LAW Paper 2011

Looking back and looking forward: the bushfire problem in WA

A paper for the Locals Against Wildfire (LAW) conference at Boyup Brook, June 2011
By Roger Underwood

The classical scholars in our midst today will quickly recognise this statue.


This is Janus, the Roman God of Doorways. I have thought of Janus as being an ideal symbol for The Bushfire Front, with our dual interests in looking backwards at the lessons of bushfire history and looking forward to the bushfire management of the future. It was only when Don Spriggins pointed out that Janus could also be depicted as a “two-faced bastard” that I gave him away.

Nevertheless, it is essential to look back as well as forward in this business. The lessons of history must not be forgotten or denied. In learning from history, members of the Bushfire Front have a great advantage. Not only are we students of the international bushfire history, but we have been participants in Australian bushfire history over the most important years of its evolution: from the 1950s to the present. This is the period that has spanned the very worst and the very best of bushfire management.

When it comes to experience and expertise in the bushfire business, and to an appreciation of the history of bushfire science and management, we have, as the saying goes, been there and done that. I do not believe there is any group in WA with a superior all-round knowledge of the issues.

I do not say this boastfully, but to contrast our specialist knowledge and experience with that of our critics. These are the critics who have sneered at us as “yesterday’s men”. Well of course we are… most of us are on the wrong side of 70 and are no longer much good on the end of a fire rake. But we remember the hard times in the 1950s; we remember the disasters of the 1960s; we remember how the whole system was upgraded and perfected so that WA became an international leader in bushfire management; we observed the decline and near-collapse of the system in the 1990s; and we have been at the forefront in trying to resurrect a once-proud system from its ashes.

This experience and historical perspective allows us to see with clarity where things are heading. Without significant changes to bushfire management in this State, a bushfire disaster is inevitable. All it is going to take is a combination of extreme weather and a decent lightning storm or a determined arsonist or two and we could have simultaneous fires in Kings Park, the Perth Hills, the Leeuwin Ridge, the karri forest and, who knows? maybe Boyup Brook. It will be January 1961 all over again.

I face two challenges in talking to you today. The first is that there is nothing I can say that you have not heard before. The second is to try to not be too negative. When it comes to bushfire management in WA these days there is a lot to be negative about.  But this is not the way forward.

Instead, I would like to turn to one of the maxims of management: before a problem can be solved, it must first be properly identified. So today I would like to clarify what the Bushfire Front sees as the most serious fire problems in WA. True, this will sound negative, but hopefully the analysis will help us more easily to focus on what needs to be done.

In essence, we believe that bushfire management in south-western WA is bedevilled by four great deficiencies: (i) incompetent governance; (ii) over-confidence in the suppression approach; (iii) the decline of self-reliance in rural communities; and (iv) the collapse of forest management. I will discuss each of these in turn, and then try to paint a picture of what might be ahead.

1. The leadership and governance vacuum

Consider these facts:

1. WA has no unifying State Bushfire Policy. Instead different agencies and Shires all have their own policies, and these do not necessarily mesh together;

2. WA has no single Minister or Ministerial Council or independent bushfire leader who can focus on getting the best possible bushfire system up and running, rising above politics and agency in-fighting.

3. The States two key governing bodies (The FESA Board, which oversees firefighting; and the Conservation Commission which oversees land management) have virtually zero experience and expertise in bushfire management and are unable to provide a molecule of leadership; and

4. Bushfire management in WA is not subject to any overarching, independent monitoring of performance against objectives and standards, nor is the public provided with annual, independent performance reports.

The principles of good governance can be found in any text book on business management or government administration: there must be a clear statement of objectives; these must then be linked to an Action Plan setting out priorities and budgets; next there must be a competent, properly resourced organisation to do the job. Finally, all of this must be coupled to a feedback loop so that actual and expected outcomes can be compared, and management can be adjusted as required.
There is nothing remotely like this for bushfire management in WA. No-where is there an overarching statement of objectives or priorities, no outcomes are prescribed, there is no coordinated approach covering all land tenures. Meanwhile actual fire management on the ground is split between numerous agencies, most of whom dislike and distrust each other. And the only feedback loop is that provided by the inquiry that follows a damaging bushfire.

