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WA Fire Escape

Recently, a fuel reduction burn escaped from a national park and destroyed more than 30 homes in the Margaret River region in south-west Western Australia. This serves as a reminder of the risks in using low intensity burns of forest and bushland to reduce the fuel load so that future wildfires may be controlled.
The burn was started at a time of favourable weather but with forecasts of high temperatures and winds for a couple of days later. It was reported that the authorities made the decision to proceed with the burn because the area would pose a greater fire risk unless the fuel reduction burning program could be finished beforehand. They indicated that there was a backlog of forested areas with high fuel build-up and ‘once the fuels start getting old, like they are, and you have an escape, the consequences are much more significant.’

While all details surrounding the incident are not yet known, it highlights the balancing act as to the levels of fuel reduction burning that are needed to reduce the wildfire risk. The 2002 Library paper Bushfires: Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer?, which discusses the issues, is about to be updated with the latest research findings on this contentious matter.

A West Australian editorial made the following comments about the fire. “No one should question the need for prescribed burns as a way of preventing catastrophes when fires get out of control in the height of summer. But the questions in this instance revolve around how the agency manages those burns and how it responds to changing conditions.”

Unlike in the eastern states, where autumn burns are normally carried out, fuel reduction burns in south-west WA are normally carried out in the spring. Therefore a wet winter and spring can restrict the numbers of days with opportunities to safely carry out burns before the weather warms up and dries out too much for burns to be contained.

The Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation has historically carried out fuel reduction burns across six to eight per cent of forested land in south-western WA compared with less than two percent in other States in the south-eastern Australia. A submission to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission said that “in order to restrict the extent of wildfires from impacting less than one percent of the landscape each year, the proportion of the landscape that needs to be fuel reduced is between eight to ten per cent per year.” The Royal Commission recommended a program of fuel reduction burning in Victoria should be based on an annual rolling target of five per cent minimum of public land.

The amount of fuel reduction burning in the region has been significantly reduced due to low rainfall over the past ten years but it has been reported there have been other constraints due to “longer summers and complaints about smoke from townsfolk and wine growers who said it tainted their grapes”.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett is expected to announce an inquiry into the fire, in which details of the fuel reduction burn and the reasons for its escape from containment lines should become clear.