The following paper was presented at the Fire Behaviour and Fuels Conference, held at Spokane, Washington, USA, October 25-29, 2010.
Note: the boxed paragraphs replace footnotes in the original paper.
Bushfire politics and management in Australia: where are the gatekeepers?
by Roger Underwood
I was taking my grand-daughters for a swim in the Swan River one hot day last summer when a trio of water-bombing helicopters flew over, buckets swaying. They were on their way to a small scrub fire down the coast somewhere. To my surprise, the crowd on the beach stood as one, and cheered resoundingly, as if sending heroic troops off to war.
It made me think about one of the great ironies in the Australian bushfire scene: the attitude to heroes.
Australians have always loved their heroes. At one time they were explorers, pioneers, settlers, poets and soldiers. Today mostly they are football players.
But also high on the list of national heroes are our firefighters. Every summer we celebrate them: the water bombing pilots swooping down into the flames, the yellow-jacketed fire crews saving the occupants of a burning house, the grizzled fireman nursing a charred koala, or the emergency service chief, resplendent in a glittering uniform, calling the shots in a glittering control centre.
Australian firefighters are justifiably admired and respected. The men and women at the fire front are tough, resourceful and courageous; their work is dangerous and unpleasant. A great many (probably a majority) are volunteers and they make a selfless commitment.
Australian bushfire management also has its pantheon of unsung heroes. Although they are virtually unknown outside the narrow confines of our tiny fire community, they have a revered status within it. Among ourselves we often remember with admiration the pioneering fire research scientists like Alan McArthur and George Peet, the brave and innovative forestry leaders of the 1920s and 1950s, and the technological wizards, aviators and engineers who gave us our modern fire prevention and firefighting capabilities.
But there is another category of unsung bushfire heroes. They are the focus of my paper today. These heroes are not just unsung, but are also unrecognised and unknown to the public; they are even largely unremembered within the modern fire community. And they are on the verge of extinction.
I call them the gatekeepers. They are the people who “minded the farm” while there was no-one else at home, the people who focused on bushfire management when no-one else much cared. To use my favourite medical metaphor, they were doctors who chose the unglamorous task of preventative medicine over treating disease epidemics, who understood that wildfires, like disease outbreaks, go through an incubation period.
Over the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s Australia’s bushfire gatekeepers numbered perhaps less than five thousand for the whole country. They were mostly foresters and were public servants in the employ of State forestry or land management agencies. They lived in small forest communities or timber towns, and had titles like Divisional Forest Officer, District Forester, Fire Operations Officer, and Forest Ranger.
Their most distinguishing feature was not just that they were responsible for a patch, but that they accepted accountability for the fire protection of this patch, and the communities within it.
Individual patches, usually called districts, were part of regions, which in turn were part of a State jurisdiction. Added up, they covered virtually the entire forest estate of the nation.
The gatekeepers were also firefighters, and they were usually good ones. They had numerous other responsibilities, including forest industry supervision, recreation and wildlife programs, catchment management, forest regeneration, community relations.
But their most critical role was fire management. This was the year-in and year-out work involved in running a land management system with a focus on bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation.
The job was not to prevent fires occurring; this was known to be impossible. Rather it was to put in place, and to keep in place, a series of measures that ensured that when a fire did occur, even under the most trying circumstances, it would be relatively safe and easy to control, and would do little damage.
The gatekeepers understood the most fundamental principle of land management in a fire-prone environment. This is: without effective fire management, no other land management objective can be achieved. It is all very well to dedicate forests for wildlife, for water catchments, for recreation or for timber production, but none of these objectives are possible if fire management fails.
These were the gatekeepers of Australian forests for most of the second half of the 20th century. You will note that I speak of them almost in the past tense. This is because in many places in Australia they no longer exist, and in others they have become an endangered species.
The changing scene in Australian forests
Forest management in Australia has changed radically over the last 15 years, and one of the most dramatic changes has been the depopulation of the bush, the steady extinction of the on-the-ground forest manager, the dirt forester and his fire-tempered bush crews. The Western Australian situation is typical: many districts have been shut down or amalgamated, the staff moved to large and remote regional centres; permanent career staff living and working in the bush have been replaced by seasonal workers and contract staff. There were perhaps 70 professional foresters working in forest districts in south-western WA in the 1970s. Today the number would be less than 5 or 6, and most of these work out of the larger regional centres.
Accompanying the decimation of the field staff has been the worst of all institutional re-arrangements: all over Australia we are seeing the progressive transfer of responsibility for fire from forest and land management agencies (who are interested in ecosystem management) to emergency authorities (who are interested only in fire suppression).
None of these changes has led to more successful fire outcomes.
On the contrary, Australia has experienced one large, damaging bushfire after another over the last decade, culminating in the ghastly fires of February 2009 when 173 lives were lost and whole towns were incinerated. In 2003 a wildfire burnt right into the suburbs of our national capital city, killing 48 people. In succeeding years there have been devastating bushfire calamities in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.
Why is this so?
