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Bad bushfire planning burns money

It’s cold now, but the debate over how to deal with higher bushfire risk is heating up. Firefighters and farmers around Australia are calling for more hazard reduction burns to reduce the risk of future…

The risk of fires is increasing each year. It’s time for a serious conversation about prevention. Flickr/ToniFish

It’s cold now, but the debate over how to deal with higher bushfire risk is heating up. Firefighters and farmers around Australia are calling for more hazard reduction burns to reduce the risk of future fires, but the evidence isn’t in that this is the best approach.

Tasmania had a hot, chaotic fire season, and that state is currently counting the costs. With fires expected to increase in frequency and severity, these costs can only be expected to increase too.

The official bill for the 2013 bushfires is A$45 million, although the total cost is likely to be much greater as the whole of Tasmanian society was affected by the fires. They have had a disruptive effect on an already fragile Tasmanian economy.

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian budget is in deficit of A$426 million for this year, falling to A$283 million 2013-2014. This is a significant barrier for a bushfire prone island to achieve sustainable fire management.

The sound of choppers was the soundtrack of last summer in Tasmania, with the season starting in December, dramatic January fires, and continuing until March when a blaze threatened the suburbs of Hobart’s eastern shore. Late in the evening you would see helicopters on their weary track after another long day fighting bushfires around Hobart. In terms of area burnt and duration it was the worst fire season on record.

There is no question that if helicopters had not been deployed many more losses of lives and property would have occurred. The long chopper campaign quelled fires that had the potential to threaten the entire city of Hobart. But aerial fire fighting is not cheap.

At least $15 million was put into fire fighting – about $30 for every Tasmanian. If, as is expected, bushfire becomes more frequent and severe, the costs will balloon, driven by a public expectation that fire fighting needs a blank cheque. It is very easy to enter into an “arms race” with bushfires, leading to corresponding budget blowouts.

The question is then, how can fire management mitigate these costs? Serious thought about financial costs and benefits of current fire management approaches is required. It is unclear whether the current enquiry into Tasmanian fires will explore the budgetary impacts of differing fire management options.

Earlier this year Will Hodgman, leader of the Liberal opposition, floated the idea that Tasmania should follow Victoria’s lead and burn around 5% of publicly owned bushland to reduce fuel loads. In 2011 the Tasmanian Fire Management Council estimated that such a prescribed burning target would cost AUS$25 million.

There is no question that planned burning has an important role to play in bushfire management, but like aerial fire fighting this management approach is expensive. Nor is it without side effects, including risk of fires escaping control, destroying property and injuring people, including fire fighters, smoke pollution and degrading some habitats.

Planned burns are most effective on the perimeter of suburbs but these settings present much greater complexity for fire managers given the jigsaw puzzle of public land and private tenure. Further, the administrative structures of government are poorly designed to handle a phenomenon like bushfire management, involving local councils and state government, environmental management and public health.

Safe and effective burning programs come with substantial costs, and given increasing involvement of lawyers representing victims of bushfire disasters, operational failures could result in big pay outs.

There are alternatives to planned burning such as mechanically removing fuel, or using herbivores to do the same job, but these are not cheap nor free of unwanted environmental side-effects.

Like the rest of southern Australia the debate about bushfire management in Tasmania is largely being conducted in the absence of solid evidence of the pros and cons of the different fire management approaches. Without care there is a real risk the Tasmanian bushfire debate will become heavily polarised like the “forestry wars”. A fight like that would obscure a basic point: Tasmanians must manage bushfires more effectively if they are to avoid more of the costs and chaos that characterised summer 2013.

And to do this costs real money.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Watson

    Geologist

    Not only does it cost, a lot, who might I ask actually does the very real and often dangerous work? The bushfire services in Australia are staffed by unpaid volunteers. Are they to be expected to be at the beck and call of governments and the general population, to conduct fuel mitigation burns all year round? Who pays for the lost wages? Or do we rely on a pool of unemployed indenture d staff? Now that could have issues. Who supports their employers and their unstaffed businesses in their unplanable…

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    1. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Peter

      The "bushfire sevices in Australia" are not all unpaid volunteers, but a mix of paid staff and mostly volunteers operating generally on private lands, and paid forest and land management agency personnel on public lands.