People have said to me, in response to this claim: Whoa! What about WestPlan?  Well, I have read WestPlan carefully and it has some nice sounding phrases, but it lacks a critical element: no-one is responsible for its implementation. Furthermore, consider the following:

* a Shire Council can decide unilaterally to ban fuel reduction burning…… and no one does anything about it.

* DEC can fall a decade behind in its fuel reduction program….. and no one does anything.
* FESA can ignore the provisions of the Bush Fires Act in relation to hazards on private, State and Local Government land….. and no one does anything about it.

What this adds up to is one basic fact: nobody is in charge: the whole bushfire endeavour is leaderless.

There is an even more worrying aspect of this: those on the inside cannot see that there is a problem. A classic example occurred last year when my colleague Frank Campbell and I sought a meeting with the FESA Board to outline the immense problems with bushfire management on private land in WA. The meeting was a farce. Not only were we told to go away because there was no problem, we were actually insulted, it being implied that we did not know what we were talking about.

Similarly we have been told by a succession of Ministers for the Environment that there is no problem in southwest forests, and that the failure to meet fuel reduction targets is not DEC’s fault, but is due to climate change. The obvious conclusion is that DEC is expert at bluffing its Ministers, because the climate change we have seen (i.e. drier winters) has actually led to excellent conditions for winter, early spring and late autumn burning, especially in the more eastern forests.

I will not even mention our relationship with the current Minister for FESA, other than to say that he is so confident that he has all the answers that he will not answer our letters and refuses to meet with us.

So bushfire governance in WA is faced with the worst possible combination: (a) no-one is in charge; (b) there is no overarching policy guidance; (c) the Ministers are sock puppets for their departments; (d) the agencies and authorities are in denial that there is a problem; and (e) there is no independent monitoring or feedback on performance.

2. Over-confidence

The second great deficiency in bushfire management in WA is overconfidence in the capacity of the fire suppression system to handle anything.

Over the years I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that WA now has the bushfire game sewn up. This is based on pride in technology. Water bombers. Helitaks. Mobile telephones. Computer models. Infrared scanners. State-of-the-Art fire tankers and Fast Attacks. Hotshot firefighters from New Zealand and the USA who can be called in the moment things look like getting out of hand. But this pride is a false pride, because it ignores the lessons of history.

What does bushfire history tell us? It tells us that no fire suppression force in the world will succeed in a situation where fires are burning in heavy fuels under severe weather conditions. I don’t care how many firefighters or how many helitaks they have, they will fail when they are most needed. Look at what happened at Kelmscott last summer: the fire danger that day was not much over High, let alone Severe or Catastrophic, but the suppression forces were so ineffective in the face of heavy spotting out of long unburnt bush that 70 houses were lost. Imagine if this fire had occurred on a bad day! Similarly a 15 hectare fire in Kings Park burning in very heavy fuels, but on a mild day, could not be stopped by about 5 water bombers and 75 firefighters; this fire was only controlled when it ran into the Swan River.

Our authorities seem to be blinded to the fact that reliance on suppression has never succeeded with the small number of fires that do the most damage. This blindness is no better illustrated by the way, after every bushfire disaster, the same story emerges: all they need is more aircraft, more tankers, more firemen in jazzy uniforms, more technological gizmos. Why do we never hear about more fuel reduction, other than from people like the Bushfire Front, LAW or a few brave souls in DEC? Can it be possible that those calling for the technology fix are unaware of the experience with megafires in Victoria, NSW, the ACT, the USA, Canada, Greece and Portugal, let alone in WA?

