World Heritage Convention and remote area fire management
This chapter discusses Australia's obligations under the 1972 Convention
Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World
Heritage Convention) in relation to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage
Area (TWWHA). It also comments on world best practice in remote area fire
Australia's World Heritage Convention obligations
The World Heritage Convention sets out the duties of States Parties to
identify and delineate cultural and natural heritage sites, and to protect,
conserve, present and transmit those sites to future generations. Article 5
outlines the measures that States Parties are encouraged to take:
- to adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural
and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate
the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programmes;
- to set up within its territories, where such services do
not exist, one or more services for the protection, conservation and
presentation of the cultural and natural heritage with an appropriate staff and
possessing the means to discharge their functions;
- to develop scientific and technical studies and research
and to work out such operating methods as will make the State capable of
counteracting the dangers that threaten its cultural or natural heritage;
- to take the appropriate legal, scientific, technical,
administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification,
protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage; and
- to foster the establishment or development of national or
regional centres for training in the protection, conservation and presentation
of the cultural and natural heritage and to encourage scientific research in
The World Heritage Convention establishes a process by which each State
Party nominates property forming part of its cultural and natural heritage.
The Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural
and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Committee) uses these inventories to
establish the World Heritage List, which is updated and published at least
every two years.
Australia was the seventh State Party to sign the Convention, ratifying
it in 1974,
and in 1982, the TWWHA was inscribed on the World Heritage List by the World
Heritage Committee. To be included on the list, the TWWHA was determined to be
a site of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), which meets four natural and three
Compliance with the World Heritage Convention
The Australian and Tasmanian Governments signed an Intergovernmental
Agreement to determine their respective roles and responsibilities under the
World Heritage Convention. In particular, the Australian Government delegated
management responsibilities to the Tasmanian Government, the lead agency being the
Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania (PWS).
In relation to bushfires, Tasmania assists Australia to meet its
obligations through a combination of measures. These include a management plan
(Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan 1999), Fire
Mitigation Plans (to reduce the occurrence and impact of fires) and
specific legislation (to protect TWWHA values in relation to prescribed burning
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage
Area Management Plan 1999
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan 1999 (the Management
Plan 1999) sets out the policy framework and management prescriptions to guide
management of the TWWHA for a period of 10 years.
It contains specific prescriptions which include fire management.
Within this prescription, wildfire suppression is to take precedence
over all other management activities. In the event of a wildfire, the Incident
Controller uses a fire suppression plan to assign a priority to four objectives
(life, environment, targeted fire regimes, property and infrastructure). However:
If no suppression plan is available, priorities will be set
taking into account the values and assets at risk, legal requirements (such as
the requirement to prevent fires escaping from the WHA) and the resources
available for their protection, subject to the following qualifications where
first priority will always be the protection of human life;
second priority will be the protection of rare and threatened fire
sensitive species and communities; and
third priority will be the protection of substantial and valuable
The Management Plan 1999 specifically states:
It is the responsibility of the [PWS], on behalf of the
Commonwealth, to manage fire to meet its obligations under the World Heritage
Convention, the Fire Service Act 1979, and common law. At some times, in
some locations, these obligations are incompatible.
The committee notes the intersection between the second priority in the Management
Plan 1999 and the argument that the Tasmanian Government did not appropriately
prioritise environmental assets during the 2016 bushfires in the TWWHA (see
Draft Tasmanian Wilderness World
Heritage Area Management Plan 2014
The Tasmanian Government noted that the Management Plan 1999 is now 'outdated'.
Accordingly, a new management plan is being developed for the TWWHA (Draft
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan 2014 (the Draft
The Tasmanian Government submitted that the Draft Management Plan is in
line with existing policy and frameworks for fire management in Tasmanian
Parks. The principal planning documents are: the Fire Management Policy 2011;
the Fire Planning Policy 2009; and Regional Strategic Fire Management
The Draft Management Plan states that the overriding principle of the Fire
Management Policy 2011 is the prioritisation of bushfire suppression and:
...all reasonable steps will be taken to ensure that the
impact of planned fires, prevention and fire-suppression activities on natural
and cultural values is minimised.
The Draft Management Plan noted that the PWS uses the Bushfire Risk
Assessment Model, one element of which is 'values at risk' (see chapter 4).
However, 'there is limited knowledge of the impacts of fire on some of these
values and not all values are currently included'.
