Submission:COAG Fire Inquiry


Mr. Stuart Ellis OM

Chairman, COAG Bushfire Inquiry

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

3- 5 National Circuit

Barton ACT 2600

Dear Sir,

COAG Inquiry into bushfire mitigation and management

1.     The Bushfire Front

The Bushfire Front is a group of West Australians concerned about the risks of bushfire damage to people, lives and forests. We have accumulated several lifetimes of experience in bushfire prevention, firefighting, bushfire science, fire planning, administration and agency operations. We are volunteers, and are not affiliated with any government agency or organisation. Membership is set out in the attachment

This submission to the COAG Inquiry supports the position we have already put to the House of Representatives inquiry, the Premier of WA, the Leader of the Opposition in WA and the WA Auditor General. In each of these submissions we have made the same over-riding points:

* Bushfire management in Western Australia requires a major overhaul to bring it into line with best practice. Unless action is taken, a bushfire disaster is inevitable; and

* The time to tackle this issue is before there is a disaster, not afterwards. 

We believe in the past there has been a lack of leadership and coordination with respect to bushfire mitigation and management, at both Federal and State levels. This is demonstrated by the policy vacuum, funding arrangements and lack of progress in the institution of effective fire management systems with emphasis on prevention and mitigation. From the perspective of the COAG, a new approach to policy and funding arrangements in particular can provide an opportunity to require the development of fire management systems by the States which are capable of being audited and publicly reported upon.

2.     The WA situation

Inquiries into bushfires can be of two sorts: (i) after-the-event reviews of what went wrong, who is to blame and what needs to be done; and (ii) before-the-event reviews which identify problems and prescribe remedial management and preventative programs. The COAG inquiry is both, because in WA we have not had a recent disaster, certainly not of the proportions experienced in ACT, NSW and Victoria.

However, a number of factors suggest that a bushfire disaster is imminent in WA, e.g.,

* The southwest of WA is bushfire prone, in terms of its climate, weather and vegetation.

* There is no overarching system of bushfire management in WA and no single person in government is accountable for designing, implementing and managing such a system;

* Bushfire prevention and pre-suppression work have declined over recent years, especially in southwest forests; in these areas, which co-exist with the main population centres, fuels have been allowed to build up, ensuring larger and more difficult fires, while at the same time fire-fighting resources (especially permanent trained firefighters) are fewer in number;

* As is the case Australia-wide, the WA community is ill-informed about bushfire science and management;

* Environmentalists continue to oppose effective bushfire management practices, irrespective of the impact of high intensity fires on the environment;

* There is no agreement between WA and the Federal government over policy, funding and priorities for bushfire management.

3.     The bushfire management equation

Bushfire management is complex in a scientific and technical sense, and demands excellent political and social skills, but in essence it boils down to a simple equation:

* On the one hand, action is needed before a fire starts to minimise the risks of ignition and to mitigate the threat of damage to valued assets;

* On the other, there must be the physical capability to detect fires rapidly and suppress them before threatened assets are burnt and with minimum risks to the lives of firefighters.

This so-called “bushfire equation” has been well understood by Australian land managers, foresters and fire scientists for generations. Effective bushfire management systems have been designed, and in Western Australia such a system was for several decades implemented successfully. Today both sides of the equation have been let slip, and the trends on both sides are negative.

4.     The bushfire cycle

There is a well-recognised cycle in bushfire management across Australia. Disasters are followed by  inquiries, commissions, Coronial Courts and litigation, which in turn are followed by better designed and implemented bushfire management. This leads to fewer bushfires. However, over time the new systems are let slip. In particular, fire prevention and mitigation programs decline. The first unstoppable fires start to occur, and before there is time or the energy to get the system back on the rails there is another disaster and the cycle recommences.

Under this scenario, progress with research and management systems is regularly undermined, and the costs to the community and to the environment are always expanding.

5.     The need for new and well-coordinated policy

As COAG knows only too well, government in Australia is complex, with many levels and jurisdictions and many opportunities for policy to diverge or conflict. This effectively splits the forces which potentially could be focussing on developing and implementing effective fire mitigation and management systems.

Australia does not have a National Bushfire policy and different States and agencies have different policies, or at least different philosophies and priorities. This is exacerbated by the situation at local government authority level, where there can be quite a different approach to fire management on private land between one councils and the next.

There is a critical need for a national bushfire policy, and for agreed best practice bushfire management systems to be developed at State and Territory level which nest within such a policy.

6.     Opportunity for COAG

COAG provides the most appropriate mechanism by which this issue can be tackled. The opportunity for them is three-fold:

(i) to identify and promote a Best Practice fire management system for the whole of Australia;

(ii) to oversee a more consistent and better coordinated approach from the various governments and agencies with land management responsibilities; and

(iii) to develop a system of federal funding which is tied to bushfire management performance and rewards best practice, not system failure.

