On 5 February 2020, the Senate referred the following matters to the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by the last sitting day in 2021:
Lessons to be learned in relation to the preparation and planning for, response to and recovery efforts following the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, with particular reference to:
advice provided to the Federal Government, prior to the bushfires, about the level of bushfire risk this fire season, how and why those risks differed from historical norms, and measures that should be taken to reduce that risk in the future;
the respective roles and responsibilities of different levels of government, and agencies within government, in relation to bushfire planning, mitigation, response, and recovery;
the Federal Government’s response to recommendations from previous bushfire Royal Commissions and inquiries;
the adequacy of the Federal Government’s existing measures and policies to reduce future bushfire risk, including in relation to assessing, mitigating and adapting to expected climate change impacts, land use planning and management, hazard reduction, Indigenous fire practices, support for firefighters and other disaster mitigation measures;
best practice funding models and policy measures to reduce future bushfire risk, both within Australia and internationally;
existing structures, measures and policies implemented by the Federal Government, charities and others to assist communities to recover from the 2019–20 bushfires, including the performance of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency;
the role and process of advising Government and the federal Parliament of scientific advice;
an examination of the physical and mental health impacts of bushfires on the population, and the Federal Government’s response to those impacts; and
Conduct of the inquiry
Details of the inquiry were placed on the committee's website at: www.aph.gov.au/senate_fpa. The committee also contacted a number of relevant individuals and organisations to notify them of the inquiry and invite submissions.
On 19 March 2020, the committee agreed to extend the closing date for submissions from 9 April 2020 to 22 May 2020. At the time of this interim report, the committee had received 145 submissions, which are listed at Appendix 1.
The committee has thus far held five public hearings, based out of Canberra, on the following dates:
A list of witnesses who gave evidence at the hearings is available Appendix 2.
Submissions and the Hansard transcripts of hearings may be accessed on the committee website. References to the Hansard in this report may be to the proof transcript. Page numbers may vary between proof and official transcripts.
Update on the committee's work
Throughout 2020, the committee had hoped to travel to regions which were significantly impacted by the 2019–20 bushfire season. The committee wishes to meet with locals in their communities, to better understand the impact of the bushfires on their lives, and the environment around them.
Unfortunately, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee has thus far been unable to travel. The committee certainly intends to visit affected communities, and it will progress with these activities as a matter of priority when it is considered safe to do so.
The committee thanks the individuals and organisations who participated in its public hearings, as well as those that made written submissions and engaged with the committee.
The committee recognises and greatly appreciates the tireless efforts of firefighters, emergency services personnel, state and local governments and community volunteers to protect the community and limit the devastation of the fires as much as possible.
The committee also offers its deepest sympathies to all of those who lost loved ones during the fires, and to those who lost their family homes and properties.
The 2019–20 bushfire season
The 2019–20 Australian bushfires, also known as the Black Summer bushfires, had a devastating impact on the country. The bushfires have been described as 'unprecedented, devastating local communities and driving unparalleled responses from all levels of government'. It has also been noted that the fires were catastrophic from both an environmental and public health perspective, and the worst in history for some jurisdictions, such as New South Wales (NSW), due to:
… unprecedented extreme weather and cascading events including drought, heatwaves, dry thunderstorms, multiple days of Severe, Extreme and Catastrophic fire danger, and pyroconvective fires.
The bushfires began in August 2019, and by late February 2020 most fires had been extinguished. Tragically, as a result of the fires, 33 people lost their lives, including 25 people in NSW, five in Victoria and three in South Australia. More than 3000 homes were destroyed.
The fires burnt an estimated 24 to 40 million hectares across multiple states and territories––'greater than the combined area burned in the Black Saturday 2009 and Ash Wednesday 1983 bushfires' and 'nearly double the area of any previous major bushfire in a fire season'. NSW recorded the highest burnt area, at 5.68 million hectares, followed by Western Australia (2.04 million ha) and Victoria (1.58 million ha).
The devastation of the bushfires also had a direct impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) made clear that:
The impact of the fires on Aboriginal communities is multilayered, with sacred sites, the habitats of culturally significant animals, and Country being decimated.
