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There is no single solution to the tragedy of escaped fires

Firefighters mop up after bushfires in Victoria. AAP Image/Julian Smith

There is no single solution to the tragedy of escaped fires

Firefighters mop up after bushfires in Victoria. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Prescribed burning is a highly contentious topic, particularly this week after an escaped burn near Lancefield in Victoria. The burn jumped its containment under high winds, resulting in the reported loss of two homes and several other buildings. The government has announced an independent investigation of the incident, due to report in a couple of weeks.

This is not the first time this has happened. In November 2011, a prescribed burn in Margaret River in Western Australia escaped and burned down some 30 houses.

In September 2013, a similar incident occurred at the base of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where no houses were lost but several buildings were reportedly damaged.

The incidents have prompted questions over whether prescribed burning is worth the risk, and whether property losses could be prevented through better management. The loss of one or many houses from fire impacts not only on the residents of that house, but the entire community.

Unfortunately, house loss from fire is part of the risk of living in a fire-prone land and there is always going to be pressure on land managers to try and reduce this risk.

How fire agencies plan prescribed burns

Fire management agencies around the country take great care in planning and implementing prescribed burns. An agency responsible for a burn will spend weeks and sometimes months planning the logistics of a burn.

In this process they must give consideration to a host of factors such as fuel loads, biodiversity, water and assets such as houses and infrastructure that may be at risk, both within the burn area and outside it.

Before the burn, access tracks are cleared to make it safe for operations, and the agency will inform neighbours through media, letterbox drops and occasionally public meetings.

On the day (or days) of a burn, an agency must only burn if the weather conditions both during the planned operation and in the following days are within given prescriptions.

They must also consider where the smoke will go and how that may impact traffic, local residents, schools, and hospitals. Given the range of people affected by a fire and the values they hold, the plans of agencies will never please all of the people all of the time.

But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. A common thread to most of these incidents is that the weather that eventuated was far more dangerous for fires than was predicted when the burn started. For example, the Margaret River enquiry found that wind speeds were 35% higher than predicted. Everyone has made plans on a Monday for the following weekend only to find the forecast has changed and what originally looked like a nice day at the beach is now cold and wet.

Prescribed burn planners need to do just this and plan based on the week’s weather forecast before starting a prescribed burn. This is not to criticise weather forecasts made by the Bureau of Meteorology, it is simply the reality that fire management agencies have to live with.

Agencies incorporate this risk into the decision-making process when first developing the prescriptions for conducting a burn. They are incorporated again by ground crews for every fire when the decision is made to ignite each prescribed burn.

Sharing the risk

Many would question, is it worth persisting with prescribed burning if we have to endure these losses? The answer is not a simple yes or no, but a question of where and how much prescribed burning is needed to change the risk to the things we value in the landscape.

Nobody wants to see people and property affected by wildfire, but the harsh reality is that we have created the problem by developing cities and towns in high fire risk areas. Australia is not unique in this respect as this is a problem in many fire-prone landscapes around the globe.

Many people opt for a tree change and move away from the urban centres to the urban fringes or semi-rural landscapes to get the feeling of naturalness. Often these people do not realise or appreciate the nature of the risk to which they are exposed. Fire agencies are faced with an increasingly complex situation where they are attempting to reduce risk to people and property while maintaining the environmental values which attracted residents to the area in the first place.

Our research (see also here), and that of others, has shown the most effective means of reducing risk to property in these interface zones is by agencies reducing fuels next to houses (where the risk of burns escaping and impacting on the communities is highest) and by residents adequately preparing their property for fire. There is a shared risk that needs to be acknowledged by all parties.

The multi-million dollar questions are:

  • Is the risk of a prescribed burn escaping and impacting on people and property higher than the risk of not undertaking the prescribed burn and having a wildfire impact upon the same area resulting in the same or greater loss?

  • Would agencies be better investing in engagement with communities to prepare them for the upcoming fire season and treat less area adjacent to houses?

These are questions that researchers, land managers and residents in fire-prone landscapes are constantly grappling with. Those who have experienced damaging wildfires often argue the agencies should have done more before the fire, but if you lose your house in a prescribed fire you might be of a different mindset.

In my opinion, there is no single solution. The answer will vary across the country and will be dependent on what risk from fire residents are willing to accept.