      Your comment that the 5% of public land to be burned each in in Victoria will do very little and your general discussion of the effects on flora and fauna are not well informed. Remember that fire is a natural part of the Victorian landscape and its flora and fauna is adapted to it.

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    2. Peter Watson

      Geologist

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I deliberately used lower case and general descriptive language re bushfire services for obvious reasons.
      I am a former Regional Planning Officer and an instructor /assessor/field officer at Group level with twenty years of experience in one of the Eastern Aust volunteer services, so am well aware of the relationship and numbers in non-salaried and salaried sectors of the various services, and the relationship dynamics.
      The salaried firefighters and fire management sectors of the various National…

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    3. bill parker

      observer

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Peter are you implying that that volunteer fire fighters are less than effective compared to paid career staff?

      I live in a bush fire risk area and have been a fire fighter for quite a few years, now largely in incident control. And yes I am at the beck and call of the community. I and 26,000 others in WA are the same. we sign to do the job and always turn out.

      As for control burns, and especially in peri-urban areas the effect and the value is obvious. I have seen fires stopped in their tracks as the firefront reached areas of prior control burns. Homes were saved and people kept safe.

      I would rather attend a control burn than a wildfire.

      We argue all we might about what comes first. In my area it is 1. Human life, 2. Resources and 3. The environment.

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    4. Henk van Leeuwen

      author, philosopher, greenie

      In reply to Peter Watson

      You are quite right to question the ecological effect of burning, Peter.
      It is easy to say "that fire is a natural part of the Victorian landscape and its flora and fauna is adapted to it". However as you point out, a blanket prescription is not possible. If one observes prescribed burning effect in some forest areas, 12 months after burning there a massive flammable regrowth. In other areas there is rejuvenation with more grassy species rather than scrub. Yet, the former far outweighs the latter, and allowing the forests to mature and gradually shift towards wetter ecosystems is often the better strategy. The mountain ash forests indeed are a product of fire, but the intervals between fire were in the order of centuries, not every few years. Of course none of this suits the loggers.

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    5. Peter Watson

      Geologist

      In reply to bill parker

      OMG no. I can assure you I too have turned out often, for everything from prescribed burns to MVA, at least one multi-fatality train smash, campaign fires etc. in the full range of roles from grunt to 2iC divisional command and as a salaried strategic ops planner. It is the beck and call by expectation which is, if you stop and think about it at the broad scale, unrealistic. Many of the non-salaried staff (and I use that term deliberately) are far better equipped both psychologically, and in training…

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    6. bill parker

      observer

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Thanks for your re-assuring words Peter. My own view is that volunteers should be rewarded financially for every turn out they respond to. Its not so easy getting new people to join up to the VBFBs and I see a lot of grey haired men and women in my own work.

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    7. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Henk van Leeuwen

      Henk

      Don't disagree that various forest types have different fire requirements, but given how many plant types there are, it would arguably take centuries for research to make us fully conversant with the exact fire requirements of each .... in my view this would constitute paralysis by analysis.

      The research is showing that the ecological damage sustained by never burning outweighs that of periodic burning, and it is not the intention in well planned fuel reduction programs to burn forests more frequently than what is known to approximate the natural pre-European situation (as best as that can be determined).

      By the way, mountain ash forests are never subject to fuel reduction burning as they are simply too wet .... but of course those evil loggers are trying their damndest to dry them out because they're such pyromaniacs!

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    8. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Peter Watson

      Don't disagree with what most of what you say, although as a former Govt forestry agency officer with quite a lot of FRB experience I would say that there is no deliberate intention to burn areas more frequently than is thought to be the natural frequency, and as you allude to, these agencies lack the capacity to burn too frequently anyway, except perhaps on a very small scale where this is deemed to be the best management option.

