BFF Comment

Currently, there are eight postings in this section: 

1. The Eastern States Fires (up to 2008)

2. Poor Land Use Decisions Contribute to Failed Bush Fire Management

3. Who are  the Beneficiaries of Large High Intensity Bush Fires?

4. Bush Fire Smoke

5. BFF Review of the “Inquiry into Fire and Emergency Services Legislation in WA” 2006  

6. Bush Fires and Your Wine

7. Forest Fire and the Wilderness Society

8 The Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission  2010


1. The Eastern States Fires (up to 2008)

In recent years, i.e., 1990 to the present, there has been a succession of large forest fires in NSW, ACT and Victoria, and to a lesser extent, in Tasmania and South Australia. Why is this so? The glib answer put forward by green activists and some academics is that it is due to global warming and we had better get used to it. These people usually display a remarkable lack of concern at the disastrous effect that large, high intensity forest fires have on all aspects of biodiversity.

The BFF begs to differ. We do not believe that global warming is a factor in this situation at all. We believe it is simply a matter of mismanagement of forest land on a large scale, combined with a long period of poor land use decisions. The result has been a marked increase in the flammability of our forests and woodlands. It is true that the Eastern States have experienced a serious drought in recent years, and drought does increase fuel flammability, but droughts have always been a feature of the Australian environment.

Those who ascribe the increase in damaging forest fires to global warming simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Let’s look at each of these factors, mismanagement of forests and poor land use decisions, in turn, although they are interdependent to some extent.

To begin with, it is necessary to understand some basics of forest fire management. The fires that cause damage to forest ecosystems and pose great difficulty in control are large high intensity fires. The intensity of a fire is influenced by a number of factors, such as fuel dryness, temperature and wind strength, but the most important is fuel quantity. This is also the only factor we can control.

Fuel quantity is also affected to some extent by the nature of the fuel. If the forest floor is covered with short vegetation the lower flame height means that a fire is less likely to move into the crowns of the trees, thus causing a quantum leap in the damage to the forest and in the difficulty of control. A layer of shrubby vegetation, however, provides a copious quantity of “hung-up” fuel that dries out faster and more completely than ground fuel and greatly facilitates the development of a crown fire.

How Australian Forests Are Being Mismanaged

Large areas of forest land in the Eastern States are now being managed by national park agencies. These agencies tend to be philosophically opposed to active management of forests, and are usually opposed to active management of forest fuels by the use of prescribed fire. Their basic approach to forest management is to lock up the forest and throw away the key. Ask any East Coast 4WD club!

Many of our national park managers also promote a mistaken adherence to the Eurocentric notion that fire in forests is an evil thing. Consequently, forest fuels have been building up for many years. When a fire does come along, as inevitably it does, it is almost impossible to control, even in comparatively mild weather conditions. Fires rage out of control for days, even weeks, as in Victoria in the summer of 2007. The firefighters work like slaves, putting their lives on the line time and time again. Smooth-talking State Premiers waltz in (during a lull in the fire, of course), waffle on about what a great job the firefighters are doing, hand out a few more million dollars (of taxpayers’ money) and then go away and forget about it.

Sound familiar? It should, if you have been watching your TV lately. And it doesn’t need to happen. We can start managing our forests and woodlands better, so that we don’t have such large and damaging fires. How? Simply by actively managing them to keep fuel quantities down to levels where fire intensity is lower and fire suppression is easier (and a whole lot safer). Not only will the forests be less damaged by wildfire, but the cost of active management to reduce fuel levels will cost the community a lot less than the current reliance on fire suppression.

Some academics will say that such a policy is unproven and we don’t know the impacts of regular mild fires. However, we know that the Aboriginal people were burning the forests regularly and mildly for many thousands of years before Europeans arrived and tried to impose an Un-Australian approach on our native bush. The bush we see now is the product of that fire regime and is well adapted to it.

Another aspect of mismanagement of forests is closure of, or failure to maintain, access tracks that give vital access for firefighters, enabling them to attack fires before they become too large. A fundamental tenet of fire control is to detect it quickly, get to it quickly and knock it down while it’s still small. The recent 4 Corners program that examined the bushfire situation at the time of the disastrous Canberra fire of 2003 clearly demonstrated that, had that basic tenet been followed, the Canberra disaster would not have occurred.

A little-known side effect of poor access is the need to “backburn” large areas of forest in order to try to contain a bushfire. Often, the result is a very large increase in the total area burnt under severe weather conditions when the damage to the forest is very great indeed. Further, as any firefighter will attest, a “backburn” is always a gamble, and many come unstuck and break away to form a new fire front.