The authorities and the environmentalists are blaming all this on climate change. However, there is no evidence of dramatic or unprecedented warming in Australia to date. Indeed, the most superficial study of Australian climate history reveals a high natural variability, including warm periods and severe periodic droughts. No-one who knows anything about fire believes that to blame the current spate of serious fires on climate change is anything other than dishonest sophistry, an attempt to wriggle out from taking accountability.
The Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar succinctly summed up Australian climate variability in a verse from her celebrated poem ‘My Country” (once learned verbatim by every schoolchild):
I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains
Of ragged mountain ranges, and drought and flooding rains”………
Nevertheless, the idea that all is not well in the Australian fire scene is at last beginning to dawn on governments and communities, and a number of inquiries and re-evaluations are underway as we speak, or have recently reported. The over-riding conclusion emerging is that the new institutional arrangements and reliance on modern fire suppression technology have not delivered on their promise.
I welcome the re-evaluations and official reports, although I do so somewhat cynically. There is a phenomenon known as the Bushfire Cycle that revolves implacably in Australia. It runs like this: First you have a bushfire disaster. This is followed by a plethora of inquiries and policy and technological reviews. These lead to system upgrade, heightened awareness of fire risks and improved outcomes. A period of freedom from bushfire disasters follows. However, a lack of fires leads in turn to apathy, over-confidence, political foolishness, budget cuts, system downgrade and finally another bushfire disaster. This kicks off the cycle anew.
Over the years, the wheel of the Bushfire Cycle has turned relentlessly.
However, quite recent history has also given us a clear example of how the Bushfire Cycle can be derailed. Derailment was accomplished by the gatekeepers, the experts in preventative medicine, plying their trade behind the scenes year-in and year-out, not simply in a burst of enthusiasm in the wake of a Royal Commission, to hold the disease epidemic at bay.
In none of the current bushfire re-evaluations in Australian have I seen any recognition of the need to resurrect the role of the gatekeepers and the principles and systems that supported them. Unless this is done, no other measures will succeed, and the Bushfire Cycle will continue to revolve. I’ll go into this in more detail in a moment.
But first I need to digress briefly and sketch in the historical perspective. How did we get to this point?
An historical digression
The fire history of Australia follows a similar pattern to that of North America. There was a ‘pre-history’ (before European settlement in the late 18th century), which reached back thousands of years in which fire was common across most of the continent. The bulk of the Australian landscape is either arid, or seasonally dry, and mostly the native vegetation is highly flammable.
Aboriginal people occupied the whole of the Australian continent, perhaps for 40,000 years. While data or physical evidence of fire prehistory is limited and often contested, the situation is easy to infer from the merest knowledge of our vegetation, climate, ecology and anthropology. All conspire to conjure a continent-wide situation in which fire found a welcome home.
Thus, over millennia, fires occurred frequently and were widespread. They were started either by lightning, or more commonly by the indigenous people who used fire skillfully for a wide range of purposes.
In the savannah grasslands and woodlands of the tropics and sub-tropics, fires occurred annually or biennially across vast areas; in the arid central rangelands and deserts fire occurrence was periodic, responding to irregular cycles of rainfall and regeneration. In the temperate dry eucalypt forests and woodlands of the south-east and south-west, mild fires probably occurred as frequently as every 3-5 years, while the wet eucalypt and temperate rainforests of the south-east and Tasmania burned less frequently. The only parts of the Australian landscape that were not periodically burned were the coastal mangrove forests and the tropical rainforests of far north Queensland. Elsewhere, the ecosystems found today have a biodiversity that has been screened by thousands of years of repeated, frequent fire.
The most readable account of fire pre-history and of Aboriginal burning in Australia can be found in Part II of The Burning Bush by Stephen Pyne.
Settlement of Australia by Europeans in the late 18th and early 19th century wrought wide-scale, rapid and dramatic changes to rural landscapes and to fire regimes.
Most of the temperate woodlands and significant parts of the high forest were freeholded and converted to cropland and pasture, both comprised of exotic species. A large and unmanaged (until about 1920) timber industry developed within remnant native forests. Aboriginal populations were decimated by dispossession and disease, and their traditional land use practices, in particular their regular mild burning, soon disappeared. Townships, settlements and community assets grew apace, often within or in close proximity to the bush.
There is a phrase that sums it up: “European settlement of Australia represented the insertion of a fire-vulnerable society into a fire-prone environment”.
Not surprisingly the early history of rural post-settlement Australia is also a history of repeated bushfire disasters, as non-Aboriginal humans experienced the inevitable confluence of a hot, dry climate, flammable vegetation, plentiful sources of fire, and human impotence in the face of bushfire fury.
