Submission:Victorian Fire Inquiry 2007

The Hon John Pandazopoulous, MP
Chair, Environment and Natural Resources Committee
Level 8, 35 Spring St, Melbourne
Victoria 3000

Dear Sir,

Inquiry into the Impact of Public Land Management Practices on Bushfires in Victoria

Thank you for inviting the Bushfire Front to make a submission to your inquiry. We are pleased to do so. Our submission is attached.

However, there are three points we wish to make by way of introduction:
1. We congratulate you and your committee on the title of the inquiry and its terms of reference. These reflect the true nature of the bushfire problem, i.e. that serious and damaging bushfires are a product of failed land management, not simply an emergency event to be dealt with on the day.
2. Most inquiries into bushfires become bogged down with “Small Picture Stuff” (what happened where and when and why). We believe it is essential to concentrate on the Big Picture, which is the way in which large high intensity fires can be prevented, or their impacts minimised.
3. We are not experts on the details of land and bushfire management in Victoria. However, we understand that the principles of land and bushfire management apply equally in south-eastern and south-western Australia.  Our submission is therefore a more general one relating to principles, rather than dealing with the specifics of the Victorian situation.

We would be willing to make a verbal presentation, or to have telephone discussions with your Committee, if you think this might be helpful.

We wish you well with your inquiry,
Yours sincerely,

Roger Underwood Chairman, Bushfire Front WA

May 13, 2007

The impact of public land management on bushfires in Victoria

A submission from the Bushfire Front Inc

May 2007

1. Introduction

The Bushfire Front is a small independent organisation, yet all of our members have extensive experience in all aspects of bushfire management, including firefighting, research, district and departmental management, legislation, policy and historical research. The organisation was formed 5 years ago in response to a realisation that the standard of bushfire management in Western Australia had quite suddenly declined very significantly, indicating that a bushfire disaster was imminent. We were proven correct, a situation which gives us no satisfaction.

Members of the Bushfire Front have some experience of fire management in Victoria, and we are in professional contact with fire management personnel throughout eastern Australia. We have not studied the recent fires in detail on the ground, but are able to make general comments based on land and fire management principles.

2. Background

Bushfires are part of the Australian environment; they have always occurred and always will. Eucalypt forests are naturally fire-prone, bushland is cured every summer by hot, dry weather, and it is impossible to prevent ignition.  The indicator of success in managing bushfires is not therefore the number of fires which occur or are suppressed – this is largely a matter of chance. The indicator is the number of large, high intensity fires, sometimes known as megafires or “killer” fires, which burn for days, cover entire landscapes, leave behind no unburnt patches or refuges, cause huge damage to human assets and the environment, and cost millions to control.

The number of large, high intensity bushfires in Australia is increasing, with the 2003 and 2007 fires in Victoria being the saddest examples, and the most damaging. These fires are part of a trend which is also apparent in other States of southern Australia, and in overseas areas, including California, and which is occurring despite massive increases in expenditure on firefighting forces and technology.

An increase in megafires in the face of an increase in firefighting resources is superficially inexplicable. But the explanation for this apparent dilemma is simple. Large, high intensity bushfires do not arise by chance. They are the product of failed land management. Bushfires, like disease epidemics are incubated over many years during which preventative medicine could have been applied but was not.

As is well understood, for a bushfire to occur, three elements are essential: a source of ignition, oxygen and fuel. Ignition and oxygen are beyond the capability of humans to manage: one comes from lightning strikes, the other is ever-present in the air. However, fuel can be managed. Simple physics as well as everyday experience demonstrates that the heavier the fuel the more intense the fire, and the more intense the fire, the harder it is to control or suppress.

The secret to preventing intense fires is therefore to prevent the build-up of heavy fuels. In agricultural and pastoral lands this can be accomplished by grazing or cultivation; in urban areas by mowing; in forests it is done by prescribed burning – the deliberate application of mild fires under controlled conditions, which remove the fuel in advance of serious bushfire conditions.

3. There are two sorts of bushfires

Many bushfires occur under relatively mild weather conditions, i.e., on cool, still humid days. Such fires can be quickly dealt with by brigades or landowners; they are small and do little damage. Furthermore where the fire intensity is mild they even do some good, removing fuel and rejuvenating the bush.