A spin-off of the passive approach to forest management is the reliance on suppression efforts to contain fires. Of course, it makes for grand political posturing for a State Premier to assure the community that he will spend a fortune on hiring ever more water bombers and gigantic helitacs. It makes for good TV, too, especially those shots of a bomber dropping water to save a house somewhere. But have you ever noticed that when that happens, the fire is running quite quietly there, often just trickling back against the wind? That didn’t need bomber or a chopper to save the house. A small crew of firefighters could have done it just as well, and much more cheaply.

The fact is, the approach of putting all the eggs in the suppression basket has failed everywhere it has been used. In a bad fire situation, no amount of expensive equipment will achieve control. In the USA, where they have access to much greater numbers of water bombers, it is acknowledged that this approach is a failure. Yet we, and they, persist in using it because the public has been convinced that this is the only thing that can be done.

 The Way Ahead

But there is a proven successful alternative. The only realistic way to avoid large, high intensity bush fires is to keep forest fuel levels down to low levels by prescribed burning under mild weather conditions, so that when fires do occur, they are of lower intensity and are much easier, and very much cheaper and safer, to control. This requires active management of forest fuels on a broad scale, but it will not happen unless there is a dramatic change in forest management policies by managing administrations.

Of course, active management of forest fuels by fuel reduction burning is not something that can be embarked upon overnight. It requires careful research into fire behaviour in a variety of fuel and vegetation types, and the sad fact is that this research has not been carried out in a systematic way in the Eastern States. The only exception is a small program that has been carried on by CSIRO in Canberra. Some of their results could be put into practice now but much more research needs to be done to encompass the range of forest and fuel types in the Eastern States.

What is needed here is a paradigm shift away from the protectionist mentality that pervades many of the current forest management agencies in the Eastern States. We need a return to the sort of fire management regime used by aboriginal people in ages past. The beautiful forests and landscapes that the first European settlers found were the product of frequent mild burning, not of massive high intensity fires which blackened the landscape over millions of hectares, which is what the current approach is doing.

Do you understand all of the technical terms used in this article? If not, go to the BFF Glossary of Bush Fire Terms, on this website.

2.  Poor Land Use Decisions Contribute to Failed Bush Fire Management

Why is it that TV reports show so many instances of houses under threat from bush fires? Although the natural bias of the media to show human suffering is no doubt a factor, there is also no doubt that more people really are in harm’s way from fire. The reason is the great expansion of habitation into urban fringe areas. In the last 30 years considerable numbers of people have moved from traditional suburbia into “special rural” subdivisions (0.4 to 5 ha blocks) to live “among the gum trees”.

Local government has usually accepted this change in land use as it has increased their rate base, and in rural districts, helped to arrest the long term decline in rural population. However, many of these rural or semi rural subdivisions are poorly designed, with little or no consideration given to fire management issues. For example, housing blocks may extend into areas of coastal heath that are well known to be highly inflammable and the source of fast-moving fires driven by strong sea breezes. In other places we see houses constructed on steep rocky areas, or overhung by eucalypt trees. These are houses that are “built to burn”.

There are two difficulties with this “tree change” movement. Firstly, it has often displaced from that part of the landscape genuine farmers who were actively managing the land, including control of weeds, feral animals and fire. Secondly, they have been replaced by people with an urban background and no appreciation at all for the real requirements of land management. Many of these people have a romantic view of life in the bush, and desire to be surrounded by trees and greenery. They almost invariably view fire as something to be excluded from the environment. Not only is it destructive, they believe, of nature and wildlife, but it produces that nasty stuff, smoke.

While this is obviously not true of all new settlers, many of these newcomers don’t really live in the country, they just sleep in it and commute off to work in the city each day, or visit their rural retreat on weekends. They often do not join in the volunteer bush fire brigades and seem to expect the volunteers to do all the dirty work of controlling fire in the district. Instances have been reported to us of the city slickers lolling on their verandah, tinny in hand, just watching the brigade controlling a fire on their own land.

It’s time to call a halt to these irresponsible land use decisions which create a serious hazard or threat to people’s lives. At the very least, there should be built into every new subdivision adequate provision for proper fire management. This has to include effective minimisation of fire hazards and protection of life and property.

People who choose to live in the Australian bush must face up to the fact that bush fires are a natural factor of our environment. To survive and protect their assets they must become directly involved in fire management, including fuel reduction activities and support for their local bush fire brigade.

3. Who are the beneficiaries of large high intensity bushfires?

It is only February, but 2006/7 is already shaping as one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons. The extraordinary fires in Victoria have captured the headlines, but there have also been big, intense and damaging bushfires in Tasmania, West Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. These succeed the shocking fires in eastern and south-western Australia every summer over the last 5 years.

