Presentations From the 2005 Eaton Seminar
1. Barriers to Best Practice in Bushfire Management in WA
By Roger Underwood, Chairman of The Bushfire Front, Inc
The development of guidelines for Best Practice in bushfire management has been one of the main achievements of the Bushfire Front. It represents a logical approach to breaking down the mammoth task of bushfire management in a huge State like WA into manageable chunks – i.e. things which can be progressively handled by those in responsible positions. It also allows priorities to be identified.
There are three pertinent questions:
(i) What is “best practice” in bushfire management? In other words, is it possible to define an ideal, or perhaps a perfect approach to the minimisation of bushfires and the damage they cause?
(ii) To what extent are systems of bushfire management currently being applied in WA meeting the requirements of Best Practice? How are we doing?
(iii) And if we are not meeting them, why not? What are the barriers preventing excellence in bushfire management in WA?
Our focus has been the southwest regions, as these encompass the main forest and agricultural areas as well as the bulk of the State’s population and economic assets. Clearly this is the area most vulnerable to bushfire damage, so it is the area in which the greatest effort must be made to ensure there is an effective bushfire management system.
The unusual nature of a bushfire disaster
Before discussing best practice, one thing must be emphasised. Bushfires are a natural disaster, like cyclones, ice storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. All of these events arise from the forces of nature to strike at human lives and values and can cause enormous economic and environmental damage. To some extent all are predictable, at least we know that they have all occurred in the past and nothing has changed to suggest they will not occur in the future. To a large degree it is also possible to predict where each of these natural disasters is most likely to occur, especially bushfires. As everyone knows, the combination of (i) hot dry summer weather with (ii) flammable bushland fuels or crops and (iii) sources of fire in the form of lightning or humans, means that bushfires are not just an outside risk, they are an absolute certainty. The fuse to the bomb is always smouldering, and the bomb always goes off – only its size and ferocity varies.
But bushfires are different from all the other natural disasters. Not only can we can predict accurately when and where they will occur, we can take very effective action to minimise the damage they caused and to maximise the ease of control. In other words, while bushfires cannot be prevented, their impact can be greatly reduced.
This is the job we call “bushfire management”. It is not rocket science. All the elements are very well known, and have been field tested. We know that an effective system starts with laws, policy and planning, and at the field level includes preparedness, education, fuel reduction, equipment, training, research, detection and suppression. Most of all, for forest areas it is abundantly well-known that to minimise the occurrence of large, high intensity “killer” fires, you must have an effective program of fuel reduction burning. The Aborigines knew this.
If all of this is so well known and understood, why does Western Australia continue to experience large, high intensity “killer” bushfires? There are two explanations. The first is that our leaders do not properly understand The Bushfire Cycle (which I will describe in a minute) and the second is that there has never been an attempt in WA to define and formally work to achieving best practice in bushfire management.
The Bushfire Cycle
The Bushfire Cycle is a phenomenon well-known to those of us who have been around for a while.
First comes a bushfire disaster. Lives are lost, there is terrible damage and the bill runs to millions of dollars. This is followed by a flurry of inquiries, Coroner’s reports, Royal Commissions and litigation. Heads roll, new appointments are made. The whole system is energised. Agencies redouble their efforts to design and implement a more effective bushfire system, always incorporating mitigation and prevention as well as suppression. Funds suddenly become available for new staff, new equipment, radios, roads, fuel-reduction burning, training and research. Bushfire law is revised and enforced.
The success of all this is striking. In Phase 2 of the cycle there is a period in which disastrous bushfires do not occur. The system works! The trouble is, a successful bushfire system is always self-defeating. Its very success leads to absence of disasters, and thence to community apathy, political complacence, agency overconfidence, foolish planning decisions, budgetary re-arrangements and a softer approach to law enforcement. In these conditions, weirdo pressure groups flourish, hamstringing land managers with unreasonable constraints. Gradually, entering Phase 3 of the cycle, come the budget cut-backs for bushfire mitigation and prevention. Firefighter numbers decline, equipment is dispersed. District HQs are closed. Fire is not a problem.
Towards the end of Phase 3, however, usually after about 10-15 years, the first unstoppable fires start to occur, and before the system can be put back on the rails, Phase 4 is reached and there is another terrible disaster. This involves loss of life, firefighters killed or injured, houses, farms, plantations and forests devastated, and cost multi-millions of dollars. We have returned to Phase 1 and the whole cycle is repeated.
Western USA, Canada and Victoria, NSW and ACT are all currently well into the inquiry, recrimination and redesign phase. WA is nearing the end of a complacency phase, with our first unstoppable fires for decades occurring in southwest forests in the last two summers and serious fires at Tenterden, Mt Barker and Bridgetown. Unless the cycle is broken, The Really Big Bushfire Disaster is not a matter of if, but when.
The bushfire cycle turns relentlessly, driven by community apathy and agency paralysis. It can only be derailed by strong leadership, intelligent action and adequate funding. Are there any signs that our government recognises this?
