We republish this excellent article by Vic Jurskis originally posted in Online Opinion.
Millions of hectares were incinerated and Canberra was devastated by bushfire in 2003. A Parliamentary Inquiry heard from experienced land managers all over Australia that the problem was lack of mild burning. However, bureaucracies from ACT, NSW and VIC boycotted the inquiry and COAG set up an alternative process behind closed doors. They hired an emergency services generalissimo and two professors. One was the head of bushfire research at Wollongong University, who had told the Nairn Inquiry that prescribed burning was “threatening biodiversity”. Ellis, Kanowski and Whelan, effectively buried the findings of that Inquiry and decreed that Australians must learn to live with bushfires. Nearly 250 people as well as countless millions of animals have been killed since then and many thousands of homes have been destroyed.
Instead of mild burning across the landscape, we’ve had two decades of rapidly escalating expenditure on emergency response. Whilst firestorms erupt in the wilderness, there are futile waterbombing sorties, and armies gather on urban fringes to greet the arrival of the holocaust. Volunteers, who know from lifelong experience that the disasters are unnecessary and preventable, are put in impossible positions. Some have been killed trying to defend the indefensible. At the same time, the highly paid and bemedalled city-based generals are lauded as saints, whilst they over-rule the wisdom and experience of the real heroes in the bush.
The High Commands, assisted by green academics, have effectively delivered our Black Summer and assured us of more to come. They happily rely upon the Climate Change Religion to absolve themselves of responsibility. Meanwhile, our forests, which Aborigines kept healthy and safe for 40,000 years by frequent mild burning, continue to deteriorate into volatile scrubs. By early 2019, the unprecedented accumulation of explosive 3D continuous fuels prompted my prediction that all the bush from Bairnsdale to Sydney would be incinerated when we got extreme weather.
So far, this has been confirmed. The only substantial area of eucalypt forest that didn’t burn during Black Summer is a broad swathe to the northwest of Eden. When Mallacoota was devastated on New Year’s Eve, I knew that we were comparatively safe because the Border Fire would come to us from the south with relatively cool and humid winds across Twofold Bay. During the next few days, preparations continued for a backburn to contain the fires coming from Victoria. We had perfect conditions, with temperatures around 20 degrees and humid northeasterly breezes that could have safely carried a burn from well prepared roads and trails, through dangerously continuous and dry fuels, towards the uncontained edge of the fire. Unaccountably, the backburn was disallowed. A disturbing mantra has been repeated during recent megafires, that there is already too much fire in the landscape.
After the winds once again came towards us from Victoria, there was massive destruction of forests and wildlife to the south of town. Homes and infrastructure were needlessly incinerated. People in Eden were urged to evacuate. I continued cleaning up around the house. As the Border Fire approached, it became completely dark at 4 pm. There was a constant rain of scorched and burnt eucalypt leaves from far away. I patrolled around home for 12 hours. If we’d had embers from the northwest instead of ashes from the south, I wouldn’t be here to tell.
We were lucky because we didn’t get the searing northwesterly gales changing abruptly to southwesterlies that typically drive firestorms in unmanaged fuels on the south coast. But the explosive 3D fuel is still there in a long, broad swathe from northwest, right into the middle of town. Meanwhile, urged on by the Fire Chiefs who oversaw the developing problem for several decades, the Government announced a Royal Commission into Natural Disasters. However, there’s nothing natural about it, as I told them at their Mallacoota forum.
Now there have been several extremely disturbing developments which leave me with no hope that we will see a return to healthy and safe landscapes in my lifetime:
Firstly, the experts at Wollongong University, who have a strong track record of opposition to prescribed burning, announced that they will teach us how to do it. They’ve teamed up with fire behaviour modellers from Melbourne University who also seem to lack experience in either lighting or fighting fires:
Backed by eight years of CRC research incorporating thousands of fire simulations … [and considering] effects of climate change on prescribed burning effectiveness … the website can support organisations to make the best decisions about where and how to undertake prescribed burning for different areas across New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland.
