A Modern Bushfire

By Dr Frank McKinnell    
March 2011

I am a forester, and have been involved with fire management in Australia in one way or another for about 50 years. My career has spanned active firefighting, fire behaviour research, corporate fire responsibility and senior fire policy direction in a Government agency, as well as several overseas assignments assisting Governments with forest fire management. I can fairly claim to know something about rural fire.

I am also confronted daily by a fire-prone environment. I live in the hilly area to the east of Perth that is largely forested with native eucalypt forest. Houses are scattered around the forest and there is a patchwork of publicly owned reserves where the forest is largely intact, although mostly regrowth.

Unfortunately, fire management in this area is very poor. There are firefighters, both voluntary and professional, but fire prevention and damage mitigation is minimal. The public mind here has been conditioned by years of green activist propaganda that it is necessary to “conserve biodiversity”. Consequently, the general community attitude is that bushland must not be touched in any way, and particularly not subjected to any fuel reduction burning.

Despite some public information programs at the start of summer each year, there is a high level of public apathy about fire matters. Most people living in the area come from an urban background and have moved to the hills to “live among the gum trees”. Most know nothing about fire management and complacently believe that the fire disasters they have seen in other parts of Australia cannot happen here.

The forests in this region are highly inflammable. Once the forest floor fuel load exceeds 8 tonnes/hectare a bushfire will rapidly run up into the tree canopy and become uncontrollable in the sort of hot, windy weather that we can get from December to March. Over 80 years of fire experience by forest managers in Western Australia, supported by sound research, has shown that such uncontrollable fires can be avoided by regular fuel reduction burning under mild weather conditions in late winter and spring. In this area that means a mild intensity burn about every five years.

Very little fuel reduction burning actually takes place here due to lack of resources to do the job, misplaced public concern at adverse effects on biodiversity and “the environment”, and aversion to smoke from burns.

I am a strong supporter of our local bushfire brigade. They are part of the long tradition in rural areas of Australia for local people to form volunteer bush fire brigades to provide a trained fire fighting force. They arose in an era when bushfires were the concern of all rural people. Whereas the volunteer brigades formerly even provided their own equipment, and it was all run on a shoestring, they now have very good equipment provided by the State Government.

Formerly, they were also quite independent and under the fairly loose control of the local Shire, but now they are firmly under the direct control of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA). FESA is a paramilitary organisation that has evolved from an urban uniformed fire brigade background. It has no tradition of rural fire management, but has access to a good source of funds from a compulsory levy on landholders.

FESA has also benefited from public concern over damage from bushfires over the last few years and now has access to a substantial force of water bombers, both fixed wing and helicopters. The aircraft are hired, at great expense, each fire season. They make great theatre at a fire and the TV stations just love them.
Water bombers are useful in dealing with low intensity fires under relatively mild weather conditions, but they are ineffectual under high winds, when the worst fire losses occur, or at night.

The volunteer brigades do a great job. They are universally admired and regarded as heroes, and rightfully so. FESA carefully promotes this hero cult and loses no opportunity to show off the great job firefighters and their airforce is doing. However, there is a downside to all this as my little tale here may show.

Our house is one of a number ranged along the southern side of a road. To the north is a block of maybe 100 ha of forest that carries fuel of varying ages. The bush just to the north of us carries about 10 tonnes/hectare of ground fuel. I keep tabs on such things near our house, for obvious reasons.
It was damned hot here one day in January 2011. About 5 pm the temperature was still 39C. I had been keeping my eyes open for fires, and just then noticed a smoke suddenly going up to the north of us. At first could not see how far away it was. I watched it for a few minutes then decided to take a look. At this time there were a few other people further up the road keeping an eye on it as well, but so far no action by the local volunteer brigade.

I walked into the fire and was shocked to see that it was only about 150 metres from home. At that stage was only about 0.2 ha in size. There was only a very light easterly breeze and the fire behaviour was quite mild. It was the sort of thing a forestry crew in my early days in the bush would have knocked off in half an hour using fire rakes and packsprays.

I decided to run back home and get my packpray to attack it myself and to try to hold it until the brigade arrived, as they surely would. I noted that the people watching the fire up the road were still just standing there, just watching. There were at least 5 able bodied men in the vicinity doing nothing at all about the fire.
I picked up my packspray and returned to the fire at about 5.15 and started working along the southern flank towards the headfire. I had made some progress when a volunteer brigade light attack unit arrived with its two man crew, and the three of us worked together along that edge. I could hear another brigade vehicle working along the northern flank, so suppression was well under way.

