Australia — Fire has nomalice. It is searingly indiscriminate in its victims.
When fire burns out of control in the wild, everythingcaught in its path perishes. Increasingly, bushfires across eastern Australiaconsume larger areas, fuelled by drier conditions and hotter summers.
And if there was one message from the BushfireCooperative Research Centre’s first national forum this week, these overwhelming,intense “megafires” are the new reality of the Australian summerunless we act.
The forum brought together top firefighters, expertsand interested politicians from across the nation, discussing issues such asprescribed burning, the impact on water catchments, and whether large fires areinevitable.
Experience in the United States provides aninteresting parallel with the bushfire seasons Australia has endured in the pastdecade hot, dry and deadly, with megafires a growing threat. The fire expert whohas made the term megafire part of the language, Jerry Williams, from the USBrookings Institution, knows the solution is not as simple as throwing moneyinto firefighting resources.
“Despite significant increase in thefire-protection budget in the US Forest Service, costs and losses and damagesare all on the rise, and so are fatalities,” Williams told the forum.
“The ratio of spending on response versusmitigation has tilted largely towards response some units 10 times more, someunits 100 times more. The doctrine that’s guided us has always aimed at matchingincreasing fire threat with increasing suppression force, yet we are findingthere are limits with suppression effectiveness. The megafire tends to overwhelmus.”
The worst wildfires on record are coinciding with thehighest budgets. Last year more than 3.9million hectares was burned in wildfires,and 23 firefighters lost their lives. The suppression costs on federal landsalone exceeded $US1.9billion far from the full figure.
“The fire-protection strategy in America isexpensive, and it promises to get even more expensive, unless we step back andtake another look at where it’s all going,” Williams said. “We havegot to start looking at the causal factors and the contributing factors as much[as] or more than we deal with response.
“Some are fearful that we may be headed to anawful predicament where the cost of emergency response continues to grow to thepoint that there’s not enough money to go and deal with the causal factors andmitigate the fuels that underlie the problem in the first place.”
The convergence of three major factors is causing thisnew reality: drought, over-accumulated fuels, and growth patterns where humansencroach on the wild.
Added to this: “Our fire seasons are hotter thanthey’ve been before. Our fire seasons seem to be starting earlier, they seem tobe lasting longer, they seem to be covering broader areas than they have in thepast.”
Williams says policy-makers have often opted for anexpedient solution before the full consequences are known. He argues thatmegafires are a land-management issue, not a failure of firefighters.
“If we’re going to solve the megafire problem, weare going to need the help of resource specialists that can tailor sustainableland-management objectives in ways that are consistent with the dynamics ofthese fire-dependent ecosystems,” he said. “We are also going to needthe help of lawmakers and policy-makers.”
Prescribed burning was fundamentally sound, but couldgo too far, he said. Too many land-management laws in the US were “passive,hands-off”.
“I don’t know that there’s a country in the worldright now that has yet confronted the new realities of these alarming trends inclimate and fuel, and growth in the interface,” he said. “Certainlyhere in Australia, I believe, you are poised to be a world leader in this area.”
In a week where ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope faceda vote of no confidence over his role in the 2003 firestorm which swept throughCanberra, killing four people and destroying 487 houses, some of Williams’swords hit close to home.
“When we’re overwhelmed with the 1 per centwildfire in the US, nobody applauds the 99 per cent of fires that wentwell,” he said. “Most disaster and loss is directly attributable tosome kind of fire operations failure.
“Fire managers are held accountable, and thecommon criticism is you should have seen it sooner, acted faster, tried faster.”
Federal Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation MinisterEric Abetz said the feelings were echoed in the latest fires which destroyedmore than one million hectares in north-east Victoria and south-east NSW.
“The overwhelming community feeling is being letdown by policy- and decision-makers who either refuse or are unable to correctlycall a fire threat and then fail to respond adequately, resulting in a loss oflife, property and community assets while choking the skies with smoke,” hesaid.
Abetz is keen to see more prescribed burning to helpconservation, as “state governments have adopted a lock-up-and-forgetmentality” which was a contributing factor to the megafires.
“Analogies are always dangerous, but can I sayit’s a bit like the road toll,” he said. “Whilst we have cars on roads,we will have casualties; and whilst we have forests, we will have fires.Seatbelts of themselves won’t stop every injury or fatality, but they sure havebeen very helpful in controlling the road toll. Similarly it is disingenuous toargue that fuel reduction is not a panacea of course it’s not, but likeseatbelts it sure helps. A failure to acknowledge this truth is to do ourcommunity a disservice.”
CSIRO honorary research fellow Phil Cheney agrees.While some argue fire is simply a part of the environment, important for forests’life cycles and increasing prescribed burning is a knee-jerk reaction, Cheneysays it is part of the solution.
“When we get these fires burning under droughtconditions with heavy fuels, everything burns. There are no refuges for fauna,this is a massive uniform treatment,” he said.
“The environment people in several states haveabrogated their responsibility to suppress and manage fires on their estate andhave handed it over to emergency services which have taken it up in with openarms. In my book this has failed here, as it has failed in the most powerfulcountry in the world.
“We need to research the application of fire evenfurther, and we have to focus our mega-ignitions closer to minimal burningconditions than we have already.
“It’s a political issue, I see, to regainconsciousness about fire being a natural part of our environment which we needto manage” a political issue Abetz at least seems keen to tackle.
“Just last week I toured bushfire-affected areasof south-east Australia, and saw first-hand the impact [of the summer fires].The intensity of wildfires is of real concern,” he said.
“Fires that travel through the crown of theforests and reach temperatures as extreme, by some estimates, of 1200 degreesenough to liquefy aluminium and melt steel … barriers and crack huge boulders.”
But leadership on managing these large-scale fires hadfailed, according to those who were suffering.
Abetz said the message he received from the affectedcommunities was consistent they felt “patronisingly belittled” asauthorities in faraway headquarters ignored local knowledge.
“But even greater than the scarred landscape andloss of habitat is the human loss and the overwhelming belief, well foundedmight I add, that it need not have happened.”