This takes us to a consideration of best practice, and the West Australian performance.
A best practice bushfire management system has the following characteristics:
(i) It will deliver protection of community assets and human values from large, high intensity bushfires;
(ii) It will avoid or minimise undesirable long-term environmental impacts, especially to water catchments;
(iii) It will minimise the risks to firefighters;
(iv) Fire use and fire suppression will be based on credible science, and protocols and prescriptions will be continually updated in the light of research and field experience;
(v) There will be provision for independent monitoring of outcomes, and public reporting;
(vi) The approach to bushfire management will have community and media support, stemming from strong political leadership and a high level of public understanding of the issues.
The Best Practice Approach
In terms of implementation, a best practice bushfire management system would address ten key elements. These are set out in the table below, not necessarily in order of importance:
1. A national strategy. There will be a national bushfire strategy signed off by all the State and Territory jurisdictions.
2. A State Bushfire Policy. There will be a State Bushfire policy for WA, providing strategic leadership and guidance to all agencies and land managers. The Bushfire Policies of individual agencies and LGA will be required to comply with the State Policy.
3. Accountability. There will be clear accountability at State government, Local government and agency level for bushfire outcomes, and a unified and consistent approach to prevention, preparedness, damage mitigation, suppression, recovery and community education
4 Legislative authority. Bushfire legislation must be up-to-date and unambiguous in assigning accountability, responsibility, priorities, standards and setting out the hierarchy of leadership and control
5. Competent, effective and cooperative agencies. Land use planning must be in the hands of people with bushfire expertise and experience, and land management agencies provided with adequate resources. Volunteers need to be supported by a professional agency able to deliver on equipment, training, and fire event management.
6. Philosophy. Bushfire management must adequately address prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation, not just suppression.
7. Dealing with fire on private land. There must be a high level of professional bushfire expertise in Local Government Authorities, supported by strong legislation and adequate funds to ensure the volunteer firefighter system is sustained, bushfire regulations are implemented, and fuels managed on private land.
8. Good governance. The government must set and publish clear expectations, performance outcomes, standards and targets for bushfire management on crown lands, and insist these are achieved. The focus must be on the Big Picture i.e., protecting life and minimising the number and size of high intensity “killer” fires.
9. Monitoring and reporting. The government must put in place a system of annual, independent monitoring of bushfire management outcomes, plus public reporting so that the wider community is aware of actual performance against standards and targets.
10. Community education. There must be an effective Sate-sponsored and professionally conducted communications strategy aimed at educating the community about fire and fire preparedness. This is on-going, year in and year out for ever, and combined with education programs aimed at university lecturers, school teachers and students.
How are we doing?
Western Australia does not match up in almost any of these requirements. Parts of the system are being achieved, but I would give a compliance score of only 10%. Worse, there is no coordinated attack on the problem, no real recognition of how bad things are. A telling inditement is that despite the fact that WA is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world, the general community is deeply ignorant about fire, and persist with their “it can’t happen to me” attitude. Individually we have some very fine people working in agencies, local government and volunteer brigades, but there is not enough of them and they are not properly supported.
The following three issues are probably the most critical:
The first is the lack of accountability at State government level. No one is in charge when it comes to fire. At the last count there were 5 different Ministers with a finger in the fire pie (Environment, Emergency Services, Planning, Police, Local Government) plus there are the Ministers with regional responsibilities – South West, Great Southern etc, the Energy Minister who controls Western Power and the Minister for Water Resources who worries about protection of catchments. When it comes to prescribing and implementing an overall system of bushfire management, there is no single Minister whose job it is, and. It is my view that the Ministers like it this way, because if there is a bushfire disaster, none of them can be blamed. I do not necessarily advocate a one-Minister end-of-line responsibility, but a Ministerial Council, comprising Environment, Emergency Services and Planning could easily be established.
The second worry is the emerging tendency, world wide, to treat bushfire management as an emergency event, rather than as part of good land management. Certainly we must have rapid and effective response arrangements, but these must be coupled to effective fuel reduction programs and to all the other elements associated with preparedness, damage mitigation and law enforcement. There are distinct signs that WA is moving down the wrong path here. This is demonstrated by the degree to which the government is prepared to fund firefighting equipment and fires, but not prescribed burning or community education.
The third worry is the powerful influence of city environmentalists on fire management policy. It is absurd to have a situation in which people living in Nedlands who are never threatened by fires, and do not have to fight fires, should be able to influence government policy and land management practices, putting at risk the lives and assets of rural people. One of the main reasons why CALM has not been able to meet its burning targets, and the main reason why these targets are so low in the first place, is because of the government’s fear of upsetting the environmental activists. It is high time that rural West Australians made a stand against this.
WA needs a best practice bushfire management system if we are to protect ourselves from the inevitable and horrible consequences of large high intensity bushfires.
But we are locked in the ridiculous bushfire cycle, unable to break out of it through ignorance, apathy, political correctness and lack of incisive and forward-looking leadership.
