BUSHFIRES: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
COAG inquiry skirts the real issues
, February 12, 2005
A recent inter-government report into the 2003 Australian bushfires - the worst since 1939 - has ignored advice on how to prevent a similar outbreak again.
The recently-released COAG report into the 2003 Australian bushfires, commissioned by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), has failed to deal with the central problems of bushfire management: the need for prescriptive fuel-reduction burn-offs, and providing more manpower for fire control and fire-fighting.
The 2002-3 bushfire season destroyed over 50 million hectares, mainly in Queensland, NSW and Victoria; burnt over half the ACT; destroyed some 600 homes in Canberra; and took ten lives.
The report was given to state and federal governments almost a year ago, but was released publicly in late January this year.
It is interesting to contrast the findings of the COAG report with other recent inquiries into the 2002-3 bushfires, including one conducted by a House of Representatives select committee, which tabled its report into the bushfires in November 2003.National strategy
The parliamentary inquiry was chaired by Gary Nairn, federal member for Eden-Monaro, an area severely affected by the fires. It received over 500 submissions from members of the public and from interested organisations.
The inquiry also focussed on the need for a national strategy to prevent and control bushfires, but was boycotted by the NSW, Victorian and ACT governments.
Its report, called A Nation Charred
, gathered evidence in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and Western Australia.
The report strongly criticised the NSW, Victorian and ACT governments, saying inadequate bushfire prevention policies and practices, particularly on government land, made the fires worse.
Mr Nairn said government departments and agencies had allowed fuel loads to accumulate to dangerous levels and made access to National Parks difficult because fire trails were not maintained.
The report also criticised fire authorities for dismissing local knowledge and failing to attack fires at the earliest possible time, when there was an opportunity to suppress them.
Mr Nairn said hazard-reduction burning on public lands was "grossly inadequate" and volunteers' lives were put at risk because fire trails used to fight fires were blocked.
After reviewing the evidence, the Committee concluded that "the implementation of regimes of prescribed burning is the most environmentally and economically effective method of fuel reduction."
None of these issues was addressed in the COAG report. Instead, it sidelined consideration of fuel-reduction burning, by saying that controlled burn-offs must be conducted in the light of its effects on biodiversity (which is usually unknown) and scientific research, while it ignored the knowledge and experience of foresters, timber workers and local fire-fighting units.Report "shallow"
Roger Underwood, spokesman for the Bushfire Front - a group of forestry and fire-fighting experts from Western Australia, whose members collectively have had 400 years' experience in fire management - said, "The report's section dealing with fuel-reduction burning is shallow and inadequate and in some respects dangerous.
"They do explicitly acknowledge that fuel-reduction burning is an essential component of fire management, but the underlying attitude of the authors is clearly anti-burning.
"This is reflected, for example, in the pedantic view that ways of assessing the effectiveness of fuel-reduction programs 'need to be developed'. This information is already readily available, and any experienced forest firefighter would have been able to point out the difference between trying to extinguish a fire on a hot windy day in 30-year-old fuel and two-year-old fuel."
He added, "The committee is at pains to point out that fuel-reduction burning is not a panacea and they emphasise the (unproven) bogey of environmental damage caused by fuel-reduction burning, without distinguishing between a well planned and ecological burning program and simple 'burning off'.
"Worst of all, the committee has adopted the environmentalist position of opposing the concept of annual burning targets.
"The committee's academic position on prescribed burning fails to realise that an annual target is essential to allow agencies to budget, to implement a risk-management plan and to make ongoing adjustments to programs to make up for shortfalls or vice-versa."
He said that the report's bias towards the protection of biodiversity, rather than the safety of people and property, was reflected in their failure to address the question of the effects of fuel-reduction burning and large-scale fire events on water quality and water catchment yield. "These effects are very well known and have been documented for the ACT and Victoria in recent years," he said.
The first recommendation of the COAG report, a 440 page document, dealt with learning to live with fire. Its recommendation - that there should be a school-based education program of bushfire awareness across Australia - hardly goes to the heart of the matter.
The closest it gets to the problem of bushfire control is its recommendation that state and federal governments should "accelerate the research necessary for the characterisation of fuel loads and dynamics for Australian ecosystems (both natural and exotic), the characterisation of fire behaviour and ecological responses, the development of 'burning guides' from this information, and the compilation of this information and knowledge in nationally accessible databases." In other words, fight wild fires with a research study!
The fact is that political and environmental organisations such as the National Parks Association, the Australian Conservation Foundation and its affiliates, such as the Nature Conservation Council and others, are opposed to systematic fuel-reduction burning, and they powerfully influence state and territory Labor governments.
The COAG report specifically endorsed the process of preparing and implementing bushfire risk–management plans in New South Wales as "an example of good practice", when evidence given to the parliamentary select committee found that that those same plans prevented forest fuel-reduction, and contributed to the fire threat.
The consequences of a continued failure to develop effective anti-bushfire strategies was highlighted in recent serious fires in South Australia, where nine people died, and in WA.
A Bushfire Front spokesman described the situation in these terms: "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."
Unless the lessons are learned and alternative policies adopted, the bushfire tragedies of the recent past will be repeated.