Preconditions of the 2019–20 bushfires
The 2019–20 bushfire season occurred during a period of record‑breaking temperatures and extremely low rainfall. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) described 2019 as Australia's warmest and driest year on record, with the annual mean temperature being 1.52° Celsius above average.
The second half of the year was particularly dry across most of southern Australia, and followed several years of below average rainfall. The impact of low rainfall since early 2017 was exacerbated by record high temperatures, which in turn drove higher rates of evaporation where water was available. Low rainfall also led to very low soil moisture across large areas of Australia during 2019.
More challenging fire seasons have been forecast for many years, including by the Garnaut Climate Change Review in 2008, commissioned by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, which projected that:
… fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.
This sentiment was supported by Dr Pep Canandell, Senior Principal Research Scientist in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Climate Science Centre and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, who stated that:
This year's intense fire activity was to be expected indeed. Fire weather, and specifically Australia's forest fire danger index, have all been growing for the past 30 years, and all showed that we were trending very high this year, too.
This section considers the environmental factors that contributed to extreme fire conditions which led to the 2019–20 bushfires—including weather conditions and climate change.
In its submission to the committee, the BOM summarised that:
The combination of the severe drought, record high temperatures, dry windy conditions, and dry forest fuels resulted in fire weather conditions considerably more dangerous than in a normal season and clearly the most severe in our records.
The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) made similar points in its submission and concluded that 'the ongoing drought coupled with increasing periods of extreme heat, both aggravated by climate change, set the scene for the catastrophic fires in the summer of 2019–20'.
These conditions inevitably impacted the degree of fire danger in Australian forests. Figure 1.1 illustrates the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) deciles during spring 2019, which were either very much above average or the highest on record for more than 95 per cent of Australia.
Figure 1.1: Accumulated-FFDI deciles for spring 2019 (based on all years since 1950)
Source: Bureau of Meteorology, Special Climate Statement 72—dangerous bushfire weather in spring 2019, 18 December 2019, p. 11.
Given these unprecedented conditions, the BNHCRC highlighted that 'the tendency for fire seasons to become more intense and fire danger to occur earlier in the season is a clear trend in Australia's climate'. The interim observations of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Royal Commission), published in August 2020, echoed these views, and concluded that such trends would:
… require all jurisdictions to work together to coordinate strategic decision making and share resources across the jurisdictions and the Australian Government.
The State of the Climate 2018 report, which was released in December 2018 by the BOM and the CSIRO, also observed that 'there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1950s'.
At the committee's public hearing on 29 July 2020, Dr Sophie Lewis discussed the record-breaking heatwaves experienced during the 2019–20 bushfire season, which she observed were 'increasing in frequency, severity and duration' and were noteworthy for their 'impacts on physical and human systems'. Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, who appeared in a private capacity, added that 'those heat extremes are incredibly stressful on people's bodies', particularly for firefighters when they are in operations, and, consequently, 'the ability to fight those fires will be diminished …'.
The impact of climate change
Many submitters highlighted the effects of climate change on Australia's increasingly dry climate. For example, Dr Lewis told the committee that:
… [recent] studies have determined that there was a significant contribution of climate change to the extremes that we experienced in the recent summer. This aligns with the trend that has been observed … towards an increase in fire weather, danger and extension of our fire season, and the compounding effect of that with increases in heat extremes and rainfall extremes.
Dr Andrew Johnson, Chief Executive Officer and Director of Meteorology at the BOM, made similar comments about the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events:
There's no doubt that the planet is warming and there's no doubt that the causes of that warming have got a significant human footprint on them. I think that's very well established and beyond doubt. The scientific evidence for that is unequivocal …
… We do know that with that long-term warming and drying trend that we're seeing—and that warming and drying trend is occurring in parts of the country that are especially vulnerable to bushfires—that link to climate change is very strong. We see that in the trends in the Forest Fire Danger Index since the fifties, which very strongly point to this increased risk.
