Australia — A STUDY of houses lost on Black Saturday has rejected claims that large-scale prescribed forest burning is the best way to protect lives in bushfires, finding it is only half as effective as clearing vegetation around homes.
The analysis of 499 houses affected by fire on February 7, 2009, found prescribed burning policies offered only moderate protection compared with removing trees and shrubs within 40 metres of buildings.
It questions the basis of a recommendation by the Bushfires Royal Commission, adopted by the state government, that the prescribed burning program be tripled so that about 5 per cent of public land is burnt each year. Advertisement: Story continues below
Writing today in The Age, lead researcher Philip Gibbons said the 5 per cent target had ”the potential to encourage burning large remote areas – a strategy that will not afford increased protection to houses on days like Black Saturday”.
”To avoid the next Black Saturday, prescribed burning should be about protecting homes and not about meeting area targets,” he said.
Dr Gibbons, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, said claims by some scientists and environmentalists that fuel reduction would have made no difference on Black Saturday bushfires were not supported by the data.
The international team of researchers found the number of houses destroyed was reduced by 87 per cent where all possible fuel reduction steps had been taken.
”Clearing trees and shrubs within 40 metres of houses was the most effective form of fuel reduction on Black Saturday,” Dr Gibbons said.
”However, there was less risk to houses from vegetation in planted gardens compared with vegetation in remnant native bushland.”
He said the research, published in the journal Public Library of Science, was only made possible by the scale of the devastation on Black Saturday. More than 2000 homes were destroyed and 173 lives lost.
The researchers found that logging of native forests did not reduce the likelihood of houses being lost – that the risk was similar for homes next to national parks and state forests, where logging is allowed.