In severe fire seasons the damage caused by bushfires is astronomical. In the 2003 Canberra fire disaster, for example, the cost to insurers alone was $257 million (The West Australian, 13 Feb, 2003). The total cost of the fires, including the cost of suppression measures and lost productivity, would be much greater than this figure. Add to it the loss of life, personal trauma, loss of invaluable personal possessions and destruction of scientific equipment and data from the Mt Stromlo Observatory, and the ramifications of such disasters start to become apparent.
The community impacts from the 2009 Victorian disaster have been well documented in the media. An estimate of the final cost of this bushfire awaits the final report of the Royal Commission, but is likely to exceed a billion dollars.
How much better then, if we can avoid, or at least minimise the risk, of such disasters happening again. While the Canberra fire disaster was a complex issue, with several factors contributing to the outcome, experienced fire managers have estimated that a prescribed burn costing about $100,000 would have prevented the disaster, but the burn did not take place due to mistaken land management policies. A mere $100,000 set against well over $257 million would seem a good deal for the community.
Canberra is not the only city to have suffered from bushfire damage in recent years. Sydney has experienced a series of lesser, but still serious, bushfire disasters since 1994. In some respects most Australian city fringes and country towns have become more prone to bushfire damage over the past 30 or so years, with the proliferation of rural lifestyle smallholdings and natural vegetation reserves that are preserved, rather than actively managed. Many people who move into rural smallholdings have little awareness of bushfire issues and the threat posed by unmanaged native vegetation.
The 2003 Canberra disaster and the Sydney fires were dwarfed by a succession of large wildfires in Victoria. There were very severe and extensive bushfires in Victoria in 2004 and 2007. The 2007 fires burned for several weeks and covered an area of about one million hectares. A recent unofficial estimate of the costs, which includes the damage to forests and property, as well as the costs of suppression, is over $900 million. With those sorts of losses, one might expect the State government to review its whole approach to bush fire management.
In fact, an inquiry was carried out mid-2007, and the Bush Fire Front made a submission to it (see About>Recent Activities of the BFF). The report of this inquiry recommended a greatly enhanced program of fuel reduction burning in Victorian forests. Almost nothing had been done to implement this recommendation before the incredible disaster of February 2009. The full story awaits the outcome of the subsequent Royal Commission.
Firefighting is inherently a dangerous business, especially when confronted with a fire like that shown below. While good training can minimise the risks, under “blow up” conditions like that in Victoria in February 2009, even experienced firefighters are at very high risk.
We should not forget that most people fighting rural fires are volunteers, who take on these tasks out of a sense of community spirit. Why should we expose them to the huge risks entailed in fighting fires in heavy fuels. Don’t we owe it to them to make their job as safe as we can? Fuel reduction burning is the only practical way to do that.