By Christine Finlay, PhD bushfire management UNSW, BA Hons disaster management JCU and BA UNSW
As bushfires peaked in the Australian summer of 2019-20, we heard a lot of the myth of climate change as the prime cause of the flames’ spread and severity. In this article I address climate change but also a second myth, mostly promoted by politicians and leaders of bushfire management organisations: that an appropriate response is to promise a thorough review of bushfire management (via royal commissions or otherwise) while pre-emptively pouring yet more taxpayer dollars into fire-fighting organisations and aerial firefighting, in particular. This is the latest instance of a repeated pattern, more likely to worsen rather than improve the situation.
It is true concerned citizens, such as those reading this article, have raised objections to these myths, citing the need for more controlled burns; more use of local knowledge; more empowerment of volunteers; routine rapid and intense attack to stop fires building into disasters, and the problems caused by our ever-expanding system of national parks. Yet such critiques gain small traction in the mainstream media and are completely swamped when fire seasons bring sensationalised coverage of conflagrations, wherever they may be across our vast country. The frustration at this lack of media coverage then leads to calls for more forceful communication of the issues, and more political action.
In this article I will lay out some of the evidence to buttress these critiques, but I also believe submitting the pure persuasive power of scientific evidence to government inquiries will fail unless it is part of a much broader strategy. In my work over 20 years I found nothing will change until we change the institutions that have grown to dominate Australian bushfire management: the very institutions that both recycle the myths described above, and which benefit from the power and resources governments then release to them.
For those with faith that the current round of investigations will produce results, I point out that over the last 81 years coronial and parliamentary inquiries and four royal commissions in the main faulted bushfire operations at the senior level. These inquiries recommended more fuel reduction, followed by more aggressive attack of potentially dangerous fires to stop them growing to unstoppable intensity; more use of local knowledge; and improved communication and logistics.
New legislation made hazard reduction burning more difficult than ever before.
However, despite the increased funding that inevitably results from every cycle of disaster and inquiry, bushfire management and other responsible institutions showed little interest in implementing the crucial recommendations in the way they were intended, even refusing to participate in the 2003 House of Representatives and 2009 Senate bushfire inquiries. According to the House of Representatives report:
Given the devastation of the summer 2003 wildfires in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, it is regrettable that we did not hear from the agencies with responsibilities for land management, fire prevention and fire suppression in those states and territory. Their respective political leaderships chose not to contribute to the inquiry, claiming a lack of resources. It was noted however, by Committee members and witnesses to the inquiry, that resources were available from many of those agencies to attend and take notes at much of the public hearings.
I have recently repackaged the evidence and arguments around bushfire management in the course of preparing a submission to the NSW Government’s independent expert inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season, and so I am here drawing principally on NSW as an example, while also making reference to various federal organisations (the submission was also presented to the Federal Royal Commission). Failing the test of independence, the NSW Government appointed a three-person panel to run its inquiry (all officials from some of the key institutions that form part of the problem and not the solution), a former police commissioner, a former Chief Scientist, rounded out with the serving chair of the State’s planning commission. But that is only one part of a broader picture.
Understanding that picture began for me when I did my PhD in Bushfire Management at the University of New South Wales. As part of my research I found that fires in buildings were common news events, but until the 1920s stories on bushfires were rare. This change to bushfires regularly making the news followed new no-burn government policy with ever-tightening restrictions on hazard reductions, a process that continues until the present day.
After the no-burn policy’s introduction, the findings of coronial inquiries based on evidence from the then Department of Bushfire Services gave rise to abandoning the strongest chances of putting out fires when they are at low intensity (dawn or night). Now it is standard procedure for concentrated attacks when flames are too hot to extinguish.
Bushfires have burnt increasingly hotter and more frequently ever since. With increasingly serious wildfires to fight, funding to bushfire services grew. At its 1949 inception, total funds for the NSW Department of Bushfire Services amounted to a few hundred thousand pounds for a handful of staff. During the time of NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg AO, annual funding for that organisation rose from $69 million in 1995-96 to $179m in 2001-02. By 2018-19 the State Government contributed $357m, topped up by a blank cheque arrangement with the Federal Government, to pay for firefighting once a state of emergency is likely. This latter arrangement led to a further $44m contribution in that year.
And so, the rate of preventative burning has plummeted in the last decade.
New legislation in 1997 gave more power over hazard reduction to other bureaucratic players, including the Environment Protection Authority, the then Department of Land and Water Conservation and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW. This made it more difficult for volunteer firefighters to hazard reduce than ever before. There is a corresponding array of organisations at the Federal level. In 2001, bushfire service heads also set up the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (AFAC).
