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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.