Another fire season is upon us, and bushfires continue to threaten lives and property across southern Australia. In the face of this, it's tempting to call for more fuel reduction burns to contain, or even eliminate, bushfires. But how effective is fuel reduction burning in achieving this? The best and latest research suggests it has serious limitations, but there are things we can do to help that situation.
Bushfires are a natural part of the life of Victoria's forests. Our native plants and animals have evolved strategies over millennia to cope with bushfires. And people have devised various strategies, also over millennia, to manage fire.
Planned burning is a vital tool in managing the risks to people posed by bushfires. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, established after Black Saturday, recommended an annual burn target of 5 per cent of public land (about 390,000 hectares) across Victoria. But it also recommended monitoring of the program's effectiveness and impacts.
This scrutiny has shown that the program has been far from ideal. Former police chief Neil Comrie, the Royal Commission's independent monitor, said in three successive reports that the target was not achievable, affordable or sustainable, and had potential adverse environmental outcomes. That matched the Environment Department's most recent assessment of its efforts; Victoria's fuel reduction program on public land had failed to achieve its two main objectives: protection of life and property, and protection of the environment.
There are several reasons for this, all supported by peer-reviewed scientific research. First, planned burns only significantly reduce fuel in the undergrowth for about three years. Burning most public land in the state every few years would be impossible, as suitable weather conditions are rare, and under climate change likely to be rarer still. Moreover, the impacts of such frequent fire on Victoria's native plants and animals would be considerable, and in some instances terminal.
Research also tells us that the most effective fuel reduction burns are those close to the assets we are trying to protect. But the 390,000-hectare target discouraged those smaller, more difficult and expensive burns. And we have largely ignored planned burns on private land.
Studies have also shown clearly that fuel reduction burns are useful in controlling moderate fires, but less effective in containing blazes in severe fire weather, when even grass fires are perilous and bushfires are likely to roar through the tree canopy. It seems our most favoured fire management tool is least useful when we need it most, and very expensive where we need it most.
Other studies have shown that controlling ignition points is a very cost-effective way to manage fires. That can mean a strong police presence and fixed cameras where fire bugs operate. It can also mean more resources and skilled operators engaging in rapid aerial attack on a fire's source. On Black Saturday a fortuitously located helicopter put out a blaze as it started in the Dandenongs, probably saving hundreds of lives. Little has been said of the cost-effectiveness of that intervention, but a similar capacity for action across Victoria could be very useful.
And we seem to have forgotten the commission's urgent recommendations for approved designs for private bushfire shelters, or planning restrictions on housing in vulnerable areas.
We have learnt a lot since the terrors of Black Saturday. But as Neil Comrie counselled: "…it is important to understand that all 67 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommendations are inextricably interdependent."
Does this mean we should not use strategic fuel reduction burning to manage fire? Definitely not. However, appreciating its limits will be vital to effective fire management in Victoria. It's time for a reassessment of all of our options, framing the right mix of solutions for local situations. If we do that, we just might manage to look after our community well, and also hand on our natural heritage to the next generation.
Philip Ingamells is the spokesman on park protection and fire management for the Victorian National Parks Association