BUSHFIRES: by Reg ReichelNews Weekly
Comprehensive approach needed to fight fires
, November 11, 2006
The extent and severity of today's bushfires owe more to current management practices than to drought and climate change, argues Reg Reichel from the Rural Fires Association of Queensland.There is an apparent correlation between increased bushfire occurrence and severity with the vast increases in area of publicly-owned lands since the early 1970s.
During this time, vast areas have been locked up in National Parks that were previously managed as state forests or as vacant lands.
An adequate and experienced workforce of professionals carried out previous management over these lands for conservation purposes, and this included the essential scientific use of fire through prescribed burning and fuel reductions through grazing.
Now these lands are essentially locked up to the general public (unless one is young and fit) and managed for preservation, whether it be for so-called wilderness values, water catchments or the diversity of elements of biological ecosystems.
Few would disagree with these worthy objectives; but unfortunately today's managers either do not understand natural resource management or are prevented from doing so by other pressures.
We now have a situation where most state forest holdings are managed as corporations, employing a skeleton workforce to ensure that monetary returns are kept in the black.
Gone too are the skilled fire-fighters and disaster managers who managed to control and extinguish bushfires in the past with the help of previously strategically-placed fuel-reduced areas within and around these forested areas.
These skilled fire-fighters understood dry fire-fighting methods. They did not have the resources that are available to today's fire-fighters who are, in the main, volunteers. There were very limited available communications, very few fire trucks, and no water-bombing aircraft.
Despite this, fires were dealt with quickly and methodically and most were contained to a small size with lower losses of life and property.
Starting and finishing times and where, what and when they ate or slept did not impede fire-fighters. Nor were they impeded by bureaucracy, risk management or in making decisions that had to be made on the fire ground there and then.Inexperienced
Today's bushfires, even small ones, are mainly "fought" from air-conditioned incident control rooms, far removed from the fires, by a preponderance of paid professionals - the vast majority of whom are inexperienced in bushfire behaviour.
The protocols of today's styles of incident management must change from being an impediment to the fire control effort to one that at least resembles some usefulness.
The endless chatter of two-way radios and the long line of "tabard-wearing important people" waiting to do media interviews suggest to bystanders that few are left to actually deal with the incident.
Super expensive aircraft (when not grounded by severe weather) dropping water onto flames "crowning" through tall forests on steep slopes, makes for good television, but is a waste of taxpayers' money that could be spent more wisely on fire prevention and preparedness.
In fact, it is a widely-held view of most experienced fire managers Australia-wide that bureaucracy is spending more money and effort in establishing incident control facilities for the bushfires that may occur than in preventing or reducing their likely occurrence.
Put simply, fire services are becoming more and more suppression-orientated than dealing with the essentials of fire management - fire prevention and fire preparedness.
The points the Rural Fires Association of Queensland would like to highlight as a better way forward in fire prevention and suppression management are therefore as follows:
1. Federal, state and territory governments must have a genuine and determined desire to put in place fire management strategies, consistent with previous lessons learnt, that will ensure that goals encompassing protection of life, property and the environment can and will be met.
This achievement will be seen to commence when each and every government discontinues to boycott inquiries and when departments charged with management of lands under their portfolios begin to address all bushfire management issues, and in particular the reduction of hazardous fire fuel loads, in a consistent manner.
Of great importance is the co-operation of departments with all other stakeholders and, in particular, immediate neighbours.
This direction must be guided by appropriate legislation, funding and staff trained in all aspects of rural fire management.
If these strategies were in place, lands managed for such uses as army training grounds, wilderness areas, conservation and National Park areas, forestry, and transport corridors such as roads and railways should create minimal bushfire threats and provide incentive for private landholders and local government councils to follow suit.
2. Local government councils must address their counter-disaster responsibilities and manage the reduction of bushfire fuel loads on lands under their control.
In some localities, councils should have their own fully trained and equipped fire management staff.
In other areas, councils should have close involvement with the volunteer rural fire brigades system to utilise the vast expertise of the human resources, equipment and communication systems that are available.
Councils should also be bound by statutory development planning laws that prohibit residential and industrial developments in bushfire-prone areas.
3. The insurance industry must also play a greater role in reducing the impact of damage sustained to property by bushfires.
This could be partly achieved by refusing to insure properties constructed in particularly high bushfire-prone areas, or by otherwise increasing the insurance premiums considerably.
Such actions would inevitably lead to more fire-conscious considerations when selecting building sites and would compel owners with initiative to abate fire hazards around their structures.
4. State and territory governments must protect and empower fire services with strong and appropriate legislation that will allow volunteer, auxiliary and career fire-fighters to carry out necessary hazard-reduction and other fire-prevention tasks, including authority to compel private and public landholders/managers to abate fire hazards.
An ongoing, fully-funded training program for all fire services workforces would ensure that fire-prevention tasks are implemented in a safe and environmentally acceptable manner.
Such a proactive approach may reduce the incidence of "dead heroes" sacrificed in combat against impossible odds during severe fire weather conditions, an unacceptable alternative.
5. Federal, state and territory governments must work with and through the Australasian Fire Authorities Council toward common fire management policy and consider graduate training of natural resource staff, in particular graduate foresters, with majors in fire management through the Australian National University, to ensure proper and balanced conservation management of all lands.
The Rural Fires Association of Queensland would strongly support any government that could put partisan politics aside and support all of the above principles.- Reg Reichel has university qualifications in forestry, and is secretary of the Rural Fires Association of Queensland Inc.