      I'm surprised about your comment of over-prescribed burning at Wilsons Promontory as I wasn't aware there had been much done there aside from the well-publicised burn escape in 2006 (?).

      Of course, there is no intention to fuel reduce burn mountain ash forests as they are too wet, except for drought years and then are too dangerous to burn. Indeed, towns existing in close proximity to such forests probably have to expect to be eventually burnt in a catastrophic summer conflagration in a drought year.

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    9. Aaron Troy Small

      Student

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      As yet another volunteer firefighter, what is your point? Volunteers carry the brunt of the firefighting effort in every State in Australia, some more effectively than others granted (performance differs measurably between Brigades in the same regions in my experience). Yet we should remember that we are required to do a job, it is no good giving up before we start, by stating that the job is beyond our capacity/capability to do, then again, we have to ensure that we have the means to do the job…

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    10. Peter Rutherford

      logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

      In reply to Aaron Troy Small

      Hello Aaron, I agree with much of what you have said, particularly in relation to the difficulty of getting burns done on the urban interface. However, I think there are at least 2 reasons why planned burning in remote areas has value. I understand that most human assets (life and property) are in more developed parts in all Australian states. However, it is the biodiversity assets that are destroyed by the large-scale fires in remote areas.

      In 2002/03, the fires west of Canberra were considered to be in a relatively remote area. The lack of timely action allowed the fire to build scale. Once the bad day came, this fire could have still wrought considerable damage to Canberra, even if the city had a reasonable level of urban interface in a fuel reduced state. Consequently, I think fuel reduction/ecological burns across the broader landscape have a key roll in protecting both human and ecological assets.

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  2. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    Some seasons we can have good opportunity to do cool weather reduction burning safely - the sort where a fire left burning overnight can be expected to slow and even stop as the cool of overnight puts a bit of dew on the ground. A check around and a few spots put out in the early morning can be sufficient to ensure containment ie low requirements for personnel and equipment. Without reliable overnight cold, sufficient for dew to dampen the fuel, fires burn hotter and longer and are harder to contain…

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  3. Mark Poynter

    Forester

    Whilst I agree with the thrust of the article about the importance of fire management and its expense, the author's comment that - "Like the rest of southern Australia the debate about bushfire management in Tasmania is largely being conducted in the absence of solid evidence of the pros and cons of the different fire management approaches" - is I believe, somewhat off the mark.

    The definition of what an academic means when he uses the term 'solid evidence' is peer reviewed scientific papers published…

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  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    There are quite a number of things that could be done to limit bushfire damage and perhaps seeing as resources are always going to be an issue we ought to start with financial management.

    I would think that smart governments of smart societies ought to take residential insurance for fire and flood out of the hands of Insurance companies other than for those homeowners that did not want to comply with housing standards.
    That ought to provide a heap of revenue for funding and yes there are probably…

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  5. william hollingsworth

    student flinders university

    The whole fire fighting strategy in Australia seems to be less about putting out fires and more about empire building.
    Its pretty simple really, a fire is detected and you put it out as quickly as possible where ever it is.The reality is much different unfortunately.A chain of command that makes the Indian civil service look expedient ensures those who put fires out are as far removed from those who make decisions as possible.Sure helicopters and fire bombers are expensive especially when piloted by overseas pilots on astronomical salaries.Surely our defence forces should hone their flying skills in Australia fighting fires instead of killing civilians in foreign wars. Remote sensing could quickly pinpoint hotspots instead of spying on households to detect illegal structures We have the resources and adequate funding funding, they just need to be employed effectively..

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  6. Liam O'Dea

    Principal at Livestock

    If the ingenious people had not managed fire better we do, they would not have survived 100 years, let alone 20,000 plus.
    Check Bill Gammage's book "the biggest estate on earth" (Allen and Unwin)
    Stupid Europeans kill ed the people who knew what to do.
    The people who live in the bush will know better than people at desks.