The committee notes that the Draft Management Plan is in the final
stages of the approval process and is likely to include recommendations from
inquiries into the management of the 2016 bushfires.
Comments on the Draft Management Plan
Some submitters and witnesses referred to the Management Plan 1999,
comparing its fire management prescription for wildfire suppression with the Draft
Management Plan. For example, the Tasmanian Greens pointed out that the latter
document omits several explicit bushfire 'references':
the fact some parts of the TWWHA are destroyed by fire and will
not recover or regenerate;
the need to maintain a rapid response capability;
the need for continuing research on fire in the TWWHA; and
the need for monitoring of the effectiveness of fire strategies.
Similarly, The Wilderness Society (Tasmania) and Greenpeace commented on
the omission of fire management prescriptions that prioritise the protection of
rare and threatened fire sensitive species and communities:
The government has not explained the reason for this deletion
and there seems no logical reason why such provisions shouldn't be articulated
in the statutory management framework for the TWWHA. [The Wilderness Society
(Tasmania) and Greenpeace] are deeply disturbed by this deletion. It appears to
be another expression of the Tasmanian Government's hostility to proper
protection of the natural environment.
Mr Nicholas Sawyer from the Tasmanian National Parks Association
suggested that maybe PWS 'went a bit overboard in terms of removing some of the
prescriptions about fire', due to a current push to reintroduce traditional
burning of country. He speculated that, if the Draft Management Plan is
finalised without reintroduction of the fire management prescription, this could
place at risk the OUV of the TWWHA:
It basically takes the policy imperative of protecting
fire-sensitive species down a couple of rungs, if not more than that, on the
priority ladder compared to what we have in the 1999 plan. If that translates
on the ground in terms of firefighting resources to an equal deprioritisation
of those...the next time was have a really bad fire situation it could well
result in the loss of major areas of the Gondwanan vegetation that form part of
the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage area.
The committee notes that it has been recommended to the World Heritage
Committee by one of its Reactive Monitoring Missions to request Australia 'to ensure
that the issue of fire management is fully reflected in the revision of the
draft Management Plan for the property'.
At the Canberra public hearing, the Commonwealth Department of the
Environment and Energy (DEE) indicated that the Draft Management Plan does not sufficiently
comply with the World Heritage Convention or the Australian World Heritage
management principles. An officer noted however that 'the plan is still being
finalised' and 'our expectation is that the plan that is finalised by Tasmania
Mr John Whittington, Secretary of Department of Primary Industries,
Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE), confirmed that the approach to
describing fire had been 'a little underdone' and will be revised in the final
version of the Draft Management Plan:
...the final plan will have a little more material in there
around fire planning. But certainly the position of Parks is very much around
protecting the OUV of the property...suppression of fire is very much driven by
the OUV of the property, so that is a very high priority in the mix immediately
after life...[the final plan] will have a slightly more fulsome description of
fire management than the previous plan and I also expect it to go to being
explicit about the prioritisation of OUV.
Upholding World Heritage values
Although the Tasmanian Government is responsible for managing the TWWHA,
the Australian Government is obliged as a State Party to protect the TWWHA and
its World Heritage values. The obligation is given effect through the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (the EPBC Act)
which requires the Australian Government to:
use its best endeavours to ensure a plan for managing the
property in a way that is not inconsistent with the World Heritage Convention
and the Australian World Heritage Management principles, in co-operation with
the relevant state or territory; and
take all reasonable steps to ensure it exercises its powers and
performs its functions in relation to the property in a way that is not
the World Heritage Convention; and
the Australian World Heritage management principles; and
if the property is on the World Heritage List and a plan for
managing the property has been prepared—that plan.
In addition, section 324 of the EPBC Act enables the Australian
Government to give financial or other assistance to the Tasmanian Government
for the protection or conservation of the TWWHA. The state benefits from
various measures, including annual funding of $3.4 million (which is at least matched
by the Tasmanian Government).
In 2015, the Australian Government committed an additional $10.2 million
over four years to strengthen management efforts.
The DEE noted that funding priorities are discussed with the National
Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council (Tas), before being submitted to the
Commonwealth for review. A number of activities have been funded to increase
Tasmania's capacity to manage and reduce the impacts of fires in the TWWHA.