Fires become “problem fires” when they are too intense to be attacked directly and suppressed, and quickly become too large to be dealt with by single brigades. The worst of all problem situations is when there are multiple fires on the same day, severe weather conditions and dry, heavy fuels. Under these conditions fire fighting resources are rapidly overwhelmed, and if the weather persists, a megafire results.

4. Dealing with large intense fires

No bushfire organisation in Australia is able to cope with large intense fires. Nor is there even a theoretically large organisation that could cope with such fires – they move too fast, and they are simply too intense. A feature of the Australian eucalyptus forest is its capacity to throw spotfires. Once a fire reaches a certain threshold of intensity, it starts to generate burning embers which stream ahead of the fire, carried downwind to start new fires kilometers ahead of the main front.

There is only one way in which this situation can be avoided. This is an integrated system where good land management pre-empts the conditions under which large high intensity fires can occur, and an efficient fire fighting force can get to the fires early and deal with them before they become too large and intense.

There are four essential components of good land management to meet these ends:

* The systematic, year by year, application of mild controlled fires to reduce bushland fuels and so pre-empt the build-up of conditions making intense fires inevitable. The replacement of intense wild, or feral bushfires with mild prescribed fires is known as “green burning”.
* The maintenance of a good network of access to the bush, i.e. roads and firetrails, along which firefighters can move to swiftly attack fires; and
* A core of permanent, well-trained field staff located throughout the forest zones, who can undertake the green burning, maintain access and fight fires.
A successful prescribed burning program requires three further elements:
* A sound research program, especially on fire behaviour, which allows field staff to predict fire intensity for given weather and fuel conditions, and thus to competently prescribe appropriate fire;
* Good knowledge of fuel accumulation rates for different forest types, allowing land managers to determine the optimum frequency of burning any particular patch of bush; and

* A monitoring program, looking at the results and effectiveness of the burning program, and providing feedback to managers so that if necessary fire intensity and frequency can be adjusted.

All of these components are in turn related to the land management department’s upper level policies and culture and to the appropriate recruitment, training, placement and support of staff in the field. None of these essential elements are achievable overnight, but result from long periods of stable institutions with capable managers who enjoy political and community backing. Organisational instability is inimical to sound fire management.

The Bushfire Front recommends to the Victorian government that it commences its attack on the problem of megafires not in the bush, but at the level of departmental governance and management.

5. Failing philosophies

There are two alternative approaches to the system described above: the let-burn and the all-out suppression approaches. Both have been, and are being applied in Australia and both have failed and continue to fail.

In the Let-burn approach nature is assumed to know best, and fires are left to burn, to go out eventually if they run into last year’s fire, or to be extinguished at the onset of the rainy season or tackled at the edge of the bush if human assets are threatened.

This approach cannot responsibly be applied in the higher rainfall regions where the nation’s human assets and forests are located. This is because (i) fires burning out of heavy forest country can be unstoppable when they reach the edge of the bush; and (ii) under Common Law an effort must always be made by the land owner or manager to suppress wildfires, because not to do so lays them open to legal action.

The All-out Suppression approach requires fires to be attacked immediately after detection, using the resources of an emergency service, or “fire brigade” set up for the purpose. This approach is appropriate in Australian cities and country towns where there are permanent firefighters on standby 24 hours a day who are able to get to any fire within minutes. It is also appropriate in well-developed farming areas where bushland has been replaced by well-grazed paddocks.

However, this approach does not and cannot work in Australian eucalypt forests unless it is part of an integrated land management system. Even under relatively mild conditions, the intensity of fires burning in fuels over about 10 tonnes per hectare is simply too great to allow them to be attacked successfully.

The Bushfire Front recommends to the Victorian government that both the let-burn and the all-out suppression approaches must be rejected into the future.

6. A template for Best Practice in bushfire management

The Bushfire Front has developed a template for Best Practice in bushfire management which is applicable to the Victorian situation. “Best Practice” provides a set of fundamental requirements, an “ideal” system, against which the current situation can be assessed, and a program of improvements designed.