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), a group of 33 former fire and emergency services chiefs led by former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner, Mr Gregory Mullins AO AFSM, was emphatic about the role of climate change in driving more extreme fires. ELCA argued that irrefutable scientific evidence, supported by the lived experiences and observations of veteran firefighters and people on the land, confirmed that:
… a warming climate, proven to be caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is resulting in worsening and more frequent extreme weather events such as those that spawned the 2019–20 bushfires in NSW, Qld, SA, Victoria, WA and Tasmania. It is not possible to "adapt" to such catastrophic and escalating conditions, and they can only be partially mitigated.
Similar concerns were raised by Professor Howden, who told the committee that:
… [t]he best and most recent scientific analysis shows that human induced climate change is very likely to be making disasters, such as the recent bushfires, more frequent and more intense. Fire-prone conditions are increasing. They're up by 30 per cent since 1990 in south-east Australia. More change is likely, with current risk increasing up to four-fold if temperatures rise globally to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, noting that two degrees is the goal of the Paris agreement.
The committee heard that these trends are expected to continue to deteriorate over time. For example, Professor Jason Sharples, Professor of Bushfire Dynamics at the University of New South Wales told the committee that '… under anthropogenic global warming, the conditions conducive to extreme bushfire development are going to become more prevalent'.
The BOM supported this view, and pointed to 'recent research indicating a long-term trend towards increased risk factors associated with pyroconvection in southeast Australia'.
Similarly, in its submission, ELCA explained that bushfires could transition to more extreme events, such as:
… pyroconvective interactions (when fires burn in close proximity and influence each other, spreading faster and in unpredictable ways) and pyrocumulonimbus events (fire-generated storms). Extreme bushfires have a high level of energy, and exhibit chaotic and unpredictable behaviour, which are often harder or impossible to control and more dangerous to both firefighters and communities.
One consequence of the weather conditions exacerbated by climate change is the increased risk of fires ignited by dry-lightning. For example, the BOM noted that there is 'some indication that climate change could influence the risk of ignitions from dry-lightning'. Indeed, dry-lightning started numerous fires during the 2019–20 season. The Climate Council of Australia recounted that:
On October 26 , the Gospers Mountain fire was ignited by lightning in the Wollemi National Park. The fire burned through more than 512,000 hectares throughout November, December and January, making it the largest forest fire ever recorded in Australia. It was eventually extinguished by heavy rains in February 2020.
The extreme nature of the fires
The 2019–20 bushfires had an unprecedented intensity, resulting in significant destruction of lives, property, flora and fauna.
For example, during the 2019–20 bushfire season, Australia experienced a number of fires described as 'mega fires'. A study published on 1 July 2020, which presented a preliminary analysis of the bushfire season, described these mega fires and their impact on several jurisdictions:
Two mega-blazes were recorded in New South Wales. The Gospers Mountain fire started on 26 October 2019 and burned approximately 512,626 hectares, becoming one of the biggest forest fires in Australian history. By 11 January 2020, three fires on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, the Dunns Road fire, the East Ournie Creek, and the Riverina's Green Valley merged and created a second mega-fire which burned through 895,744 hectares. Fires in New South Wales burned more area than any single fire season during the last 20 years.
The fire season's most destructive impacts resulted in particular from 'episodic development of extreme bushfires'. By way of example, Professor Sharples drew attention to the Green Valley fire in NSW, which, on 30 December 2019, rapidly escalated into an extreme bushfire. The winds generated by the fire (reported as a large fire whirl or fire tornado) were strong enough to flip a firefighting truck, which tragically resulted in one firefighter fatality, one case of severe burns and one case of minor burns.
In addition, the Royal Commission assessed that somewhere between 24 and 40 million hectares was burned, which 'set a new benchmark for an extreme fire season in Australia's temperate forests'.
An interim report released in late July 2020 of a study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that nearly three billion animals—mammals, birds and reptiles—were killed or displaced by the fires, being almost three times the original estimate in January 2020 of 1.25 billion animals. The report states that 'this ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history'.