We have a template for Best Practice, and none of it is rocket science. We know what to do and how to do it. The problem for the bushfire community is that our numbers are small and we have little political influence. Except in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we are not news and the politicians have always got other priorities. This, to my mind, is the greatest barrier to effective bushfire management in this State.
2. Firefighters’ Issues
FIREFIGHTER SAFETY IN THE SOUTHWEST OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
By John Evans
Presentation at the Eaton Seminar, October 2006
(NOTE: This article has been converted from its original form as a MS Powerpoint presentation for the convenience of the reader. The references to CALM have been retained, although CALM has now become DEC, the Department of Environment and Conservation)
Firefighting in forested country has always been dangerous work, but the risks to firefighters have never been higher, and they are getting worse. The responsible State Government and Local Government agencies have not addressed the changes that have occurred in an adequate manner.
What are the major problems in forested areas of the Southwest?
Forest Fuels are Heavier
* Very heavy fuels (long unburnt) now occur over large areas on some CALM and other lands. Burning rotations (years between burns) on CALM-managed forest land have increased over the last 10-15 years, from an average of 6 years to 12 years. Average burn size has also been reduced.
* Fuel levels have also built up on forested private land.
* There is a significant chance that a major wildfire or a series of wildfires will occur within 5 years. Records of wildfires in WA forests show that the number, severity and extent of large wildfires has increased steadily over the last 15 years.
* Many scenarios indicate a substantial threat to life and property in the Southwest. This has been exacerbated by the large number of new housing developments in forested areas.
* Over the last 10 years there has been a huge expansion of hardwood plantations.
* Unallocated Crown Land (UCL) areas are not being regularly burnt by the volunteer bush fire brigades.
Cooperation Between Agencies is Poor
* There is no strategic fire planning, hazard reduction programmes, or enforcement by local authorities.
* There needs to be closer cooperation between Local Authorities, FESA and CALM to reduce fire risks on a regional basis.
The Fire Suppression Resources are Inadequate
* The area of the CALM estate has increased but resources for management have not.
* CALM firefighter strength has declined substantially, and there is a shortage of experienced firefighters and machine operators.
* It is likely that CALM firefighters alone may not be able to contain a major wildfire under severe weather conditions. In a multi-fire situation the Department’s resources would be easily overstretched. It is likely that CALM will increasingly call on the volunteer brigades for assistance in fire suppression.
* Few volunteer bush fire brigade members have adequate fire fighting skills for operating in dense forests.
* Since the demise of the timber industry there is a greatly reduced pool of skilled assistance and suitable equipment in the region.
* There has been no fire management training provided to local authority wages staff who could supplement fire suppression forces.
* Very few LEMAC-organised joint training exercises have been run.
* Many private contractors engaged in the private plantation industry have not been trained in fire management techniques.
* There is a lack of adequate breaks for CALM firefighters. Some are on standby for up to 10 weeks continuously.
* CALM has greatly reduced the maintenance of the network of access roads in the forests. Many bridges have reached the end of their service life and require replacement. In addition, new wilderness areas created where any access is discouraged and a let-burn philosophy tends to be applied.
More Fire Training is Required
* Muller (CALM Review 2001) recommended that CALM cooperate with FESA and local authorities to “encourage a high level of forest fire training for brigades likely to be involved in forest fires”.
* Similar recommendations made in the Commonwealth Inquiry into Eastern States bushfires in 2003.
* Almost no action has resulted since then.
* Local authorities should arrange training of their outside staff in the Basic Fire Awareness course as a minimum. Better still, they should all be trained to Basic Firefighter standard.
* Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members should be encouraged to participate in CALM burns, and to be paid a daily allowance for this, where appropriate. Activities such as this will build confidence and familiarise BFB members with CALM equipment and procedures.
* Potential contractors and employees should be paid to attend Basic Fire Awareness, or Basic Firefighter training courses.
* The Local Emergency Management Advisory Committee (LEMAC) needs to immediately complete fire suppression plans, conduct exercises and ensure emergency procedures are in place.
Forest Fuel Management
It is imperative that every local authority urgently carry out the following steps:
* Prepare a regional strategic Fire (fuel) Management Plan (with FESA and CALM) that is updated annually.
* Plan an annual Prescribed Burning programme for the Shire, including Shire reserves, and actively assist brigades, with Shire staff.
* Place fuel reduction orders on owners who refuse to reduce fuels, or prosecute them to ensure compliance with the law.
* Where there are significant areas of UCL land, the Volunteer Brigades should nominate two UCL prescribed burns each year to be carried out by the Brigades on a fee for service basis, in cooperation with CALM where relevant.
* Insufficient experienced/skilled firefighters are available to assist CALM in forest fires. It is dangerous to ask volunteers to participate in fire suppression on CALM land without adequate prior training. Involving volunteers in prescribed burning operations, on a paid basis, is an ideal way to impart the training.
* Innovative ways are needed to encourage people to gain skills needed. Use prescribed burning as basis to training.
* LEMAC fire exercises, where volunteer brigades and CALM can practice fire suppression exercises, are urgently needed.
