A recent headline on ABC news highlights a friction between various scientists and the Royal Commission’s recommendations for a ‘rule-of-thumb’ 5% prescribed burnings strategy. After reading the article I was reminded of the inability to learn from history that was one of the messages I took from Danielle Clode’s excellent book The Future in Flames. We had been fortunate enough to have Danielle speak in our store whilst we were in Queensland and we’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed in contact, so I asked her a few questions:
In your recent book The Future in Flames you spend some time delving into our bushfire past. It seems that the bushfire response problem is something that’s been with us for some time. In what way is this new action by the government different than past attempts?
I don’t think the new actions are really very different at all. Every time we have a big fire the same issues get raised, the same things get blamed, the same ‘solutions’ get proposed. No-one seems to ask why these solutions have not worked in the past. The call for more prescribed burning is very common after big fires. What we need to ask is why these targets are rarely met. Is it because departments are not resourced adequately to do these burns? Is it because it isn’t possible to safely burn in the narrow (and shrinking) time frame they have available (when it is neither too wet nor too dry)? Is it because local communities complain about the smoke? Is it because of ecological damage? Or is it something else?
In your opinion, why does it seem to be such a difficult problem for governments to solve?
Fire safety requires a whole of community approach from the individuals living in fire-prone areas, through local councils up to the various government agencies and departments. That kind of co-ordinated approach is very difficult for governments to achieve, particularly for rare events which, in terms of public health, are not major risk factors.
What type of work and consultation went into the current response of setting a specific acreage of burn target? What skillsets and interests are represented in the commission’s reports?
I don’t think there is anything particularly special about the specific acreage of the burn target – it’s just a “burn more” target. Prescribed burning is a very effective means of reducing the area of forest burnt in uncontrolled bushfires, in certain areas and in certain forest types. Most of the experts who work in this field tend to be from a forestry or land management background and they have a lot of experience in forest fires. The Royal Commission’s expert panel also included an ecologist, but the forestry science certainly is the dominant field. Research into community safety and human behaviour in fires is much less well studied and that’s unfortunate because it is human fatalities and loss of buildings and homes that concern most people in fires, and these tend to happen in the urban/rural interface, not in the forests.
There does seem to be some level of contention with the ‘blanket-rule of thumb’ burn approach. What are the primary reasons this might not the best approach?
It would be easy enough to reach the required annual target if you went out and burnt large swathes of mallee country each year. But this wouldn’t be particularly good for the mallee and it wouldn’t make anyone safer. The areas that need to have their fuel loads reduced are the areas where people live. These areas are often difficult to burn and may not even by on public land or under the jurisdiction of the department responsible for prescribed burning. The effectiveness of prescribed burning is not about how big an area you burn, it’s about where you burn and how often. Other approaches to fuel reduction near assets may be more effective.
The Victorian Minister for Bushfire Response, Peter Ryan said careful consideration has been given to things such as topology and biodiversity, how does it look like this consideration has actually been put into practice? What question would you like to put to the minister?
I’d like to ask the minister to tell us when it is safe to do a prescribed burn in a mountain ash forest (where most of Victoria’s worst fire disasters have occured) or on the face of the Kinglake Ranges, where so many people died on Black Saturday. Even the most hardened forestry experts will tell you that it is simply never safe to burn these forests or on steep slopes. When Victoria’s tall moist forests are dry enough to burn, they do so with massive intensity and ferocity and their whole ecology is adapted to periodic devastating firestorms (on a time scale of centuries). We need other solutions to deal with these risks. Prescribed burning will not keep people safe in these locations. And even in locations where prescribed burning is possible and may help, there are important concerns around its impact on biodiversity. We are only just building an understanding of how fire and ecology work in most ecosystems – this is another area of fire research that has been greatly neglected.
The contention between the experts seems to be the only way media can report on issues such as this, is this the genuine state of play here?
The debate of prescribed burning is perennially contentious and it all depends on what you are studying. Forest experts favour prescribed burning because it reduces the amount of forest burnt. Ecologists are less keen on prescribed burning because it may be harmful for good ecological regeneration. Human behaviour researchers tend to be ambivalent about prescribed burning because it doesn’t seem to be the most important factor in keeping people safe and the community itself has a very ambivalent and sometimes polarised attitude towards prescribed burning. Scientists often reflect contentions in society and we need to recognise that they come from different disciplines with different perspectives and this often accounts for their difference in opinion.
Thank you Danielle on behalf of our readers for answering these questions. We hope the Commission examines the paper you were asked to submit more closely.