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  7. John Boadle

    facilitator

    While the Victorian experience with fires will not always apply to Tasmania, some of it is very relevant. Neil Comrie in his final report on the 2009 fires (http://www.bushfiresmonitor.vic.gov.au/) commented that the 5% target to be burnt each year needed to be reviewed. The objective of control burns should be the protection of life and property not to achieve a target.
    An inspection of the planned burn program (http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/fire-and-other-emergencies/planned-burning-an-introduction/fire-operations-plans-approved

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    1. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to John Boadle

      John

      I must take issue with your comment that ".... many burns are located in larger blocks of land away from populated areas. These burns do nothing to reduce the fire risk to people...."

      This is a frequently used argument by those who lack enthusiasm for or are opposed to broadscale fuel reduction burning, but it is quite wrong.

      Every burn has the potential to reduce the fire risk to people and property if it assists fire-fighters to quickly control bushfires (even in remote areas) that…

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    2. John Boadle

      facilitator

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark
      My reference to isolated blocks being burnt is where the nearest house is kilometers away from the forest. There are a number of last seasons burns in Victoria that fit this category. The probability of a fire occurring in a particular location is about 1% in areas like the Victorian Mallee, so combining this with the low level of risk to people, Why is the area being burnt?
      My point is that planning control burns needs clear logical thought taking into account all positive and negative aspects, not just we need to burn 5%.

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    3. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to John Boadle

      John

      Don't disagree that prescribed burning needs to be well planned, but without a target little was getting done - about 1.4% of Vic public forest on average. This was too low for it to be effective, given that the greatest success in mitigating bushfires has been in south west WA which was burning 6 - 8% of its public forests from the 1960s until recently. As its burning program declined largely due to changed political paradigms about forest management, there has been a recent upsurge in serious…

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    4. bill parker

      observer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I was at an Incident management meeting last at which we heard of the new strictly managed process for Hazard Reduction Burns being instigated in WA. There is nothing ad hoc about this anymore. There have to be sound reasons for HRBs and the proposals are vetted. Some are now taking a year or more before permissions are granted.
      This is NOt to say that brigades in the past have not consulted historical burn mapping or walked the areas at risk. My own experince has been to participate in HRBs where homes are at risk or other major assetts like residential institutions are at risk e.g. prisons, child care centres etc. Not

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    5. John Boadle

      facilitator

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark
      A 20 year return period for fires in Mallee and Box Ironbark forests is much too frequent. The natural frequency is more like 100 years.
      The damage done by too frequent burns in these areas is very significant and must not be ignored.

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    6. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to John Boadle

      John

      I doubt very much that the natural burn frequency in box-ironbark and mallee forests is 100 years. These are dry forest types. What you are effectively claiming is that lightning or escaped indigenous burns would only affect these areas once every century which seems highly unlikely to me. Once every 20 years seems much more likely.

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    7. John Boadle

      facilitator

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark
      There are large areas of Box Ironbark where there is no record of a fire, suggesting that your once every 20 years is way too frequent.
      In his presentation to the Biodiversity Across Borders Conference, Ballarat June 2013, Michael Clarke stated that 1.1% of the Mallee was burnt /year. ref The Mallee fire and fauna-insights from a large scale study Michael Clarke and Andrew Bennett

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    8. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to John Boadle

      John

      I'm aware of Professor Clarke - he was one of the expert panel who recommended that the 5% burn target be implemented during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, but since then has tried to denounce it and excuse himself for agreeing to it.

      Whatever the actual burning frequency of box-ironbark it is a typically low fuel forest that often lacks a significant shrub layer. So I can't see that it will be overly targetted for fuel reduction burning, except perhaps in small strategic…

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  8. Peter Rutherford

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    Please excuse the late post. I understand the points made about chain of command that can obstruct prompt fire suppression of bush fires and the desire to only undertake fuel reduction burning on a “strategic” (small area) basis. Aerial suppression has enhanced capacity to get to more fires quickly. However in late 2002, lightning started more than 80 fires along the main range in Victoria. Over 90% were contained in their early stages. Less than 10% escaped any initial attack and collectively burnt…

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