EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Bushfire Royal Commission ignores fuel-reduction burning
, September 5, 2009
The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has ignored the hundreds of submissions calling for a substantial increase in fuel-reduction burning, in its interim report issued last week.
In the months after the horrific bushfires in February 2009, which took 173 lives, destroyed thousands of properties and caused hundreds of millions of dollars' damage, there was widespread criticism of the fact that the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) had failed to reduce fuel loads in Victorian state forests and national parks, turning bushfires into wildfires.
The Royal Commission has admitted that the issue of fuel-reduction burning was the foremost concern of Victorians who made submissions. Of the 1,200 received, 485 were classified by the Royal Commission as dealing with "Fuel Reduction/DSE/Prescribed Burning", the largest single issue dealt with in the submissions.
The second most important categories were Fire Preparedness and Warnings, which were referred to in 430 submissions.
Further down the list were "Stay or Go, Evacuation, Refuges", which were referred to in 326 submissions and "Emergency Management of the Fires", referred to in 310 submissions. Yet the interim recommendations of the Royal Commission were heavily weighted towards these two issues, with the other important issues almost completely ignored."Stay or Go"
This is not to say that the issues dealt with in the interim findings are unimportant. The Royal Commission has rightly pointed to the foolishness of the "Stay or Go" policy which encouraged a macho culture among people living in highly vulnerable areas, to put their lives at risk to save their homes and property.
The "Stay or Go" policy was based on the idea that if people stayed with their properties to fight the bushfire, they often saved them. However, in the circumstances of February 2009, when the state faced an extreme fire risk due to high temperatures, wind and the effects of a long-lasting drought, most people were utterly unaware of their vulnerability to the wildfires.
The policy was found to be extremely dangerous for people who discovered too late that they could not fight the fires which were engulfing their communities. Many died in a futile attempt to defend their homes or flee the fires.
The paradox was that the professional fire-fighting services of the Country Fire Authority and the DSE were withdrawn from the fire front if they faced the risk of losing their lives, but untrained home-owners were left to face the risk alone, often with no escape.
The Royal Commission was also right to point to the utter confusion in the emergency response which left nobody in charge of fire management in critical instances, and many communities in complete ignorance of the location of fires which were bearing down on them at high speed with great ferocity.
Why, then, did the Royal Commission fail to make any recommendations on the issue of fuel-reduction burning, in preparation for the next fire season which commences in November 2009?
The issue was discussed in Chapter 3 of the Interim Report, but no conclusions were reached.
In the Interim Report, the commissioners summarised submissions received in the following terms:
"Many submission authors advocated the use of fuel-reduction burns. The submission of the Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia, stated: '... there is no doubt that wildfires burning in low fuel levels cause significantly less environmental damage than fires burning in heavy, long unburnt fuels'.
"Other authors opposed an increase in the current levels of prescribed burning. Dr Patrick Baker, of the Australian Centre for Biodiversity, Monash University, stated that: '... [changes] to fire management practices, such as the widespread adoption of high-frequency prescribed burning, have the potential to further endanger ... the native biodiversity'.
"A few submissions, including one from the Victorian Farmers Federation, called for the reintroduction of cattle-grazing in parks, particularly in the High Country (Victorian Alps), as a means of reducing fuel loads in crown land areas."
Between the divergent views expressed, it is critically important that the Royal Commission addresses the disputed question of fuel-reduction burning.
This issue has been raised repeatedly in earlier inquiries into bushfires in Victoria and other states and, consistently, increases in fuel-reduction burning have been recommended.
But so far, the preservationist policies of government departments responsible for administering state forests and national parks have prevailed, with prescribed burning far lower than the minimum required to reduce the risk that the catastrophe of February 2009 will be repeated.
Unless this is done, the wildfires will become a permanent part of Australia's summers.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.