reminders from all over the world that their approach does not work, they can continue to promote it without a twinge of guilt. Second, they have no skin in the game. In other words, they have no duty of care for the people and for community assets in WA, no actual, designated civic responsibility. Nor will they ever have to personally accept accountability for any of the costs of failure of the policies they promote. The bad outcome will always be someone else’s fault.
It was my view that the WA government would not be swayed by the cries of the green academics. Of course, I understand that bushfire management is as much about politics as good governance, and I have long been concerned about the electoral influence of the Greens whose preferences put the Labor party into government and keep it there. Even so, it seems scarcely believable to me that a government would listen to people who have no responsibility and no skin in the game, rather than to the forest and bushfire managers whose day-by-day job is to protect WA’s people and environment from bushfire damage, and who know they will be held accountable for the outcomes of their policies and their work.
It seems I might have spoken too soon.
From out of nowhere, the WA Environmental Protection Authority has decided to take a swipe at bushfire management in south-west forests, and in doing so has clearly been influenced by the wrong people. Firmly in the EPA’s sights is the government’s annual fuel reduction burning program in south-west forests. They are calling for an inquiry into the burning program (on the grounds that it is a threat to biodiversity), and for a ceiling to be put on the area of burning that can be undertaken every year. To rub salt into the wound, the EPA’s basic intel on all this appears to be coming from Victoria, whose “Residual Risk” bushfire approach is condemned by every bushfire scientist and land manager in Australia (other than those employed by the Victorian government).
I have numerous concerns. Put aside for the moment that a professional body like the Environmental Protection Authority can seriously come up with recommendations to government that have no basis in science or real-world experience. Forget for the time being that a Parliamentary Committee has recently investigated a call for an inquiry into fuel reduction burning and rejected it. Ignore the fact that since broad-acre forest burning began in 1954, not one single species of plant or animal has been found to have become extinct, or can be shown to be threatened with extinction, as a result of the burning program. And finally, forget for the moment, the outcomes of the ForestCheck program that monitors the impacts of prescribed burning on biodiversity and has not rung a single alarm bell. Put all this aside.
On the other hand, remember that the EPA has credibility in the public mind and the media, and that its recommendations carry great weight with the government. But by the same token, the government has to do some remembering: if they decide to go with the EPA’s advice and castrate the fuel reduction burning program, and if then there are serious fires, it will be on the government’s head.
Actually, I don’t think that there would be anything to fear from a proper inquiry into WA’s forest burning program, and I emphasise “proper”. My proviso is that the inquiry must be carried out by independent people with expertise in Aboriginal fire use, bushfire history, fire science and fire ecology, and with access to long-term monitoring data from areas subjected to fuel reduction burning, and to cost/benefit studies carried out into burning versus not burning. The inquiry would also need to be capable of a sound understanding of the burning program and the way it is conducted, its strengths and weaknesses, its successes and failures. If these conditions were met, an inquiry must inevitably result in a solid and positive finding in favour of the burning program. Benefits will always be shown to greatly exceed costs. Indeed, the inquiry would probably conclude that more burning needs to be done, not less and that everyone and everything would benefit from greater investment in burning to mitigate wildfires.
But as we know, the outcome of any inquiry depends on two things: the Terms of Reference (ToR), and the people appointed to make the inquiry. Both of these can, in turn, be manipulated by government to mesh with a particular agenda. For example, the ToR could be framed so as to preclude any investigation of the positive value and the cost/benefit of burning, while focusing only on any negative outcomes or costs. Moreover, an inquiry team could be selected comprising a “bushfire expert” from Victoria, an academic from Curtin University and a representative of the Wilderness Society. The outcome of such an inquiry could be predicted with exactitude. Indeed, I could write their report for them in about 10 minutes, saving a shipload of time and money.
So, although I do not object to the EPA’s recommended inquiry, even though I consider it unnecessary, I remain anxious about the way an inquiry might be set up, and the agenda that might underly it.