There are many interesting issues relating to this new prevalence of big, nasty bushfires. Bushfire management in Australia reached its peak between about 1975-1990. But despite all the technical innovations since then, the huge expenditure on aerial water bombers and the vast armies of fire fighters with their wondrous equipment, bushfire management in Australia has regressed to the situation that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, whenever bad fire weather occurs, unstoppable fires ravage the bush.

It is also curious how the recent disasters have come to be accompanied by a spirit of defeatism amongst our leaders. Bushfires, it seems, are an Act of God, a natural phenomenon which cannot be prevented. Lie back and think of England!

This line of thinking is not just an example of gutless leadership, it is logically flawed and flies in the face of decades of research into bushfire science and centuries of human experience. What is going on?

I was once advised by a grizzled public servant of the old school “if you want to understand any puzzling social or political issue, look for the beneficiaries.”  Who on earth might benefit from the regular occurrence of huge, hot bushfires?

While the correct answer is “no-one” it is not hard to find people who use the big hot fire to their political or financial advantage. For example I have heard environmentalists portraying the recent fires in Victoria and WA as a direct consequence of global warming. They quite unambiguously assert that unless we unquestioningly adopt their political agenda on climate change, there will be more horrible bushfires. This can easily be shown to be crooked thinking, but it is an effective line because of the current hysteria about global warming.

The media can be seen as a beneficiary of big nasty bushfires as these provide highly newsworthy, truly front page or top-of-the-bulletin stuff. Journalists are served up with wonderful hero stories, disaster stories and controversy stories on a plate. Bushfires are tremendous drama, complete with cataclysmic vision of houses and forests going up in flames, farmers shooting burnt sheep, sad people raking through the remnants of their houses picking up twisted trinkets, hillsides of blackened forest. To the media (and of course to their clients the viewers and readers), big hot fires arouse intense interest and excitement; few things outside war provide more opportunities to exploit the gamut of human emotions or to experience them vicariously.

Then there are the Fire Chiefs, resplendent in their American World War 2 General’s uniform. “Bushfire management” these days has largely morphed into “bushfire fighting”, a thrilling battle to be fought by Emergency Services staff who have been waiting in the wings for this very moment. I am not criticising our top Firemen. They are doing the job they are appointed to do and all would be equally dismayed by the human misery and environmental damage caused by intense bushfires. Nevertheless, when the Big Fire declares war, their 15 minutes of fame arrives. The regiments of firefighters are amassed and despatched; the squadrons of bombers and helicopters are unleashed; the support and technical units are rushed to the battle. Fire Chiefs are nightly seen on the news giving high profile briefings to politicians and the media, planning strategies and dictating the tactics at the front. This is war, and war is hell. But war is also The General’s Big Moment, his hour upon centre stage.

I also wonder about the money, and who gets it. Bushfire fighting in Australia has become horrendously expensive. In particular, unbelievable sums are spent hiring aerial equipment and firefighters from overseas. I am convinced that if the money spent hiring overseas equipment and importing (and paying) inexperienced overseas firefighters was channelled instead into re-creating the permanent force of firefighters who once occupied the nation’s forest districts, we would be financially better off and have a superior fire management system.

Bushfire research is another interesting and complex issue. There is a considerable band of academics in Australian universities who are associated with and at least partly funded by the Bushfire CRC. None of these people like to see people and houses being burnt, but they all know that every big, nasty fire helps to underpin the security of their research grants, guarantee future funding and ensure desirable academic side-effects such as overseas conferences, publishable papers, and graduate students.

Finally there are those politicians who have learned how to make a name for themselves from a bushfire. They do this by the generous authorisation of huge sums of money for suppression at the very height of the fire, turning up at the control point and shaking the hands of smoke-grimed firefighters, commiserating with people who have lost everything, and looking grave but intelligent in a media briefing. After the fire they disperse largess from the government coffers to compensate those of their constituents who have been burnt-out, and promise more money for fire fighting equipment and research.

I am by no means saying that these “beneficiaries” are the cause of the disastrous decline in the standard of bushfire management in Australia over the last 15 years. We are all to blame for the inept political leadership and government dysfunction which are at the root of the problem.