Fire history and forestry history are intrinsically intermixed in Australia. This is explained by two factors:
(a) The distribution of forests and of people largely overlap – both are concentrated in the higher rainfall east coastal and south-west coastal regions of the continent; and
(b) After about 1918, the responsibility for management of Australian forests and therefore for management of Australian fire, fell largely into the hands of Australian foresters. This followed from the establishment of the first forestry agencies by State governments and the dedication of forests on crown land as State Forests
Two further fire control systems slowly developed at about this time: the uniformed career fire fighters stationed in cities and larger towns, and the volunteer bushfire brigades in agricultural Australia. Both had an emphasis on suppression, but the members of the volunteer brigades were also mostly farmers who usually included fuels management, either by grazing or burning, as a routine part of land management on the properties they owned or managed. The sharp line between urban and rural areas in Australia is now blurred, producing a zone at the outer edge of all the major cities where neither the uniformed career firefighters nor the volunteer bushfire brigades are effective. These are the killing fields for the bushfires of the future
Unfortunately, when it came to the management of fire in the native eucalypt forests, our first foresters were groping in the dark. These were men mostly trained in forestry principles and practices developed in 17th and 18th century Germany and France where fire is not a problem; or they inherited the attitudes towards fire that had evolved in Imperial British India in the mid-late 19th century. These attitudes reached Australia in exactly the same way they reached the USA – through people like Dietrich Brandis, a German forester who had been Chief of the Forest Service in British India and who was a powerful hater of fire. Brandis significantly influenced Gifford Pinchot and helped guide the policies of the fledgling US Forest Service. These policies were, in turn, taken as a model by early Australian foresters setting up their own forest services in the years just after World War I.
Underpinning early forestry policy all over Australia, then, was the firm belief that fire was the enemy of the forest; it could not be accommodated, so must be expunged. Not just wildfire, but all fire was regarded as destructive, an interloper into what should be a pristine, fire-free environment.
The ex-Indian Forest Service forester David Hutchins visited Australia in 1916 and produced a highly influential paper with recommendations on the management of Australian forests. Hutchins believed that the infertility of Australian soils was caused by Aboriginal burning (he had no idea of the weathering processes they had been subjected to over geological time), and that it was desirable and possible to extinguish all fires.
The management approach that emerged was attempted fire exclusion.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Australian forestry was abuzz with actions that would allow this policy to be implemented. District forest stations were established and foresters and field staff appointed. Ranger staff and crews were trained to attack and suppress fires. Lookout towers, telephone networks, and roads and trails were constructed. Fire Control manuals were written, with protocols covering everything from eyesight tests for fire lookout men, to the correct method of raking a fire trail and building a field telephone line.
The emphasis was on early detection and aggressive response to fires. Although forest and fire management were the responsibility of the States, not the Federal government (we have no “national forests” in Australia), there was a uniformity of adoption of the system that amounted virtually to a national approach. By the mid-1940s, it applied more or less nation-wide.
For a while, pre-World War II, foresters were confident that the answer to “the fire problem” had been found.
But there were unintended consequences of the fire exclusion policy. The most obvious of these was the inexorable build-up of flammable fine fuels (dry leaves, twigs, and bark) in the forests where the policy had been successful. Eucalypts are described as “evergreen” but in fact mostly they replace their leaves and outer bark every 12-18 months; nor does it help that leaf shed occurs in mid-summer. Litter is slow to decompose, and even in the dry schlerophyll forest it can reach 10 tonnes to the hectare within five years of a fire, and go on to top out at 25 tonnes to the hectare, all of it highly flammable when cured. In the more productive wet schlerophyll forests these figures can be doubled.
By the 1940s a point was reached where fuel levels in forests across the nation were so high that fire suppression had started to become difficult even under mild weather conditions. Under severe conditions, it had become impossible. Large, intense and damaging bushfires were the result, the most famous being the Black Friday fires in Victoria in 1939, when 78 lives were lost and many hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime forest and farmland were decimated.
Fuel build-up resulting in rapid escalation of fire intensity after ignition was a key factor in the great fires of the 1930s and 1940s in Australia, but the other was lack of a matching growth in suppression capability. What had worked earlier in lighter fuels, i.e., headfire or flank attack by crews with hand tools, was no longer reliable or possible. This situation persisted until well after World War II when tracked bulldozers and 4WD trucks first started to become available for use in fire suppression.
It was at this point that the fire policies in Australia and the United States diverged sharply. In the face of increasingly unwinnable wildfire battles, Australian forestry authorities resisted the temptation to redouble investment in fire suppression forces and technology. Instead they turned to fuel reduction. In Western Australia for example there was a radical reversal of policy in 1954, and broad-acre prescribed burning commenced.
The reasons for the change were pragmatic: first, it was much cheaper to manage than to control fires; and second, it worked. The new approach also had its champions, most notably Alan McArthur, a pioneer fire scientist who was well-known and highly respected amongst the State agencies, and Alan Harris, the Conservator of Forests in Western Australia. Harris was a determined and aggressive leader. He had, in his own words, been “tempered in the great fires of the 1940s and 1950s”, and he was not prepared to see them return.
There was another factor at play in the Australian decision not to pursue the option of all-out suppression based on aerial water, or retardant-bombing at that time. Australian bushfire authorities did not have access to large numbers of cheap ex-military aircraft after World War II. Water bombing trials using civilian aircraft were deemed unsafe by the Civil Aviation Authority, the nation’s aviation watchdog, and were not persisted with. Water-bombing of bushfires in Australia did not take off until the 1990s when specialist aircraft were acquired.
There was a further reason for the re-introduction of fire, although this was not acknowledged explicitly at the time. It had become obvious that forests left long-unburnt started to decline in health.