Here I want to pause and emphasise how lucky we are in WA compared to many places in Australia, especially Victoria. DEC is (mostly) pro-fuel reduction, and despite all the hurdles that have been put in their path, they have been able to maintain a burning program over the years, even if it has been cut to the bones. We are also very lucky that there is still a small cadre of very good fire people in DEC. They have been prepared to put their careers on the line to champion the prescribed burning program at times when it was politically incorrect. The tragedy for DEC, as I shall mention in a moment, is that these wonderful people are a dying breed, an endangered species.

This contrasts sharply with the situation in FESA and many Shire councils, where the suppression philosophy has been deeply entrenched. I have never once in the last ten years heard a senior FESA executive come out in public and unequivocally support fuel reduction burning and push for more of it. In fact the reverse has been the case.

This is not just wrong in itself; it is an example of our bushfire authority actually making the bushfire situation worse and undermining their own firefighters. This is because lack of burning leads to continued fuel accumulation, making dangerous and unstoppable fires more likely… and worse, it discourages community preparedness and damage mitigation, and encourages an over-dependence on the emergency services.

3. The debacle on private land

There was a time in WA when private landowners were encouraged to take responsibility for their own bushfire safety….. and if they did not, they were forced to do so by a stern Shire Council backed up by an even sterner Bush Fires Board.

Outside of the true farming districts, those days are over. Part of the problem is the influence of the environmentalists, often operating from within government agencies or Shire councils. They have prevented, for example, essential fuel reduction on road reserves which are the corridors along which firefighters must travel during a bushfire. Partly it is also due to changing demographics in the bush – the older style farmer and bushman has been replaced by the retired academic or former inner-city dweller with zero bushfire experience or bushfire wisdom.

Not only are these people ignorant about fire, but they have also been seduced by a message from the authorities that they do not need to worry: if there is a fire, the helicopter will appear overhead and a truck full of firefighters will come up the driveway. I love our firefighters and I do not criticise them for a moment: but they cannot be everywhere at once.

To make matters worse, most Shires (with FESA support) have virtually given up on bushfire law enforcement, so that people have been allowed to live smack in the middle of a tremendous bushfire hazard, and not be taken to task for it.  Indeed in some places, people have been encouraged to live in a fire hazard by foolish “green” councils. I have seen rural residential developments around Margaret River, Denmark and in the Perth Hills that would make the hair stand up on the back of your head. These places will be totally undefendable in the face of a severe fire.

The result of all this is a new dynamic in the bush, especially in the bushland suburbs around major towns.  This can be summarised as follows:

* First, rural and semi-rural communities are poorly informed about fire, have a very low awareness of hazards and bushfire risks and are most properties are underprepared. A prevailing attitude is “it can’t happen to me”;
* Second, the authorities are overconfident. Because their firefighting technology can generally handle small fires on mild days with ease, they think this will be the case for large fires on bad days;
* Third, fuels are accumulating everywhere within or adjoining rural residential areas;
* Fourth, bushfire law is no longer enforced; and

* Finally there is the new “EVERYBODY OUT! evacuation policy, so that at the first whiff of smoke, whole towns and suburbs are (theoretically) cleared of their residents, while assets (and those who missed the mobile phone message), are left to burn.

These are issues that have been developing before everybody’s eyes for about 15 years now. This is the situation Frank Campbell and I tried to describe to the FESA Board and we were sneered out of the room. This is the situation, unless something very radical is done about it very soon, that is going to result in a bushfire disaster in this State.

4. The crisis in forest management

I don’t intend to spend much time on this, as it is a subject on which I have written extensively elsewhere, but suffice it to say that over the last 15 years or so, the professional management of WA forests has been gutted. Without any public consultation, the department shut down five of its southwest districts: Jarrahdale, Dwellingup, Harvey, Nannup and Manjimup. All of these were once self-contained districts with professional and field staff and gangs of well-trained firefighters. They were the nerve-centres for bushfire planning and operations, and the focal point for local community relations. In their place, a new system of remote administration has been imposed that flies in the face of management experience going back to Roman times, and staff have been increasingly specialised so that the former all-rounders have been replaced by those who only “do” recreation, for instance, or environmental protection. The tiny number of “fire specialists” occupy the Department’s most unpopular jobs, and frequently lack support from their colleagues.