What really worries me is that while God and Global Warming are cast as the villains, nothing will change. It just means that sensible investment in programs of bushfire prevention and preparedness, damage mitigation and community education continue to be set aside in favour of a self-fulfilling prophecy of apocalypse. Those who support (for example) an effective level of prescribed burning in the national parks, can safely be ignored. God and Western Civilisation are ordaining killer bushfires and we can do nothing about it!  The fire and brimstone prophets of the Old Testament are back on the job

Roger Underwood

February 10th, 2007



The smoke that arises from bushfires, whether it comes from prescribed burns or from wildfires, is a controversial subject in Western Australia. Every time the metropolitan area is affected by smoke drift from a prescribed burn in nearby forests there is an outcry in the media. Paradoxically, there is little comment on smoke from a wildfire, even though it is much thicker and often long-lasting: it seems to be accepted that this will happen.

To some, smoke is simply a matter of air pollution, and therefore should be stopped. To others, it is an inconvenience, especially if they suffer from respiratory disease. In the latter case it is possible that smoke particulates can cause increased difficulty with breathing. However, there are well-known steps sufferers can take to alleviate the breathing difficulty.

Dens smoke does reduce visibility. There have been many instances of bush fire smoke causing temporary problems at airports.

However, bush fire smoke in the Australian environment is not air pollution. Smoke is a natural, and necessary, part of our environment. Native vegetation has evolved in the presence of fire and the landscapes we see today have been moulded by fire. Some plants actually depend on periodic fire for reproduction, and almost all species have some sort of adaptation that enables them to tolerate our fire-friendly climate. Many native plants are also fire-friendly and contain essential oils that are highly inflammable. This feature increases the intensity of a fire and makes forest fires in native vegetation Australia faster-spreading than similar fires in other countries.

After they arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago, the Aboriginal people began to use fire in a systematic way to manage the vegetation and smoke became a more or less constant part of the environment of the continent. Before them, it was lightning that started the fires in a more haphazard way, but frequently all the same. All the reports of the early European explorers mention the smoke of Aboriginal fires as a feature of the sky in Australia.

It is clear sky that is unnatural in Australia, not smoky skies. Essential land management activities like prescribed burning should not be governed by misguided attitudes toward smoke.

Some people express concern that prescribed burning adds to carbon dioxide emissions and oppose its use for that reason. There are two answers to this mistaken attitude. Firstly, the fires are going to happen anyway. They are absolutely inevitable. The choice is between the lesser emissions from prescribed burning or much higher emissions from the inevitable wildfires. Take your pick!

The second answer is that there are no net emissions from prescribed burning. It is a carbon neutral activity because the understorey vegetation, which constitutes most of the fuel consumed in a prescribed burn, regrows vigorously after a burn and takes back from the atmosphere the carbon previously emitted. This is a natural cycle that has been ticking over for millennia.

5.  A Review by the Bush Fire Front of the “Inquiry Into Fire and Emergency Services Legislation” by the COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT AND JUSTICE STANDING COMMITTEE of the Legislative Assembly – Report No. 3

The members Committee were:

Mr A.P.O’Gorman, Member for Joondalup, MLA, Mr M.J.Cowper, Member for Murray, MLA, Mr S.R.Hill, MLA, Member for Geraldton, Ms K.Hodson-Thomas, MLA, Member for Carine and Mrs K.Hughes, MLA, Member for Kingsley. The Hon. P.D.Omodei, MLA, Member for Warren-Blackwood, was a coopted member.

With the exception of Mr Omodei, whom we understand made only a minor contribution to the Committee proceedings and report; the Committee appears to contain very little personal experience in rural fire management. The only other source of such experience would have been the support staff but those identified in the report are all from Fire and Emergency Services (FESA) with expertise almost exclusively, in city fires and emergencies.

This commentary is only directed at issues associated with rural fire management.

A basic problem about FESA is that it has a culture based on the fire suppression paradigm associated with urban and industrial incident management. Although it is responsible for administering the Bush Fires Act FESA lacks background, experience and expertise in rural fire management. Remarkably, the report states “FESA is the statutory authority responsible for fire in W.A.” This ignores the role of Local Authorities and the Department of Environment and Conservation but reflects the perspective taken throughout the report and explains the proposal that FESA should remain responsible for emergency functions statewide.

The report makes no reference to providing an overall philosophy on fire management for the State. WA does not have a State Bush Fire Policy. Without this there are no overarching objectives, no clear definition of issues needing to be addressed, nor logical explanations of how the many issues might be resolved. So the review cannot provide a reasoned framework for its recommendations.

The report creates the impression that the Committee has accepted the views of FESA uncritically and gone along with what seems to be a power grab for fire and emergency functions throughout the State. As an example of this, it is proposed to remove the two mile buffer zone bordering forests of the south west. Removal of this zone seems primarily designed to ensure FESA control over all land not directly managed by DEC (Recommendation 48). However, the reason for the existence of this provision is still valid. DEC needs to be able to intervene outside its borders to prevent a fire entering land for which it is responsible.

