The ACT government missed its target for prescribed burns by 25 per cent in the past financial year, as hot and dry weather hampered efforts to limit bushfire risks in the national capital.
As the national bushfire crisis fuels debate about the effectiveness of prescribed burning in preventing or limiting large-scale blazes, annual report figures show the ACT's environment directorate continues to struggle to meet its targets for hazard reduction.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday flagged the idea of a national scheme to monitor how states and territories were tracking against prescribed-burning targets.
In an interview on Sky News, Mr Morrison also declared that hazard reduction was as, if not more, important than emissions reduction in tackling the threat of bushfires.
ACT Parks and Conservation Service had planned 43 prescribed burns on 6559 hectares of land in 2018-19.
But it only reached 75 per cent of that target, completing a total of 25 burns across 5082 hectares of bushfire prone area.
It only managed to achieve 67 per cent of its target for the physical removal of fuel loads and vegetation, according to annual report figures. In both cases, parks said it couldn't achieve the targets because of unfavourable weather conditions.
However it did meet its targets for others methods of hazard reduction in 2018-19, clearing more than 5670 hectares of land via grazing and another 4502 hectares through the technique of slashing. Overall, 95 per cent of targets under the bushfire operations plan were met.
We know that if you don't get the prescribed burning conditions, then it is too unsafeEmergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan
Parks and land managers have historically been able to rely on cooler conditions in autumn, winter and spring to complete large-scale controlled burns.
But the window of opportunity to safely and effectively burn fuel loads is diminishing as a result of hotter temperatures, below-average rainfall and longer bushfire seasons.
The ACT recorded 63 days above 30 degrees in 2018, almost double the annual average. Rainfall in the calendar year was down 24 per cent on the annual average.
"We know that if you don't get the prescribed burning conditions, then it is too unsafe [to do it]," Emergency Services Agency commissioner Georgeina Whelan said last week.
The ACT government last year released its latest five-yearly strategic bushfire management plan, which acknowledged the approach to hazard reduction would have to adapt to climate change.
"The directorate routinely conducts large-scale prescribed burns that may take days or weeks to complete," the plan stated.
"A changing climate not only reduces the period within which those burns can occur, it increases the likelihood of unpredictable weather occurring that may impact prescribed burns already underway.
"This will require careful consideration of the parameters within which prescribed burning can occur. As the impacts of climate change increase, scientific analysis of these parameters will be required to assess if existing thresholds within which prescribed burning can occur are still appropriate."
Parks' prescribed burning result for the past financial year marked a major improvement on 2016-17, when just 7 per cent of burns were completed. At the time, the opposition accused the Barr government of a "laid back" approach to bushfire safety.
An environment directorate spokesman said it was difficult to compare results, as the size, location and type of prescribed burns varied each year.
He said the "very dry conditions" in the past three years had made it difficult to complete burns without "compromising critical values".
Parks is planning 41 burns in 2019-20, covering 6000 hectares of bushfire-prone land. The spokesman said none of the "major" prescribed burns scheduled for 2019-20 had been completed, although the annual program of burns typically only started in Autumn.
The approach of states and territories to prescribed burning and land management has been called into question throughout the bushfire crisis, and would likely be a focus of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's proposed royal commission into the disaster.
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce this month blamed "green caveats" for preventing more hazard-reduction burning.
In the wake of those comments, NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the biggest obstacle to completing burns was the weather. Mr Fitzsimmons stressed prescribed burning was not a "panacea" to bushfire risk, and had "very little affect" in preventing the spread of fires under extreme conditions.
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury last week pointed out that he oversaw hazard-reduction burns as the minister in charge of land management in the territory from 2012-2016.
"The debate has been very frustrating because there has been a lot of myth put in in," he said. "Greens policy does support hazard-reduction burning."
"But I also want to be clear that this is not some panacea that will all of a sudden save Australia from bushfires."