Public Sector Informant: Precious natural assets need protection from bushfire disaster

03 August 2021

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AUSTRALIA – It may seem counter-intuitive to want to talk about bushfires in the midst of winter, but this is precisely the time we need to be implementing lessons learned and preparing for what’s about to come.

This term, “bushfire season”, lulls us into thinking we only need to think about bushfires for three months of a year, when in reality prevention and preparedness are a year-round focus.

While I’ve seen my share of disasters during my 30 years in the emergency services sector, it’s still hard for me to grasp the sheer devastation that the 2019-20 Australian Black Summer bushfires brought on Australia. These numbers are striking and sobering, a haunting reminder of what we lost and will never truly get back.

We saw 24 million hectares across the country burned, more than 9300 buildings destroyed and 34 deaths. The disasters are estimated to have cost more than $103 billion. We lost literally billions of native animals and untold stretches of native flora.

Many of us might have forgotten about this devastation because, before we knew it, we’d emerged from the fires into a world besieged by a pandemic.

But while we may have dodged a repeat of the bushfire crisis this summer past, we can thank a La Nina for keeping a lid on the bushfire season. The fact is that the climate is changing and the extreme weather events we’ve seen in the past 10 years have become more frequent, and more intense.

I’m not saying this to scare us as a collective into change, or to frighten you – though it likely should and probably will. Rather, I’m writing this more to ensure we prepare better than we did last time, and find a way to better protect Australia’s assets, both built and natural.

For that we need federal support, and the only way to ensure it is by reclassifying those finite, natural assets – which make Australia unique – as critical infrastructure.

One of the key focuses born out of the findings from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is a directive on improving collective awareness and mitigation of risks to critical infrastructure (Recommendation 9.4). But what do we define as critical infrastructure? Why is it a utility and not a national park?

We need to ensure we look at our finite natural resources and parklands as critical assets worthy of identifying and protecting in the same way as we would an oil refinery.

I firmly believe we need to redefine what a critical infrastructure asset is to include natural assets alongside those we’ve built. Given the environmental and, yes, economic impact of bushfires nowadays we need to ensure we look at our finite natural resources and parklands as critical assets worthy of identifying and protecting in the same way as we would an oil refinery.

In addition to the Department of Defence, transport corridors, and power and water utilities among others, we should look to classify parks and wildlife departments in the same category. These departments manage vast areas of protected natural habitat and the ecological assets within those spaces, with many particularly prone to bushfires.

Why reclassification matters

In those most recent large-scale bushfires, the federal government was quick to push the bushfire response onus to the states, but the states can only do so much, and those bushfires proved to all levels of government that the people see that it is a national issue that requires national support.

Rest assured, the states are continuing to do their part: the NSW government has recently announced $28 million in state funding will be directed into research and development of bushfire technology over the next four years, including the aggregating satellite imagery to predict fire fronts.

This should be applauded – but we need the federal government to play a part too and re-classifying our prominent natural assets as critical infrastructure is one way to ensuring it.

Simply put, we can no longer rely on each state’s emergency service agencies to undertake hazard reduction and preventative measures to protect us.

They’re over-run, now firmly and near-permanently in response mode; be it to an emergency, or an inquiry in the aftermath or a pandemic. I’ve seen this demand on our agencies grow slowly over time and with the frequency of natural disasters only increasing, the challenge to find adequate resources to invest in preparedness is greater than ever.

This is where we need federal support, in the preparation and prevention phases.

The loss of massive areas of natural parks and the devastation to native flora and fauna is a loss for the nation’s identity. And these days there are better ways to protect them: for instance, using a combination of satellite imagery of fuel loads and climate modelling we can predict years, and even decades in advance of where dangerous fires are more likely to occur, and begin reducing the risk as much as possible through various mitigation strategies.

But to get there, we need to start seeing these assets less as something that will grow back over time and more as critical infrastructure that is under attack from climate change.

We need to reclassify these natural assets as critical infrastructure, and we need to start the reclassification process now ahead of summer and not in the wake of another devastating bushfire season.

Only then can we properly defend what makes this nation unique.

  • Andrew Sturgess has a career in emergency services spanning more than 30 years, and is widely recognised for using his frontline and in-field experience and ability to connect science with operations to pioneer specialist bushfire prediction capabilities for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. He now leads bushfire preparedness technology innovation as RedEye’s Technical Director of Fire Technology.
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