7.     Best practice in bushfire management

The Bushfire Front has attempted to define the essential elements of a world’s best practice bushfire management system. This is:

* There is a National Bushfire Policy, developed through COAG and signed off by all governments, which sets out the overall objectives with respect to bushfire prevention, management, cooperative arrangements and research, and outlines federal and state responsibilities, coordinating mechanisms and funding arrangements;

* Each State and territory has its own bushfire policy or bushfire management strategy, which nests within the National Policy, and establishes accountability at Government and agency level, commits State land management agencies to prevention as well as suppression and which is underpinned by up-to-date legislation;

* Accountability for bushfire management planning and bushfire outcomes at all levels is crystal clear;

* Fire management in forest areas is the responsibility of a single professionally-led land management organisation, capable of designing an effective fire management program and with the resources and political support to implement it on the ground.  Accountability at agency level cannot be diffuse;

* System implementation and outcomes will be capable of being properly audited. This means some form of annual independent monitoring and public reporting;

* There will be national and locally-based and ongoing research and development programs, with input to research priorities from land managers and firefighters. Research needs to cover fire behaviour, bushfire operations and fire ecology; and

* All of the above must be accompanied by an affective program of community education, developed according to the rules for successful communication strategies.

No Australian jurisdiction can currently claim to have in place a Best Practice bushfire management system as defined, nor has there been in the past an over-riding force for its development and adoption from the highest levels of government.

The most crucial element of any bushfire management system is that it must be able to cope with the odd bad days in the odd very bad fire seasons. Experience has shown that in forested areas, no system can cope under such conditions unless fuels have been systematically reduced in previous years, by prescribed burning. Thus, the critical element of a best practice system is what is done years in advance of a fire occurring, i.e., putting in place right across the forest zones of low fuel where firefighters have a chance of containing fires under difficult conditions.

8.     Community understanding of fire

In general the Australian public is poorly informed about bushfire management and bushfire science. The European idea that “all fires are bad” is still dominant, supported by environmentalists with a “leave-it-to-nature” philosophy. Research into fire use by Aboriginal people, or natural fire frequencies in pre-settlement times clearly indicates that fire is a natural part of the Australian environment, but this work is routinely abused by some agency officers and green activists opposed to prescribed burning. As a result there is now a well-embedded mythology about the damage caused to the environment by low and moderate intensity prescribed burns, the result of which is people living in very high risk environments. The poor standard of public understanding about fire has permitted the growing tendency for bushfire policy to be dictated by ideology, mythology and political bias rather than by historical fact, science and actual field experience.

The number and size of damaging high intensity bushfires in forest land all over Australia will always be higher in the absence of effective fuels management. This is because no system of fire suppression can cope with high intensity fires on a bad day, when the fires are spreading through areas of heavy fuel which are generating spotting. This situation is not well understood anywhere outside the small community of Australian bushfire and land managers. This fact leads to opposition to fuel reduction burning, poor planning decisions, and the false belief that if money is poured into firefighting equipment, that is all that is needed to ensure community safety.

9.        Recommendations

(i) COAG should develop a National Bushfire Policy for signing off at all levels of government.

(ii) COAG should define a World’s best practice bushfire management system for implementation in the Australian environment. This will demand input from bushfire specialists all over the country, plus review of systems being developed and implemented elsewhere.

(iii) Flowing from both of the above, COAG should seek to define the conditions under which federal funds will be provided to State and Territory Governments for bushfire mitigation and management. For example, Federal funds should be given when it can be demonstrated (by independent audit) that a State government is implementing a Best Practice fire management system, as defined by COAG. In respect to bushfires, any funding policy must be designed to rewards best practice, not system failure.

(iv) COAG should seek to ensure the Federal Government continues to provide leadership and funds for bushfire research, and for the transfer of research into operations. From the standpoint of addressing the concerns of people opposed to prescribed burning, a critical research issue is to clarify pre-settlement fire frequency through studies of grass trees and modelling natural fire occurrence and development in the absence of suppression. The most critical operational issue is the development of high quality fire behaviour guides for all forest types.

(v) COAG should facilitate national officer-level and scientist-level liaison and liaison between Australian and international fire and land management services through the funding and oversight of regular working group meetings, seminars and study tours.

(vi) COAG should provide the leadership to ensure development of a public education campaign aimed at informing Australians about the real nature of fire in the Australian environment, and it’s natural place as well as its threats. In particular, a well-designed national communication strategy is needed to counter the anti-burning propaganda put out by some political pressure groups.

Roger Underwood

Chairman, The Bushfire Front

November 30th 2003