The transition from a suppression-dominated culture to a damage-mitigation culture did not happen overnight. It took nearly a generation, and during this time there were some nasty fires. The summer of 1960/61 for example, was the worst in Western Australia’s bushfire history, and as late as 1983 Victoria and South Australia were ravaged by the Ash Wednesday fires. The 1961 fires in WA were our Great Teaching Event, equivalent in their impact on policy and institutions to the impact in the USA of the fires of 1910.
The new culture was fundamentally a professional one, driven by people with first-hand experience in the forest. It incorporated an emphasis on fire behaviour research and adaptive management. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of our first bushfire scientists, disciples of Alan McArthur, studying and documenting fuels, measuring experimental fires, studying fire weather and fire danger forecasting, developing fire behaviour equations and burning guides and promoting the technology of broad-acre, mild-intensity, rotational prescribed burning.
By the early 1970s, fire behaviour and operations research was being accompanied by research into fire ecology, so that questions about the ecological impacts of fuel reduction burning could be properly understood. There are now 40 years of results of this work, and none of it indicates that there is any ecological problem associated with fuel reduction burning at intervals of about 8-10 years.
What emerged was a new paradigm: the fire suppression capability was retained and refined, but it was underpinned by a systematic fuel reduction program aimed at making the suppression effort easier, safer and more effective.
In this paper I have equated fuel reduction with burning, but it needs to be noted that fuel reduction by grazing was once very important in Australia. Many State forests, especially in NSW, were leased for cattle grazing, and the high sheep numbers on private agricultural land in the decades after World War II had a significant impact of fuels on most of the lands adjoining State forests, and on regional bushfire spread and intensity.
The 1961 fires in Western Australia were followed by a Royal Commission. The Commissioner found that fuel reduction burning was essential to minimise the risk of future bushfires. This was not surprising. What was surprising was the rapidity with which his finding was translated into action on the ground, and its outstanding success.
The new system was firmly in place in Western Australia by 1970. At that stage, the annual program of fuel reduction prescribed burning covered 12-14% of the entire forest estate. The burning interval in the drier jarrah forest averaged 5-6 years and in the wetter karri forest 8-10 years. Similar (but less comprehensive) programs were undertaken in State Forests in the other states.
There remained areas where fuel reduction was difficult or impractical, principally the wet sclerophyll forests of Victoria and Tasmania. But even here it was possible to develop an effective protection system in surrounding drier forests, thus affording overall benefits to the regions in which ash forests occurred.
In every region where fuel reduction was methodically and routinely practiced, the occurrence of serious wildfires fell away dramatically.
What made this new system so effective? I believe there were three factors:
- · it was driven from the top;
- · it was supported by research; and
- · the work on the ground was in the hands of agency staff who lived and worked in the forest, and were experienced in the use of fire.
A personal perspective
I was a district and regional forester in Western Australia in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. I was part of the system described above, one of the bushfire gatekeepers. As a student I had worked summers in fire crews in the era before the new fuel reduction policy had become effective, and I had been at the sharp end in several serious fires. When I became responsible for a district and later a region, I shared with my colleagues an intense dedication to preventing large, intense wildfires through a fire management system that incorporated fuels management.
The burning was physically and technically demanding, and it was relentless. Each year we updated the 5-year plan that established the strategic priorities, and from which the annual plan was drawn. All burns required a detailed prescription. The burning program came around every spring, starting in about October and finishing the following April. We were set clear targets in terms of area burnt and high standards in terms of burning quality and cost. Our work was closely monitored by senior and specialist staff.
I was never in any doubt what was expected of me: this was to implement a systematic and professionally managed prescribed burning program covering at least 12% of my district’s forests every year. My bosses were uncompromising, but they gave me the staff, funds and equipment to do the job.
I made some mistakes, especially in the early days of aerial prescribed burning in the karri forest when our capacity to micro-forecast the weather and predict fire behaviour was primitive by today’s standards, but I was lucky: not only was there a learning culture in the agency, there was also a tolerance for error…..provided you only made the same mistake once!
As a district forester I had many responsibilities and priorities, but bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation through fuel reduction burning was my highest. I always knew I would be judged according to how well I handled it. My situation was replicated in forest districts all over the nation.
The wheel turns
By 1985, foresters believed that this time, the answer to ‘the fire problem’ in the bulk of the Australian eucalypt forests had really been found. Fires would still occur, and sometimes they would be difficult and damaging, especially in the areas where forests, farmlands and rural settlements intersected, or in the wake of a prolonged drought. But on the whole, we were confident that if we maintained our fuel reduction program and continued to refine our suppression capability, the really bad ‘killer’ fires (or ‘megafires’ as they are called today), would be a thing of the past.
Again, however, there were unexpected consequences. From about the mid-1980s, just as it reached its peak of efficiency and effectiveness, fuel reduction burning in Australian forests started to become politically difficult, and then to unravel.
The most serious changes occurred in Victoria and New South Wales, but Western Australia was not immune.
