The committee is of the view that there needs to be a rethink and restructure to bushfire management nationally, in light of the unprecedented nature of the 2019–20 bushfire season. There needs to be an acknowledgement that, among other things:
climate change is escalating the severity and scale of Australian bushfires;
Australia was underprepared for the 2019–20 bushfire season, despite the repeated warnings from emergency response leaders and climate scientists of an increase in climate-related disasters, including longer and more dangerous bushfire seasons; and
knowledge, resources and capability must be significantly increased and targeted to measures that ensure better preparedness and an all-of-society approach to disaster risk management based on the best available evidence.
There is a clear need for Australia to increase its resilience and preparedness for natural disasters similar to the magnitude and intensity of the 2019–20 bushfire season. A changing climate makes these actions more urgent.
This report has shown that issues such as improved, coordinated and consistent communication, better support for access to health services—including telehealth—and mental health support for first responders, and action from the insurance industry to support emissions reduction, are just some of the ways in which things could be improved before Australia experiences it's next 'Black Summer'.
The 2020-21 bushfire season
On 31 August 2020, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) released its Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook for September to November 2020.
While the 2019–20 bushfire season was driven by Australia's warmest and driest year on record, the Outlook explained that 2020 had thus far seen a shift away from drier conditions to 'closer to average rainfall patterns for large parts of the country'. Conversely, central and south east Queensland and large parts of Western Australia had seen drier than average conditions.
The BNHCRC's Outlook noted that the upcoming 2020–21 fire season would be 'driven by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons'. The BNHCRC observed that large areas of eastern and northern Australia were expecting wetter than average conditions through spring due to La Nina, but that parts of Queensland faced 'above normal fire potential in the south east and central coast, extending to the north'. The BNHCRC found that:
While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help in the short‑term, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer. These conditions will be monitored closely over the coming months. In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions persist in Western Australia, with above normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.
The Outlook went on to note that the autumn and winter of 2020 had presented opportunities to 'conduct prescribed burning where appropriate weather conditions allowed', and this would continue through spring in some jurisdictions, when possible.
The recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phase is a critical opportunity to rebuild in a way that improves infrastructure, including through integrating disaster risk reduction into development measures. There are a number of efforts underway to progress recovery to the fires, and to improve future natural disaster resilience.
For example, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) advised that it was contributing to the government's recovery efforts, by 'helping build national resilience and strengthening response capabilities'.
Dr Peter Mayfield, Executive Director of Environment, Energy and Resources at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), informed the committee that CSIRO scientists were working on a number of projects around bushfire research, including the development of:
… reliable tools to predict bushfire behaviour, advance fire-spread prediction and, in addition, bushfire suppression systems. We undertake training of all of the state fire agencies in fire behaviour and prediction, and we use world-class facilities and models to better understand and manage fires under future climate conditions.
Ongoing mitigation efforts
Significant and ongoing mitigation efforts are required to address emissions reduction, and the risks presented by a changing climate and the increased severity and frequency of natural disaster events like bushfires.
As was noted by Dr Richard Thornton, Chief Executive Officer of the BNHCRC, mitigation includes both short‑term seasonal preparedness, and longer-term planning. Dr Thornton went on to describe some mitigation activities, including 'land use planning, better building, building codes for new construction and incentives for retrofitting existing assets'. However, Dr Thornton observed that there were some impediments to implementing mitigation efforts, because:
These are all intensely politically charged topics. In fact, there is political capital to be gained by providing disaster relief, but it is lost when politicians ask communities to undertake their own risk reduction activities. All these points lead us to the importance of better disaster resilience in our communities and in our natural landscape, a better and more-informed approach to mitigation, better building and rebuilding, better management of fire resources and a recognition that some places where we choose to live may not be appropriate in the near future.
To this end, DISER explained that it was playing a key role in ensuring that Australia would meet its international emissions reductions commitments, and that it was helping to:
… mitigate the risk of future bushfire events as part of a global response to climate change. We also help develop the required evidence base to support mitigation activities by Australian governments and emergency agencies, through supporting the research and activities of organisations such as CSIRO and the BNHCRC.
Mr Greg Mullins of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) also spoke to the need to address the fact that climate change was driving extreme weather, in turn driving natural disaster risks. Mr Mullins declared that:
We have to change what we're doing. But, also, we need to take action on the main causal factor, which is emissions—carbon dioxide emissions and methane emissions—and bring the temperature down eventually. I think we have a duty to future generations.