* CALM needs to make a concerted effort to reduce the large area of forest carrying heavy fuels ASAP. Some constraints, such as smoke management standards, may need to be relaxed.
* Local Authorities to become more active in fire management, with improved cooperation between Shires and with CALM. As a first step each Local Authority needs to adopt a Fire Management Position Statement, and develop an Action Plan to reduce the level of fuels on private land.
3. The Dwellingup Fire – Lessons From the Past
G B Peet and A J Williamson
Why go back to a fire that occurred over half a century ago? What can it tell us that is relevant to our situation today? Unfortunately, it can tell us a great deal, as our forest estate is now in a similar condition to what it was just before the fire. The stage is the same. All we need is a similar combination of weather and multiple ignitions, and we are certain to be faced with a similar disaster.
The Dwellingup fire was a pivotal event for the Forests Department of the day. The intensive post-fire review brought about major changes in fire management policy and procedures and provided some fundamental lessons in forest fire management that are just as relevant today.
Some may argue that we have far better fire suppression capability these days – better communications, better detection systems, better on-ground equipment and airtankers. True, we do have those improvements, but, crucially, we do not have twice the number of very experienced fire crews that were available in 1961, nor do we have the large pool of timber industry workers who could be used to back up Forests Department resources. As all firefighters know, its not the media-attractive airtankers that extinguish forest fires, it’s the men on the ground. Furthermore, we do not have the ready availability of large numbers of bulldozers that could then be called upon for fire fighting. The undoubted improvement in suppression capability in these ways, plus the paucity of large forest fires in recent years, has lulled many into a false sense of security, and a naïve faith in the fire suppression paradigm.
The overall fire management policy of the Department, at the time, is described by McKinnell in another paper at this seminar. Suffice it to say here that, while the fire plans indicate that 40% of the forest in the area near Dwellingup had been burnt in the previous 6 years, the burns were generally small in size, were extremely patchy due to concerns over damage to regeneration, and there were large areas of heavy fuel up to 20 years old still remaining between burnt forest. Knowledge of fire behaviour was rudimentary at that time so the approach to prescribed burning was very cautious. Much of the burning in the previous 6 years had also been located in forest east of Dwellingup, rather than in the main forest belt.
Events as They Unfolded
The previous winter had been very dry. Rainfall was only 68% of the average for the winter period. Temperatures were above average in October and November, and it was very hot and dry in January. During the fire temperatures were 38°C or higher and the relative humidity was unusually low. Winds were generally 18 to 30 km/hr, i.e., not considered difficult, but became much higher during thunderstorm gusts. At those times many escapes occurred. Gusts to 50 km/hr occurred during the massive spread on the Tuesday night, accompanied by spotting up to 8 km ahead of the main fire front.
On Thursday January 19 a large number of lightning strikes occurred, in an area stretching from Dwellingup in the north to Manjimup in the south, with further strikes on the following day. Little or no rain fell at the time, but in view of the fuel loads that existed, heavy rain would have been needed to extinguish the lightning strikes. At Dwellingup there were 9 strikes on Thursday and a further 10 on Friday. Due to these other fires, very little support could be provided to Dwellingup from other areas in those critical two days. Figure 1 shows the location of the individual fires.
Figure 1. Ignition points for the Dwellingup Fire
Despite this massive multiple fire situation, Dwellingup forces had almost controlled the 9 strikes on Thursday, before the next 10 strikes outflanked much of their established firelines. Fire crews were recalled to Dwellingup on Saturday after the Torrens 10 fire crowned and spread very rapidly with intense spotting. Three more strikes were reported on that day. With so much smoke around the region, the tower-based fire detection system became almost useless.
On Sunday the weather eased, but by this time the fire size had increased to 45,000 ha and the perimeter was estimated to be 100 km, giving suppression forces a huge task. On Monday good progress was made with fireline construction, but the Wells fire broke away. On Tuesday the weather worsened again, with the temperature exceeding 40°C and winds swinging north west at increasing strength. A severe evening thunderstorm caused a massive southerly spread that resulted in catastrophic damage to property at Dwellingup, Holyoake and Nanga Brook. Fortunately no lives were lost due to very experienced fire crews and very competent managers. Note that no amount of airtanker support could possibly have prevented this disaster. The only thing that could have prevented it would have been low fuel conditions in the forest.
The fire was eventually brought under control on Wednesday after heavy rain fell and the weather cooled considerably. Final fire size was about 150,000 ha, of which over 40,000 had been completely defoliated (i.e., burnt by a crown fire). Figure 2 shows the extent of the fire. As well as property damage, there was large scale damage to the forest cover, large numbers of mature trees as well as saplings and poles being killed outright and much internal damage caused (see Peet and Williamson, 1968). Wildlife also suffered severely. Dead kangaroos and brush wallabies were a common sight. Destruction of downed logs caused extensive habitat loss for small fauna.
At its height, something like 1000 men were engaged in combating the fire, with personnel from the timber industry, local farmers, bulldozing contractors and even the Army involved.
