Experts agree… fuel reduction reduces intensity of bushfires.

AMONG countless harrowing stories of survival and heartbreaking recovery during the 2019-20 bushfires, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements in Canberra this week listened to the frustrated voices of the Black Summer heroes – volunteer firefighters from across the country.

Incendiary debates centred on whether a lack of prescribed burning had contributed to the fires, which burnt more than 18 million ha across Australia.

Steve Read, acting assistant secretary at ABARES, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, confirmed the summer bushfires in eastern Australia burnt 10.3 million ha of land, of which 8.5 million ha was forests.

The commission presented more than 1000 submissions authored by members of the public.

In an emotional joint statement, Rural Fire Service Snowy River brigade captains David Fletcher and Simon King said a lack of hazard reduction created high fuel loads and more intense fires.

“A lack of hazard reduction burning across all land tenures resulted in high fuel loads, increasing fire intensity and making firefighting efforts more difficult,” they said.

It was exacerbated by a severe lack of well-kept fire trails and delays caused by “problems with permission to work in national park land”, they said.

Professor David Bowman… fuel treatment heavily depends on the environment.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife, however, consistently says it is increasing the amount of hazard reduction. In five years they conducted 1000 burns across 635,000 ha of bushland, according to their website.

The director of fire safety and training at private company Fire Support NSW Timothy Wainwright said both the NSW RFS and Fire and Rescue NSW were too restrictive in how they issued permits for fires and hazard reduction burns.

“Fire permits are very difficult to obtain and are usually highly restricted and restrictive,” he said.

“We are forced to provide 20 pages of prescribed burning plans for each simple burn.”

He called the systems of both agencies “unfair and unworkable”.

The commission’s own research paper that summarises studies of pre-emotive burns, grazing and vegetation clearing, found experts agree fuel reduction reduces fire intensity, impacting also on homes and the natural environment.

“A large body of evidence suggests that altering and reducing the fuel load through prescribed burning can reduce fire intensity,” the paper says.

Experts were divided, however, on whether the fuel load or the weather determine the behaviour or more extreme fires.

RFS captains Fletcher and King put the Black Summer’s intensity down to other factors as well – such as a hotter and drier climate. But they also pointed the finger at their own organisation.

The RFS Incident Management Team that took over the fight in their area, was “overwhelmed” by critical local knowledge that created “slow, frustrating and cumbersome experiences”.

Other brigades made similar criticisms.

Michael Roze of Bulga Plateau RFS said “communications failed catastrophically” when those sort of fires hit the mid-north coast in November.

That meant accurate communications from the RFS regional incident controller were “patchy” and “informed decisions could not be made”.

“The brigade was sent on goose chases when there were more immediate needs,” he said.

University of Tasmania Professor of Environmental Change Biology David Bowman said all fuel management approaches should be seen as “giant experiments that we’re still evaluating”.

“We can see benefits of fuel treatments, not only prescribed burning but also vegetation manipulation, and creating defendable space around houses in close proximity to where people live,” Professor Bowman said.

However, the outcomes heavily depended on the environment, he said.

“People should avoid falling into the ‘trap’ of assuming fuel management meant prescribed burning,” Professor Bowman said.

“It could also mean thinning vegetation or creating defendable space near assets.”

Professor Bowman also shot down the idea of blanket hazard-reduction targets.

“Using simulation modelling in Tasmania, we’re able to show that you get a much better benefit if you concentrate your fuel management around where your assets are,” he said.

The commission also heard evidence of how unusual the 2019-20 summer fire season was.

The number of so-called “black swan” events where pyrocumulonimbus clouds developed during the fires, creating a fire storm, doubled last summer when compared to records stretching back more than 30 years.

The Royal Commission has released a background brief on land management and hazard reduction that looks at the effectiveness and benefits of mechanical fuel reduction in detail. It draws heavily from AFPA’s publication ‘Using fire and machines to better fire proof our country towns’ and AFPA’s submission to the commission.

CEO Ross Hampton will be before the commission today (Thursday) to discuss AFPA’s submission in more detail. It will be streamed live on and is scheduled to start at 10 am.