Five years ago Professor Bradstock’s crew at Wollongong analysed records from southeastern Australia where miniscule areas had been treated – nowhere near enough to make any difference according to long-term empirical data from Western Australia. They reported that:
In most bioregions prescribed burning is likely to have very little effect on subsequent extent of unplanned fire, and even in regions where leverage occurs, large areas of treatment are required to substantially reduce the area burned by unplanned fire.
At the height of Black Summer, Bradstock told ABC Fact Check that burning makes no difference to fire control under extreme conditions.
However, his associate Dr. Matthias Boer, when formerly employed in Western Australia, had analysed real long-term data showing that, if you do enough broadscale burning (a minimum of about 10% of the region), it reduces the occurrence of megafires in extreme fire seasons. Unstoppable firestorms cannot develop in a well-managed landscape. This was evident more than two centuries ago, when European colonists at Sydney and Parramatta used hand tools and green branches to contain fires during the Settlement Drought. Back then, weather conditions were equal to the worst extremes of our Black Summer. Aboriginal fires were constantly burning in sandstone country to the northwest that is now wilderness. But it was open and safe country because of those fires.
Now Bradstock’s team is going to teach us how to best spend our scarce resources by doing limited burning at the edge of the wilderness. He has very successfully promoted his opinions in the media, and Wollongong University is a major beneficiary of $4 million funding for bushfire research from NSW Government. It disturbs me greatly that NSW Bushfire Inquiry seems to have Professor Bradstock as an expert advisor rather than as a witness.
Secondly, I believe that the RFS High Command knows full well that there are still explosive fuels to the northwest of Eden, which will inevitably blow up when ignited in extreme weather. But, instead of taking action to prevent further catastrophe, they seem to be using the climate cop-out and cranking up the propaganda machine for a pre-emptive spin on the next disaster:
The fire-ravaged New South Wales south coast could burn again this year if rain doesn’t fall in coming months, fire chiefs have warned. … areas of the NSW south coast that didn’t burn last season had above normal fire potential … NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers told News Corp that despite the devastation in December and January, an area north of Eden, out to the ranges and up to the west of Bega that did not burn earlier this year remained vulnerable.
Rogers reportedly told Newscorp that “There are still quite a lot of areas that didn’t burn, and that area is still really dry. We’ll be watching really closely … Rain had prevented the RFS from doing more prescribed burning recently”. One wonders whether the Commissioner contradicted himself or the reporter got it wrong. In any case, it seems that the academics don’t really care. Bradstock’s Associate Professor in Wollongong, Owen Price, reportedly said “The chances of a disaster are very small”. People in Eden aren’t the slightest bit comforted, and they don’t need experts with computers to tell them what needs to be done.
Last week, Commissioner Rogers was confirmed in his appointment and he set out his priorities for the coming fire season. Top of the list are better smoke masks, helmets, trucks and two-way radios; and working with farmers to reduce fuel loads. However, the RFS Bush Fire Environmental Assessment Code restricts burning so that it cannot be done frequently and mildly enough to maintain a healthy and safe landscape. It is effectively illegal for farmers or anyone else to manage the bush sustainably.
Thirdly, the title of the Royal Commission into Natural Disasters and the inclusion of a climate policy expert seem to point to a predictable conclusion. The Letters Patent direct the Commission to have regard to the findings and recommendations of other reports and inquiries, but when they finally published my submission, they redacted the names of Gary Nairn, who chaired the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2003; Ellis, Kanowski and Whelan, who wrote the 2004 COAG report; and Professor Bradstock who has been advising NSW on bushfires for many years. Their names and findings or advice are already well and truly on the public record.
I think that the outcomes of fifteen years of fire management according to the recommendations of the fire chiefs and academics are quite clear. But it seems likely that Black Summer will be attributed to climate change, the fire chiefs and academics will get more money to build their empires, and we will get more of the same.
You can read further opinion pieces from Vic Jurskis here:
You can read the Bush Fire Environmen tal Assessment Code here:
Go to page 28 to read the minimum intervals for Hazard Reduction. These ensure that effective HR cannot take place.
Great article Vic. The RFS library has a page of references for bushfire royal commissions & parliamentary & coronial inquiries. There is no evidence of any RFS insight into the resultant recommendations – other than using the inquiries evidence to find ways to protect their use of operations that worsen bushfires. And in this they are above & beyond world champions. Big fires = big money.