Of far greater concern is the EPA’s recommendation that a cap be put on the annual fuel reduction burning program, for example no more than 200,000 ha to be burned in any one year. The fact that this recommendation is made at all exposes the EPA as not really knowing what they are talking about. My first question is: what is the rationale for a cap figure? Then I would ask what will the cap achieve? What will be the tangible benefits and to whom? The EPA does not name the beneficiaries, it just mutters about reducing the impacts of burning “on biodiversity”. They employ no science, they provide no supporting data, and they utterly fail to consider the impossibility of untangling the impact on biodiversity of fuel reduction burning from all the other factors around at the moment, like bauxite mining, drought, dieback, frost and high-intensity wildfire. It is simply a “feel good” recommendation, a sop to the greens, an empty political gesture. If they wanted to do something useful, it would be to recommend an expansion of ForestCheck (the department’s excellent biodiversity monitoring program) or investment in well-designed long-term research that does enable the actual impacts of burning on biodiversity, good and bad, to be isolated and their significance analysed.
The EPA has no stake in the repercussions of its recommendation. There is ample and solid data to show that if we reduce the annual area of fuel reduction burning, the eventual result is an increase in the area of high intensity wildfires. You would think that a professional body whose job is to protect the environment, like the Environmental Protection Authority, would not prescribe management practices that increase environmental damage. You would also think that they would know that their recommended approach has been tried twice in WA forest history, and both times it failed horribly. As it is failing horribly in NSW and Victoria as we speak.
The key point about the fuel reduction burning program in WA forests is that it is not a stand-alone policy. It is a component of a comprehensive, integrated fire management system. This system incorporates prevention, damage mitigation, fuel reduction, preparedness, response and recovery, and is supported by research and monitoring. If you mess with any one part of this system, the balance will be upset, and things will go awry. The EPA seems not to understand this. Either that, or they fondly imagine that you can counteract a more flammable forest by increasing the number of firefighters and water bombers. When they find anywhere in the world where this approach has worked, they might let me know.
It will be a tragedy if the WA government folds under pressure from green academics and inner-city environmentalists. We are still far from being on top of the game when it comes to forest fire management, but at least the policy is thought-through, is mostly right and the hearts of the men and women in the bush are in the right place. There is a system, developed by trial-and-error and learned experience over more than 100 years. It is a good system, and only needs proper resourcing to work effectively.
The real question the EPA has now spotlit is whether the government understands that they are fundamentally accountable for bushfire outcomes in the south-west. If they side with those who want to make firefighting more dangerous, more costly, and less effective, then they must expect that their fundamental accountability will be ruthlessly exposed when things go off the rails.
Postscript: As I was writing this article, a massive dry thunderstorm swept across the northern jarrah forest and western wheatbelt on a truly filthy day (gale force winds, temperature about 40, low humidity). Nearly a hundred bushfires were started by lightning during a period of two or three hours.
WA’s forest firefighters did a magnificent job under horrendous conditions.
But what the public and the media missed is the way the response was organized to make best use of overwhelmed resources. A triage system operated where forest fires were classified as requiring immediate attention and full focus, fires that might be left for a couple of days and then attacked, and fires that could be left for a week if necessary.
This approach was made possible by the mosaic of fuel ages across the jarrah forest, thanks to the fuel reduction burning program over the last 10 years. Lightning strikes into one- and two-year-old fuels started fires all right, but these just trickled around and could be “sidelined” for a few days, while every firefighter focused on the larger running fires with potential to do serious damage. I can remember taking exactly this approach when I was the Fire Controller at Manjimup during the Cyclone Alby bushfire emergency in 1978. Many fires in light fuels were pigeon-holed until firefighters were freed-up from elsewhere to attend to them. I well recall that one of these fires, burning in year-old fuel, was eventually contained by one elderly forestry officer with a rake.
The events of these last few days highlight the real world of forest firefighting – tough decisions, hard and dirty work, long shifts, mental pressure, physical danger … but all of this made easier and safer if the potential firegrounds have been prepared in the expectation of a worst-case scenario. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
The real world of firefighting is the sort of thing that the green boffins in the EPA and the green academics in their leafy inner-city campusses have never experienced, have never had to worry about and probably never even think about.