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Bushfire inquiry fiddles while Australia burns

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WHEN Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that there would be a Royal Commission into this year’s bushfires in New South Wales and Victoria, my first reaction was ‘It’s not needed’. People who know about bushfires already knew precisely what caused the disaster and what needs to be done to ensure it does not happen again.

However, I did see some value in allowing people in affected communities to get things off their chest, and I thought it might be a timely opportunity for experts in bushfire science and operations to make a few points and to highlight the lamentable deficiencies in NSW and Victorian bushfire management.

Finally, I thought (naively), here is a chance for the commissioners to study and summarise the many excellent reviews and inquiry recommendations arising out of bushfire disasters in Australia over the last 15 years or so.

Then I saw the commission’s terms of reference. My heart dropped. These were clearly designed to provide the PM and the state bushfire jurisdictions with a way of escaping accountability. The focus would be on process, not outcomes, on administration, not operations, on response, not mitigation. My heart dropped even further when I saw the make-up of the three-person commission. It was the worst possible combination. A retired Air Force officer, a green academic and a lawyer. Not one of them had an iota of personal experience in bushfire science, history, prevention, control or administration.

I tried to remain optimistic. I read submissions to the commission from respected bushfire specialists and was impressed: they were sensible, practical and focused on a better future. The commission had placed before it an encyclopaedia of bushfire wisdom, the fruits of hundreds of years of hard-won experience. My colleagues and I had worked for several weeks on the Bushfire Front’s submission, and we were proud of it. It was based on the realities of bushfire occurrence in Australia, an intimate understanding of bushfire history, the facts of bushfire science and hands-on practical experience. We demonstrated what worked and why it worked and why failed approaches failed. We provided a detailed blueprint for effective bushfire management in Australia.

‘The commission will read all this, and be guided by it,’ I thought.

I was also convinced that the commission would call as witnesses the cream of bushfire scientists and bushfire managers in Australia to help them analyse, debate and decide on the best way ahead. People with international reputations such as Phil Cheney, David Packham, Neil Burrows, Tony Bartlett and Rick Sneeuwjagt. Although it worried me that the Commission was not assisted by anyone with dinkum bushfire nous, I still imagined they would be smart enough to avail themselves of Australia’s world-class bushfire talent.

I was wrong about all of this.

Firstly, the commission did not review or draw upon the wisdom or conclusions of any of the recent bushfire inquiries, not even the Royal Commission into the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Instead they looked only at reports up to and including the infamous 2004 COAG (Council of Australian Governments) report, without question the most amateurish and damaging bushfire enquiry in Australian history. This report, fashioned by academics without bushfire experience, advocated that instead of preparing for bushfires with sensible programmes like fuel-reduction burning, the focus should be on evacuation of threatened communities after fires started, and then on sorting out the post-fire mess.  Actually, the COAG inquiry’s failure to promote fuel reduction should have surprised nobody. It was chaired by Wollongong University’s Professor Rob Whelan, who had recently published a paper titled ‘Don’t fight fire with fire‘.  When bushfire people around Australia get together, we laugh (mirthlessly) about this.

Nor did the commission seem to take any notice of submissions from reputable bushfire scientists and managers. There was no indication anywhere in their report that indicated they had read these submissions, nor (in our case) did they approach us with any questions about our analyses and proposals. My colleague Tony Bartlett, a hero of the Ash Wednesday and Canberra bushfires, made a brilliant submission. The response? According to Tony:

‘When I read the Royal Commission report not one of the issues that I raised or my suggested recommendations were covered in any way . . . It is very frustrating as vocal academics (most of whom have never even been to a bushfire) got their views recognised. I find it immensely frustrating that the Royal Commission report failed to provide any proper analysis of the nature of the issues raised in my submission and then just ignored the submissions that presented alternative views to those of academia and the emergency service chiefs.’

