Forest Fire History

History of fire management on public lands in Western Australia

Fire management in WA forests has evolved considerably over the past 200 years, especially since European settlement. Prior to European arrival, lightning and aboriginal burning were the source of frequent fires. The precise extent is the subject of considerable debate, but there is no doubt that such fires were very common. The early European immigrants were accustomed to view fire as only a destructive agent and banned aboriginal burning. However,graziers soon discovered that a rotational burning system, similar to that practised by aborigines, was valuable for maintaining open grassy forest land, and they commenced to use fire as a land management tool. In the main forest zone, fires became relatively infrequent, but were more damaging, until broadscale fuel reduction burning was adopted as policy in State forests. This fire management system was very successful and has prevented the occurrence of large severe forest fires for 40 years from 1962 to 2002. The breakdown of this system is a central concern of the Bushfire Front.

The Fire Exclusion Era

When the Forests Department was formed in 1918,its senior staff were drawn from overseas, and all had been trained in European forestry schools, principally the famous Nancy forestry school in France. There they were imbued with European concepts about forest fires, namely, that forest fire was a disaster and fire had to be excluded from the forest. Accordingly, they sought to implement this policy in Western Australian forests. They tried very hard to do so, over the period 1918 to 1953, but eventually had to acknowledge that fire exclusion was a failed policy.

 This was the result!

don8.jpg Actually, fire was not totally excluded from the forest. It was recognized that some type of internal firebreak within the forest was needed. An extensive system of forest tracks was developed to break up the forest into small blocks. Along main roads, railways and around each compartment of about 200-300 ha, a system of firebreaks was developed where strips of forest about 100 metres in width were burned under mild weather conditions. The theory was that these strips would protect unburnt forest in the interior of the compartment.

This approach was a failure in practice. In a wildfire burning under only moderately severe conditions the 100 m wide strips did not stop the headfire, and it became impractical to carry out a low intensity burn against heavy fuels without a high proportion of escapes. The lack of labour for on-ground forest management during the Second World War was another factor that made it impossible to maintain this policy.

By the 1950s, the Forests Department was faced with an explosive fire management situation. A very severe fire in Plavins Block, east of Dwellingup, in 1950, prompted a review of the whole approach to fire management. In 1953, the policy was formally changed to one of rotational broadcast fuel reduction burning, although some forest districts had already pre-empted this change to some extent. Of course, it was not possible to make such a major change overnight, and there was a huge backlog of heavy fuel to deal with. Lack of experience with broadcast burning meant that field staff proceeded cautiously at first, even carrying out some burns at night to minimize fire intensity. There was also excessive caution about crown scorch and little monitoring and evaluation of results. Fuel reduction burning was found to be much more difficult to carry out in karri forest.

Consequently progress was rather slow, and by 1960, there were still large areas of heavy fuel in existence. At the same time, fire management on private land was not in good shape. This was an era of rapid agricultural development, involving the clearing of large areas of forest land.

The fire legislation was inadequate and local government was poorly organized to deal with fire issues. Bush fire brigades were in existence, but almost without exception were poorly equipped and had little or no radio communication systems. Coordination between the Forests Department and the brigades was also poorly developed. During this period, the State was in the throes of massive agricultural development, with large areas of forest or woodland being cleared each year. Fire was the normal method of removing the debris from land clearing and escapes from farm clearing burns were very common.

Fire Disasters 1961

With this background, and with severe fire weather conditions, the 1961 fire season was a disaster. A series of lightning strikes was the main cause of the wildfires that in toto covered about 350,000 ha that summer. While the Dwellingup fire is perhaps the best known of these large wildfires, there were other major fires at Mayanup, Pemberton, Shannon River and Kudardup (near Margaret River). It was fortunate that no lives were lost, but several towns were burnt out, and the material and infrastructure losses were enormous. Historic buildings, such as the pioneer Davies’ house at Karridale, were also destroyed.

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Dwellingup fire 1961- the remains of homes at Dwellingup

Public concern at the magnitude of the disasters led to a Royal Commission into the fire management issue. The Royal Commission stimulated amendments to theBush Fires Act, more fire management responsibilities for local government, provision of more resources for the Bush Fires Board to administer the Act, and a marked upgrading of forest fire management generally in the State.

 Major Advances in Forest Fire Management

The upshot, for forest fire management, was confirmation that the fuel reduction burning approach was necessary and appropriate, but needed to be placed on a more scientific footing, and needed to be expanded. The response of the Forests Department was to commence a comprehensive fire behaviour research program and to investigate new techniques for fuel reduction burning, aimed at increasing productivity of existing resources. This research program was, and remains, unique in Australia. Only in CSIRO has there been any similar fire research program. In addition, improvements were made in equipment, radio communications and weather forecasting. Aerial fire detection became an essential pat of the fire detection system.

The fuel reduction burning program became progressively better planned, taking into account a wide variety of factors, including community protection, matching burn specifications to forest management objectives, protection of rare fauna and flora, visual amenity along tourist routes and smoke management. A burn monitoring and evaluation system was introduced. The technique of fuel ignition was greatly improved, thanks to fire behaviour research and culminated in the development of aerial ignition procedures. Using aerial ignition, the Department was able to achieve significant gains in productivity, to the point where it became possible to carry out individual burns as large as 20,000 ha in a single day. A burn of this size was, however, unusual. Most aerial burns were of the order of 5,000 ha.