A post-fire review team, led by noted forester W H Eastman, undertook an intensive study of the management of the fire and of the fire effects in the forest. Actually they also included information from the numerous other severe fires in that year. The conclusions they reached with respect to fire behaviour were as follows:
- Under severe weather conditions (i.e., high temperature and strong winds), fuel ages greater than 5 years in the western jarrah forest, and 7 years in the eastern forest, would carry a crown fire, and thus be virtually uncontrollable.
- Areas of fuel-reduced forest caused the crown fire to descend to the litter, but did not stop major fire runs unless the burn was less than a year old, however, it was possible to fight a fire in litter less than 5 years old.
- A fuel-reduced area of forest needed to be at least 2 miles in depth (say, 3 km) to enable a running fire to be contained. Such buffer zones need to be oriented more or less east-west across the forested zone of the State to arrest the run of a major fire.
- Fire damage to trees and other forest values was in direct proportion to the fuel load. The higher the fuel load the more severe the damage and the more difficult it was to control the fire.
The more general conclusions for forest fire management were:
- To protect the forest estate, a much more focused program of fuel reduction burning should be undertaken, aiming to ensure that most of the forest estate carried fuels no greater than X tonnes/ha in jarrah and Y tonnes /ha in karri forest. The only exceptions should be areas held to protect regeneration before it could withstand fire, and certain research sites.
- Knowledge of fire behaviour in fuel reduction burning was deficient and a fire behaviour research program was urgently needed so that burns could be carried out safely at the required low intensity.
- Planning of burning programs need to be upgraded, with larger individual burns, pre-burn inspections to develop precise prescriptions for each burn. Small burns reduced bush crew prescribed burning productivity and were easily outflanked by a large wildfire.
- Prescribed burning activities needed to given absolute priority during periods of suitable weather.
- Thought needed to be given to ways of increasing the productivity of crews carrying out burning activities, especially in southern forests where access was more difficult.
- Improving quality control of fuel reduction burns was required, with more crew training in burning techniques.
On fire suppression, the findings were:
- The fire detection system needed improvement (this led to the establishment of the fire spotter aircraft fleet).
- Fire fighting equipment needed upgrading, with better tanker trucks, standardised pumper units, etc
- The HF radio communications system had failed badly (due to the weather conditions) and should be replaced by a VHF system that was insensitive to weather conditions.
- Better pre-planning of fire suppression was required, with the roles of each staff member defined, and training provided for each defined role.
- Better information systems were required, covering fire equipment and human resources, and much more accurate recording of the results of prescribed burning activities.
However, it was acknowledge that no matter what improvement of fire fighting equipment took place, the key to successful mitigation of fire damage was control of fuel loads in the forest.
As a result of the review, major investments were made in a VHF radio system, improved burn planing , better crew trucks and equipment, and a major new fire research program was initiated. Over the next 10 years about 400 experimental fires were measured in jarrah and in karri forest to quantify fire intensity with variations in fuel and weather. A joint program with CSIRO produced a world first in aerial burning,.
Figure 2. Daily extent of the Dwellingup fire
The principal conclusion from the review was that the key to avoidance of major forest fires in WA forests was maintaining the forest in a generally low-fuel condition. Despite the obvious need for improvements in several aspects of the fire suppression system, it was recognised that under severe weather conditions no amount of high technology equipment could control a major forest fire. Subsequent experience here and overseas confirmed this finding. Even in the USA, where the resources available are very large indeed, the fire suppression paradigm has failed. On a visit to the USA in 1978, there were over 30 ex military bombers at one airfield in San Diego fitted for water bombing. Many others were at other airfield in California. A Large Fire Organisation with these resources, which could also muster 6000 firefighters, has repeatedly failed to prevent high property damage in several disasters over the last 30 years. There is now a belated recognition there of the importance of forest fuel reduction.
The lessons learned from the Dwellingup fire provided the basis for a highly successful forest fire management system for Western Australia. For nearly 40 years we have avoided any large scale wildfires, but the system has been allowed to decline, as described elsewhere in this seminar. If we allow this situation to continue, it is certain that we will pay for it with another major conflagration. This time we may not be so lucky in avoiding loss of life.
4. Prescribed Burning and WildFire in South West Forests
F H McKinnell
Forestry and Natural Resources Management
Although this paper deals with the fire management policies of CALM and the former Forests Department, there is a parallel story in the management of fire on private land, which is the responsibility of local government
Of course, there will always be wildfires in WA forests. We will never eliminate them, but their impact can be kept low, and fire suppression costs can be kept low, by proper preventative measures. The prime preventative measure we have is fuel reduction burning.
A fundamental premise of forest and rural fire management in Australia is that the reduction of fuels leads to lower fire intensity when fires do occur (as they always will, whether from lightning, arson or accidental escapes). Lower fire intensity means that the fires are easier and safer to control and the damage they cause is also reduced. A fact that is often overlooked is that fire suppression in light fuels is much cheaper than in heavy fuels, even taking into account the cost of fuel reduction burning.
