Call for ‘urgent overhaul’ of bushfire management

Professor Allan Curtis

Professor Allan Curtis

With the immediate threat of the recent NSW bushfires abated, ILWS social scientist, Professor Allan Curtis, shares his views about how those living in South East Australia could better prepare for the increased risks to life and property from bushfires.

Professor Curtis is engaged in international research examining community responses to wildfires in the USA, Canada and Australia. He also draws on his own experience as owner of a rural property at the farm/forest interface which was burnt in the 2009 fires.

Despite the loss of lives and property in recent years, the devastation of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 and the Canberra bushfires in 2003 suggests that we have been relatively unscathed.

For me, the possibilities of major losses of life, property, animals and plants in major fires over the next 20 years are really frightening.

If we are to really address those risks, I think we need to concentrate on the causes of fires and the factors that are increasing risk and vulnerability rather than focus on the debate about the reality of climate change. If climate change is a reality, then the effects are already being felt. If not, then other factors are at work and these are largely being ignored.

The fact is that many more people are being exposed to the risks of bushfire as more people live close to the bush and the bush is enclosed within the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. In part those trends are the result of population increases, but they also reflect the new reality that large areas on our urban fringe are no longer being actively farmed and the bush there is regenerating. This means there are more people and houses to defend over larger areas; more houses surrounded by highly combustible fuel; more corridors to take fire into the suburbs; more people who have little understanding of fire or are equipped to defend their themselves; and more people who are absent during the day at work living in high-risk areas.

Victorian Bushfires in 2009

Victorian Bushfires in 2009

Too often our response is to focus on fuel reduction burns as the panacea.  In doing so, we ignore the key causes of ignition and opportunities to prevent and mitigate the impacts of fires.

The inquiry into the Black Saturday fires in Victoria found that above ground power lines and arson were major reasons those fires started.

Instead of addressing those causes, the Victorian government has focussed on burning large areas of the state’s forests to reduce fuel loads. That strategy may be popular with a section of the community, but fails to address key reasons for ignition; ignores the factors increasing risk and vulnerability to bush fires; and is likely to have negative impacts for public health and industries such as tourism and viticulture.

There is some good news in that recent fire experience has raised awareness of bushfire risks; findings from recent inquires have provided sound advice; and some key recommendations have been adopted, including those related to building codes, interagency cooperation and communication on high fire danger days. However, we are simply not doing enough. For example, in Victoria, there is no evidence of any powerlines being moved underground despite a government commitment to do that.

What might be some of the key planks of a more effective response?

  • Despite the wonderful work of the rural fire authority/service volunteers we need professional fire fighters working with those volunteers in every rural community that has a brigade. We need fit, young professionals to lead and support the volunteers, ensure there are sufficient staff to operate equipment in an emergency and to engage rural landholders in the preparation and implementation of fire plans.
  • Much of the resources of state agencies spent in large scale fuel reduction burns should be reallocated to achieve fuel reduction (via mechanical thinning and planned burns) to establish and maintain defendable space at the forest/farm or forest/town interface. This requires active engagement with landholders and townspeople and there will be smaller amounts of bush burned but there will be benefits from ongoing community engagement and establishing defendable space.
  • We need to allow landholders and local governments to clear native vegetation around houses and towns to establish defendable space (around 70 metres for a house) and to do so beyond the symbolic distances now permitted by rules that privilege biodiversity over life and property.
  • Insurance costs are beginning to reflect the real risks of particular sites but there must be a cost imposed if people choose to live in the bush and not undertake appropriate bushfire preparation. It may sound harsh, but governments need to limit the extent they compensate uninsured “victims” of bushfires.
  • There continues to be subdivision of rural land in bushfire prone areas. Planning rules need to limit the spread of our cities into the bush. New housing in rural areas should be confined to our villages and towns. In turn, there needs to be investment in the physical and social infrastructure that will make those villages and towns desirable places to live.
  • Ongoing community education is needed to inform people of the real risks they face in the areas where they live and how to manage those risks before and during bushfires. Approaches outlined above would enable the rural brigades and state agencies to play a larger role in that critical arena.
  • Powerlines are a major source of ignition. A large investment is needed to move powerlines in forested areas underground. How that might be funded and over what time-frame is a separate issue, but this must be a high priority and we must begin now.
  • Arson continues to be a major source of ignition. South Australia appears to have developed a model for effectively targeting known arsonists on red-alert days.

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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