The US Forest Service has identified the recent severe bushfires which encircled Los Angeles as being caused by the lack of hazard-reduction burning, as was the case with the Victorian bushfires which took over 170 lives last February.
The Californian wildfires took dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to flee for their lives. Fortunately, only two people were killed.
Mike Antonovich, the member of the LA Board of Supervisors covering the bushfire area, said, “The brush was ready to explode. The environmentalists have gone to the extreme to prevent controlled burns, and as a result we have this catastrophe today.”
His comment is not a case of being wise after the event. Months before the recent wildfires, the California Forestry Association issued a media statement which said: “Destructive wildfires have become annual events in California, costing Californians more than a billion dollars to fight every year. Driven in large part by an uncharacteristic abundance of forest fuels, catastrophic wildfires can cause significant environmental damage and threaten more than three million California homes …
“Forest management can reduce the threat and severity of wildfire, but fuel reduction and forest management efforts are often blocked even while taxpayer costs and environmental risks rise.” (June 4, 2009).
Difficulties and delays
In California, hazard reduction is difficult to conduct because the approval process for burn-offs is difficult to obtain, while environmental organisations regularly take legal action to delay or prevent them.
In Western Australia, the State Department of Environment and Conservation regularly conducts fuel-reduction burns, giving the state the highest reputation in Australia for bushfire containment.
In its submission to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, the department strongly advocated the use of prescribed burns to reduce flammable fuel build-up and diminish the impact of large wildfires on the community and the environment. This measure, it argued, would protect biodiversity and conserve the environment. (p.1).
Contrary to claims that south-east Australia faces unique bushfire challenges, the WA department submitted that “the bushfire hazard in the south-west of Western Australia is as severe as any region in the world. It is one of the few regions in the world that has the combination of tall forests, which shed tonnes of highly flammable material each year, and a strong Mediterranean-type climate with cool wet winters and warm to hot dry summers.”
It said, “Vegetation is flammable for three to six months each year during which there are periods of high temperatures, low humidity and high winds generated by unstable frontal movements, intense low pressure systems (cyclone remnants), deep coastal troughs and strong land and sea breezes. This gives rise to days of High, Very High and Extreme fire danger. Each year, more than 300 wildfires start on the public lands managed by DEC in the south-west of Western Australia.
“Weather conditions occur under which many of these fires, if not quickly contained, have the potential to develop into fast-spreading, intense, uncontrollable wildfires that threaten lives [and] damage property and the environment, and are costly to the community.”
In Western Australia, these challenges are met by regular low-intensity burning of all the state’s forests.
The result is that “the forest region of south-west Western Australia has experienced few large fires (greater than 10,000 hectares) since the implementation of broad-scale prescribed burning and the implementation of other fire-control measures following the 1961 bushfires.
“Since that time there have been no forest fires greater than 30,000 hectares, no lives lost in forest fires, few injuries, and only one instance of multiple property losses. In the past 20 years, the average annual area burned by wildfires in the south-west forest regions is about 20,000 hectares, which is less than one per cent of the landscape.”
To help Victoria recover, the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) offered “assistance to the Royal Commission in its inquiry, including the provision of DEC staff and other resources to demonstrate and explain procedural and operational practices relating to prescribed burning and other aspects of fire management in Western Australia that have been developed over several decades of scientific research and operational experience.
“DEC scientists, some of whom are at the forefront of research into fire behaviour and fire ecology in forests and other ecosystems, are also available to assist the Royal Commission.
“Scientists can present their research findings and explain the critical importance of developing and implementing ecologically appropriate fire regimes (prescribed burning) to protect life and property and to conserve biodiversity as well as achieve other land management objectives.”
Whether Victoria suffers further horrific bushfire losses will depend, in part, on whether the Royal Commission takes up the WA offer of assistance to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.