At 5.40 I noticed a light observation chopper arriving overhead and soon after that all hell broke loose. No less than 3 large helitacs, two fixed wing water bombers and another light chopper arrived. About then my packspray (and, I confess, my energy) ran out and after talking to the brigade guys I was working with, I retired home to watch the aerial spectacle from our terrace, aided by a cold beer. It was quite a show they put on, with multiple passes dropping water and zooming around like flies on a carcass. The airshow wound down about 6.20 and it was left to the local brigade guys to mop up.

All this for a fire of about 1 hectare! The cost must have been enormous. However, if a few of my neighbours had come along with me and attacked it quickly, even only using beaters or garden rakes, in association with the bushfire brigade, we could have suppressed the fire easily at virtually zero cost.

A number of issues arise from this event:

* The fuel load in this area was too high. Although it was very hot, we were fortunate that there was no wind to speak of, so fire behaviour was mild. Had there been a brisk wind, the fire would have been much more difficult to control. This area of forest is close to about 30 homes.

* Apart from myself and the bushfire brigade, the local community did nothing to help themselves. They have been conditioned to think that they had no responsibility to attack the fire….after all, the firies will always come to the rescue, and it’s such fun for the kids to watch the aircraft bombardment. The common public attitude is that anything to do with fire management is the responsibility of someone else. Almost no individual sees it as his/her duty to take any interest in the matter. This is a major failing in community attitude that could have fatal consequences in a serious fire situation.

* There was massive overkill in terms of resources directed to what was really a tiny fire that was well on the way to being under control by local ground forces before the aerial cavalry arrived.

I believe that we have some fundamental problems here that must be addressed by Government.

1. There is the well-recognised problem of heavy fuels in among housing developments over the whole Perth Hills region. The recent Roleystone fire was a good example of what can happen here. Fuel reduction on reserves is the job of the State Government and local government and they must be more active in this area.

2. Despite the fact that FESA and the Shire Councils send out the same old notices each year about cleaning up fuels, community apathy reigns supreme. Very few people heed the warnings and take steps to clean up their properties. Obviously, the communication strategy adopted by the authorities is not working: the message is not getting through.

3. Shires have the power to penalise landowners who fail to reduce fire hazards on their property, but for many years have been reluctant to use those powers. Some Shires have opted out of fire management and have ceded those powers to FESA. Failure by Shires and FESA to enforce the provisions of the Bush Fires Act in relation to fire hazards on private land is a major deficiency in Western Australian governance.

4. The glorification of firefighters and the highly centralised control of the volunteer bushfire brigade system by FESA are detrimental to rural fire management. It divorces the rest of the community from any responsibility in the matter. How much better would it be if everyone living in rural areas accepted that fire management was their concern and their active involvement was encouraged as was once the case in rural areas. How can we get back to a culture of self-reliance instead of the culture of dependency that seems to pervade our society?

Such a change in attitude would also act to encourage more young people to join the volunteer brigades. Aging of brigade personnel has been a major concern for the last 20 years. The typical institutional response to this situation (see The Australian, 4 February 2011: Local heroes hold the front line) is to argue for more professional firefighters. Surely this would only exacerbate the current situation and even further divorce rural people from their responsibilities in fire management.

5. Finally, it is apparent from the performance at this little fire that FESA, who controlled the fire effort through the local firies, have gone overboard with the use of their expensive aerial toys. There was absolutely no need at all for any aerial attack on this fire. Granted, it was close to a number of houses, but any dill on the ground could see that the local volunteer brigade had the affair well in hand.

It is time we took a good hard look at the current approach to rural fire management in Western Australia. Far too much reliance is placed on suppression and nowhere near enough effort goes into reducing fuel loads so that fires are easier, and safer to control. And it’s not good enough for the few to do the right thing. Fuel loads need to be kept at low levels over the whole rural area. Shire Councils and FESA need to fulfil the responsibilities allocated to them under the Bush Fires Act and adopt a far more professional approach to rural fire management.

A basic problem is over-reliance on volunteers. They do a great job on suppression, but to rely on them for fuel reduction burning, as is the present system, is folly indeed. They just do not have the time and cannot do burns during weekdays anyway, as they all have their own jobs. Each Shire Council needs to have its own fire crew who can work throughout the year to control fuels on the multitude of small reserves vested in all councils, as well as assisting the aged and infirm to clean up their blocks. Such a fire crew would also be a valuable addition to local fire fighting capacity during the fire season. Fire management should be a local government responsibility as much as rubbish collection.