The duration and scale of population exposure to bushfire air pollution was unprecedented. In its Bushfire Smoke Impact Survey 2019–20, Asthma Australia observed that the bushfire smoke caused a 'public health emergency, with the smoke containing high concentrations of fine particulate matter, which is harmful to human health'. Asthma Australia made the important point that the effects of smoke are unevenly distributed across the population:
… with people with asthma or other chronic conditions, very young children, pregnant women and the elderly particularly vulnerable to the impacts.
Canberra in particular was significantly impacted by the smoke. Canberra experienced 56 days of smoke pollution above healthy levels, 12 days of hazardous level exposure, and pollution on the worst day reaching 23 times the hazardous rating.
Asthma Australia explained that the smoke on 1 January 2020 in Canberra resulted in the Air Quality Index reaching more than 25 times the hazardous level in that city. Further, between November 2019 and January 2020:
… the Air Quality Index reached greater than 10 times the hazardous rating on multiple occasions in certain areas of Sydney. It is estimated the bushfire smoke was responsible for more than 400 deaths, 2,000 respiratory hospitalisations and 1,300 presentations to the Emergency Department for asthma.
Longer bushfire seasons
Evidence received by the committee pointed to the fact that over recent years, bushfire seasons are becoming longer and more intense, with the changing and warming environment. There are serious implications to these lengthening seasons, both locally and globally, particularly in relation to the allocation of firefighting resources to the areas of most need.
The Tasmanian Government observed that the frequency and intensity of natural disasters are increasing in Australia, driven by a changing climate and changing land use. The Tasmanian Government made the key point that:
Australian states and territories are expected to experience longer fire seasons with more frequent and intense bushfire events. This is likely to pose a major challenge to fire management, increase disruptions to the economy, and impact globally significant natural and cultural values.
The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) made a similar point, noting that the frequency and intensity of natural hazards were forecast to increase both in Australia and globally. Home Affairs declared that:
Future bushfire seasons will commence earlier, be longer, and have severe impacts on Australian communities.
Dr Richard Thornton, Chief Executive Officer of the BNHCRC also commented on the fact that globally, fire seasons are becoming longer, by both starting earlier and finishing later. In addition, Dr Thornton drew attention the finding of the BOM, which noted that:
… the cumulative fire danger during the fire seasons is increasing as well. This may, in the long run, have some implications for resourcing of fire services. It also reduces the amount of time available to undertake preventive actions, particularly hazard reduction burning. As the climate changes to a warmer, drier one, weather conditions like those seen on Black Saturday, on Ash Wednesday and of course in 2019–20 are likely to become more frequent. This will be combined with more vulnerable people living in at-risk areas, owing to a growing and ageing population.
Insurance Australia Group (IAG) observed in a recent update to a report they provided to the committee that:
… the current generation of climate models under-predicts events of this severity. Opportunities for fuel management activities are also likely to be reduced due to the earlier onset of the bushfire season. Fire-prone regions throughout the world have historically shared resources. Longer fire seasons will result in coincidences of bushfires between hemispheres, increasing the strain on limited global resources.
Extended and more intense fire seasons do appear to be occurring across the globe. For example, in July 2019, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported that '[u]nusually hot and dry conditions in parts of the northern hemisphere have been conducive to fires raging from the Mediterranean to—in particular—the Arctic'. The WMO continued that:
Since the start of June , the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) has tracked over 100 intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic Circle … Although wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires, as well as the length of time that they have been burning for, has been particularly unusual…
The issue of lengthening fire seasons has been exemplified by the current bushfires experienced in California in the United States of America (US). Fires started in California on 15 August 2020 due to lightning strikes. As of 6 September 2020, and in the midst of a heatwave, there were nearly 15 000 firefighters battling 23 fires across the state, with more than 647 000 hectares burnt.
In late August, it was reported that the Governor of California had requested assistance from Australia to fight 560 fires across the state, including the provision of 55 specialised firefighters with supervisory experience and a small group of specialised aircraft managers.
However, despite the urgency of the request and a desire to help, a number of Australian jurisdictions were unable to offer assistance, due to the proximity of the Australian fire season. Queensland was unable to send assistance, and, at the time of reporting, NSW, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Western Australia (WA) were considering their options.
