PARK WATCH September 2017 |

Victoria’s recent Parliamentary Inquiry into fire season preparedness missed the mark, says VNPA’s Phil Ingamells.

When Neil Comrie, tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s recommendations, reported that the five per cent annual planned burn target wasn’t working, he added an important point that seems to have been forgotten.

He said that a fuel reduction burn program shouldn’t be considered in isolation from all other fire management recommendations made by the Commission.

There are three stages of a bushfire – three intervention points – that each call for a range of strategies and actions, appropriate investment and routine reassessment of management effectiveness.

The first stage is the ignition point; the middle stage is the bushfire and its fuel levels; and the final, regrettable stage is the impact on lives and infrastructure.

The middle stage, particularly the business of fuel levels, is the only aspect of bushfire management that routinely invites public consultation and discussion, and it is the only management area on which the government systematically reports back to the public.

Every government fuel management report released since 2013 has recognised a failure to adequately protect the public: indeed, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s (DELWP) stated target is to reduce the fire risk to communities by only 30 per cent. Under Black Saturday conditions, when fires quickly rise to the tree canopy, the potential risk reduction from fuel management would be even less.

Also, most fuel reduction burns are only effective for around three to four years, so they can only be truly effective where frequent burning is feasible, such as in certain ecosystems or close to settlements.

The same fuel management reports have also acknowledged a failure to protect the environment. Around half of Victoria’s natural areas are already below the ‘tolerable fire interval’, the point at which any further fire will seriously degrade them. According to DELWP’s oddly cavalier assessment of the incapacity of its fire program to protect the environment, “the risks arising from this non-achievement are manageable”.

It might be good to look at some other options, as Mr Comrie suggested. Thankfully one such option has had some recent attention.

Managing a fire’s point of ignition

If a water-bombing aircraft can get to the start of a fire within 10 to 15 minutes of ignition, there is a very good chance the fire can be stopped in its tracks. For this reason, these aircraft are now sensibly called in by Victoria’s emergency management as soon as a fire is notified. Previously, ground crews were sent in to make an initial assessment, losing critical time.

Victoria has also increased its investment in deployment of aircraft, lifting annual expenditure to around $26 million. That means some areas are quite well protected now: in the Dandenongs area, for example, up to five aircraft, including two ‘Elvis’ S-64 aircranes, can potentially reach a fire within 12 minutes.

But not all areas of Victoria have that level of response capacity, and vulnerable communities generally have no say in, or knowledge of, where aircraft are stationed. Deploying aircraft is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as fires when they take hold: Black Saturday cost 173 lives and around $4.4 billion.

Unfortunately there has never been an assessment of the lives and money saved by Black Saturday’s most successful intervention. In an event that should be far more widely known, a helicopter put out a fire at its ignition point in Ferntree Gully. Had that blaze escaped, it could have brought terrible havoc to the Dandenongs.

If we increase our capacity for rapid attack across Victoria we can greatly increase public safety, and take the pressure off Victoria’s over-burnt native ecosystems. There are still things we can do to help avoid ignition altogether. The Royal Commission’s recommendation to bury power lines was largely dismissed, but a more viable plan might be to move towards local power generation, something many communities are doing anyway. Increased surveillance of areas where fire-bugs are known to operate can also prevent fires starting.

Managing impacts

We will continue to have bushfires, especially under a warming climate. So managing the point of impact on lives and property is another important consideration, and it is human lives that remain our overriding priority.

According to Emergency Management Victoria, there are only two truly effective ways to be safe in the face of a large fire: leave the day before, or take refuge in a well-designed, on-site bushfire shelter.

The Royal Commission saw that the need for approved design standards for private bushfire shelters was so compelling it put out an urgent preliminary report on the subject. Though those standards were quickly established, little or nothing has been done to inform the community. Private bushfire shelters could and should be mandated for all new buildings in fire-prone areas, and encouraged for existing buildings through grants, low-interest loans or other means.

The Royal Commission also recommended a buy-back of land where homes were lost on Black Saturday. Many people took up that offer, but since then any number of houses have sprung up adjacent to those abandoned blocks. Though mandated building standards have improved, building in fire-prone areas continues unimpeded.

And while countries such as Canada successfully employ compulsory evacuation in the face of fire, no such capacity exists in Victoria, where the right to defend a home is considered sacrosanct. One idea might be to only extend the right to stay and fight under extreme conditions to preregistered physically fit people with a defendable home and a private bushfire shelter. Anything less endangers not just the lives of home-owners, but the lives of volunteer firefighters trying to protect them.

Protecting the bush

If we employ demonstratively effective measures at either end of the bushfire journey – the ignition point and the impact point – we can reduce the incidence of fire, and contribute greatly to public safety.

That leaves us in a far better position to set up a planned burning program that no longer carries unreasonable expectations for community protection.

It will allow a fuel management program that has a far better chance of aligning burn plans with ecological outcomes. And it leaves us open to new and evolving research, including studies showing that some ‘fuel reduction’ burns are actually generating a more flammable vegetation type. It allows us to burn with more consideration for asthma sufferers, beekeepers and wine producers, all of whom are compromised by the current public expectations for fuel management.

And it allows us to trial Indigenous cool-burning practices, and align them with concerns for climate change, habitat fragmentation and pest plants and animals.

Unfortunately the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Fire Season Preparedness focussed almost entirely on the fuel reduction program. Despite the continuing lack of evidence as to the effectiveness of a hectare burn target, it recommended the re-introduction of the discredited 5 per cent target (it was a 50/50 decision split along party lines, with the chair having a casting vote). It also confusingly recommended continuing the current risk-based approach, an Indigenous fire-stick burning trial and greater concern for animal welfare.

It was not the inquiry we needed. Victoria deserves an evidence-based reassessment of all of our options, at all stages of a fire, before we face Black Saturday conditions again.