BUSHFIRES: by Roger UnderwoodNews Weekly
The deadly consequences of dismantling bushfire controls
, March 2, 2013
There is a basic mantra amongst the bushfire brotherhood: bushfires cannot be prevented, but bushfire damage can. Fires will always start. Our climate and human nature see to that.
But the unstoppable killer bushfire, just like the plague epidemic, is not inevitable; it is a product of mismanagement. Through good management the risks can be foreseen, foreshadowed and forestalled.
There was a period in the early days of Western Australian forest and bushfire history when it was thought that fire could be expunged from the face of the earth. All it would take was a good fire brigade. Every time a fire started, you would rush out, bells clanging, and put it out.
This is actually a good approach in a city, or in most farming country — but not in the bush.
It took 30 years, from the early 1920s to the mid 1950s, to demonstrate the two great flaws in this approach when it came to forest fires. First, firefighters cannot be everywhere at all times, and there will never be enough of them. Second, even if the fire brigade could be everywhere at once, no human firefighters are capable of extinguishing a forest fire on a bad day burning in heavy fuel loads.
The culmination of the “fire brigade approach” was the summer of 1960/61, when a million hectares were burnt in wildfires in the south-west of WA, and four whole towns were destroyed. This was learning the hard way — with a vengeance.
The lesson we learned in 1961 was both simple and paradoxical: the most fundamental tool of the forest manager is not the fire tanker, the bulldozer, or even the water-bomber. It is the match. This is because the key to minimising bushfire damage is to ensure that, when a wildfire starts, it will not burn uncontrollably. And the only way to ensure this is by reducing the amount of fuel before a fire starts.
In suburbia, fuel-reduction can be done by mowing lawns, slashing down the wild oats. On farms it can be achieved by sheep or cattle grazing, or by cutting paddocks for hay.
In the bush, neither of these agricultural approaches is possible. To reduce bushland fuels to the degree and at the scale required, it is necessary to use fire itself. It is the only tool we have — but luckily it is a tool which is a natural part of nature.
There is an analogy to public health management: a small dose of smallpox virus will inoculate a person so that he does not die of smallpox. In the same way, a mild dose of fire can be used to inoculate the bush so that the community that lives in and around does not die in a bushfire. And at the same time, the bush itself is protected, fire being a natural element of the Australian environment.
A highly efficient fuel-reduction system was developed in WA after the 1961 bushfires. The bulk of the south-west forest was burned by controlled, low-intensity fire every six to nine years or so, producing a mosaic of fuel-reduced areas.
It was a planned, deliberate campaign aimed at protecting the community and the environment from bushfire damage. The fuel-reduction program was backed up by an efficient fire-detection system and by fire-suppression forces located strategically in 12 separate district headquarters across WA’s south-west.
It was run by a cadre of professional officers, living in the forest, and with a unique role in society: we saw ourselves as the community’s “bushfire gatekeepers”. We could not prevent forest fires, but we could keep the angry ones outside the gate.
This remarkable system has been virtually dismantled over the last 15 years. Fuel-reduction burning has declined to less than 30 per cent of what is considered the minimum.
We now have more shiny trucks than ever before, and a fleet of aerial water-bombers, but they have not prevented an escalation of bushfire damage. Professional forest managers are mostly gone, district headquarters have been shut down, and the whole system has been shunted down the list of the WA government’s priorities. In other words, a system of land and bushfire management that worked has been replaced by one that does not work.
Why did this happen? There were several factors at work, but three main ones stand out.
First, we were victims of our own success. After 30 years (from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s) with no major bushfires, the people who held the purse-strings began to think that fire was not a problem. So, the resources needed to sustain the fuel-reduction program were cut back, year after year. Then the key districts were disbanded, and the gatekeepers were sent elsewhere or made redundant and not replaced.
The second factor was the insidious intervention of the political environmentalists, and their opposition to fuel-reduction burning. This opposition is not based on research or experience, but on a simple misapprehension.
Radical environmentalists assert that periodic mild-intensity burns destroy the environment and are causing flora and fauna to become extinct, and that the odd whiff of smoke drifting through the city is “pollution” and a threat to public health. They assert that prescribed burning is contributing CO2 to the atmosphere and is thus exacerbating global warming. And they seek a return to the discredited “fire brigade approach” as being the solution to the bushfire problem.
All of these views would be laughable had they not been accepted unquestioningly by many journalists, the community and political parties, with the result that support for the fuel-reduction program was undermined.
The third factor was that the authorities were seduced by technology. The water-bomber and the super-tanker would fix everything. Again the media, especially television, played its part. Water-bombing has its place, but is useless in the face of high-intensity fire, and aircraft cannot operate at night or when there are cyclonic winds — which are the very conditions under which the worst fires occur.
So, what is to be done?
First of all, I am happy to report that there is currently a high degree of recognition behind the scenes that all is not well. This arose from the damning reports, by former federal police chief Mick Keelty, into the Roleystone and Margaret River fires.
Significant positive changes have been made at WA’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA), now the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES). A new State Emergency Management Committee has been appointed with intelligent and dynamic leadership. Changes are being made, or at least are being discussed, within other agencies.
If there is one area, however, where I remain pessimistic, it with WA’s principal agency, the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). In my view, DEC’s jurisdiction is too large, its resources too small, and its leadership too remote from the bush. The loss of fire experience from the ranks has now reached crisis point.
Second, my hope is that the single greatest factor affecting human behaviour must soon come into play: hard-won experience. Sooner or later, people are going to see behind the hypocrisy of the green position and to ask the right questions.
Take one example: when a serious bushfire tore through long-unburnt forest in the Helena catchment a few years ago, over 2 million mature jarrah, wandoo and marri trees were killed — a direct consequence of green policy. (Just imagine the outcry if this destruction of trees had been caused by farmers, miners or foresters!).
And if, in addition to trees, people start to die, the human survival instinct will surely kick in, and the community will start to demand effective management.
The best news of all is that when this time comes, we will not have to start from scratch. All of the elements of an effective bushfire system for WA are well known and field-tested. There is no need to try out any half-baked ideas, but simply to call up the hard-won experience backed by good science that was once the way it worked.
It will not be easy to reintroduce such a system, because there are people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, despite its failure. The new system will require a new breed of fire-tempered staff to administer it.
But how much less painful it will be to start putting such a system in place before there is a bushfire disaster, rather than in its wake when the community is baying for heads.
Roger Underwood is chairman of the Bush Fire Front Inc., a Western Australian voluntary organisation dedicated to protecting householders, farmers and forests from the ravages of bushfires, and to promoting better management of fire in WA, especially on forested lands, and so reducing the impact and severity of bushfire damage.