Although DEC (CALM at the time of the inquiry) made a submission pointing out that it lacks any legislative authority to practise fire management on the lands it manages, the Committee failed to deal with this issue and referred to it as peripheral. Considering the massive areas of W.A. under DEC control and the huge amount of State funds used to provide fire protection and management on them it is hard to understand how a review of the Bush Fires Act would see this matter as peripheral to any changes made to that Act.

In a similar manner, it seems the Committee found no reason to comment on the concept of the Prohibited Burning Season. This is a key issue in the Bush Fires Act and impinges on all Local Government and DEC fire practices.

One of the Committee’s most ill-informed recommendations was that that the Conservation Commission was adequate to oversee DEC fire practises through management plans and audit. This ignores the fact that there is a total absence of experience and expertise in fire management in the Conservation Commission.

The Committee’s report makes no reference to the issue of fuel reduction burning which is the primary means available in rural forested areas to reduce risk and simplify suppression. This aspect of fire management was the main issue raised by the Bush Fire Front in its submission to the Inquiry, but our input was ignored

There are numerous other matters of concern in the report, particularly those that influence Local Government fire protection and management activities, and the status and functioning of volunteer fire brigades. On any issues affecting State fire control outside of city and urban events, the BFF considers that recommendations from this review should not be implemented without much more input from rural land managers with more appropriate experience and expertise.

 6. Bushfires and Your Wine

The ABC news carried a report on their website on 22 October 2008 about the detrimental effects of bushfires on the wine industry in Victoria. The extensive wildfires of 2003 up to 2007 were reported to have cost the industry more than $100 million. As an example, smoke from the fires of 2006 and 2007 in the northeastern alpine region apparently caused a pinot noir to become basically undrinkable, the aroma carrying a strong ash, smoked meat, smoked salami, almost ash-tray like characters.

The industry is concerned because (in line with prevailing ABC ideology) “climate change predictions suggest there will be a lot more bushfires in future”.

The BFF agrees there will be more wildfires in future, but the cause is not climate change, but poor forest management. The recent severe wildfires in Victoria have been entirely due to a huge buildup of forest fuels. This has happened because green activist pressure has resulted in a drastic decline in the amount of prescribed burning over the last 30 years. The only way to reduce the incidence and extent of wildfires is to greatly increase the annual area of prescribed burning. Indeed, this was the conclusion of a recent Victorian Parliamentary inquiry. That will also produce some smoke, but the quantity is an order of magnitude less than that emitted by a wildfire.

Smoke from burning bush is an inevitable feature of the environment in Australia. Perhaps the vignerons should have been a bit more interested in the characteristics of that environment before they located their vineyards.

The ABC also noted that the Victorian wine industry is working with the State Government to carefully plan when and where prescribed burning will occur, hoping to lessen the likelihood of vineyards getting smoked. Since it was also clear from the article that there is limited understanding of when and how the smoke actually enters the plants, it seems a bit premature to try to tell forest managers when they can burn.

The BFF suspects this is yet another constraint on forest managers that will result on less prescribed burning and therefore more wildfires.

Addendum February 2009. One wonders what the 2009 bushfires have done to the wine quality.

7. The Wilderness Society and Bushfire Management

By Roger Underwood

I have been critical of many environmental activists over the years on the grounds that they know what they are against, but they don’t know what they are for. For example, bushfire management systems developed by forestry agencies over many decades are savagely condemned, but no alternative system is offered up as a replacement.

I was therefore interested to see that the Wilderness Society News 173 (Winter 2008) contains a Six Point Action Plan that the Society says will “reduce bushfire risks and help to protect people, property, wildlife and their habitat”. They have done this because they assert that a “massive increase in hazard reduction burning and firebreaks is destroying nature, pushing wildlife closer to extinction and in many cases increasing the fire risk to people and properties by making areas more fire prone”.

The Society also says that with the onset of climate change “mega-bushfires that burn massive areas” are expected to become more frequent. They have therefore come up with the following Action Plan:

1. Improve aerial fire detection.

2. Ramp-up high-tech suppression forces, including more Elvis helitaks;

3. Do more research into fire behaviour and the impacts of fire on wildlife;

4. Around towns and urban areas, carry out fuel reduction burning and have fire breaks;

5. Give priority to wildlife and their habitat in remote areas and national parks;

6. Make forests resistant to megafires by protecting them from woodchipping and logging.

I disagree that there has been “massive increases in burning” which are “pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction”. On the contrary, statistics from various agencies show that the amount of burning in forests and woodlands in WA, Victoria, SA and NSW has declined since the 1980s. I am not aware of a single species of wildlife in Australia which is at the brink of extinction due to prescribed burning. In my view the real threat to wildlife is the large high-intensity summer bushfire. These are generally a consequence of insufficient prescribed burning.

