Last week, the Federal Government’s so-called ‘Bushfires’ Royal Commission (the RC) lodged its Final Report. The RC had been initially touted as a response to last season’s ‘Black Summer’ bushfires, but it evolved into a broader inquiry into all natural disaster emergencies and potential national coordination arrangements that could improve their management.
In relation to bushfire disasters, the RC’s particular focus on correcting inconsistencies between jurisdictions should marginally improve their management through, for example, better resource sharing arrangements, and standardised emergency warnings and inter-agency communications.
Unfortunately, the RC was not designed to seriously act on the major issues that could more substantially reduce the bushfire threat, such as land management and fire-fighting practices. Ditto for climate change, which is a much longer-term influence, despite many commentators framing it as the primary or sole cause of bigger and hotter bushfires. Most who made public submissions to the RC were primarily concerned with these matters and would be disappointed that it made few recommendations to directly address them.
Land management and fire-fighting are state responsibilities, so it is not surprising that a federal inquiry would lack an intent to force changes in these areas. Presumably this reflected an expectation within the RC that the simultaneously conducted State bushfire inquiries would be more appropriate instruments for facilitating such change. Arguably, this was an optimistic expectation given the likely reluctance of the States to publicly admit to their own shortcomings.
With regard to climate change, the RC’s Final Report discusses in detail expected impacts on future bushfire threat without making any strong recommendations on direct climate action. While this underwhelmed many observers, experts and media commentators; the RC has nevertheless been appropriated by a media narrative portraying it as a ‘clarion call’ for immediate climate action.
In reality, the intense public commentary that is framing climate action as the primary means of fixing our bushfire problem has always been flawed because climate change was: 1) only one of several factors in last summer’s bushfires; and 2) it is a long-term influence that cannot be quickly turned-around. Indeed, Australia could reach net zero emissions tomorrow and it would do nothing to immediately reduce our bushfire threat because we are such a small emitter and cannot, on our own, stabilise the climate.
Even if the whole world achieved net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (as many countries are targeting), it would presumably take a long time beyond that for a more stable climate to return. Without dismissing the longer-term objective of mitigating climate change,Australia will have a heightened bushfire problem for a long time irrespective of how quickly we decarbonise.
Southern and eastern Australia’s bushfire problem stems back 150 – 200 years, well before industrial greenhouse gas emissions, when European settlement disrupted and eventually ended indigenous burning and overturned natural fire regimes in the interests of protecting settlements, farms and stock. It naturally follows from this that managing bushland to, as far as possible, revert back to these natural fire regimes is the key to minimising the threat of damaging summer bushfires – a stance that is being echoed by the surge in advocacy for a return to indigenous burning practices.
The RC’s Final Report contains a considered discussion on land management, including the value of reducing forest fuel loads by cool burning. However, it somewhat over-emphasises the limited effectiveness of fuel reduction in moderating the behavior of bushfires burning under extreme conditions without acknowledging that around 95% of bushfires don’t burn under such conditions and can be significantly moderated by light fuel loads. This is suggestive of the RC being disproportionately influenced by anti-burning sentiment over and above the knowledge of bushfire scientists and fire management practitioners.
However, while the RC’s Final Report at least acknowledges the potential for land management to quickly reduce the bushfire threat, it ignores the other means of immediately reducing the likelihood, extent and impact of bushfire disasters that could be achieved by reverting back to the more aggressive ground-based fire-fighting practices of the past.
Through its submissions and public hearings, the Royal Commission was informed by the nation’s foremost forest fire practitioners that the past 20 years has seen a decline in the formerly strong capacity to quickly contain forest fires in south eastern Australia, particularly remote area fires ignited by lightning as many of the most problematic fires of the 2019-20 season were.
The root cause is a combination of the evolution of a risk-averse operational health and safety culture which prioritises the personal safety of fire-fighters above the need to control fires; and a lack of experienced fire-fighters confident of safely navigating the calculated risks inherent to their work. Risk avoidance fire-fighting protocols are now constraining the capability to quickly access new forest fires and to contain them while they remain small and manageable.
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