Areas of concern in relation to bushfire preparation and preparedness for major bushfires across Australian forests, communities and infrastructure.
An opinion and ideas piece by John O’Donnell 9 October 2023
It is the author’s belief that Australia is not adequately prepared for upcoming bushfires. To be frank we as a society have learnt very little following the disastrous bushfires in 2019/20, especially in regards to bushfire mitigation, and communities, firefighters and the ecosystems are highly exposed over the coming El Nino periods. Disaster and insurance costs are going up every year and will continue to go up with current adapted approaches.
The author believes that there are ten main areas of concern in relation to bushfire preparation for major bushfires, these are outlined below.
Number 1 is inadequate prescribed burning and consequent high fuel loads across forested landscapes. This will not protect SE Australia/ states. For example, NSW is currently sitting on 3.3 % of forested areas prescribed burnt over 5 years, of the order of 0.7 % per year) or other SE Australian states. Refer to state prescribed burning and wildfire data in the link:
Number 2 concerns inadequate resilient landscapes and ecological maintenance burning across SE Australia, eucalypt decline in our forests is rapidly increasing, increasing bushfire risk greatly with dense forest understories (combined with dense regrowth resulting from intense bushfires). Australia is not adequately considering nor using US approaches for resilient fire landscapes, including low intensity burning and forest thinning.
Number 3 relates to the focus on bushfire suppression and big plane fleets at the expense of fire mitigation. There are large economic costs of this approach, this issue has been well identified by the Productivity Commission a number of times and not adequately addressed by government.
Number 4 pertains to an inadequate fire mitigation funding balance, noting that there is further disaster funding detail in 2020 Menzies Research Centre Strengthening Resilience: Managing natural disasters after the 2019-20 bushfire season https://www.preventionweb.net/media/82890/download: Despite this relentless commitment to inquiries, in 2014, a report released by the Productivity Commission into Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements found that government natural disaster funding arrangements had been inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable….The Productivity Commission lamented that the funding mix was disproportionately recovery-based and did not promote mitigation. It observed that the political incentives for mitigation were weak, ‘since mitigation provides public benefits that accrue over a long-time horizon,’ and that over time this would create entitlement dependency and undermines individual responsibility for natural disaster risk management.’ At that time, it said, mitigation funding amounted to only three per cent of what is spent on post-disaster recovery and recommended that the Australian Government should gradually increase the amount of annual mitigation funding it provides to state and territory governments to $200 million. Extra funding has since been provided, but it is uncertain what changes have occurred in relation to fire mitigation funding.
Number 5 includes inadequate fire fighter safety and access, with many forests dangerous for fire fighters, poor access, not maintained access, adjacent high fuel loads, ridges not prescribed burnt nor access tracks, breaks not burnt nor adequate water supplies available.
Number 6 concerns that communities/ infrastructure and properties continue to be at major risk, I believe that we as a society haven’t learnt the lessons of 2019/ 20 and earlier bushfires such as in 2003 and 2009. There is inadequate prescribed burning, grazing, thinning around many communities, schools, infrastructure and other areas. The ongoing risks and potential impact of bushfires on communities, critical infrastructure and properties for SE Australia remains extremely high, likely less for SW Australia and much of northern Australia.
Number 7 relates to bushfire risk management plans that are often generic, cover very large areas and not focussed on individual towns/ cities and often with low community participation.
Number 8 relates to inadequate understanding and addressing of all the contributory factors to the 2019/ 20 bushfires.
Number 9 pertains to the fact that there has been inadequate mitigation performance auditing of state bushfire planning, mitigation and suppression in some state jurisdictions, increasing bushfire risks.
And finally Number 10 relates to research directions not being adequately targeted at increased bushfire mitigation (including prescribed burning), sensible fire return intervals, forest resilience, eucalypt decline and increased bushfire risks, reducing high intensity bushfires, community safety and firefighter safety and research on individual large bushfires. At times there is a focus on reducing prescribed burning to miniscule and inadequate rates and denigrating prescribed burning, without adequate consideration of whole of landscape or community risks.
The National Emergency Management Agency convened a two-day National Preparedness Summit in Canberra from 25 to 26 September 2023 for nominated invitees, I understand 250 invitees. It is unclear how each of these ten main areas of concern in relation to bushfire preparation for major bushfires were considered, but on media information available, the 10 matters have either been considered in minor detail, or not at all, with bushfire preparation the responsibility of each state or territory.
There are many opportunity areas for improved preparedness for bushfires across SE Australia, including:
Prescribed burning, adaptive management and resilient landscapes:
- Much greater use of small aircraft and drones for prescribed burning to increase rates and areas of prescribed burning well above 1 % of forests per year up to 8 %.
- WA 8 % forest prescribed burning per year in the SW (60 years of research data).
- Minimum standards for prescribed burning for each state, need around 8% of prescribed burning of forests per year.
- Mild burning across landscapes to address eucalypt decline and reduce bushfire risks with dense understories associated with eucalypt decline.
- Mosaic burning over large areas as scattered annual fires and potential for this technique for areas away from communities, creating a mosaic of burning histories. Use of WA and AWC knowledge would assist.
- Reduction in extremely long fire intervals for prescribed burning up to 30 years, that often delay prescribed burning programs increases prescribed burning intensity and bushfire intensity.
- Better utilise time, resources, drones, alliances, innovation and other measures to increase prescribed burning extent. Get over excuses for reduced prescribed burning programs, using longer fire seasons and smaller windows of opportunity for conducting safe and effective hazard reduction burns, and get on with programs.
- US approaches for resilient fire landscapes considered for Australia, including low intensity burning and thinning.
- Return of grazing to greater areas of state lands to reduce fuel loads.
Bushfires and bushfire management:
- Change the focus from suppression to mitigation and suppression, refer ProductivityCommission findings, noting mitigation funding at the time amounted to only three per cent ofwhat is spent on post-disaster recovery.
- Improved fire fighter safety and community safety.
- Greater community protection focus/ fire adapted communities focus. The ongoing risks andpotential impact of bushfires on communities, critical infrastructure and properties for SEAustralia remains extremely high, likely less for SW Australia and much of northern Australia.
- Excessive intense bushfires continuing, increasing areas of dense regrowth and futurebushfires and not learning the lessons from large areas of intense bushfires. This isextremely evident in the data from the 2019/ 20 bushfires.
- Improved consideration and action in regards to all the contributory factors to the 2019/ 20bushfires.
- Bushfire risk management plans focussed on individual towns/ cities with greater communityparticipation, with plans and mitigation updated annually.
- Greater use of mitigation performance auditing, including by the Commonwealth of statebushfire planning, mitigation and suppression.
- Review of research and research directions and funding to improve forest resilience acrosslandscapes, community and fire fighter safety and sensible fire intervals.
- Further consideration of extent of subsidisation by the Commonwealth funding to states formajor bushfires where SE Australian states undertake miniscule areas of prescribed burning,not meeting minimum standards.
- Sound listening effectively to skilled bushfire personnel, including many retired personnel withthe street smarts prepared to give up their time to safeguard Australia.