With hindsight, it is easy now to see what happened. Five forces were at work:
1. Humans are conditioned to respond to threats. What the fuels management program achieved in the second half of the 20th century was to significantly reduce the threat of large, intense wildfires. A version of The Bushfire Cycle cut in, breeding complacency and overconfidence. Budgets were cut, field stations closed down, recruitment of professional and field staff slowed or ceased. Fuel reduction burning was no longer given the highest priority – “why do it when we don’t have any bad wildfires?” was a recurring theme. In a nutshell, we became victims of our own success.
2. Forestry (or more correctly timber harvesting) became politically unpopular, and because of the way the two were linked on the ground through the forestry profession, so did fire management. By the 1980s, urban Australians had discovered ‘the environment’ and it became a new religion. Forests were no longer “the bush” but fragile ecosystems, precious icons, nature’s cathedrals, to be “saved” from destruction by evil foresters. The old threat of the destructive bushfire was replaced by a new threat: fuel reduction burning! It was (and still is) routinely described by environmentalists as “fire-bombing” or “napalming”, conjuring up images of Dresden or the Vietnam War.
3. The Australian political and electoral system allows small well-organised lobby groups disproportionate capacity to influence government policies. From the mid-1980s onwards, environmental groups opposed to prescribed burning began to control election outcomes. Both of the major political parties, one or the other of which was always in power, became hostage to green lobbyists. Forest and fire management was one of the first things to suffer.
4. In the 1980s there was a profound change in the Australian public service. Up until that time, the so-called ‘Westminster System’ applied, in which public servants were appointed on the basis of their know-how and experience, not their politics. Responsibility for public administration in areas such as forest management was in the hands of professional men who had come up through the ranks, not political appointees parachuted in from above. Under the new arrangements, the role of the senior public servant was no longer to give options and professional advice, but to toe the line of the political party in power. Departmental heads were placed on short-term contracts to ensure they could be easily dispensed with if they stepped out of line. This situation made it easy for environmentalists, operating through a political party which they controlled through the electoral system, to manipulate forest policy and land management practices.
5. Finally there were the two great transfers. The first was a massive rededication of State forests as national parks and their falling under new administrations. The bulk of the national parks administrators in Australia (especially in the eastern States) at that time did not have backgrounds in forest or land management, but were zoologists, botanists or environmental scientists. They tended to fear fire, and did not want responsibility for it. They supported the second great transfer: this was shifting the responsibility for fire from those responsible for forests to those responsible for emergency response.
The exceptions were in Western Australia, where an integrated land management agency emerged and bushfire management stayed largely in the hands of foresters for another decade, and in Tasmania where the timber industry was an important element in the State’s economy. It is no coincidence that these are the two jurisdictions in which fuel reduction burning persisted, and wildfire occurrence was minimised. Elsewhere in Australia the forestry profession sank without trace, a situation now also applying in Western Australia.
The traditional bushfire gatekeepers in their remote ranger stations were at an enormous disadvantage in all this. They were few in number, were politically naive, and had no-one to speak for them or support them politically. Right across Australia during the 1990s, they began to disappear, transferred to desk jobs in the city, retired and not replaced, and starved of resources as well as moral support. The once-routine programs of systematic fuel reduction collapsed. Even in Western Australia where there was a continued agency support for burning, the annual program began to wind down. By 2003 it had reached a point at which it began to become ineffective: large, intense forest fires began to re-occur for the first times since the 1960s.
The downgrading of a prescribed burning program is worse than its closure. It is a double blow. A program of fuel reduction burning will not do the job if it does not meet a certain threshold in terms of area covered annually, and strategic distribution. Big fires which have worked up a head of steam in long-unburnt bush simply go over the top or around small, scattered or inadequately fuel-reduced areas. When this occurs it enables the opponents of fuel reduction burning to portray it as not only environmentally damaging, but worse, ineffective in preventing fires. The fact that we had never said that it would “prevent’ fires was conveniently overlooked.
Fuel reduction burning of 10% of the forest each year, which equates to a rotation time of 10 years), means that up to 50% of the landscape will have fine surface fuels less than 5 years old. Provided burns are thoughtfully distributed in terms of assets and values to be protected, prevailing wildfire winds etc, and if individual burns are large and intense enough, the potential for a severe wildfire is dramatically reduced. Any wildfires will soon run into an area of fuels aged 0-5 years.
Another factor emerged at about this time, promoted by the emergency authorities: this was the belief that aerial water bombing would provide the ultimate solution to the bushfire threat. The water bomber would replace the fire bomber, and a new technological era would render the old land manager obsolete at last.
The dawning of a new era
This brings us to the modern, or what I call the ‘technological era’ of bushfire management in Australia.
I am the first to admit, and I do so proudly, that Australian fire authorities have made a number of significant steps in technological development in fire suppression in recent years. Aerial detection, commenced in the 1970s, has become routine and very efficient. Remote sensing and mapping of fire fronts has become possible. Research studies have provided world-leading insights into fire behaviour, including fires at the upper ends of intensity. Computer technology has brought new dimensions across the spectrum from weather and fire forecasting to bushfire threat analysis. On the ground, crews have access to the most up-to-date vehicles, pumps, and communications, and they are directed from modern, purpose-built fire control centres that hum with technological wizardry. Water bombing capability, either from fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, including Skycrane helicopters hired each summer from the USA at enormous expense, now reaches right across the high rainfall forest and heavily populated regions of the nation. Firefighter mobility had been developed to the point at which interstate movement of firefighters has become routine, and indeed now extends to the importation on occasions of firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA.
