Submission: House of Representatives 2003

 Submission to House of Representatives Select Committee on Bushfires 2003

By Roger Underwood, Chairman of The Bushfire Front

These speaking notes support a written submission previously lodged to the Inquiry by the Bushfire Front.

We welcome the opportunity to make a submission and thank members of the Select Committee for coming to WA and consulting with the community on this issue. We are disappointed the whole committee is not in attendance, and request that these notes are brought to the attention of those who did not travel to WA.

The members of the Bushfire Front are experienced forest and bushfire managers and scientists. Our concerns are not sectional or parochial, nor driven by ideology. We wish to see a management system in place in southwestern WA that effectively minimises the occurrence and impacts of large, high intensity bushfires. We point out that high intensity bushfires threaten the environment as well as lives and other human assets.

 The essential elements of an effective bushfire management system are well known.
 The basic elements are:
1. A State Bushfire Policy, with commitment to prevention as well as suppression and which is underpinned by up-to-date legislation;
2. Clear accountability for planning and outcomes at all levels;
3. Fire management in forest areas is the responsibility of a professionally led land management organisation, capable of designing an effective fire management system and with the resources and political support to implement it on the ground;
4. Independent monitoring and public reporting of system implementation and outcomes;
5. Ongoing research and development into fire behaviour, bushfire operations and fire ecology; and

6. Effective programs of community education.

WA is uniquely placed to be able to deliver a “Best Practice” bushfire management system. This is because our summer climate is predictable, we have an excellent body of research into fire behaviour and fire ecology behind us, and over 80 years of professional experience. Compared to many eastern States forests, ours are relatively uniform, are mostly contiguous and do not have mountainous topography. Furthermore, WA has already seriously tested two alternative systems of bushfire management in southwest forests. Fire exclusion was tried for over 30 years, and failed. An alternative system, incorporating fuel reduction burning, was implemented successfully for a period of about 40 years. In terms of meeting the overarching objective of preventing community and environmental damage by high intensity bushfires, this latter system was a success. In recent years it has been let slip.

WA cannot currently claim to have in place a Best Practice bushfire management system. Instead, there is a mishmash of legislation and policy, no clear accountability for outcomes, and fire management is partly the responsibility of the land management agency (CALM) and partly the responsibility of numerous local government authorities, supported by the Fire and Emergency Service Authority (FESA). In addition, CALM has been unable to maintain an adequate level of fire prevention work (including fuel reduction burning) over recent years – there is approximately a ten-year backlog of actual as compared with the target figure for annual fuel reduction burning.

At the same time, there has been a significant decline in numbers and capability of permanent staff for fire management work, and in numbers of earthmoving machines and trained operators. CALM is now only able to meet its minimum fire employment numbers by taking on casuals, and is increasingly reliant on volunteers to assist with forest firefighting. Road and firebreak maintenance has suffered from lack of funds and from unresolved conflicts over who is responsible. Finally, huge unroaded “wilderness” areas are currently being introduced within southwest forests, where it is inevitable that bushfire management will become even more difficult than it is already.

Outside of crown lands, fire policy and practice varies from one local government authority to another. As a general rule, councils do not employ full time professional fire managers – mostly municipal fire management is in the hands of the local ranger. Councils and FESA tend to adopt a soft approach to enforcement of the Bush Fires Act, especially in regard to reducing hazards, and the bulk of the fire management effort goes into fire suppression.

In WA, as in the USA and in the eastern States of Australia, there is a steady move towards greater emphasis on fire suppression and less on fire prevention. This is demonstrated by an increased expenditure on flashy equipment (e.g. helicopters) and decreased expenditure on fuel reduction burning.

WA has no capacity for independent monitoring and public reporting of fire management outcomes. This means that the public is generally not aware of the state of play, and the political leadership hears only what it is told by agencies with a position to defend, or by environmentalists with an ideology to promote. What is needed is an independent organisation charged with assessing performance against objectives and targets, and reporting annually to the government and the public. Such an organisation would also have a role in monitoring bushfire management by local councils.

In general, the WA public is poorly informed about bushfire management and bushfire science. The old European idea that “all fires are bad” is still dominant. Research into fire use by Aboriginal people, or natural fire frequencies in pre-settlement times is simply not believed. This is partly due to a well-embedded mythology about the damage caused to the environment by low and moderate intensity prescribed burns. The poor standard of public understanding about fire has permitted the growing tendency for bushfire policy to be dictated by ideology and political bias rather than by historical fact, science and actual field experience. Bushfire policy in WA is now effectively in the hands of people who in general are not threatened by bushfires – i.e. politically active residents of Perth’s leafy inner and coastal suburbs.

The number and size of serious high intensity bushfires in southwestern WA is growing, as the value of past fuel reduction burning programs wears off. There were very serious bushfires in southwest forest regions in the last two summers. These fires were large and intense, causing defoliation, loss of soil, pollution of waterways, death of wildlife and huge volumes of smoke. These fires did not burn into suburbia, so attracted little media or political interest.

We are pleased that CALM has a policy to undertake fuel reduction burning in southwest forests. We believe that their burning is, on the whole, professionally conducted, is based on credible research and takes into account the need to protect environmental as well as human values. However, CALM is subjected to significant external pressures and constraints. These have resulted in less burning being done and fuels building up. In a situation in which fuels are accumulating, while at the same time the capability for fire suppression is declining, the end result must be disastrous bushfires.

CALM’s own internal review (”The Muller Report”) confirms the serious situation which has been allowed to develop, and points out that fuels in southwest forests are now heavier than at any time since the 1950s. The largely bushfire-free era enjoyed by West Australians since the 1960s has drawn to a close.

It is our view that CALM and other firefighting organisations will generally be able to contain most bushfires in most fire seasons with the current level of fuel reduction burning and if current standards of suppression capability do not further decline. However, as the backlog of fuel accumulation mounts it is clear that they will be unable to handle multiple fires under severe weather conditions (e.g. a lightning storm on the tail end of a heatwave in February, or another Cyclone Alby). In such situations, firefighters will be rapidly overwhelmed and the outcome will be very large, very intense, and very damaging bushfires driving into rural communities. A number of southwest towns are clearly threatened (for example Denmark, Walpole, Pemberton, Margaret River, Yallingup), and there are risks of major losses of old growth and regrowth forests.

All of the outer suburban areas of Perth are highly vulnerable and many farmer neighbours to State forest and National Parks throughout the southwest now find themselves surrounded by heavier and heavier fuels as each year goes by.

What should the Federal Government (FG) do? We recommend six things:

 (i) The FG should seek to develop an MOU with the State Government (SG) which sets out the conditions under which any federal funds will be given to WA for fire management work. As a minimum, no Federal funds should be given to WA unless it can demonstrate that it has developed and is implementing a Best Practice fire management system in the southwest. Such a system must emphasise prevention as well as suppression, and be subject to independent audit and public reporting of outcomes compared with objectives and targets.
 (ii) The FG should not provide fire fighting equipment (e.g. large helitankers) to WA in a situation where WA is failing to set and meet fire prevention targets.
 (iii) The FG should not assist WA SG with post-fire reconstruction unless WA can demonstrate that it has developed and is implementing Best Practice fire management, as determined and routinely assessed by an independent auditor.
 (iv) The FG should continue to fund bushfire research, including research in WA and including research into operations. 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.
 (v) The FG should facilitate officer-level and scientist-level 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) The FG should develop 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 strong national campaign is needed to counter the anti-burning propaganda put out by some environmental activists.