The Historical Perspective
Following the formation of the Forests Department in 1919, a policy of general fire exclusion in State forest was adopted, although not without some misgivings at the time. At its core, this approach was a consequence of the European training of the early foresters, where forest fire was regarded as nothing but a disaster, and total fire exclusion was the only way to ensure the survival of the forest ecosystem. Not all staff of the Department held this view, some seeing that the forests had been subject to aboriginal burning and lightning for millennia, without apparent damage.
Actually, the fire management policy was not one of total fire exclusion. The forest was divided up into blocks of about 4000 ha for management purposes, and within the blocks, compartments of around 300 ha were laid out by a forest track system. Around the perimeter of each compartment was a strip about 100 m in width in which fuel reduction burning took place every 3-5 years. The intention was that this fuel-reduced buffer would either prevent a fire entering the interior of the compartment (if the burn was recent) or allow a control action to be carried out in relatively light fuel. The inside of the compartment was kept unburnt. A huge effort was directed into establishing this compartment system, taking advantage of sustenance labour available during the Depression. However, the system became increasingly untenable as the difficulties of carrying out burns in light fuel against 15-20 year old fuels became apparent. The commencement of World War II and the consequent lack of manpower meant that any possible change was put on hold, although senior staff still subscribed to the fire exclusion approach.
This policy was maintained until 1953, when A C Harris was appointed Conservator of Forests. He was a professional forester, trained in Australia, not Europe, and had worked for many years in the northern jarrah forest. Harris was convinced that regular broad area prescribed burning was necessary to keep forest fuels at a level where fire would cause minimal damage. His cause was aided by an assessment of the (1950) Plavins wildfire, which, although fortunately not a large one, caused very severe damage to the forest when it burned through heavy fuels. It was clear to all concerned that fire exclusion was an unsustainable policy.
Harris changed the Departmental fire management policy to one of regular broadcast burning the whole forest, except for areas withheld to protect regeneration. This change could not be made overnight. The development of procedures for successful broad area burning was slow, and there was still a reluctance to cause any apparent damage at all from a burning operation. Any leaf scorch over about 2 metres above ground was viewed with disfavour. Much of the early burning was done in winter. This meant that those burns that were carried out were at the lowest end of the fire intensity scale, were very patchy and removed comparatively little of the accumulated litter. Their effectiveness in fuel reduction was therefore low. In addition, the large areas of heavy fuel accumulation then in existence meant that the overall approach was very cautious. Monitoring procedures were minimal or non-existent and many compartments were recorded as being burnt when, in fact, only the edges of the compartment had been affected. Overall, the implementation of the new burning policy proceeded very slowly. The forest estate still carried huge fuel loads, and the scene was set for large fires in years to come. The 1961 fire season was the Forests Department’s Annus Horribilis. George Peet and Jim Williamson have described in detail the Dwellingup fire, the main event of the year, in an earlier presentation at this seminar.
The response of the Department to the situation was dramatic: a specialised fire management unit was set up, more resources were directed to prescribed burning, planning and monitoring procedures were expanded and a fire behaviour research and development program was commenced. The effect of these changes was an immediate increase in the annual area prescribe burnt and a marked improvement in the quality of the field operations.
The result was implementation of burning rotations based on fuel accumulation rates. In the western jarrah forest this meant a fuel reduction burn every 5 years or so, to maintain fuel loads at acceptable levels where direct attack was possible under moderate weather conditions. In the eastern jarrah forest, lower fuel accumulation rates meant that the rotation there was 7/8 years. In the karri forest minimum burn rotations were longer, due to the nature of the understorey. These regimes were varied according to local circumstances, such as areas of fire-sensitive regeneration or where fauna management plans called for variation.
Of course, the issue of resources for burning operations was a major factor, but the “can do” approach of the time addressed this problem and the outcome was the development of aerial ignition. This became a major tool for field staff, enabling larger areas to be burnt when fuel and weather conditions were just right. The use of multiple ignitions was able to address the problem in southern forests of different vegetation types drying out at different rates. This enabled the Department to achieve a dramatic reduction in fire hazards in the southern forests.
The test of all these changes was the multiple fire situation that arose with the passage of Cyclone Alby in April 1978. At one stage there were 60 wildfires running in State forest, but many could be left to run as they were located in areas of low fuel where they could do little damage. The efficacy of fuel reduction burning in enabling the successful control of these fires has been documented by Underwood, Sneeuwjagt and Styles in 1985.
There is no doubt whatever, that maintaining the forest estate in a low fuel condition does provide a very effective fire management regime that results in few large forest fires. Up to 1985, we had a very effective and stable organization responsible for forest management in Western Australia, one that rarely had to call on outside assistance to manage fires on State forest. The situation has changed dramatically since then.
What the Data Tell Us
The figure below shows the area of forest managed by the Forests Department and later by CALM, that was burnt each fire season by prescribed burns and by wildfire. The data cover the period from the 1960/61 fire season through to 2004/2005. Prescribed burn data from before 1960 are too unreliable to contribute to the story.