The Federal Government, member subscriptions and “trading transactions” fund AFAC. Bushfire and other emergency management heads dominate AFAC’s council, and revenue reached $41m in 2018-19. AFAC is a sponsor of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre or NAFC, which undertakes aerial firefighting. AFAC, NAFC and the bushfire services are the most significant customers of private contractors including Chubb Australasia, Erickson Aircranes and Fire and Safety Australia. Bushfire services also control funding for bushfire research at university departments and CSIRO in areas including agriculture, environmental science, botany, bushfire science, social science, forestry and emergency response.
At the outset, AFAC controlled research direction and funding of the nation’s new bushfire headquarters, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), when it opened in 2001. The CRC then took over, to decide bushfire research direction and funding. The CRC’s office was next door and on the same floor as NAFC and AFAC at 340 Albert Street, Melbourne. The CRC has been restructured to become the $230 million federally funded Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Bushfire services, AFAC and NAFC retained control of the new research centre’s funding, which remained in its 340 Albert Street office next door to AFAC and NAFC. Fires worsened with CRC strategies based on pages of calculations and anti-cool burning recommendations, while wildlife survived and strategies succeeded in regions using indigenous Australian methods.
Indigenous Firestick Farming
Readers may be familiar with indigenous firestick farming practices, which are now more widely understood than they were last century thanks to the impact of Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012) and the popularity of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014). It should be indisputable that indigenous burning prior to the arrival of Europeans reduced the load of combustible fuel available for bushfires. However, what we observe is the paid bushfire hierarchy’s determination to downplay the impact of ending firestick farming and the current regimes’ restrictions on preventative burning. The CRC has campaigned against historical, tree-ring, indigenous Australian and earth core evidence that indigenous methods prevent intense fires, even though there is no evidence of their occurrence in the thousands of years before European colonisation. And so, the rate of preventative burning has plummeted in the last decade.
Onwards from the 1939 Victorian Royal Commission, the foremost recommendation of parliamentary and coronial inquiries, inquests and three other royal commissions was for more fuel reduction. However, evidence from official carbon accounting confirms fuel reduction in Australia fell drastically from 2010 to less than one per cent per annum in states and territories except WA and the NT. This apocalyptic drop showed no insight into the Victorian Royal Commission’s 2010 recommendation for a sharp increase, to a minimum of five per cent per annum of the relevant land. Less than one per cent gives almost zero protection.
My first experience of the difficulties on the ground was after the 1993-04 NSW fires, as I gathered data for my PhD. Volunteers often complained of shambolic directives from bushfire paid hierarchy and that red tape made adequate fuel reduction almost impossible.
Red tape made adequate fuel reduction almost impossible.
If the red tape could be satisfied (mandating methods very different to the easy to do Indigenous approach), fuel reduction methods were almost impossibly arduous and logistically difficult. Several fire trucks needed to be present (today in NSW six are required, with some crews put up at motels). Rugged up in overalls under thick woollen long coats, boots and heavy socks, we hauled 38mm thick water-filled fire hoses (weighing about 3kg per metre) up and down ridges to extinguish fuel reduction fires. Even though fires were low intensity, others raked leaf litter into the fires to keep a fuel-free buffer zone around the edges. I took part in two and realised that a day’s backbreaking, hot dirty work was so labour-intensive it was set up to fail. In one day, a large team reduced fuel in an area the size of three football fields. The difficulties have only multiplied since then.
Firestorms in Australia
Eminent bushfire scientist, David Packham OAM described how his CSIRO Forestry Division studied Allied firebombing about 60 years ago after seeing the potential for firestorms if cool burning was not fully understood. The initial research into the dynamics of firestorms arose when they became a game-changing weapon in WWII, as evidenced by firebombing attacks that crippled Dresden and Tokyo. Aware of firestorm’s deadly potential, the CSIRO unit was looking for a way to safely reduce fuel loads as high fuel loads were increasingly causing bad fires. Packham said:
We were concerned our research on cool burning could result in firestorms and so contacted Reg Taylor, a meteorological physicist, then world renowned as the foremost authority on the subject. We flew aircraft through cool-burning fires to measure turbulence, atmospheric movement and temperature. This gave us the cut-off points in flame intensity when aircraft become ineffective and unsafe for firefighting.David Packham OAM
With decades of data gathered from fieldwork, CSIRO’s Forestry Division found aerial water bombing and ground crew attack are ineffective in fires burning over 7.5 tonnes of fuel per hectare (t/ha) in extreme conditions. Ground crew may also lose their lives and overhead aircraft may crash. Despite this and decades of self-evident media footage of aircraft waterbombing to no avail and crashing, bushfire paid hierarchy routinely divert government funding to deploy fire trucks and aircraft to bad fires.
A primary myth is that climate change is driving higher temperatures.
The limits to effectiveness and risks from aerial operations were sadly demonstrated when a Hercules C-130 crashed in the Snowy Mountains on January 23, 2020, killing its three crew. The C-130 left Richmond Airport just after noon and crashed as it banked left when its left wing hit a tree.