It is concerning to note that the Californian bushfires commenced in August, the same time of year that the 2019–20 bushfire season started in Australia. It seems apparent that as bushfire seasons around the world extend in length, they will overlap and put significant strain on limited resources. This will restrict the ability to both prepare for and extinguish extreme fire events, and for local and global co-operative support.
Key issues and complexities in addressing bushfire threats
As will be detailed throughout this report, there are significant and ongoing complexities in addressing bushfire threats, both as the fires occur, and in preparedness for bushfire seasons.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) noted that while disasters of any scale impacted on the delivery of, and the need for, Commonwealth services, the 'scale of the 2019–20 bushfires took this to the extreme'. The DPMC also suggested that the 2019–20 summer tested the capacities of local and state governments as well as recovery frameworks.
Similarly, Home Affairs noted that a key lesson of the Black Summer fires was a need to strengthen emergency management arrangements. Home Affairs contended that the fires:
… presented never-before-seen scale and reach, concurrently impacting communities in multiple jurisdictions, with significant costs to life and property, and substantial, long-term disruption to local and regional economies. While current arrangements are effective, there is an opportunity to do more to further strengthen Commonwealth, and by extension national, emergency management governance, capability and capacity. This is a key lesson from Black Summer bushfires.
The varying roles of the local, state and federal governments add to emergency management complexity, and can make the lines of reporting and communication unclear in the midst of a crisis. These issues are considered further throughout this interim report.
Scope of interim report
This interim report aims to present preliminary findings regarding the 2019–20 bushfire season and recommendations that can be implemented within relatively short timeframes. The committee has also considered how the Australian Government can better facilitate national coordination in disaster risk reduction, preparedness and response.
While short‑term action is required, the committee notes that being prepared means not only preparing for the next fire season, but also undertaking more systemic, long‑term changes that are needed to adapt to a changing climate and to limit the impact of bushfires and other extreme events across the country. The committee's ongoing work and future reporting will look to these more long‑term aims (and are discussed further in this report's final chapter).
Other inquiries into the bushfires
The committee notes that a number of other inquiries have recently been completed, or are in progress, examining the 2019–20 bushfires and making numerous and wide-ranging recommendations. The committee is grateful to have had these resources available to it, and supports a number of the key findings of these inquiries.
In particular, the committee has had the opportunity to review the findings of the following inquiries and reports:
Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan—the final report of the National Bushfire and Climate Summit 2020;
Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements: Interim observations, published on 31 August 2020; and the
NSW Government, Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, published on 31 July 2020.
Interim report structure
This interim report is comprised of nine chapters, as follows:
Chapter 1 outlines the referral and conduct of the inquiry and the scope of the interim report, and also examines the devastating outcomes, key events and causes of the 2019–20 bushfire season;
Chapter 2 discusses Australia's existing national natural disaster management arrangements, in particular the interaction between the Commonwealth and the states, and looks to future requirements;
Chapter 3 considers the actions of the government in the lead-up to the 2019–20 bushfires, and presents some of the evidence received regarding the role of hazard reduction;
Chapter 4 examines both the physical and mental health impacts of the bushfires, and the implementation of various health measures to address the impact of the 2019–20 bushfire season;
Chapter 5 comments on the impact of the bushfires on Australia's wildlife, and the need for effective wildlife and environmental rehabilitation programs;
Chapter 6 examines Australia's aerial firefighting capacity and funding arrangements, including capacity in the lead-up to the 2019–20 bushfire season, and considers whether there should be a permanent, sovereign aerial firefighting fleet;
Chapter 7 describes the role of the insurance industry in mitigating the risks of natural disasters, and the actions that have been or will be taken by the industry for both policy‑holders, and in relation to emissions reduction and mitigation;
Chapter 8 considers the role of clear communication during an emergency, including via community and commercial radio, and identifies areas for improvement in emergency communication systems and frameworks; and
Chapter 9 discusses the forecasts for the upcoming 2020–21 bushfire season, the key role of ongoing mitigation, and highlights the key areas which the committee will continue to examine as it progresses its inquiry.