The explanation for this became apparent when it was let slip by a commission staffer that submissions from ‘lay people’ would not be treated as seriously as those from people within the emergency services. Our combined hundreds of years practical experience in bushfire science, research and operations counted for nothing: we were ‘lay people’!

It is not that our Bushfire Front position on bushfire management has not been dismissed in the past. It was rejected for years by Western Australian ministers and senior bureaucrats before the penny finally dropped (there is now a very professional approach to bushfire management in WA). We were used to rejection. But this was the first time we had been ignored.

The final insult was the failure by the commission to invite Australia’s bushfire aristocracy to give evidence and to provide them with insights into bushfire history, alternative views and intelligent analysis. It is true that the highly respected Australian Capital Territory (ACT) bushfire specialist Neil Cooper was interviewed, but he was a lone voice. Instead of speaking to bushfire experts, they talked to ‘fire chiefs’, environmentalists with bees in their bonnets about climate change, and to university ecologists with no stake in bushfire outcomes, no skin in the game, no responsibilities for land or bushfire-hazard management.

So, by the time the commission’s report was released, my optimism had faded. I remembered a management seminar I had attended many years ago, where the guru pointed out the dangers of project failure when the focus was on process rather than outcomes, and I heaved a sigh. This Royal Commission would have provided him with a case study on what happens when the process was mismanaged and the outcomes were lamentable.

In fact, the commission’s report is worse than I expected.  Yes, they did tidy up some administrative matters, mostly concerning jurisdictions and the need for uniformity over warnings. These were hardly things that needed a Royal Commission; competent public servants could have sorted them out in a half-day meeting. The role of the AustralianDefence Force (ADF) has now been clarified, but you would have thought the PM and the Minister for Defence might have come to this obvious conclusion after ten minutes’ discussion.  

Sadly, the commissioners bought right into the climate-change-causes-bushfires equation. This idea has been comprehensively demolished, including a hallmark paper (and more besidesin Quadrant that eventually became a submission to the Royal Commission – but which was also ignored. The commissioners appeared completely blind to the fact that the ‘climate-change-causes-bushfires’ position is not just flawed in terms of logic, science and history, it offers no solution to the current bushfire threat. What is blatantly obvious is that the climate alarmist lobby is using the bushfires to promote a political agenda. And the commission fell for it.

Secondly, the commission was sucked into the trap of thinking that more and bigger water bombers – indeed, a national fleet of water bombers, a veritable air force of water bombers, will be the answer to the bushfire maiden’s prayer. They overlook the fact that the existing water bomber fleet was of little value in the 2020 bushfires. Even in California, a focus on water bombing has been condemned as a waste of money and effort.

The climate-change-causes-bushfires argument and the call for a water-bombing Air Force are clearly linked. Nobody really knows how the Australian climate can be ‘fixed’ so as to prevent bushfires, so a fall-back plan is needed: attack the flames with a strategy similar to that of the RAF’s Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris in World War II.  It won’t work, but the media will love it.

Anyone with the merest understanding of bushfire history and science already knew what the main ‘causes’ of the 2020 bushfire disasters in NSW and Victoria were.

·       There was a drought, meaning fuels were super-dry;

·       There were long-unburnt, heavy fuels, meaning that any fire would quickly become so intense that control would be difficult;

·       There were many simultaneous outbreaks, meaning that the firefighters were inevitably overwhelmed;

·       Fire-fighting strategies were frequently incomprehensible;

·       Most of the communities in fire-prone areas were horribly ill-prepared.

Once the fires got going, there were other factors that made things worse, or more confused, such as the lack of co-ordination across state borders and the attempted evacuation of whole towns, the residents of which were totally unprepared, and the evacuation routes uncertain. We also observed that emergency services and national parks agencies these days will often ‘watch and wait’ rather than pounce aggressively on a fire when it is small. And there seems to be a reluctance to fight fires at night when, traditionally, control is easiest. Reading about a fire in a national park that was left untended for three weeks before control was attempted left me speechless with disbelief.