By 2003 it is probably fair to say that Australia’s fire response system was more technologically advanced and more efficient than ever before in the nation’s history.
Nevertheless, the decision to abandon or wind back fuels management, and replace it with a technology-based suppression approach produced an inevitable and predictable consequence. Instead of getting better, things began to get worse. From about the year 2000 there was a rash of very nasty fires, culminating in the disaster in Victoria in 2009. The highly vaunted suppression technology was found to be powerless when faced with fires burning in heavy dry fuels and high winds, and under their onslaught, the suppression system collapsed.
In 2003 a bushfire actually burnt into the suburbs of Canberra, our national capital.
There was no Plan B. Many people perished trying to defend or shelter in homes that were wholly undefendable, or were actually fire traps, as they were nestled under the canopy of long-unburnt forest.
As the Bushfire Cycle dictates, the rash of fires has been followed by a rash of inquiries, commissions, conferences, seminars, workshops and recriminations. Books, letters, submissions and articles have been written, speeches made and “in-depth” analyses conducted by expert panels and committees. Overseas experts (including from the USA) have been brought in to advise us. Separate and independent inquiries have been made by the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Victorian Parliament, State Coroners and a Royal Commission (presided over by a judge).
A notable contribution came from former US Forest Service fire specialist Jerry Williams. Mr Williams is deservedly held in very high regard by Australian bushfire managers.
As each report is published, nothing is found within them to surprise the well-informed observer. Many findings are concerned with ‘small picture’ issues or with the minutiae of local situations, for example what sort of fire siren to put up in small country towns. However, without exception, every independent study has come to the same conclusions about the most important ‘big picture’ issue. These are:
(i) Fuel levels in eucalypt forests must be kept below certain threshold levels and fuel reduced areas thoughtfully distributed across the landscape;
(ii) The way to achieve this is through a program of periodic, planned burning under mild conditions that reduces fuels systematically over about 8-10% of the burnable forest every year;
(iii) If we do this, and continue to maintain a sound bushfire suppression system, wildfires will be easier and safer to control, and will do less damage, even under the most severe weather conditions; and
(iv) The community must have a Plan B, enabling evacuation to safe places when all else looks likely to fail.
This is all very well and good and the old hands have all cheered as the findings are made public.
However, the depressing reality for the most fire-prone areas (especially in the south-east), is that neither a new policy nor its implementation are likely to follow. Opposition to fuel reduction burning remains virulent in environmental organisations and within academia in Australia. This opposition is incurable, because it is not based on science, but on ideology, and a change of position would involve a loss of face.
Despite the protestations of environmentalists and academics, no evidence has ever been presented that suggests that a program of prescribed burning involving mild fire at intervals of 8-10 years has any deleterious effect on the biodiversity of Australian eucalypt forests. On the contrary, forests subjected to diverse fire regimes are healthier and more diverse than those subject either to fire exclusion or periodic high intensity wildfire.
However, neither the activists nor the academics are the main problem. The main problem is the vacuum left by the removal of the gatekeepers and their supporting leadership; this has not, and is unlikely to be filled. This issue is not even discussed. And the situation is made worse by the increasing bureaucratisation of prescribed burning. So many constraints have been erected it is becoming very difficult to actually do a burn. This is a clever strategy as it allows those who oppose fuel reduction burning to claim publicly that they support it, while simultaneously making it nigh impossible for burning to take place through the imposition of insurmountable bureaucratic processes that the public never sees.
To revive the system under which the gatekeepers flourished and to dismantle the bureaucratic morass in which fire operations people find themselves entangled, would require significant cultural changes within current environmental agencies and in our emergency services authorities. This will not come without major surgery at the top, and in this era of a political, rather than a professional public service, it is hard to see this happening.
Without the drive from the top to establish the culture, and to insist that the staff in the districts are devoted year-in and year-out to achieving their fuel reduction targets, the job will not get done.
The missing pieces of the jigsaw
It is important to remind ourselves of what is now missing from the Australian bushfire scene.
- · No longer are forest and land management agencies 100% committed to a fuel reduction program from the top down.
- · No longer do our agency leaders comprise people with hands-on bushfire experience; the people at the top did not start at the bottom.
- · No longer is there a constant injection at the bottom of young professionals with training in forest or land management who can then be exposed to coaching and mentoring from the old hands, gain practical experience with fire, and learn basic personnel management.
· Also fading into the sunset are the old hands themselves: the locally-trained sub-professional ranger staff with their intimate knowledge of the forest, the weather, and the people of the district. They not only worked in the bush, they had their homes there, and they knew that if they didn’t get their fire work right, their own families, friends and assets would be at risk. They are being replaced by young graduates with a degree in ecology or environmental science, all too often more interested in sitting at a computer than in getting out into the bush and mostly with a strong prejudice against the use of fire, inculcated back at University.