I find the Wilderness Society’s Action Plan deficient. It is impractical, greenhouse unfriendly and costly. Most importantly, it will not reduce the number of large high intensity forest fires in Australian forests. It is the relatively small number of large, high intensity fires that do most of the environmental, economic and social damage caused by bushfires, and therefore must be the primary target of a fire management system. The very much larger number of small low-intensity bushfires are easily suppressed and do little harm.

A surprising aspect of the Society’s Action Plan is that it does not appear to have had any input from people with knowledge of bushfire science or with actual forest fire management experience.  Unfortunately this does not mean it can be ignored, as the Wilderness Society has a very high media and political profile.

Taking each of their proposed action points in turn:

1. Aerial detection is a first-rate resource. A comprehensive system of aerial detection has been in place in all southern Australian states since the early 1970s, supported (under rising fire danger conditions) by lookout towers. However, aerial detection has limits. The greatest problem is that the system can fail completely when it is most needed – under hot unstable atmospheric conditions and when there are very high winds. [I was the Officer in Charge in the karri forest during the Cyclone Alby bushfire emergency, and on the day of the fires all our aircraft had to be grounded and tied down.]

Furthermore, whilst rapid and accurate fire detection is a routine aspect of all existing fire management systems in Australia (and has been since about World War 1), it is of little use if you cannot get firefighters to the fire in time to do useful work. In heavy fuels in the jarrah forest, for example, even under moderate summer conditions a fire can become too intense to be directly suppressed by firefighters within about 15 minutes of ignition. When multiple ignitions occur, as happens during electrical storms, the risk of losing fires increases with every new ignition. This is because access, and resources for fire suppression, are the limiting factors, not detection capability.

2. The dream of hi-tech aerial water bombers dominating forest fires is just that: a dream. It has never succeeded in Australia, and not even in the USA where the entire might of an enormous fleet of water bombers fails repeatedly to handle hot fires burning in heavy fuels. Elvis helitaks look impressive and they are beloved of the war correspondents who cover “bushfire events”. But they cost a fortune, burn massive amounts of fossil fuel, use gigalitres of precious water and are ineffective in stopping the run of a crown fire which is throwing spotfires. Water bombers do good work protecting houses from grass fires at the urban interface, and in some cases can help to “hold” a small forest fire burning under mild conditions until ground forces arrive. But against a big hot forest fire they are next to useless. On simple environmental and economic grounds alone their expanded use cannot be supported, but this is especially so when a more carbon-friendly solution is available which is cheaper and more effective.

Few people appreciate the heat energy released by a large bushfire burning in heavy fuels. Calculations show that the fire that engulfed Canberra in January 2003 had an energy release equivalent to a Hiroshima-type nuclear bomb being exploded every 30 minutes. The idea that such fires can be extinguished by helicopters dropping water is quite unrealistic.

3. I can only agree with the Society that more research is needed into fire behaviour and fire impacts, especially the impacts of large high-intensity fires on fauna, water catchments and soils. This is not to say that a great deal of research has not been done already, and I would draw attention specifically to the Project Vesta studies. This ten-year multi-disciplinary study, involving CSIRO, the Bushfire CRC and scientists from a number of research and management institutions, is probably the most comprehensive fire behaviour/impacts research ever done. The conclusions were unambiguous, and do not support the recommendations of the Wilderness Society.

Curiously, the deleterious impacts of large high intensity fires on water catchments do not rate any mention in the Society’s Action Plan. In the short term, a high intensity fire has an enormous environmental cost. It bares and erodes the soil, and sends sediments into streams, wetlands and reservoirs. In the longer term, it destroys mature forest and replaces it with regrowth, reducing catchment yield. If indeed it turns out that our climate is drying, Australia needs to protect its forested catchments from damage by wildfire, not deliberately expose them, and protection cannot be achieved by locking them away and hoping a big unstoppable fire will never come.

4. It is revealing that the Society recommends that fuel reduction burning should be done around towns and urban areas. This suggests that they understand its value in minimising fire risk, rather than making the burned areas “more fire prone”, as claimed elsewhere in their article. But it is surely illogical to suggest that prescribed burning is acceptable as a means of reducing fire risk in forests around towns but not in the wider forests.