Allegations that bushfire managers grounded aircraft until fires were too dangerously intense for effective attack were made to the Commonwealth Parliament’s A Nation Charred inquiry in 2003:
There was nil cloud, there was no smoke and the fire started spotting (note: spotting indicates increasing fire intensity and spread, so the fire was on the verge of becoming unstoppable). The aircraft were kept on the ground… This happened on quite a few occasions.
The pilots objected very strongly…
I heard of an instance where the Premier went up to Mount Beauty and they called the aircraft across there, put on a massive demonstration to satisfy him and they all came back again. They did not bother doing any firefighting; they were not allowed to.
Weather and Climate
A primary myth is that climate change is driving higher temperatures, which increases drought that increases firestorm intensity. In fact, causation runs in the other direction: mismanagement of our forests—particularly Alpine forests—has led to catastrophic high-intensity burns, increasing local temperatures and reducing local precipitation. Satellite data analysis shows inland deforestation causes inland drought, with the finding that air passing over inland tropical and sub-tropical forests produces about 60 per cent more rain than air passing over land with little vegetation. Australia’s bad fires have profoundly changed long-term weather to make future fires more frequent and more intense, particularly in inland regions where fires burn the hottest.
As the infernos have grown, so have bushfire service budgets…
In alpine terrain, fires burn the hottest because cold, dry conditions slow microbial activity that turns leaf litter layers to non-combustible soil. For a fallen alpine leaf to decompose into mineral soil takes up to 28 years and alpine forests drop about 1t/ha of fuel a year. The photograph (below) shows no sign of rainmaking transpiration in dead Alpine Ash forest a year after the 2003 fires from the Snowy Mountains hit Canberra.
In 2004, I rode for a day-and-a-half through one corner of the 700 sq km dead forest, amid a powerful stench resembling an arsenal of oil refineries. Dead trees stood in a thick glossy crust of charcoal that was as waterproof as a Teflon pan, so even gentle rain caused flash floods of brown sludge, stripped topsoil and ruined drinking supplies. There was a groundcover of yellow and white everlasting daisies, but no animals: not an ant, fly, earthworm, lizard or bird.
This towering dead forest once transpired profusely to make inland rain and was the alpine region’s principal rainmaker, acting like a giant sponge to hold moisture in the ground and the air around it. In 2003, the ash’s moist microclimate reduced the intensity so flames could not crown (a crown fire is when fire burns and spreads through the crown or canopy of trees) but the heat still killed the forest. It took 17 years for a dense understorey of 2m to 6m tall juvenile trees to grow beneath the giant skeletons. These trees weigh about 2,000 tonnes per hectare. Why the region is locked into an ever-worsening drought/firestorm/drought cycle is self-evident. Climate change did not cause this.
The 2019-20 fires vaporised wildlife and this historic shepherd’s hut in the Snowy Mountain region in 2019-20. Behind the hut you can see the fuel loads that fed the 60m-70m flames, near where the C130 Hercules crashed and a fire tornado developed over Mt Coree. This in turn was the result of the 2003 fires which left behind the bleached dead trees you can see in the background and destroyed about 700 sq km of rainmaking, air conditioning ash forest. Alpine Ash are the lungs and water-supplying life source for local farmers now struggling with trauma, and no fences or income. After 2003, the 2m-6m high understorey grew under the vast dead forest – forming 700 sq km of fuel loads of up to 200-400 t/ha.
The stinking blackened stumps of this forest are now locked into cyclical firestorms because the skins of the future juvenile understorey are too thin to withstand a cool burn until they are about 15 years old. This is a similar scenario to the aftermath of the 1987 and 1939 fires. Local farmers saved the forest then with mosaic burning combined with grazing to protect their vital water supply. The forest’s transpiration acts as a pump to draw rainmaking clouds from the ocean. Rural people rightly complain that because they are locked out of grazing the area, bad drought follows each bad fire season.
Except for WA, NT and First Nation-managed land, bushfire and national park red tape and legislation have made it almost impossible to prevent apocalypses such as coastal NSW 1993-94, the Snowy Mountains and Canberra 2003, Dubbo NSW 2013, Yarloop WA 2016, Australia 2019-20, and so on. This is just part of a large body of evidence showing a pattern of ever-more frequent and intense fires, as well as ever-lessening fuel reductions, as well as the institutions remaining locked into strategies that a succession of inquiries have said should be changed. We must break out of the cycle maintained by these institutions.
As the infernos have grown, so have bushfire service budgets, power bases, and the suppression of the large bodies of empirically proven and re-proven knowledge of how to prevent bad fires on a modest budget. Parliaments should use their authority to challenge and change these institutions.