PARK WATCH December 2020 |

What do four inquiries have to say about last summer’s bushfires? Parks Protection Advocate Phil Ingamells looks at some eyebrow-raising recommendations.

Last summer’s fires ravaged the east coast of Australia, and generated four inquiries of particular relevance to Victoria: two federal inquiries and two state inquiries totalling some 1800 pages of reports.

For starters, here are a few facts and figures from the federal Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements: 

  • The fires, which started in the middle of winter 2019, burnt tens of millions of hectares across the nation over the ensuing months of what would come to be called our ‘Black Summer’.
  • Hundreds of communities were displaced, thousands of homes were destroyed, and 33 people (including nine firefighters) died in the fires. Smoke contributed to several hundred additional deaths.
  • Around three billion animals were killed or displaced, including threatened species and communities.

The yet-to-be measured financial cost is in the billions of dollars.

All inquiries clearly acknowledged the impact of climate change; we should expect more frequent and larger fires in the years to come.

It’s not possible to report here on every recommendation from these inquiries, but there are some important findings and, as always it seems, some omissions.

1. Reducing Bushfire Risks. Victorian Auditor General (VAGO) 2020 report to Parliament

This report from Victoria’s ever-vigilant watchdog was particularly damning on issues around the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP)’s fuel reduction programs. VAGO found that “With the exception of some isolated case studies, DELWP does not know the effect of its burns on native flora and fauna”. 

DELWP has been touting its highly-sophisticated measurement of the impact of fire on the state’s much-stressed native ecosystems – Geometric Mean Abundance – since 2015. But the auditor says “DELWP does not currently report against GMA, despite stating its intention to do so”. This is not surprising. It’s a complex measure of trends in the wellbeing of our native species, and unlikely to produce significant results till long after any damage is done.

(Another point the auditor might have made is that DELWP doesn’t routinely report on the effect of planned fire or wildfire on threatened flora, fauna or listed communities.)

And the monitoring of the effectiveness of DELWP’s fuel reduction program was also questioned, given that DELWP, somewhat bizarrely, uses its Phoenix Rapidfire modelling program to assess whether planned burns were effective. But that same program was used to plan the burns in the first place! So, of course, it can only report “success”.

Further, DELWP “… cannot compare the cost-effectiveness of different types of burn approaches with other non-burn treatments because it does not collect the necessary data to do so.”

VNPA has, for years now, been asking DELWP to assess the actual effectiveness, over time, of fuel reduction burns in different vegetation types (see previous articles and submissions).

Fire management is undeniably one of the hardest tasks for a government department, and it will get harder, but that’s no reason to allow a department to self-assess its operations. Appointing independent monitors might reduce some of DELWP’s workload, and perhaps encourage the development of otherwise hard-to-achieve, evidence-based changes in operations.

2. Victoria’s Inspector General for Emergency Management (IGEM) Phase 1 report: Community and sector preparedness for and response to the 2019-20 fire season.

This well-informed body produced a somewhat conflicted document. IGEM raised some important issues in the 350 pages of the report, but they were condensed into 35 ‘Observations’ and 65 ‘Findings’, before finally reaching just 17 ‘Recommendations’.

The state government was only obliged to respond to the 17 Recommendations, all of which it accepted. But that leaves the Victorian community with little understanding of how DELWP might respond to a number of issues that didn’t make it to the shortlist.

Among them:

  • “Even with an extensive fuel management program, bushfire risk remains and increases as the vegetation regrows.” (page 25)
  • “Studies in forests and woodlands have found between 2.2 and 10 ha of hazard reduction burning are required each year to reduce the annual extent of bushfire by one hectare.” (page 127)
  • “…a marked increase [in burning would] have significant implications for factors such as biodiversity conservation, greenhouse gas emissions and smoke exposure”. (page 127)

These and other issues weren’t reflected in IGEM’s recommendations. Protecting human life and protecting the environment are the two recognised objectives of fire management in Victoria, with human life (understandably) being the priority. But IGEM didn’t mention the environment once in any of its 17 Recommendations.

The state government’s response to one recommendation could be a worry. IGEM’s recommendation for more non-burning fuel reduction (largely slashing or mulching close to buildings) seems to have been interpreted by DELWP as reason to expand its highly controversial program of broad-scale clearing of roadside trees.

There should be a high degree of public accountability for this program, which can impact both biodiversity and tourism.

3. Australian Senate’s Finance and Public References Committee’s report on “Lessons to be learnt in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20”

This report recommended the release of federal funds for a number of fire management programs, including the establishment of a national aerial fleet of small and large aircraft.

It also recommended reversal of funding cuts to the ABC, and the establishment of discrete funding for its emergency broadcasting services.

4. Federal Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements

Some 85 staff (including 30 lawyers!) received over 1,300 submissions before producing this 600-page report within eight months of being commissioned in February 2020.

Its 80 recommendations largely related to state and Commonwealth liaison issues, and sensibly focused on “what needs to be done rather than how it should be done”.

It was strong on the climate issue: “Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective”.

Its recommendations included:

  • States should exchange information about climate risks, and establish interoperable communications.
  • A national aerial firefighting capability should be established (and there should be ongoing research into the effectiveness of aerial fire management).
  • Land managers should make fuel management strategies available to the public, including the rationale behind them (our emphasis added).
  • States should be consistent in collation, storage and provision of data on the distribution and conservation status of flora and fauna.

The federal government has already rejected the recommendations for a national fleet of firefighting aircraft.

Managing fire under a changing climate is already one of the most difficult tasks in Australia, but business as usual isn’t an option. The issues raised in the 1800-odd pages of these reports might be the shake-up our fire management needs.


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