At the same time DEC has stopped recruiting and training foresters. In  their place we see a department increasingly staffed by environmental scientists from institutions like Murdoch University, young men and women who have drunk deeply at the font of green academia, who are confident they are the intellectual elite, and who prefer to sit in the office and model scenarios on their computers rather than to get out into the bush, do a bit of burning or find out on the end of a fire hose that there is difference in fire intensity between light and heavy fuels.

This situation is actually worse than it looks. For at the same time the recruitment and practical training of all-rounders at the bottom has ceased, the old-timers who once mentored young officers are retiring, leaving or being made redundant. The consequence is that the senior staff of the future will never have worked in the bush under wise grey-beards, never sniffed a bushfire, never been responsible for running an aerial burning program or taking command of a Large Fire on a bad day. Instead it will be the intellectual elite who will be running the show, unburdened by the lessons of practical experience in the bush.

Again history has its lessons: any organisation that fails to look after both recruitment and succession development of its future leaders will ultimately implode. And if DEC implodes it will take bushfire management in southwest forests with it. There will be no-one to fill the vacuum.

The woeful performance of the Victorian equivalent of DEC in the February 2009 bushfires provides a telling example of what happens to an agency when it fails to observe the basic principles of sound fire and personnel management.


Despite all the foregoing, not all is lost.

First, we are at a delicate moment in WA bushfire history.  As we speak one inquiry (by Stuart Ellis) has been completed and is buried somewhere within FESA. I doubt whether anything but a heavily expurgated version of the Ellis Report will ever appear, and therefore we do not need to worry too much about it.
But also brewing is a second and far more significant inquiry by Mick Keelty. Whereas Ellis was a consultant working for and reporting to FESA, Keelty is independent and his inquiry has been open and comprehensive. His report is currently ready for presentation to the Premier. If this report honestly portrays the difficulties, problems and challenges of which we are all aware and the likely consequences, it will provide a magnificent opportunity for the government to put bushfire management in WA back on the rails.

Of course, I recognise that Keelty is working in a political minefield. There are Ministers, authorities and senior government officers benefiting from the status quo who will fight any proposed changes. There is also the risk that he will miss the Big Picture and end up focusing on the engine, rather than the engine driver. But I was impressed by Keelty and I admit I am pinning my faith in his Inquiry.

The other positive thing is that the penny seems to have finally dropped with some south-west Shires and they are starting to take their bushfire responsibilities seriously, rather than just handballing them to someone else. I have been very impressed with measures being introduced by the Shire of Busselton and the Shire of Serpentine-Jarrahdale in recent times: these can be seen as a model for all other south-west Shires.

And, amazingly, even FESA seem to be emerging slowly into the light, having recently formed the curiously named “Bushland Mitigation” branch. Set aside for a moment that the branch should more correctly have been named Bushfire Mitigation, and the idea that this move has come about in expectation of Keelty, the sentiment and the direction is applauded. This is the first wedge in the door of the Suppression-only Approach which has dominated FESA since its inception. Thus it represents a potential seachange in philosophy……… now we have to wait to see what it means on the ground.

And finally, we have a fallback position. This is to wait for the almighty bushfire disaster which will inevitably strike WA if the present failed system is not corrected. The events of last summer were just a foretaste of what could occur in the Hills or at Denmark or Margaret River or Pemberton or three or four other places, given the right (or wrong) conditions. When this disaster occurs and if many lives are lost, there will be a Royal Commission and then the Bushfire Front, LAW and others will be able to make public our many warnings, and the way the government and the authorities rejected or denied them. If any justice prevails, heads will roll.
But what a tragedy that to get reform in bushfire management we must first have a bushfire tragedy. This is why I am pinning my hopes on Keelty….. and in doing so, end this paper on an optimistic note.