The catastrophic 1960/61 fire season is clearly evident, as is the very low level of forest area affected by wildfire over the next 25 years. For the next 10 years after 1961 the average area burnt was about 350,000 ha a year, dropping back to about 300,000 ha a year after 1971, reflecting the overcoming of the backlog of high fuel areas that existed. It is therefore reasonable to say that an average of 300,000 ha per year of fuel reduction burning is necessary to provide good protection of SW forests and their associated ecosystems against wildfires.
The graph also shows that after the formation of CALM in 1985, the level of prescribed burning progressively declined to less than two-thirds of the average under the Forests Department, with a particularly rapid drop to half that level, one-third of the level required for adequate fire protection of the forest estate, after the separation of CALM and the FPC in 2000. From the perspective of forest fire management, this was a destructive organisational change, as it removed a whole cadre of experienced fire managers from CALM. Although some arrangements were made to retain these resources “on hire”, getting the two organisations to work together has not been a satisfactory exercise.
At the same time, after 1985, the areas of forest covered by wildfires increased rapidly, to the extent that in 2003, the area burnt in wildfires was about the same as that covered by the fuel reduction burning program! The last time this happened was 1961! This is an incredible lapse in performance by the State agency charged with protection of the forest estate. Of course what these data cannot show is the fact, well known to the bush fire brigade personnel present here, that for much of the fire suppression operations in recent years CALM has been compelled to call on the assistance because it had insufficient resources itself.
There are several reasons for the progressive decline in prescribed burning after 1985:
* diversion of physical and financial resources away from the SW forest areas into other (long-neglected) areas for which CALM was responsible,
* conversion of significant areas of State forest to national park or conservation reserve and consequent development of areas management plans that reduced the extent, frequency and size of burns, for highly debatable “nature conservation” reasons,
* loss of focus on fire management due to the overwhelming pressure of the multitude of issues that the agency had to confront,
* progressively more onerous externally imposed controls, eg, over smoke generation,
* greater influence of ill-informed minority groups on Government policies, combined with greater direct political influence on agency activities.
The size of burn issue is a very important one. The smaller the area to be burned the higher the costs and the physical resources required, and, more importantly the less time available for other burns when weather and fuel conditions are suitable. The main drive for smaller burn areas has been the supposed better biodiversity conservation value of “mosaic” of areas of different fuel age
After the split of CALM and the FPC, the ethos of CALM was changed significantly towards a priority on biodiversity conservation. It now has a strong environmentalist outlook. While the fuel reduction burning policy was retained, its implementation was even further restricted by management policies calling for the establishment of a fine-grained mosaic of fuel ages and greater retention of older fuel ages. All this has been done without any strong scientific foundation at all, and with a definite grudging recognition of the need to restrict the incidence and extent of wildfire. The fact that the previous prescribed burning regime already had created a micro-mosaic of fuel ages was ignored and the history of Aboriginal burning was denied.
While some may dispute my contention of a lack of scientific foundation for the current policy, no one has ever been able to demonstrate that the previous 1961-1985 fire regime has caused any adverse effects on biodiversity. It has just been assumed that it was bad because it was done by foresters. In addition, there is a lingering addiction in environmentalist circles to the Eurocentric notion that any fire in the forest is an evil thing.
In a related matter, many area management plans now specify the designation of significant areas of forest as No Plan Burn Areas. Why we need these areas is a good question, because absence of fire is most certainly not any sort of natural condition for forest in this part of the world. All we can be certain of is that some day such areas will be cooked by a high intensity wildfire and any supposed special biodiversity values will be lost for some time, if not forever.
In recent weeks CALM staff have argued that they have made a significant impact on fuel, and that 33 percent of the forest area carries fuel aged 5 years or less. This has, however, been achieved only with the large contribution from wildfires. It still leaves 67 percent of the forest area in a high fuel condition- that is, nearly 70 percent will permit crown fires to take place. This is not a happy prospect for those who have to fight the fires.
I hope the foregoing does not convey the impression that I am just being critical of CALM – the agency does have a number of real obstacles to improved performance in this area, including:
* large areas of regeneration in jarrah forest that are being held for 20 years before the first fuel reduction burn,
* large areas of karri regrowth that are very difficult to burn safely before that are 25+ years old,
* large areas of forest rehabilitated after bauxite mining which carry very heavy fuels,
* the smoke issue,
* lack of on-ground resources,
* difficult seasonal conditions.
To some extent these problems are being used to justify lack of action. They are real problems, but there seems little inclination to attack them with a can-do outlook. For example, the jarrah regeneration can be safely burned at age 10, or even less, and this has been demonstrated many years ago. It may mean using techniques such as night burning, but it can be done. Furthermore, it is only a proportion of cutover coupes where the jarrah regeneration is deficient anyway.
