COVER STORY / EDITORIAL: Moment of truth for Bushfire Royal Commission
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, March 6, 2010
Over a year after the tragic bushfires which took 173 lives on "Black Saturday", February 7, 2009, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has heard compelling evidence about the necessity for fuel-reduction burning, an issue which prompted the largest number of submissions to the Royal Commission.
The interim report of the Royal Commission last August made only passing reference to fuel-reduction burning.
The Royal Commission heard evidence from officers of the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), which is responsible for management of almost eight million hectares (ha) of state forests and national parks, as well as from people from the corresponding department in Western Australia. The contrast was highly revealing.
Liam Fogarty, who is responsible for fire management in the DSE, told the Royal Commission that there was no scientific rationale for the DSE's current low target of fuel-reduction burning of only 130,000 hectares (ha), i.e., less than two per cent of forest under management, and he personally believed that the department should aim for 250,000 ha per year.
It emerged in evidence that, in the 1970s and '80s, the forerunner of the DSE was responsible for annual fuel-reduction burning of about 370,000 to 450,000 ha, at a time when the government managed only about four million ha of state forests. The area under its management has almost doubled over the past 20 years.
The rapid decline in fuel-reduction burning was, Mr Fogarty said, the result of "an anti-forestry, anti-fire management movement" a clear reference to the green movement within the political parties, the bureaucracy and the community and a reduced fire-fighting capacity in the DSE.
In a submission given by the DSE to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the bushfires last year, the DSE tabled an internal study which showed that, for prescribed burning to be effective, it would need to cover 2 to 4 per cent of the total area in "strategic locations", or between 4 and 10 per cent of the landscape for random burning. (Transcript, p.14761).
The DSE's approach was contradicted by the expert panel on land and fire management, as well as experts from the West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), including Dr Lachlan McCaw, who has spent 20 years researching bushfire behaviour and planning fuel-reduction burn-offs in that state, and Rick Sneeuwjagt who heads the fire management section of the DEC, and has been national chair of the Australasian Forest Fire Management Group.
Western Australia leads Australia in both bushfire ecology and fire control, the state having had no bushfire deaths for over 40 years, and no wildfires in excess of 30,000 ha. By contrast, the largest Victorian fire on Black Saturday totalled 255,000 ha. (Interim Report, p.55).
The WA department offered to assist the Royal Commission to implement an effective fuel-reduction strategy in the future.
Mr Sneeuwjagt spoke about how Western Australia had embarked on a program of prescribed fuel-reduction burning, taking on average eight per cent of the forests under management, meaning that, on average, forests were burned every 12 years, but significant sections of all forests were burned in low or moderate intensity fires every year.
He showed how extensive low-intensity fires actually contribute to both biodiversity and effective control of wildfires.
Dr McCaw examined Victoria's Black Saturday fires, in light of the WA experience. Basing his testimony on both the science and experience, he said, "Fuel-reduced areas several kilometres deep are required to reduce the intensity of new ignitions started by spotting, and under extreme weather conditions spot fires may start tens of kilometres downwind."
Examining several of the fires, he found that previous fuel-reduction burn-offs had significantly assisted fire-control efforts. In relation to the Beechworth fire, he concluded, "The shape of the final perimeter of the fire clearly indicates that the presence of extensive areas of one-year-old fuel burns materially assisted in containing the fire." (Transcript, p.14897).
He also found that in areas where there had been small areas of fuel reduction, there was little or no effect on fire intensity or spread.
Further, Dr McCaw found that, in some areas where fuel-reduction burn-offs had taken place three years or more before Black Saturday, the previous burn-offs had little effect on the fire, indicating that it had taken only three years for the build-up of fuel on the forest floor to become an issue. On the other hand, an area where a fierce bushfire had swept through in 2006 did not burn in 2009.
This evidence was not contradicted before the Royal Commission. The question now is whether the Royal Commission has the courage to challenge the green ideology and entrenched interests which cost the lives of 173 people on Black Saturday, and the pitifully inadequate policies of the Victorian Government. The final report is due to be delivered by July 31.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.