Comment on Australia's obligations
Submissions and evidence provided little direct comment on Australia's
obligations as a State Party to the World Heritage Convention. An exception was
the Tasmanian Greens, who submitted that Australia's compliance with Article
5(2)–(3) has been demonstrably 'insufficient'. The Tasmanian Greens cited
especially DPIPWE's lack of resources, the evidence base for modelling, and reduced
Another exception was the DEE which affirmed the Australian Government's
commitment to supporting Tasmania to strengthen its management of the TWWHA
(primarily through funding measures), and emphasised its involvement in the
development of the Draft Management Plan:
The Department of the Environment has worked closely with [DPIPWE]
while it reviews and revises the management plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness.
In particular, the [DEE] has provided advice to [DPIPWE] on Australia's World
Heritage Convention obligations and application of the Australian World
Heritage management principles.
The DEE advised that it was also active during the 2016 bushfires, maintaining
contact with Tasmanian officials to ensure the Australian Government well
understood the damage to the TWWHA and its World Heritage values. Reports were provided
to the World Heritage Committee regarding the state of conservation. Further
reports will follow once DPIPWE has completed its impact assessment and
developed rehabilitation plans for the World Heritage Area.
World best practice in remote area fire management
Remote area fire management is an arduous and labour intensive activity
that requires extensive training, and high levels of physical and mental
Some submitters and witnesses praised Australia for its world best practice in
The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre (BNH CRC) described
Australia as 'one of the leaders in this type of firefighting...[with a] national
capability that is called upon as the need arises'. Its submission highlighted
especially the focus on national capabilities:
No one state can maintain all the resources required for
firefighting on the worst days, as this would be cost prohibitive and wasteful.
In Australia there are interstate agreements for sharing of resources,
including remote area firefighting teams. Indeed these agreements also stretch
to international agreements which have included New Zealand, USA and Canada.
Mr Mark Crosweller, Emergency Management Australia, said:
States and territories have probably the world's leading
capacity in remote firefighting. Often bitter experience and loss of life have
taught us how to get better at that capability. There were over 1,000 personnel
in the remote area firefighting capability, as I understand it, that was put
into Tasmania from adjoining states. They talk about over 2,000 rotations, so
that is 1,000 people rotating at least twice and some three times. That is a
substantial weight of attack in remote area firefighting capacity.
The BNH CRC submitted that Australia's coordination of national
resources, policy, practice, operations and research is 'unique' and 'world
As an example, it noted the Australian Disaster Resilience Institute (formerly
the Australian Emergency Management Institute), a partnership between the Australasian
Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the Australian Red Cross, the
BNH CRC and the Attorney-General's Department (AGD).
Areas for improvement
Submitters and witnesses did not disagree with the assessment of
Australia's world-leading position. However, detection and planned burning were
highlighted as areas that could be improved for future fire management and
suppression in the TWWHA.
Some submitters argued that the TWWHA needs earlier bushfire detection.
Professor David Bowman described how the dominance of combustible organic soils
and large areas of closed canopy vegetation complicate the early detection of
Organic soils can smoulder for long periods underground
before spreading under favourable (favourable or unfavourable?!) fire weather conditions.
Closed canopies can obscure small surface fires. Detection of fires in
trackless areas is difficult and relies on aerial surveillance and remote
However, AGD, DPIPWE and Professor Bowman noted that aerial surveillance
can be problematic, due to hazardous flying conditions and concealment by cloud
cover. Instead, Professor Bowman suggested that there is greater scope for
improved lightning detection networks, which can then be surveilled by drones.
AGD and BNH CRC are considering the use of drones in fire management.
However, there might be some unresolved issues with this technology. Mr
Crosweller, AGD, explained:
How do you incorporate those technologies into operations? It
is one thing to get a picture, but it is another thing to bring it in in an
intelligent way that makes sense to the operational commanders and can be
An officer from DPIPWE commented that any remote area technology that
can help detect bushfires would be helpful, as time had been lost in trying to
detect the 2016 bushfires in the TWWHA:
Part of the delay was we had two or three days where there
was smoke reported but no follow-up flame. We were flying around in helicopters
and spotter flights to try and identify if there was fire, how big it was and
could we do anything about it? We had drizzle, low cloud and some patches of
rain during those first few days, so it was very difficult to identify those.
