Mitigation a ‘must’… Country Fire Authority on duty in Victorian bushires.

FOREST fire experts have criticised the failure of the 2020 Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements to provide authoritative evidence on proven actions and promised improvements to prevent dangerous bushfires.

Dr Gary Bacon, a former head of Queensland Forestry, says the reaction by well-credentialed and experienced Australian forest fire authorities to the commission’s ‘interim observations’ and ‘council assisting’s propositions’ is one of extreme disappointment.      

He says a submission to the royal commission by Victorian-based forestry and business consultant John Cameron, who has held senior positions in operational forestry and as a fire controller in the Country Fire Authority, was “a masterful overview – a model critique which condemns the royal commission’s findings outright.

In his submission, Mr Cameron asserts there has been no forensic examination; the focus has been on ‘disaster response’ rather than the more effective ‘disaster mitigation’.

The commission published a draft proposition by the counsel assisting on September 4 and called for public comment. The emphasis wasn’t on bushfire mitigation or fuel reduction. Despite the summer’s conflagurations which prompted the commission’s establishment, it basically stated that Australia’s three levels of government should worry about … climate change.

Mitigation finally gets a brief mention in the 18th section of the sixth part of the report (public and private land management): Australian, state and territory governments should review their legislation and processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to ensure there is clarity about the scope for landholders and land managers to undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities; and minimise the time taken to undertake relevant assessments and obtain relevant approvals.”

John Cameron says here has been insufficient attention to proactive prevention of bushfires.

“The 2020 Royal Commission fails to deliver authoritative information on proven actions and promising improvements to prevent dangerous bushfires.”

Mr Cameron further asserts that Victoria’s appalling bushfire record could have been prevented. His presentation shows that over the last 60 years the southwest Western Australia prescribed burnt area of ca. 9.2% pa contained wildfire losses to 0.9% pa with the loss of only two lives. Victoria prescribed burnt area was 1.6%, had 1.9% wildfire losses and lost 312 lives.

“Victoria’s record has further deteriorated over the past 21 years, or roughly the life of the bushfire CRCs,” Mr Cameron said.

“Fire is a function of fuel, oxygen and ignition, where fuel is the only variable controllable by forest land managers.”

Mr Cameron illustrates that under high fire danger, it is vital to maintain low fuel loads to be able to effectively suppress fires with minimal loss (ie, high fuel loads deliver destructive wildfire).

The ‘Sneeuwjagt curve’ graph presented by Mr Cameron indicates that if you want to avoid large intense forest wildfires, you must prescribe burn or otherwise fuel reduce at least 8% of the forest estate each year.

“Victoria prescribed burnt about 1.5% on average, and while occasionally lucky, there have been far too many occasions where poor fuel management has resulted in mega wildfires, causing substantial damage to the environment, private property and considerable loss of fauna, livestock and human life,” he said.

Dr Gary Bacon joins a chorus of complaints about the royal commission from forest fire experts such as Neil Burrows, Rick Sneeuwjagt, Roger Underwood, Phil Cheney, David Packham, Mark Poynter and John Cameron.

“All have considerable gravitas in applied research and practical experience in fire behaviour and control, including developing the successful WA system, and should have been established as a panel of experts, called to give evidence and their submissions tabled as exhibits,” he said.

“Instead the Royal Commission turned to academics and white collar hose managers whose knowledge of landscape-sized fires started and ended with the backyard barbecue.”

At the conclusion of hearings, the royal commission will adjourn to finalise its report to present to the Governor-General by October 28.

•  The Country Fire Authority is a volunteer fire service responsible for fire suppression, rescues and response to other accidents and hazards across most of Victoria. The authority comprises more than 1200 brigades organised in 21 districts, and shares responsibility for fire services with Fire Rescue Victoria, which employs full-time paid firefighters in major urban areas.