The first post-regeneration burn in karri poses more difficult problems, but at least the pattern of occurrence of karri in a matrix of jarrah-marri forest enables the maintenance of broad areas of low fuel between patches of karri regrowth. We have shown, in Big Brook, that at about 30 years of age, the first burn can be done relatively easily. Large-scale clearfelling started again in karri in 1967, so CALM should now be burning 1500-2500 ha a year of regrowth of that age.
The rehabilitated bauxite mine areas pose complex problems. Much of this area carries very heavy scrub fuels, some exotic species used there are difficult to handle, being either fire sensitive or producing massive regeneration after a burn. Nevertheless, ways have to be found to blend in the fire management of the mined forests with the surrounding matrix of jarrah. This issue does not appear to be among CALM’s research priorities, but surely has to be something that must be solved before there can be any consideration of Alcoa handing back the forest to the State. BFF sees no concrete action being taken on this important issue.
Meeting smoke emission standards has been a severe constraint on burning in the northern jarrah forest for some time, and threatens to become an issue in southern forest areas as well. CALM has done a good job of confining the smoke haze over Perth to within prescribed limits, but the cost has been the accumulation of high fuel loads very close to the Metropolitan area. Not many people realise how close we came to a Canberra-style disaster last summer. Urban residents must accept the fact that some short-term instances of thin smoke from a few burns are preferable to long-term dense smoke events from bushfires. But we have seen no public education campaign to achieve this outcome. The public has to realise that some smoke is the natural condition of our environment in Australia. Clear, smoke-free skies are what is unnatural.
BFF has urged the Government to relax those smoke emission standards to permit more fuel reduction burning to take place, and has been advised by the Minister for Environment that she supports this, but we do not see any apparent directive to CALM and the EPA to act on this advice. As fire smoke is a natural part of our environment, it should be removed from designation as air pollution.
Lack of on-ground resources has also been a problem for CALM. It is pleasing to see that the Government has provided more funds for additional manpower in the field, and this should enable a greater burn program to be achieved in coming years. However, the resources are now concentrated in a very few centres across the forest zone, and despite improved roads and improved equipment, access times to heavy fuel areas are too slow, as shown in the 2001 Muller report. As we all know, fast attack is the key to successful suppression.
In a number of areas, there are very high fuel loads on private property as well. This has the effect of obliging CALM to devote some of its forces to fires that threaten those areas, rather than fires in the forest. This actually happened in the 2005 Perth Hills fire. BFF has seen no sign of a concerted effort by FESA to compel offending Shire Councils to fulfil their obligations with respect to fire management in the areas for which they are responsible. We note that the old Bush Fires Board did just that after the 1961 fire season, with very effective results.
BFF believes there are also internal problems in CALM that reduce its ability to achieve adequate levels of prescribed burning. The internal structure is not conducive to rapid diversion of local manpower resources to burning at the limited times when suitable conditions exist. Other work programs at times have priority so that reduced resources are available for burning. The current purchaser-provider financial management system is also a clumsy and inappropriate way of running an agency with such diverse functions as CALM.
One reason advanced for CALM’s poor burning performance in recent years is that we have had a succession of dry years, which has restricted field operations. We certainly have had several years of below average rainfall, but it is hard to see how this resulted in poorer burning performance. Figure 2 below shows the rainfall for the previous year for Perth, which obviously has a strong influence on the area that can be burnt, plotted against total area covered by prescribed burning. Of course, the rainfall picture is much more complex than this, but the Perth data can give a crude measure of the suitability of the season for burning. It is interesting to see that there was a period of very similar rainfall between years 21 and 29 in the graph (1977-1988), and the last 10 years. In the first period the Forests Department burned an average of about 280,000 ha a year, but in the second period CALM managed an average of only 136,000 a year. It’s a fair indication that it was not the season that was stopping them, but other factors such as those described in the previous paragraphs.
Despite a fillip in the areas prescribed burnt over the last 3 years, the Southwest forest estate remains in a dangerously high-fuel condition. Nearly 70 percent of the forest is more than 5 years old since the last burn, and in jarrah, we know from hard experience that fuel older than this will sustain a crown fire in jarrah forest. We also know that we can do nothing at all to stop a crown fire in heavy forest fuel.
To provide an adequate level of fire protection – as good as that we had 20 years ago- CALM needs to overcome the backlog caused by its poor performance over the last 15 years by achieving 300,000 ha a year for several years and thereafter maintain an average of 250,000 ha a year. However, the level of prescribed burning is only part of the problem. The burning program needs to be arranged in large strips across the forest, designed to arrest a major wildfire, and the strips must be at least 3 km deep. The fine scale mosaic approach cannot provide this function.
The CALM fire management policy needs to focus more on fire prevention through fuel reduction burning, rather than relying on very expensive and relatively ineffective suppression operations. Forest fire management rates too low in CALM’s priorities. Those who argue that it is now a biodiversity/recreation management agency have to realise that all their biodiversity and recreation objectives are lost if they don’t win the fire management battle first.
5. The Blackboy Story
Even down south………
6. Fire and Water – Opportunities
By Dr Colin Terry, Water Corporation