5. I agree that insufficient priority is given to wildlife conservation in national parks and remote areas – but not for the same reasons as the Wilderness Society. The current management of many forested national parks in Australia has led to a situation in which fuels have accumulated in areas from which fire has been excluded for many years, often decades. This has been accompanied by the closure of roads and fire trails, and downgrading of trained firefighters in favour of water bombers. The result is that sooner or later an uncontrollable landscape-level fire occurs. These decimate the wildlife, bake and erode soils and kill stone-dead the old growth forests over thousands of hectares. The alternative is more frequent planned burning under mild conditions. This leads to a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas, leaves the overstorey and the soil intact, and ensures a diversity of habitat for wildlife and opportunities for rapid regeneration and recolonisation. In a holistic fire management system this approach is supported by an adequate system of roads and fire trails, maintained so as to allow safe access by firefighters, plus the maintenance of a corps of well-trained professionally-led firefighters in and around the forest.

6. I have never seen any evidence that old growth forest is less likely to burn than the regrowth forests arising in the wake of logging or wildfire. Fire risk is determined by climatic and weather conditions, fuel type, fuel weight and dryness, aspect and topography. These factors are independent of the age of the trees overhead. The Society’s statement that ‘mega-fires” can be prevented by stopping woodchipping suggests a forest policy based on a political agenda rather than knowledge of fire physics or bushfire experience.

Finally, I note the old chestnut that ‘global warming will cause inevitable megafires’. This is now being said so often by so many pundits that it has achieved the status of biblical truth. What it ignores, however, is the presence in the system of intelligent and determined humans. If the computer models are correct and the weather becomes hotter and drier, it does not inevitably mean that we have to throw up our hands in despair and retreat into a bunker waiting for the next inferno to come roaring over the horizon. Pre-emptive action to minimise fire intensity and fire damage is possible, and we already know how to do it! Indeed in southern Australia, the computer-generated predictions suggest greater opportunities for fuel reduction burning under mild condition, as winters will be drier and springs and autumns warmer. Less fuel will lead to less intense fires, less fire damage and easier and safer fire suppression, to say nothing of healthier, greener forests.

There are many deficiencies in current Australian bushfire policies and practices, as illustrated by the increasing number of large fires experienced in all States in recent years. The answer does not lie in the throwing up of hands as suggested by the climate doomsdayers, or in the sort of measures put forward by the Wilderness Society; indeed these approaches will only make things worse.  It lies in strong leadership, from land managers who are prepared to put bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation in front of the razzle-dazzle of aerial suppression technology. It requires governments to put more resources into research and into monitoring actual bushfire outcomes, including the environmental impacts of large high intensity bushfires, and continuous feedback to management systems from real-world experience out in the forest.

This article was published by OnLine Opinion in November 2008, three months before the Black Saturday fires in Victoria.

Roger Underwood is a former firefighter, and a district and regional manager with the Forests Department in WA and is Chairman of the Bushfire Front Inc, an organisation dedicated to best practice in bushfire management in Australia.

8. The Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission 2010

The Royal Commission presented its final report in August 2010, after a most exhaustive examination of the issues surrounding the February 2009 fire disaster. The report set out 59 recommendations aimed at preventing a repetition of this disaster in Victoria. While many of these recommendations are specific to the situation in Victoria, several of them are relevant to Western Australia. This item summarises those issues that have implications for Western Australia


Recommendation 4

The State introduce a comprehensive approach to shelter options that includes the following:

* developing standards for community refuges as a matter of priority and replacing the 2005 Fire Refuges in Victoria: Policy and Practice

* designating community refuges—particularly in areas of very high risk—where other bushfire safety options are limited

* working with municipal councils to ensure that appropriate criteria are used for bushfire shelters, so that people are not discouraged from using a bushfire shelter if there is no better option available

* acknowledging personal shelters around their homes as a fallback option for individuals.

The relevance of this recommendation depends on what is understood by the term refuge. As was well shown in media coverage of the Black Saturday fires, a sportsground is an effective refuge in a desperate situation where the only consideration is survival. They are effective only if everyone in the community is able to get to one. In the case of elderly people, this may not always be so.

However, if the term refuge means a purpose-constructed shelter, usually an underground dugout, then the BFF believes this is a mistaken approach which should not be considered in WA.

Firstly, placing faith in such structures implies a defeatist attitude towards bushfires, accepting that they are going to happen and we can’t do anything to stop them. The whole thrust of the BFF website is to show the community that we can avoid large bushfire events by sensible fire management activities.

Secondly, past experience in Victoria has shown that there are difficult issues associated with design cost and ongoing maintenance of dugouts for an event that may occur once in a generation. In brief, they are impractical.

It is far better to manage the landscape to ensure that large bushfires never happen, and this is achieved by control of fuel loads.

