By John O’Donnell
As a private citizen, I believe large and hot bushfires will likely continue to have huge impacts in NSW on communities, infrastructure, forests, water quality, waterways, fauna, fish, air quality and heritage sites. It is understood over 1 billion animals have died in the 2019/ 20 bushfires, in NSW alone. I personally believe the current and continuing approach is not adequately focused on hazard reduction burning across landscapes, using cool burning.
Hazard reduction was the most common issue raised to the NSW Bushfire inquiry, I understand 650 submissions. Yet, I believe, it is not fully clear how much hazard reduction burning will occur across NSW in future years, many of the same processes are in place and there is not a lot of incentive for landholders to undertake hazard reduction burns. In many cases, there are inadequate landholder skills to undertake cool hazard reduction burns and also a lack of coordinated resources to manage hazard reduction burns.
Average annual fuel reduction burning in NSW between 2010 to 2019 was 153,291 hectares/ year over 27 Million hectares of forest in NSW. This equates to 0.57 % of forested areas hazard reduced per year and only 2.8 % over 5 years, extremely low rates. Fuel load levels are at high levels across forested lands, due to decline in/ low rates of fuel reduction burning in NSW, especially since 2003. High fuel loads in NSW and across Australia were and are a disaster waiting to happen whenever rainfall is below average and particularly when drought conditions extend beyond one year.
- Fire fighter and community/ resident safety is a huge risk issue.
- The continued approach to inadequate cool hazard reduction burning impacts on the health of forests, as organic matter builds up and soils become more acidic. Eucalypt decline is happening across wide areas of NSW. Forest health is continuing to decline, refer information below, and the forests are becoming scrubbier.
- It is of the benefit of state agencies, local government, landholders, communities that cooperative approaches to cool hazard reduction burning are developed and hopefully expanded.
- Supporting the conduct of cool hazard reduction burning is an important issue, at the moment there are unlikely to be adequately trained and experienced human resources and brigade units can’t be everywhere. Landholders, brigade members, fire fighters and responsible agencies working with the general community, politicians and public officers in local councils can assist in supporting the conduct of prescribed burning. Also very important is the management and containment of hazard reduction burning operations.
- In towns and cities, a risk-based hazard reduction approach assists in protection, but needs be complemented with a landscape-based hazard reduction approach.
There appears to be potential opportunity areas to increase the rate of cool hazard reduction burning across NSW, by refinement of management approaches and philosophy. It would be opportune to explore these potential opportunity areas, outlined below:
- Reducing fuel levels across forested areas to reduce bushfire risks, including for very dry years.
- Setting up greater funding for cool hazard reduction burning, thus in many cases requiring less funding levels for bushfire control activities.
- Establishing greater local control in planning and completing cool hazard reduction burning.
- Setting up collaborative experienced teams to undertake local hazard reduction burning on forested lands, particularly on lands outside National Parks and State Forests. These teams could include RFS, local government, farmers, other landholders, forestry personnel and contractors and the private sector (drone hazard reduction technology, experienced fire personnel etc). These same teams could assist in hazard reduction burning National Parks and State Forests.
- Setting up local meetings in each local government areas to identify improved approaches to cool hazard reduction burning and improve cooperation. This could include local government, state agencies, landholders, forestry sector, communities and applicable private sector.
- Reducing regulation and bureaucracy in undertaking cool hazard reduction burning.
- Increasing training for undertaking hazard reduction burning, best completed locally through RFS and local government, with assistance of land management agencies. This training would assist in bushfire control activities.
- It is important that hazard reduction burning is completed as safely as possible, in the right conditions and time of year. As advised by a bushfire friend, a fundamental rule for undertaking a burn is you don’t light up before noon or until you know the wind strength and direction has stabilised for the day and the burn is carried out on a decreasing Hazard. Late spring burning has its own set of risks.
- In some instances that hazard reduction burning can go wrong. Sensible rules to start hazard reduction burns need to be applied and lessons learned.
There appears to be specific potential opportunity areas to increase the rate of cool hazard reduction burning across NSW. It would be opportune to explore these potential specific opportunity areas, outlined below:
- Using the cooler season periods we have to the optimum to complete hazard reduction burns.
- Increasing Council involvement in hazard reduction burning programs and optimising Council personnel bushfire and hazard reduction training, those having slip-on bushfire units and other bushfire units.
- Increasing Aboriginal involvement in hazard reduction burning programs and increasing Aboriginal burning approaches.
- Increasing collaborative working together approaches to complete hazard reduction burning RFS/ Government agencies/ local government, farming sector, forestry sector and the private sector. Developing experienced teams to undertake local hazard reduction burning on forested lands, particularly on lands outside National Parks and State Forests. These teams could include RFS, local government, farmers, other landholders, forestry personnel and contractors and the private sector (e.g. drone hazard reduction technology, experienced fire personnel etc).
- Establishing an experienced hazard reduction coordinator in each local government area to tease out hazard reduction opportunities outside State government lands, progress planned burns and coordinate cool hazard reduction burns.
- Using hazard reduction burning programs to improve skills of fire fighters, these skills are beneficial for bushfires.
- Undertaking burning of strategic ridges in the landscape more regularly, using different ridges each year.
- Undertaking regular burning along access tracks, assisting in fire fighter safety and making hazard reduction boundaries safer.
- Undertaking burning along access track hazard reduction boundaries first before the hazard reduction burn, in those cases where it can be completed safely. This approach can assist in progressing aerial hazard reduction operations, reducing risks.
- Increasing the involvement of the private sector in hazard reduction management e.g. using experienced forestry contract teams used in bushfires, drone hazard reduction businesses etc.
- Undertaking greater use of drone technology using ignition capsules on a set grid spacing / ridgetops to allow cool fires to join up in the evening cool. Forestry Corp and the private sector use this technology. Having this technology across the state is crucial, with experienced operators. Ignition capsule drop location can be recorded, useful for assessing burns and planning future burns.
- Increasing small planes/ helicopters applying ignition capsules for hazard reduction burns. The costs of small planes is much cheaper than large planes and standby rates in bushfire seasons.
- Working across some larger areas when undertaking cool hazard reduction areas to improve efficiencies and reduce per hectare costs. One opportunity would be to allow unburnt pockets within burn areas to increase ground wildlife refuge, by planned grid spacing. Another would be to space ignition capsules on mid and lower slopes so cool fires don’t join up, leaving small gaps for fauna shelter and escape.
- Undertaking night hazard reduction burning/ boundary protection where conditions and resources allow. This could include heavy fuel areas. Working with the insurance industry and businesses to optimise benefits to those undertaken hazard reduction burning and reducing risks of bushfires.
In summary, fire fighter and community/ resident safety is a huge risk issue in NSW. At the moment there are unlikely to be adequate numbers of trained and experienced human resources for increased hazard reduction burning, brigade units can’t be everywhere, more resources and training are important factors. Increasing collaborative working together approaches to increase hazard reduction burning is a sensible option, including RFS/ Government agencies/ local government, farming sector, forestry sector and the private sector. Also very important is the safe management and containment of hazard reduction burning operations. In regards to potential ways we can increase annual cool hazard reduction burning area, effectiveness and safety in NSW, it would be beneficial for government, government agencies, local government, communities, contractors and applicable private sector to work through all potential opportunity areas to increase safe cool hazard reduction burning across forested areas of NSW. The safety of NSW communities, infrastructure, forests, water quality, waterways, fauna, fish, air quality and heritage sites depends on this.