After the devastating 2003 bush fires in NSW, the ACT and Victoria, a COAG inquiry steadfastly ignored recommendations that fuel-reduction burning could greatly reduce the risk of bushfires.
About five years ago, after an earlier disastrous bushfire season in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, News Weekly carried an editorial headed, “Bushfires: why the nightmare will be repeated” (November 1, 2003).
It drew attention to the fact that, although people with extensive experience in forest management had called for a regular program of fuel-reduction burn-offs, these had not been carried out, and, as a result, bushfires exploded into wildfires, causing extensive loss of life and property.
Studies conducted in Western Australia have shown that regular burn-offs of 10-15 per cent of forests reduce the amount of forest litter to a level where bushfires can be controlled, and do not develop into wildfires. Western Australia is acknowledged to have the most effective bushfire management program in Australia.
Although record temperatures and high winds were factors, the horrific bushfires in Victoria were a tragic commentary on the failure of forest management.
The response of many was predictable: global warming was widely blamed by Federal Government spokesmen and Victoria’s Emergency Services commissioner for the unprecedented temperatures faced on February 7 – ignoring the fact that extremes of heat and drought are a recurrent feature of the Australian landscape, and have been since temperature records have been kept.
As one of Australia’s leading historians, Geoffrey Blainey observed, they have been a recurring feature of the Australian landscape since Black Thursday in February 1851 when, he said, “half of Victoria seemed to be on fire”. (Herald Sun, Melbourne, February 9, 2009).
Compared with Black Friday, January 13, 1939, when around two million hectares were burned, the recent fires were far more limited. What made them more terrible than the bushfires of 1939, 1983, 2002 or 2003, is that they occurred in relatively populated areas, and took many more human lives.
A central cause of this is the growth of population in the near-metropolitan areas, often in heavy bushland.
Bernard Salt wrote recently: “Like other Australians, Melburnians are predisposed to what is known as the ‘treechange’ lifestyle…. Treechange is a growing lifestyle segment beyond the edges of many large cities. But nowhere across the continent are there as many people living this treechange lifestyle as there are around and beyond Melbourne’s edges.” (Herald Sun, February 10, 2009).
He showed that the number of treechangers had grown 50 per cent between 2001 and 2006.
Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby announced a royal commission into the Victorian bushfires, and promised that every issue will be on the table.
We have, however, been down this road before. After the 2003 bushfires in NSW, the ACT and Victoria caused many deaths and widespread destruction, a National Inquiry into Bushfire Mitigation and Management was conducted.
It stated, “Strategically planned and effectively implemented fuel reduction, usually but not only by burning, is the primary means of risk reduction”, and added, “fuel-reduction burning is the most common and most efficient method of fuel reduction for larger areas of the landscape.” (p.99).
By the time the national inquiry’s report had been considered by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), all references to fuel reduction had been removed.
This was no accident. In New South Wales, the government departments responsible for management of state forests and national parks are the National Parks Service and State Forests. In Victoria, it is the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
In each case, the departments have adopted the view that their role is one of fauna and flora conservation, rather than bushfire management.
A NSW MP, Peter Webb, stated that in the Brindabella and Kosciuszko national parks before the 2003 fires, “Only 0.3% or 2,164 ha in 2002 and even less in 2001, 0.2% or just 1,395 ha out of a massive area of 674,373 ha has been hazard-reduced. In Brindabella [National Park], no hazard reduction whatsoever was carried out in the last two years.” (January 17, 2003).
The web site of Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment states that, since last July, burn-offs have occurred in only 10,700 ha out of about 8 million ha under the department’s control, representing less than 0.1 per cent of the total area.
Numerous experts, including Phil Cheney, former head of the CSIRO’s Bushfire Research Unit, Ron Coffey from the Forest Protection Association, and David Packham from Monash University, have called for a change of policy.
David Packham, who has had 50 years’ experience in forest management and predicted the recent disaster, said, “The political decision has been to do nothing that will change the extreme threat to which our forests and rural lands are exposed.”
The challenge now is to reverse that policy – or Victoria’s inferno will be repeated.
– Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.