Reconstruction and rebuilding
Submitters stressed that the 2019–20 bushfire season had reinforced the imperative that rebuilding process must 'build back better' and adapt to a changing climate. On this matter, the Australian Institute of Architects made a number of recommendations in its submission, including:
that properties are 'built back better' when rebuilding after disasters to be 'more fire resistant, more resilient, sustainable and climate responsive';
appropriate rebuilding and building design in bushfire-affected areas;
that some remote locations should be considered unsuitable for reconstruction and should be seen as 'inherently vulnerable'; and
effective community and stakeholder engagement to develop disaster resilient communities, and to ensure that 'investment and reconstruction benefits the broader community'.
Communities and individuals must be informed about the level of risk associated with their location in order to effectively make decisions regarding their properties.
The committee will examine the role of appropriate building standards, regulations and land use planning as its inquiry continues, including the suitability of the Commonwealth Government constructing a nationally available database that collates bushfire risk ratings from around the country, to help guide building and reconstruction locations.
Data availability and accessibility
The availability of accurate and timely data will be vital in increasing the understanding and mitigation of disaster risk. It became evident after the 2019‑20 bushfires that there were significant gaps in data collection for a number of areas, to the point where even the Royal Commission on National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Royal Commission) has been unable to definitively state the impact of the fires by area burnt.
Priority 1 of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (NDRRF) is 'Understanding disaster risk'. The Framework notes that '[a]cross all sectors, there is an urgent and growing demand for trusted and authoritative disaster risk information and services to inform operational and strategic decisions'.
However, the NDRRF acknowledges that there are current gaps in disaster risk data and information, as well as barriers to the sharing and availability of data and information. The NDRRF states that existing data is based on hazard patterns, which has limited application in predicting future risk. The NDRRF continues that:
More needs to be done to properly connect and leverage existing data, information and services that are not accessible or affordable. Also, we need to better understand and address key data and information gaps and overcome barriers to sharing it.
The Department of Home Affairs acknowledged in its submission that accessing and integrating bushfire hazard data and risk information was challenging. Bushfire extent data was produced by each state and territory using different data structures and was presented in real time through different jurisdictional systems using a variety of formats and symbolisation, creating integration challenges.
Geoscience Australia expanded on this issue in its submission, calling for a national dataset:
The national extent of the bushfires during the 2019–20 summer quickly demonstrated the need for a national dataset showing the extents where fire had burnt. Although individual states publish data showing where fires have burnt in the current fire season, no national dataset showing where the fires had burnt had been published until this year, meaning our knowledge of fire extent is fragmented and inconsistent across jurisdictions. A national dataset is essential for a nationally coordinated and coherent understanding of which areas, populations, infrastructure, flora and fauna, and other assets have been impacted by the bushfires.
As there was no common, nation-wide operating picture during the 2019–20 bushfire season, there was limited ability for people to quickly assess information and understand where fires were threatening populations, significant places, or infrastructure. According to Geoscience Australia, this can be remedied by the:
adoption, by trusted data providers, of nationally-agreed standards for symbology and classification for fire-related data; and
aggregation and publication of those datasets in an easy to use platform as a national-scale common operating picture, from authorised sources, covering Australia's sovereign extents.
The committee sees considerable merit in examining the issue of data collection and dissemination and its role in promoting both resilience and recovery. It is also clear that the lack of a nationally‑consistent approach to data collection and presentation leads to confusion and can significantly increase risk. As detailed below, the committee will continue to examine this, and many other matters, as it continues its inquiry.
This interim report is by no means exhaustive, and the committee intends to continue its work to investigate all aspects of the 2019–20 bushfire season throughout 2021. The committee will examine a number of other areas of interest, including (but not limited to):
the 2020–21 Budget allocations made to support the recovery and mitigation process;
the adequacy of financial support provided to people impacted by the fires;
the role of charitable organisations in providing financial and other support during natural disasters, and the suitability of existing frameworks for distributing donations;
the role of land use planning, and building regulations and standards in bushfire‑prone areas, to improve preparedness against natural disasters;
a detailed examination of the role of data collection and information in addressing disaster risk and mitigation;
the important role of Indigenous fire management practices;
the ongoing impact of the fires on people's mental and physical health, and the adequacy of the government's health support funding;
the impact of the bushfires on Australia's international reputation and on industries such as tourism and education, and the compounding impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; and
the findings of the other ongoing inquiries into the 2019–20 bushfire season, including the Royal Commission which is due to table its final report at the end of October 2020.
Findings of other inquiries
During the inquiry to date, the committee has been pleased to observe that the various inquiries and investigations into the 2019–20 bushfire season, at both a state and federal level, have reached similar conclusions and made similar observations and recommendations—for example, with regard to addressing a changing climate; building bushfire and natural disaster resilience; improving risk mitigation efforts, and better cohesion between jurisdictions.
The committee is optimistic that because of this, effective governance arrangements, climate change mitigation efforts and fire management practices and hazard reductions can be progressed in a timely manner and implemented before such a devastating fire season can strike Australia again.