BUSHFIRES ROYAL COMMISSION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Lack of political willpower haunts Victoria
, August 21, 2010
The Victorian bushfires royal commission's final report into the bushfires, which took 173 lives and caused an estimated $4 billion in damage last year, has documented systemic failings which contributed to the disaster.
However, the report failed to address some of the crucial issues facing the state after the fires in February 2009.
Despite expert evidence that fuel-reduction burning should be set between 8 and 12 per cent of available land, the royal commission has recommended fuel-reduction burning of at least 5 per cent of public land every year. This was the minimum level recommended by an expert panel which advised the royal commission.
Even so, the proposed target amounts to 385,000 hectares per year, instead of the current target of 130,000 ha per year. At the new recommended level, the period between prescribed burn-offs would be 20 years, which is about twice as long as the maximum time recommended by forestry experts.
Recommendations for a substantially higher level of prescribed burning are documented in the report. Among those were earlier inquiries in Victoria, going back to the royal commission which followed the 1939 bushfires, numerous inquiries in Victoria over recent years, and the positive experience of Western Australia. The heavily-forested south-west of WA undergoes prescribed burning of between 7 and 8 per cent of its area every year.
In light of the fact that there has been a long-term failure to conduct adequate fuel-reduction burning, and most of the state's 8 million hectares of public land is overgrown and highly susceptible to bushfires, substantially more than the proposed target needs to be burnt off if further bushfire catastrophes are to be avoided.
There is no evidence that the royal commission thought through the implications of past failures in this area.
Although the commission recommended that "the state [government] be held accountable for meeting this target" (Summary, p.15), it studiously avoided holding any particular government agency accountable for the multiple failures which led to the bushfire disaster.
Some of the failures identified by the royal commission went back many years, including an unwillingness to confront the environmental lobby, which opposes fuel-reduction burns, and poorly maintained power-lines, all of which contributed to five of the major fires on Black Saturday, February 7, 2009.
Proximate causes of the high loss of life were the failure to deliver timely warnings to people endangered by the fires, lack of co-ordination of police and emergency services, poor roads in high-risk areas, and dense vegetation along country roads which made travel hazardous in emergencies.
The commission acknowledged that increasing fuel-reduction burning would be very expensive, costing millions of dollars every year, but made no direct recommendation as to how this large increase in costs should be met.
Fuel-reduction burning is a cost on Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment, which is fully funded by government.
One of the main reasons for the high death toll in the bushfires was the government's "Stay or Go" policy, which was designed to encourage people living in bushfire-prone areas either to stay and fight the bushfire at their homes, or to leave early.
The report discussed the problems with the "Stay or Go" policy, which encouraged people to stay in their homes when they were not in a position to evaluate the threat posed by fires. It is also unrealistic in that wildfires moved so quickly that many people were unaware of the risk until it was too late.
Many of those who lost their lives died in their homes trying to fight the fires or trying to flee.
The Victorian royal commission recommended retention of a modified "Stay or Go" policy, with many more options to reflect the varying circumstances facing people in a bushfire situation. Unfortunately, this will create even more uncertainty in the minds of people living in bushfire-prone areas as to what to do, and it assumes that timely information will be available in emergencies.
This information was not available during the 2009 bushfires.
At the present time, responsibility for meeting the cost of bushfires rests mainly on the shoulders of land-owners, through voluntary insurance which includes the Fire Services Levy. This is the main source of funding for the Country Fire Authority and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
The higher premiums required in bushfire-prone areas mean that many land-owners have inadequate insurance, thereby increasing premiums for those who are covered.
The royal commission recommended that the Fire Services Levy, currently paid by insurance-holders, be replaced by a broadly-based property levy, as most other states have done.
Other recommendations - including restrictions on rebuilding in fire-affected areas and non-compulsory acquisition of land in vulnerable areas - will have little effect on the tens of thousands of homes already built in bushland settings around Victoria.
The royal commission has given Victorians a wake-up call to the dangers of turning public lands into wilderness. But its recommendations to deal with the bushfire threat are painfully inadequate.