EDITORIAL: Wildfires: the avoidable tragedy
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, February 2, 2013
Every Australian was deeply moved by the recent photos and live TV footage showing devastating bushfires which destroyed over 100 homes in south-eastern Tasmania, killed thousands of sheep near Yass in New South Wales, and narrowly avoided destroying the Siding Spring Observatory in central-western New South Wales.
Vastly improved equipment and technology, including fire-bombing helicopters, infra-red fire sensors and an army of incredibly brave volunteers, have undoubtedly saved many lives, but wildfires continue to occur with disturbing frequency.
Australians are entitled to expect that everything will be done to avoid such fires; but the response from the Prime Minister, the government’s Climate Commission and its adviser, Professor David Karoly, is that climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.
“Climate change has contributed to making the current extreme heat conditions and bushfires worse,” the Climate Commission asserted.
However, the Climate Commission personnel have short memories. The recent bushfires in Tasmania were far less damaging than the 1967 “Black Tuesday” bushfires which took the lives of over 60 people, left 900 injured and made 7,000 people homeless in the island state.
Nor do the recent fires compare with the 1939 “Black Friday” bushfires in Victoria in which 72 lives were lost; nor the 1983 “Ash Wednesday” bushfires in Victoria and South Australia, in which 75 lives were lost and over 2,000 houses destroyed; nor the 2003 Canberra bushfires which killed four people and destroyed 500 homes, nor the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires in Victoria which took over 170 lives, caused injury to over 400 people, and destroyed over 2,000 houses and 450,000 hectares of bush and farmland.
After every previous disaster, forestry experts and scientists have examined what might be done to avert such tragedies. If one could borrow a phrase beloved by the climate scientists, “the science is in”.
Governments are well aware of these facts. In Tasmania, for example, the government document, Planned Burning in Tasmania (2009), states: “The potential for fuel management burning to reduce wildfire spread and intensity has been documented in several Australian studies.… These issues have been examined in Victorian dry eucalypt forests by McCarthy and Tolhurst (2001), who found strong relationships between the level of fuel-hazard and fire danger rating versus fire suppression potential.
“McCarthy and Tolhurst (2001) also found strong correlations between the time since burning and the fire suppression potential, due to the influence of fire age on the level of fuel-hazard.
“In general, the relationship between time since fire and the effectiveness of planned burning can be summarised as follows:
“• highly effective at reducing wildfire potential — burning intervals of no more that 3 years;
“• moderate to high level reductions in wildfire potential — burning intervals of between 3 and 6 years; and
“• minimal reductions in wildfire potential — burning intervals of 10 years or more (due to the recovery of near-surface and elevated bark-fuel hazard).”
Other studies in Western Australia and elsewhere have confirmed these conclusions. What they show is that effective fire reduction strategies would involve fuel-reduction burning every six to eight years, or, to put it another way, that around 10 per cent of available dry eucalypt forests should be the subject of low-intensity fires every year.
The fact is that only Western Australia has seriously tried to control wildfires. Tasmania has not even tried.
According to the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, in the current year there will be just 27 prescribed burn-offs, covering an area of 3,400 hectares. None are in areas devastated by the recent bushfires. As the total area of land under its management is around 2.5 million hectares, the area of prescribed burns is a little more than one tenth of one per cent of the available forest land.
However, the Liberal governments of Victoria and New South Wales are not much better. In Victoria, the Department of Sustainability and Environment has a target of 250,000 hectares of prescribed burns annually, and more in later years. However, as the amount of forested public land is over 7 million hectares, the target is still only 3 per cent of public bushland — far less than the target recommended by the recent Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
In New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service Annual Report 2011-12 listed the area of fuel-reduction burning at less than 150,000 hectares in recent years. But as there are over 7 million hectares of public bushland, the burn-off rate is about 2 per cent — almost a complete waste of time and money.
If even half the effort which has to be put into controlling bushfires was allocated to fuel-reduction burn-offs, the destructive effect of wildfires which have caused so much damage and heartache could be very much reduced.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.