Better land management is the key to restricting bushfires

By Peter Moore, FAO Forestry Officer, Forest Fire Management & Disaster Risk Reduction

©AFR/George Mill6 January 2020 - In January 1994 there were four fire related deaths, hundreds of thousands of hectares burnt and fingers of fire crept into the city of Sydney. Parliament, the cabinet and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons, causes of death and the possible means of avoiding the same problems in the future.

On Christmas Day 2001, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales were fully realised. The lead-up to summer conditions had been drier than normal. December 25, 2001 was hot with temperatures well over 30C; very low humidity of less than 15 per cent; and winds from the west. These bushfires burnt nearly 700,000ha, with 115 houses and many other buildings destroyed and scores of others damaged.

And Parliament and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes.

Then in January 2003, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT were realised - in full measure. Leading up to the summer, conditions had been drier than normal. Bushfires burned into Canberra.

And Parliament, the coroner and the Council of Australian Governments held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes.

In 2009 in Victoria with even more tragic results; over 170 deaths, hundreds of buildings, thousands of animals and tens of thousands of hectares. And, there was a Royal Commission, court cases and reports, and so on.

With minor variations the above could also be repeated for the fire seasons of 1897, 1912, 1926, 1933, 1939, 1944, 1949, 1951, 1957, 1960, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1977, 1980 and 1983. These events are not “unprecedented”. They have been experienced before and are within living memory. This has been pointed out previsouly, noting that there was every reason the fires would be with us again. They are.

Australia is a fire-formed continent in many ways and fire is part of our landscape. The place and role of the invaders - people, plants, buildings and animals – must be mediated with the needs of our fire-formed landscapes for this uneasy relationship to be better managed.

Fires are events that have taken place across landscapes for millennia. They will continue to do so. People have direct and indirect influence on the incidence, impacts and nature of fires and are affected by them. In order to have any success in “managing” fire there must be a strong understanding and knowledge of fire in the landscape being managed. The measures to be put in place are those of sound management, informed by local ecology, shaped by history and constrained by current reality including political, economic, ecological and social reality.

Efforts to deal with the “landscape-sized” requirements to address bushfires and management of natural and human assets, and at the same time the efforts to incorporate protection of a particular species or habitat are not trivial. In most fire seasons, the uneasy relationship between scale, scope, management ethos, funding and political processes goes unnoticed. Bushfire impacts, however, cannot be avoided and the disconnected links are exposed by them, as is the case in the Arctic, the Amazon, California, Indonesia and Australia.

Firefighting is only one facet of fire management. Integrated approaches to fire management place greater emphasis on addressing underlying causes and seek long-term, sustainable solutions.

Resources need to be directed to support fire data collection and analysis which improves the understanding of fire causes, identifies existing management practices that encourage harmful fires and promote management systems that take advantage of well-established fire use. Analysis in fire prone areas needs to start before a fire begins.

Data on wildfires/bushfires indicate that 90% of fires are readily contained and burn approximately 10% or less of the total area burnt. This suggests that for those fires the current planning, management and technologies are working reasonably well.

The other ~90% of the area burnt is by ~5-10% of fires. These events are the ones that we see reported and include loss of life, damage and loss to property, infrastructure and also have environmental impacts such as Greece and California in July 2018, again in 2019 and now Australia. These fires are uncontrollable as they exceed the limits of suppression until the weather conditions moderate (particularly wind strength) or the fire no longer has sufficient fuel and the fire burns out. There is nothing that fire fighters, with or without aircraft large or small, can do to stop or contain such fires until conditions change. There will always be some wildfires that exceed the capacity for suppression. The limit of suppression capacity needs to be understood and factored in by communities, agencies and governments.

The dominant approach to fires in the history of developed countries has been to suppress them and undertake prohibition of fire use. The assumption is that damaging fires are due to a lack of means to fight them. The accumulating experience makes clear that firefighting is not a solution to the problem.

Fires are a landscape problem. They are not a problem resulting from insufficient or inadequate means of suppression but from the situation of fuel continuity and accumulation of fuels from vegetation and the proximity to those things of human assets (buildings, communities, infrastructure) and ecological values (particular habitats, species, natural features). The altered landscape has made the population increasingly vulnerable. The solution is resilient landscapes that balance the hazards, reduce risk and can be established and sustained.

In 2020 there will be a conference held in Australia, Women in Firefighting Australasia (WAFA), during the 7th International Wildland Fire Conference there were sessions on Women’s role on integrated fire management and the visibility, network, and leadership of Women in Fire, on Visions, voices and indigenous knowledge in traditional fire management and on traditional communities’ knowledge on integrated fire management. The input, influence, ideas and engagement of women and of traditional and indigenous knowledge in fire management is key both for now, post the bushfires in Australia, and for a risk reduced and resilient future for Australia and for wildfires in the world.

As one fire manager stated during the process of considering the disastrous wildfires in Portugal and Europe of 2017, “I don’t want more resources I want a better landscape.”

This op-ed originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

last updated:  Wednesday, January 8, 2020