Australia — THE horrifying scale of the bushfire threat faced by West Australians is made clear by this map exposing the amount of old vegetation across the state.
The map reveals the build-up of fuel – combustible trees, shrub and ground litter – aged over seven years near Perth and in the South-West.
This is the age it becomes almost impossible to control on even average summer conditions – let alone catastrophic days with soaring temperatures and fast winds.
Rising fuel ages and a failure to hit prescribed burn targets means bushfire is WA’s “pre-eminent hazard”, according to the State Emergency Management Committee.
Its recent report uses a similar version of this map to highlight the point, which is based on data from the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
“The accumulation of (fuel aged more than seven years) is creating the potential for fires of extreme intensity for which suppression may not be possible before major damage occurs,” the SEMC’s latest Emergency Prepardness Report warns.
As of last July, there was almost 2.1 million hectares of fuel aged seven years and older across WA, the paper reveals. Fuel aged under six years spanned 944,000ha.
Bushfire Front chairman Roger Underwood described the accumulation of older fuel – about eight tonnes per hectare – near poorly prepared residential areas as WA’s “ticking time bomb”.
“This map demonstrates that 80% of South-West forests and national parks are now in a situation where firefighters will not be able to tackle or surpress a fire even in moderate conditions because of the very heavy fuels,” Mr Underwood said.
“This is a diabolacle problem that has crept up on us over the past 15 years. No-one was worried in the past couple of years – but now everybody is worried.”
In 2012/13, DPaW achieved just 23,648ha of its annual prescribed burn target of 200,000ha in the South-West.
This was blamed on a wet spring during the 2012 “burning season” and a subsequent sharp rise in the Soil Dryness Index following summer.
So far in 2013/14, DPaW has completed 40 of its 152 planned prescribed burns and started another 18 covering more than 60,000ha so far this season.
The figure is well short of its target, but the department said further burning is likely in the Warren region where conditions may remain suitable for some time.
Mr Underwood, a former Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) general manager, said the weather was “no excuse”.
He said Perth householders need to be more tolerant of smoke from prescribed burning and some rules governing burns need to be relaxed.
In 2011, 40 properties in Margaret River were razed after being sparked by an out-of-control burn. The inferno prompted tighter regulations.
But without strong community support, Mr Underwood said he doubts the authorities will ever be able to catch-up on the backlog.
Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes president Tony Pratico claimed DPaW was “running scared” of prescribed burns.
“Instead of getting fuel reduction every eight, 10, 15 years – we are talking about 30 years before they get back into a rotation and it’s only going to get worse because every year they fall behind,” Mr Pratico said.
Shire of Manjimup president Wade DeCampo added: “There is only one thing that will fix that – and that’s money.
“It’s more resource and more money for DPaW so that when they can burn, and they have the ability to burn, they do burn. That’s the only way to do it.”
Opposition emergency services spokeswoman Margaret Quirk called for DPaW to take on more seasonal workers to carry out burns when the “window of opportunity” arises.
Fire Commissioner Wayne Gregson said prescribed burns were done with best practice and were not impeded by the regime’s systems and processes.
“Obviously there are a number of variables that affect (DPaW) capacity to do a prescribed burn. The expectation is they adhere to the standard but they are not impeded by that standard,” Mr Gregson said.
DPaW said its prescribed burning program is governed by a number of factors, including weather conditions.
“However, over the past 20 years, the department has met 79 per cent of its cumulative annual target,” a spokeswoman said.
“The department takes every opportunity to carry out prescribed burns when it is safe to do so. Residents and other land managers also need to carry out their own fire preventive measures.”