The ideal bushfire management system will:
* Ensure protection of community assets and human values from destructive bushfires;
* Ensure minima undesirable long-term environmental impacts;
* Ensure the safety of firefighters, especially volunteers;
* Be based on credible science, and protocols and prescriptions are continually updated in the light of research and field experience;
* Provide for independent monitoring of outcomes, and public reporting;

* Have community and media support, stemming from strong political leadership and a high level of public understanding of the issues.

The key elements are:

1.        There is a national bushfire policy and an agreed national strategy for its implementation developed by the Commonwealth with inputs from the States. State governments have signed off on and support the national approach
2.       There is a single State Bushfire policy, providing overarching and unambiguous strategic leadership and guidance to all agencies, land managers, land owners and emergency services.
3.        There is clear accountability at Ministerial and departmental level for bushfire outcomes, and a unified and consistent approach to prevention, preparedness, damage mitigation, suppression, recovery and community education across government departments and local government
4     Bushfire legislation is up-to-date and unambiguous in assigning accountability, responsibility, priorities, standards and setting out the hierarchy of leadership and control
5.        For crown lands, management planning is in the hands of a body with professional bushfire expertise and experience, and the managing agency has adequate professional, technical and equipment resources to enable it to deliver an effective fire management program.
6.        Bushfire management focuses on prevention and damage mitigation, not just suppression, and is underpinned by an ongoing and well-resourced program of operational research.
7.       The government has set and published expectations, performance outcomes, standards and targets for bushfire management on crown lands, which are imposed on the management agencies. These focus on the Big Picture i.e., protecting life and minimising the number and size of high intensity “killer” fires.
8.      The government has 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 published standards and targets.
9.        There is 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.

10.      There is a high level of professional bushfire expertise in Local Government Authorities together with strong supporting legislation and adequate funds to ensure the volunteer firefighter system is sustained, bushfire regulations are implemented, fuels managed on private land, and there is a strongly supportive local community.

The value of adopting a template of this sort is that actual performance can be independently audited, and thus provides the basis for a meaningful reporting system to government. The audit will immediately demonstrate where the system is deficient and where action by government must be focused.

7. Some comments on the Victorian situation
7.1 Bushfire policy

The Bushfire Front understands that Victoria does not have a State Bushfire policy, but that different land management agencies have their own independent policies. Furthermore due to the splintering of institutional arrangements, with different agencies responsible for different land tenures, this has led to conflicting policies.

We recommend that Victoria has only one Bushfire Policy and that the different agencies with fire management responsibilities should all be required to comply with it.

7.2 Status of fire management

It is our understanding that bushfire management is no longer a core function of either of the main land management agencies in Victoria. Rather it is seen as something which is done “after a fire starts”. This is typical of the situation which has developed in other jurisdictions in Australia in recent times, and is symptomatic of the failed philosophies described above.

There is a well-known fact among experienced land managers in Australia: if fire management fails, no other management objective can be achieved. Fire management is not subservient to other aspects of land management, it is central to it. For these reasons, it must be core business.

The Bushfire Front recommends to the Victorian government that they examine at the strategic plans, management objectives and priorities and staffing heirachies of their land and forest management agencies. If necessary these must be modified to ensure fire management becomes core business and the responsible officers are placed within the organisations in positions where they can influence priorities, works programs and funding decisions.

7.3 Prescribed burning

In the view of the Bushfire Front, Victorian land managers do not have in place an effective prescribed burning program. This makes the state vulnerable to the buildup of heavy fuels, which when dry will burn uncontrollably.

Some areas which are difficult to burn, i.e. the wet schlerophyll forests, and these are not high priority for fuel reduction burning. But there are a great many other bushland areas which are very amenable to a regular program of fuel reduction burning. Such a program should be based on known rates of fuel accumulation and the return-time between burns calculated to ensure fuel buildup does not pass the threshold beyond which most fires become unsuppressable.