I accept that society has changed, and that few young people today are prepared to put up with the sort of living and working conditions that were the norm in the bush when I was a young forester. Australia is one of the most urbanised and affluent societies in the world. Attracting young professionals to work in the bush, leaving behind the comforts, bright lights and financial rewards of city life, is a universal problem not confined to forest and fire management.
These institutional and cultural changes have occurred at a time when large numbers of Australian are moving out of the cities to live at the interface, and where it is becoming increasingly difficult for leaders to lead. Nothing can be done in Australia any more without calling for public submissions, consulting stakeholders, preparing draft plans, conducting public meetings, test cases, pilot studies. Regrettably we are also seeing a growing threat of litigation the moment something happens that someone does not like.
All of this has produced a sort of bureaucratic paralysis that hangs like a dead weight around the necks of the nation’s bushfire managers.
Finally, there is the inability of the community and media to see beyond short-term losses to long-term gains. The concept of the trade-off seems no longer to be comprehended.
In the aftermath of the Victorian bushfire tragedy in 2009 I was invited to debate a leading member of the Australian intelligentsia on national radio. He was opposed to fuel reduction burning, he said, because he didn’t like the aesthetics of recently burned areas.
There are many good men and women still working as bushfire managers and in fire research in Australia. Their devotion to duty and their professionalism is unquestioned. The trouble is, increasingly they are being constrained, corralled, repressed, outvoted or stood up in witness boxes in courtrooms. The tolerance for error that I experienced as a district forester has disappeared, replaced by a fear of trial by media or of having to take the rap for an incompetent Minister. What particularly alarms me is that this is occurring at a time when expertise in the field is declining to vanishing point, so that errors will become more commonplace.
Returning to the discussion about heroes at the start of this paper, it is fascinating to observe a new trend out in the bush, especially within the Australian national parks agencies. The refrain has become: why should I do a fuel reduction burn, and draw the wrath of the greenies and media down on me for being a villain, when I can sit back, wait for the inevitable wildfire and become a hero as a firefighter?
Usually overlooked is that it takes personal courage to give the order to commence a fuel reduction burn, for example a 2000 hectare burn in mid-summer of an area of prime forest containing a mixture of fuel types and with high value neighbours. Even with today’s knowledge of fire behaviour and weather forecasts, things can go wrong. This puts a premium on experience and the “feel for fire” which only comes with years in the business, the two qualities most under threat under new institutional arrangements in Australia.
Where to from here for bushfire management in Australia?
I predict that the spate of interest in bushfire management in the wake of the 2009 disaster will last for maybe 5 years at best. After that, memories will fade and other political priorities will arise. The Bushfire Cycle will revolve inexorably.
In the past, it was precisely at the moment when political and community interest was at the lowest point in the cycle that the role of the gatekeepers became most important. It was the gatekeepers who kept the bushfire management machine well-oiled and chugging along, year-in and year-out. Running an effective bushfire management system when everyone is interested and activated is relatively easy. The hard job is running it when nobody cares.
Unless the political and institutional system in Australia changes, and there is a return to responsible gatekeeping, I can see no alternative to more megafires, more calamities, more deaths, more communities up in smoke. Leadership is absent or hopelessly constrained. We are desperate in Australia for a leader to arise who will make a stand: to decide what has to be done and to insist that it be done, so as to minimise bushfire calamities. But we also need inputs at the bottom. The best people at the top will be ineffective if we do not have people in the field who know how to get the job done on the ground, and to stick with it year by year, as the seasons roll by.
Foresters in my day had a saying when it came to bushfires. I suspect it was a sort of global philosophy amongst people in that game: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. It was this approach that, for a generation, shut the gate on the megafires now killing Australians and damaging the Australian environment. I believe this has been replaced by a new saying: hope for the best……
The real tragedy in Australian bushfire management today is not that we do not know what to do. The solution is at hand, but the hands are tied behind the backs. If only we could find a way to couple the brilliant developments that have been made in suppression technology to a professionally planned fuel reduction program that ticked over permanently across the landscape without attracting the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, we would become a land of bushfire heroes.
This brings me to The Bushfire Front, the organisation I am representing at this conference.
Who are or what is The Bushfire Front? We are a small group of retired foresters in Western Australia passionate about bushfire management and determined to fight the current trends. We decided that we were too old to volunteer as firefighters, but we had enough accumulated experience, wisdom, cussedness and old-fashioned rat-cunning to make us fairly effective on political battlegrounds. For a while we muttered amongst ourselves, and then in the wake of the 2003 Canberra fires we decided we would have a go. We developed a modus operandi based on the successful campaigns waged against us in earlier years by the environmentalists, started a campaign, and found to our surprise that the old weapons were still sharp.
Three members of the Bushfire Front were formerly Heads of Departments in Western Australia, one was formerly a Regional Manager, one a Research Director, and one the Manager of a land management planning division. Two are highly credentialed fire fighters and we have a communications and public relations specialist.
