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When will governments be held accountable for the increasing number of large and destructive bushfires?

By Robert Onfray - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2022

While travelling around Australia, I have kept a close eye on land management issues and have seen many examples of mismanagement and poor practices. Through my land management experience, I have noticed how fire management is being grossly neglected in our landscape. That is why we see enormous wildfires towards the end of drought periods when the landscape is parched and ready to explode.

When you combine politics with land use, you get bad outcomes. I have seen this in forests during my professional career as a forester. Moreover, the problems seem to amplify when governments throw taxpayer funds at academics with limited field experience.

Instead of solutions and appropriate management practices, we get incompetence and junk science promoted through cosy and inappropriate relationships between researchers and certain sections of the media. Accountability is zero, allowing poor practices and outcomes to continue unabated, all at a considerable cost.


Standard practices which were effective and successful in the past, such as fuel management across the landscape, rapid attack once fires start, and regular surveillance during the fire season, have been dismantled and thrown out the door.

We now have an emergency response system that only mobilises once large fires are out of control. People with little operational fire experience are in charge, and they rely on large, showy and expensive aeroplanes that are ineffective in putting out massive fires.

During these disasters, governments say the correct platitudes and offer hollow promises because they are seen to be doing something.

Never mind they did nothing outside the fire season to minimise the damage of these fires in the first place.

For the last 25 years, millions of dollars of public funds have been thrown at the massive emergency departments and research centres. Yet, no cost-benefit analysis exists to demonstrate that this is an effective way to waste spend taxpayers' funds. We still get large and destructive fires that are conveniently blamed on climate change.

After the recent 2019-20 wildfires, commentators claimed that if Australia stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, the problem of large destructive fires would go away. If you believe that, then you believe in tooth fairies.


The fires we have experienced in eastern Australia in the last 25 years are not unprecedented. Unfortunately, we have had them in the past. Early foresters were not trained to understand Australian ecology. They made mistakes, and foresters had to change how they managed the forest. They learnt their lessons and gradually developed a sophisticated fire management system, the envy of the rest of the world.

And after each bad fire event, we had enquiries, 46 in fact. At each one, the answer and recommendations were the same in support of the forester's pragmatic practices.

We need a sophisticated fire management system that operates outside the fire season to manage fuel loads across the landscape, not just in tiny strips adjoining houses. We also need to prepare sufficiently for each fire season with a highly trained workforce supported by maintained access tracks, on-ground machinery, and flexible work practices to take advantage of favourable conditions at night.

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About the Author

Robert Onfray is a retired professional forester of 33 years' experience working in forests and native grasslands in NSW, Tasmania and Queensland. I am travelling full time around Australia in a caravan with my wife. My first book was published in September 2020 called Fires, Farms and Forests: a human history of Surrey Hills, north-west Tasmania.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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