There was not enough heat being put out by the fires, so you could not even use
an infrared scan to pick them up. So a hell of a lot of time was spent just
trying to identify did we have a problem or didn't we?
Planned burning operations
Fire management in the TWWHA is logistically challenging, due to a
multiplicity of factors—remoteness, terrain, weather, the occurrence of organic
soils, closed canopy vegetation and a paucity of maintained fire breaks.
In these conditions, some submitters and witnesses indicated that there is a
need for more planned burning operations.
The National Aerial Firefighting Centre observed that, although a
'proven, efficient and cost-effective technique' for fire suppression,
firefighting aircraft have limitations—such as that they are usually effective
only when used in a coordinated effort with ground crew.
Dr Andrew Sullivan from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organisation (CSIRO) similarly indicated that aerial fire suppression
becomes pointless without ground crew activity once fire intensity reaches a
Once a forest fire gets to a point where it starts throwing
spots, the ability of the aerial suppression to actually control the fire drops
off. Even below that limit, aerial suppression will not extinguish a fire
without having somebody on the ground to put the fire out. Aerial suppression
will knock the flames down and reduce the intensity for a short period, and
that can enable somebody to go in and put the fire out. But after that period
of time, the fire will then build back up again if there is nobody there to put
the fire out.
Professor Bowman warned that traditional methods of fire suppression can
be ineffective in the TWWHA. In the case of:
water bombing—peat (organic soil) fires can burn underground for
firebreaks—the remote and intractable terrain prevents the use of
heavy machinery in most areas; and
digging trenches—causes significant and ongoing environmental
Professor Bowman supported the creation of firebreaks through planned
burning operations to reduce the areal extent of landscape fires, in particular
elective and careful planned burning of treeless buttongrass moorlands. He
There is evidence that fires burning under moderate fire
weather conditions will stop on recently burnt buttongrass moorlands. Targeted
burning of buttongrass moorlands is therefore a critical preventative methodology
to reduce the extent of large fires.
Professor Bowman argued that ground crews should conduct these burns, as
they have greater situational awareness and the ability to work under a wide
range of weather conditions, compared to aerial burns. He suggested:
There is scope to use properly trained remote area
fire-fighting personnel (possibly drawn from NGOs and Tasmanian Aboriginal Communities
with a stake in land management) working outside the fire season to undertake such
As a State Party to the World Heritage Convention, Australia has
obligations in respect of the natural and cultural heritage of the TWWHA. While
certain responsibilities have been delegated to the Tasmanian Government, the
Australian Government ultimately remains responsible for the protection,
conservation, etc. of the World Heritage property.
Based on the information received, it would appear that the Australian
Government is complying with its World Heritage Convention obligations. There appeared
to be a prompt response to the 2016 bushfires in the TWWHA, in line with
emergency management arrangements; and the DEE works closely with DPIPWE in
relation to management of the TWWHA, most notably in the recent preparation of
a new management plan that complies with the international obligations.
Further, the Australian Government provides funding in a number of areas—such
as management, research and national aerial firefighting capability.
However, the 2016 bushfires in the TWWHA have helped to highlight that,
in the absence of the public spotlight, there are matters that have not
received sufficient attention and that are only now being recognised and
While the Tasmanian Government appears to have been properly more
engaged in the routine management of the TWWHA, in the committee's view the
Tasmanian and Australian Governments should be working together at a strategic
level to protect and conserve this valuable wilderness area. At present, there
appears to be a slight tendency for the Australian Government to delegate much
of the responsibility to the Tasmanian Government.
The committee considers that this is not satisfactory and the Australian
Government should have a greater role in supporting the Tasmanian Government to
fulfil Australia's World Heritage Convention obligations. Accordingly, the
committee makes the following recommendations.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government recognise the
need to enhance protection and conservation efforts in the Tasmanian Wilderness
World Heritage Area by allocating increased funding:
to the Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania, for appropriate
management activities and resources; and
for research projects aimed at providing qualitative and
quantitative data specific to climate‑related and ecological threats to the
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (such as dry lightning strike).
The committee recommends that the Australian and Tasmanian Governments:
develop options to increase co‑operation to ensure that the
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is protected and conserved in line
with Australia's obligations under the World Heritage Convention; and
work together to ensure strong provisions to protect the Tasmanian
Wilderness World Heritage Area from bushfire risks are included in the Tasmanian
Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan.
Senator Nick McKim
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