The response has been interesting. First, we quite rapidly developed political credibility, as it was recognised by politicians who were not part of government that they could come to us for independent advice. Second, we began to be sought out by the media, who wanted to hear from people with something to say but who did not chant the tired old mantras, as did the green groups and the agencies.
Needless to say we became quite unpopular with the green groups and the agencies, and especially with the emergency services, of whom we are most critical. Amusingly, they have attempted to discredit us by labelling us “yesterday’s men”.
Well, of course we are! Of course we look back with nostalgia to the time when we were running the show, and everything was better. But we also remember what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s when fires in heavy fuels were unstoppable, we remember the effort that went into designing and implementing a system that turned this situation around, and we despair to see the re-emergence of a 19th-century approach to fire in our schools and universities, and a fascination with the full-bore suppression approach in the emergency services authorities.
A fire management system with emphasis on suppression and inattention to preparedness and damage mitigation has come to be known in Australia as “the American Approach”, reflecting the admiration emergency service chiefs have for US campaign fire style operations with their squadrons of aircraft and thousands of firefighters in smart uniforms equipped with the latest in expensive equipment.
Although, sad to relate, the 2009 Victorian tragedy did a lot to help our public profile (we had predicted it infallibly), we have started to make a difference at the political level. In addition to providing an alternative public voice, we have been relentless in pointing out to our political leaders that, having been warned, they cannot escape accountability for preventable bushfire disasters. We have also pointed out, repeatedly, that in a do-nothing scenario, the outlook is bleak, just “more of the same” in the years ahead, and having been warned, that they will have to take the blame.
This is not a popular message. Following a meeting with the Western Australian Premier a few years ago, at which we told him his personal accountability was on the line if there was a bushfire tragedy, he remarked to his staff (we heard later) “I’m glad those guys are not still part of the public service: they tell me things I don’t want to hear”. This Premier resigned shortly afterwards, suffering from depression.
We also critique the so-called “new approaches” emerging from Australian universities, with their emphasis on decision-theory equations and computer-modelled scenarios, and point out how profoundly the proponents are divorced from the real world……. but here we have had no success. The academic establishment simply draws its wagons into an impenetrable circle. I should emphasise here that I am not against computer modelling per se; I use models all the time, for weather forecasting, fire behaviour prediction, in burning guides and so on. These are models built with the aim of helping the manager in the field. The modelling approaches I abhor are those designed to make our life more difficult, or to conjure up false fears about the impacts of fuel reduction burning.
Is there room for optimism?
I would not like to conclude this paper on a down-note. I occasionally allow myself a brief fantasy and would like to share it with you. What if the human survival instinct kicked in for people living at the urban interface who find themselves threatened by increasing numbers of unstoppable fires coming at them from long-unburnt forests? This instinct would surely drive them to seek effective measures to cut the rate of death and destruction. Then, just as an early generation of Australian foresters did, they will discover that the only way to do this is through a program of fuel reduction prescribed burning. This would start to shift the balance of political agitation from anti- to pro-burning.
What if rural Australians suddenly started to feel empowered to deal with their own bushfire destiny? To build fire-resistant homes and to keep them free of hazards?
What if the environmental movement in Australia realised, finally, that biodiversity is enhanced by habitat diversity which in turn is enhanced by fire diversity. Would they not then realise that mild frequent fire is a driver towards healthier, more ecologically resilient and more beautiful bushland? Would not the stories and legends of the Aboriginal people and their use of fire then be resurrected and supported, rather than denied and rejected.
And finally, what if Australian academics suddenly emerged from their leafy inner-city campuses and started to actually study fire in the field, rather than through the construction of computer models at their desks? Might they not start to learn something about the real world, as compared with the hypothetical one they invent and report upon, replete with garbage-in and garbage-out.
Such a coalition of interests might well result in the community starting to condemn forest managers for not keeping up with their burning programs, instead of trying to stop them burning. This would swing the pendulum away from an unmanaged to a managed fire regime, and would prove difficult even for the intelligentsia to overcome.
It’s a good fantasy, and one that sustains me when I lie awake in the small hours despairing over the way in which chaos so often triumphs over order and the fact that, as that great forester and administrator Alf Leslie once said: “when it comes to public policy, stupidity nearly always wins”.
And I also remind myself that Australians have made many magnificent advances in many fields over the decades. We are still a lucky country. Yes, bushfire management has gone backwards in recent years, and it is going to be a big job to get it back on the rails. The key requirement is a new generation of bushfire gatekeepers who will devote their professional lives to building and maintaining an effective bushfire system, not just seeking hero status putting fires out.
And what the gatekeepers need is organisations like The Bushfire Front, able to offer independent political support. Our little group of old guys (there are only seven of us), has taken on a big job, and so far, we have punched above our weight. But we also have fun and relish the recapture of the camaraderie between fire people that was once part of our daily life. And, of course, being in the Bushfire Front has got me to this wonderful conference and an opportunity to meet and interact with so many inspiring people. It has been a privilege to share my thoughts with you.
Phil Cheney, Athol Hodgson, Jim Williamson, Don Spriggins and Frank Campbell provided me with helpful comments on a draft of this paper.