It is also clear that NSW and Victorian fire and land management authorities these days lack the expertise and experience to carry out large-scale indirect fire suppression operations – that is, strategic backburning to create effective fire-breaks in the face of a running fire. Backburning is often the only effective strategy, but in long-unburnt bushland it is dangerous and can easily go wrong if conducted by people who don’t have the necessary experience and know-how, or the right sort of resources, to ensure the flames do not get away. Attempting backburning under extreme conditions and without very skilled and experienced firefighters in control is a recipe for calamity.

But put these operational issues aside. The fact is that once there was the deadly combination of drought, heavy fuels, many fires and vulnerable communities, the disaster was ordained. This has nothing to do with climate change; it is the inevitable consequence of foolish policies, incompetent governance and unprofessional land management.

The Royal Commission grasped none of this. Their recommendations suggest that they were unable to cut to the essence of the bushfire situation in Australia. This essence is that:

(i)               There will always be droughts, they are not ‘unprecedented’;

(ii)             Australian bushland accumulates bushfire fuels, and once the weight of fuel reaches a certain (and well-understood) level, fires on even relatively mild days are uncontrollable;

(iii)          No matter how many firefighters or water bombers you have, the fire will always win if it allowed to expand sufficiently in size and intensity before being attacked; 

(iv)           Under extreme conditions, it is normal to get many simultaneous fires, always overwhelming firefighting resources;

(v)             The control of high-intensity forest fires requires people with a unique set of qualities, including a sound understanding of bushfire science, extensive forest firefighting experience, intimate local knowledge and access to sufficient numbers of heavy machinery, especially bulldozers, capable of night-time operations.

It also helps if access roads and fire trails have been properly maintained. Increasingly, in Victoria and NSW, these people, these policies and these resources are no longer available, so firefighting falls back on water bombers, and volunteer brigades who (however brave and dedicated) are asked to do the impossible.

Then there is the suggestion of creating a national firefighting force that will head off to any part of Australia and take over fire suppression from the locals. The idea of firefighters in the karri forest of south-west WA, flown in from Canberra and under the direction of ‘fire chiefs’ in Canberra, is terrifying, and would be laughable if it was not being seriously suggested.

I am staggered that the commission failed to put up in lights on its front cover: Bushfire management in Australia must be based on preparedness and damage mitigation. Yes, we still need experienced, well-trained firefighters, and we still can make strategic use of aircraft, but by themselves, without the potential firegrounds and threatened communities having been responsibly prepared, the firefighters and the water bombers will be helpless when most needed.

What is already known about bushfires in Australia and needed no Royal Commission to elucidate? We know that at the end of a drought, fuels will be dead dry; we know that extreme fire weather occurs almost every summer; we know that fires are always going to start; we know that if fuels are kept at a low level, fires will be milder and more easily, cheaply and safely  controlled, and we know that if rural and peri-urban communities are properly prepared in the expectation of fire on a bad day, they will escape without loss of life and minimal damage.

None of this is new or earth-shattering. What is earth-shattering is that the Royal Commission seemed to miss it completely, or deliberately to ignore it in the pursuit of other agendas.

In allowing itself to be sucked into the climate-change-causes-bushfires position, and in promoting the Bomber Harris solution, and in failing to come out powerfully on the need for state jurisdictions to invest responsibly in a preparedness and mitigation strategy, based on fuel reduction, the 2020 Royal Commission will have (if implemented) set back the clock on bushfire management by about 30 years. It has been a waste of time, money and the energy of good people, and will ensure only one thing: if the PM and the States buy it, identical bushfire disasters are inevitable.

This article first appeared in Quadrant on November 19, 2020, https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/doomed-planet/2020/11/the-flaming-idiocy-of-yet-another-bushfire-panel/ and is republished by kind permission.

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Roger Underwood
Roger Underwood is a forester with 50 years’ experience in bushfire management and bushfire science. He is chairman of the Bushfire Front, which aims to raise the interest of the authorities in improved bushfire management.

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