The following priorities are recommended:

(1) Adoption by government of a clear policy which supports fuel reduction burning;
(2) Development by the land management agencies of a program which will allow the policy to be implemented, including adoption of annual targets and standards;
(3) Provision of resources of trained staff, including if necessary Victorian officers spending time in WA to observe and participate in the prescribed burning program adopted here; and

(4) Adoption of an independent monitoring and reporting process which audits the success/failure of the program against targets and standards and the impacts of burning, and reports back to government.

One of the most common reasons for failure of agencies to implement an effective burning program is the weight of regulatory and bureaucratic constraints on fire operations staff. Some of these constraints appear to have been deliberately developed to ensure an effective burning program cannot be accomplished.

The Bushfire Front recommends that the Victorian government review the constraints imposed on the prescribed burning program in Victoria, and works to minimise or dispose of them.

7.4 Firebreaks

The Bushfire Front does not support the suggestion that the Victorian government install very wide firebreaks through bushland. This is because (i) they are highly damaging to the environment and (ii) they will not work. As previously pointed out, intense fires in eucalypt forests generate spotfires which can land kilometers down wind – no firebreak is effective in stopping such fires.

What is needed is a sound network of roads, and in mountain country, of fire trails which can provide good and safe access for firefighters. It is our understanding that this network once existed in Victoria, but has been allowed to deteriorate by lack of maintenance. This in turn has been due to lack of resources and a lack of clarity about who is responsible or accountable.

The Bushfire Front recommends that an important outcome from this inquiry should be a clear statement from government as to which agency is responsible for maintaining bushfire access on crown lands in Victoria.

7.5 Staffing levels and experience

The Bushfire Front understands that in Victoria, as in Western Australia, there has been a serious decline in the number of permanent trained staff with fire management experience who are stationed in the bush. Over the years, they have been replaced by seasonal staff or by volunteers.

This is very unsatisfactory. Seasonal or volunteer firefighters are good and useful but as an additional resource, not a replacement resource. They cannot undertake burning programs, maintain roads and do research. They do not become part of local communities.

There is also a concern that the most well-qualified and highly experienced fire management officers are getting older and no appropriate recruitment and training program is in place.

The Bushfire Front recommends that this Inquiry revisits the 2003 report of the Victorian Auditor General, which dealt in detail with these issues.

7.6 Climate change

The Bushfire Front has noted the view from some quarters that because of “climate change”, bushfires in Australia will become more fierce and more frequent.  In this instance, climate change is said to be an increase in temperature and a decline in rainfall, leading to more frequent droughts.

The Bushfire Front accepts that the climate of Australia has changed in the past and will do so in the future. Change may include periods of increased temperature and declining rainfall. However, we do not take the view that this will lead inevitably to more and more fierce bushfires.

The critical factor affecting bushfire intensity is fuel weight. For any given temperature and wind, the heavier the fuel the more intense the fire. Furthermore, if fuels are low, an increase in temperature of a few degrees has very little effect on fire behaviour, once a fire has started.

One response to the threat of climate change is to throw the hands in the air in gloomy despair. A more responsible approach is to redouble the effect to put in place an effective fire management system, including fuel reduction burning. The big fires in Victoria in 2003 and 2007 were the result of very heavy fuels onto which a drought was superimposed.  The drought was a severe one, but droughts have occurred in the past and will occur in the future. They can be anticipated, and preventative action taken to rob them of fuels well before any fire occurs.

8. Conclusions

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Victorian parliament have correctly identified the most significant factor contributing to the recent bushfire disasters in Victoria: failed land management. We have provided the Committee with a number of recommendations which if adopted will help to correct this situation.

In our view the most important changes needed in Victoria are:

1. The development of a State Bushfire Policy which will provide leadership and unambiguous guidance to the government agencies responsible for forest and land management.
2. The adoption by government of an integrated approach to bushfire management, including an effective fuel reduction burning program in national parks and state forests.
3. The reworking of departmental strategic plans to ensure that fire management becomes core business, and this is reflected in staffing arrangements, funding and priority setting.
4. The development of an effective strategy for maintaining roads and fire trails.

5. The reinstitution of an adequate well-trained and permanent staff in the bush for fire management work, rather than reliance on seasonal or volunteer workers.

Roger Underwood

Chairman, The Bushfire Front Inc,
May 21st 2007