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An aerial burn in progress. Over the period 1963-1990, the whole of the State forest area of the South West progressively came under this scientifically-based system of fire management. Apart from the Boorara fire in the karri forest in 1969, where the fuel reduction program was more difficult to implement due to climatic reasons, there were no large wildfires at all, despite some seasons of bad fire weather. The ultimate test of the system came in April 1978, when the errant north west cyclone Alby struck the south west of the state. Coming at a time when seasonal agricultural burning had already commenced, winds of up to 130 km/h caused a large number of fire escapes. At one time there were 65 wildfires running in State forest. Most of these could be left alone, as they were burning in recently burnt forest where they could do little harm. This allowed the Department to concentrate its resources on the relatively few fires that posed a threat to the community.A full account is given by Underwood et al in Background Material>Useful Links and References section.

Current Situation and DEC Shortcomings

The BFF is totally supportive of the DEC approach to fire management based on fuel reduction burning. Our main issue with DEC is that they are not doing enough burning to avoid large scale bushfires.

From the mid-1990s the responsible Government agency, the then Department of Conservation and Land Management (now DEC), came under increasing stress in its attempts to meet its fire management programs. These problems were comprehensively examined in the Muller report (see the Naturebase.wa.gov.au website for a downloadable version). Muller found that major improvements were necessary to avoid large scale fire disasters.

What has happened in recent years is that the Government has laid less and less emphasis on fuel reduction burning to minimize the effects of bushfires, but has laid more emphasis on fire suppression operations. There has been a progressive decline in on-ground resources but greater investment in high-tech equipment. We have moved toward an American-style “throw everything at ‘em” approach, with increasing reliance on water bombers, both fixed wing and helicopters.

While water bombers can be very useful in slowing down a wildfire while it is small, they are not a substitute for ground forces. They are extremely expensive, especially large helicopters, and probably would not stand up well in a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. However, they do make good media copy and they do enable politicians to grandstand that they are doing something aggressive about bushfires. Such people lose sight of the fact that under severe weather conditions, when fire disasters do occur, aircraft are ineffective. During the Canberra firestorm, all aircraft were grounded by smoke and high winds.

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Worse still, we have a situation where people who are engaged in fighting bushfires are held up as examples of heroism (which they undoubtedly are!), but the efforts of those who attempt to prevent bushfires by fuel reduction burning are vilified as careless vandals when something goes wrong with a burn, or they inadvertently put smoke over an urban area. This situation is all the more galling when past experience teaches us that we need never have large bushfires at all, if the lessons of the past are put into practice.

The question could also be asked, when many in the community are gravely concerned about rural depopulation, why we continue to move fire fighting resources into metropolitan airports instead of using the same financial resources to employ more people in rural towns.

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DEC fire management on its forested land in the South West is inadequate because:

1. Fuel reduction burning cycles are too long

 The current fire management regime being applied to jarrah forests, in particular, results in burning cycles of 10-12 years that are too long to achieve reasonable protection against large wildfires. Previous experience has shown that areas carrying fuels older than 5 -6 years (or 8 tonnes/ha of ground litter) will carry an uncontrollable crown fire. No area of the northern jarrah forest should be carrying ground fuels greater than 8 tonnes/ha, apart from minor areas along creek lines and in refugia created by swamps and rock outcrops.

2. The annual burning target is too low

 DEC has an annual target of 200,000 ha for a forest estate of about 2,500,000 ha, which gives an average burning cycle of 12 years. Despite that overall figure there are significant areas of forest carrying fuels older than 20 years. BFF believes that the negligible wildfire losses of the 1961-1985 period, where the average area burnt each year was about 300,000 ha, indicates that a figure closer to that area is necessary to provide adequate protection against major wildfires.

3. They cannot reach their annual target anyway

 From 2000 to 2008, the average area of burning each year by DEC was 149,000 ha This means that in the period 2000-2008 alone, the backlog of burning was over 400,000 ha. This backlog will never be made up, so the outlook is for steadily increasing fuel loads in our forests, therefore steadily increasing fire hazards.

4. Their burn planning processes are too complex

 They are governed by unproven and arbitrary rules for the protection of individual plant or animal species, while ignoring the crucial issue of protection the forest ecosystem as a whole. For example, a particular plant species in an area is selected as being sensitive to fire, requiring 5 years to set seed from germination. Using a so-called “precautionary approach” the minimum burn rotation for this area is set quite arbitrarily at twice this juvenile period, or 10 years. Such an approach is based on the flawed assumption that any burn would kill all occurrences of this plant. In practice this would never happen due to the inherent variation in fire intensity in a fuel reduction burn.

 5. Implementation of burns is ineffective

 The burning operations are carried out on individual areas of forest that are too small to provide real protection against large wildfires. The DEC objective of achieving a “fine grained mosaic” of fuel ages restricts the amount of burning that is carried out each season and greatly increases the cost/ha of fuel reduction burning. Furthermore, ground dwelling animals, such as kangaroos and wallabies, move into freshly burned areas within days of a burn, as many native plants rapidly produce new shoots that are keenly sought after as fodder. If only small areas are burnt at one time, the grazing pressure can be so intense as to cause excessive damage to the regrowth.

 6. Smoke minimisation procedures severely limit the amount of burning close to the Metropolitan area

 A political directive that DEC burning operations must ensure that no smoke at all reaches the metropolitan area severely restricts the period in which burns can be carried out within a large radius of the capital. Urban residents need to accept that some smoke over Perth is necessary during the spring burning season to avoid large wildfires during the summer. Such smoke should not be regarded as pollution, but part of the normal cycle of the seasons in Australia. DEC should be trying to educate the public on this issue, but have done virtually nothing at all about it.

 7. Reserves managed by DEC such as the regional parks, receive very little active fire management.

 It is totally irresponsible to allow high fuel loads to exist in close proximity to peri-urban areas. In the Darling Range Regional Park, for example, there are large areas carrying 16 tonnes/ha of ground fuel or more. Fuel loads over 8 tonnes/ha will carry a crown fire, which could easily produce a Canberra-style disaster here.