Actions by local government

Recommendation 3

The State establish mechanisms for helping municipal councils to undertake local planning that tailors bushfire safety options to the needs of individual communities. In doing this planning, councils should:

* urgently develop for communities at risk of bushfire local plans that contain contingency options such as evacuation and shelter

* document in municipal emergency management plans and other relevant plans facilities where vulnerable people are likely to be situated—for example, aged care facilities, hospitals, schools and child care centres

* compile and maintain a list of vulnerable residents who need tailored advice of a recommendation to evacuate and provide this list to local police and anyone else with pre-arranged responsibility for helping vulnerable residents evacuate.

There is a mechanism for carrying out all these activities in WA, but little actually happens. This is an area where FESA and local government need to urgently upgrade their approach.


Recommendation 27

The State amend the Regulations under Victoria’s Electricity Safety Act 1998 and otherwise take such steps as may be required to give effect to the following:

* the progressive replacement of all SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines in Victoria with aerial bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk. The replacement program should be completed in the areas of highest bushfire risk within 10 years and should continue in areas of lower bushfire risk as the lines reach the end of their engineering lives

* the progressive replacement of all 22-kilovolt distribution feeders with aerial bundled cable, underground cabling or other technology that delivers greatly reduced bushfire risk as the feeders reach the end of their engineering lives. Priority should be given to distribution feeders in the areas of highest bushfire risk.

We observe that Western Power is already replacing some SWER lines with aerial bundled cable. However, the program appears to concentrate on areas where maintenance of SWER lines was due anyway. The priority does not appear to be given to areas of greatest risk, such as the Perth Hills region.

Recommendation 29

The State (through Energy Safe Victoria) require distribution businesses to review and modify their current practices, standards and procedures for the training and auditing of asset inspectors to ensure that registered training organisations provide adequate theoretical and practical training for asset inspectors.

In the light of the cause of the 2010 Toodyay fire, it would seem this is an area requiring attention in WA.

Recommendation 33

The State (through Energy Safe Victoria) require distribution businesses to do the following:

* fit spreaders to any lines with a history of clashing or the potential to do so

* fit or retrofit all spans that are more than 300 metres long with vibration dampers as soon as is reasonably practicable.

We note that Western Power has a program of fitting spreaders, but whether this is sufficient is not known. That several damaging bushfires have originated from clashing powerlines in recent years would suggest that more work is required in this area.

Fuel reduction burning

Recommendation 56

The State fund and commit to implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of 5 per cent minimum of public land.

Recommendation 57

The Department of Sustainability and Environment report annually on prescribed burning outcomes in a manner that meets public accountability objectives, including publishing details of targets, area burnt, funds expended on the program, and impacts on biodiversity.

The BFF fully endorses these recommendations for Victoria and notes that there has been a comprehensive fuel reduction burning program in the forested lands of WA since 1961. The target of 5% is a figure recognised by fire management experts in Victoria as being too low, but is likely to all that is achievable in practice in the near future. The 5% figure has no relevance to WA as the forest conditions are quite different. The BFF urges DEC to comply with recommendation 57, apart from that applying to impacts on biodiversity. Such impacts are well understood in WA forests.

Model effects on biodiversity

Recommendation 58

The Department of Sustainability and Environment significantly upgrade its program of long-term data collection to monitor and model the effects of its prescribed burning programs and of bushfires on biodiversity in Victoria.

While the upgrading of data collection is no doubt useful, the recommendation for modelling reflects a naïve faith in the ability of modelling to contribute anything useful to fire management.

Roadside works to reduce fire risk

Recommendation 60

The State amend the exemptions in clause 52.17-6 of the Victoria Planning Provisions to ensure that the provisions allow for a broad range of roadside works capable of reducing fire risk and provide specifically for a new exemption where the purpose of the works is to reduce bushfire risk.

Recommendation 61

The State and Commonwealth provide for municipal councils adequate guidance on resolving the competing tensions arising from the legislation affecting roadside clearing and, where necessary, amend environment protection legislation to facilitate annual bushfire-prevention activities by the appropriate agencies.

As roadside debris was a major factor in the loss of life on Black Saturday, this is a welcome recommendation and one that has significance for WA, especially in the Perth Hills region.


Recommendation 65

The Commonwealth establish a national centre for bushfire research in collaboration with other Australian jurisdictions to support pure, applied and long-term research in the physical, biological and social sciences relevant to bushfires and to promote continuing research and scholarship in related disciplines.

There is already a Cooperative Research Centre for bushfire-related matters that covers most of the areas identified by the Commission. What it needs is long term assurance of funding.