Chapter 2 – Previous bushfire inquiries
The substantial number of previous inquiries into bushfires in Australia
was noted on many occasions in evidence to this committee inquiry. This chapter
briefly considers the findings of major recent bushfire inquiries and explores
the frustrations many in the community feel about apparent political inaction
Since 1939, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in
Australia, including state and federal parliamentary committee inquiries, COAG
reports, coronial inquiries and Royal Commissions. They are listed as follows:
- 1939 (Victoria): Report of the Royal Commission to inquire into
the causes of and measures taken to prevent the bush fires of January, 1939.
- 1961 (Western Australia): Report of the Royal Commission
appointed to enquire into and report upon the bush fires of December 1960 and
January, February and March 1961, Western Australia. G.J. Rodger.
- 1967 (Tasmania): The bush fire disaster of 7th February, 1967:
report and summary of evidence. D.M. Chambers and C.G. Brettingham-Moore.
- 1977 (Victoria): Report of the Board of Inquiry into the
occurrence of bush and grass fires in Victoria. E. Barber.
- 1984 (Victoria): Report of the Bushfire Review Committee on
bushfire preparedness in Victoria, Australia, following the Ash Wednesday fires
16 February 1983. S.I. Miller et. al.
- 1984 (national): 'Bushfires and the Australian environment',
Report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and
Conservation. P. Milton, Chair.
- 1994 (NSW): Report of the Select Committee on Bushfires,
Parliament of New South Wales, Legislative Assembly.
- 1996 (NSW): Recommendations from the New South Wales Inquiry into
1993/94 Fires, NSW State Coroner’s Office. J.W. Hiatt.
- 2001 (NSW): Recommendations from the Inquiry into the Fire at Mt Ku-Ring-Gai
Chase National Park, NSW State Coroner’s Office. J. Stevenson.
- 2002 (Victoria): Report of the Investigation and Inquests into a
Wildfire and the Deaths of Five Firefighters at Linton on 2 December 1998.
State Coroner’s Office, Victoria. G. Johnstone.
- 2002 (NSW): Report on the Inquiry into the 2001/2002 Bushfires,
Joint Select Committee on Bushfires, Parliament of New South Wales, Legislative
Assembly. J. Price, Chair.
- 2003 (ACT): Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January
2003 Bushfires in the ACT. R.N. McLeod.
- 2003 (Victoria): Report of the Inquiry into the 2002–2003
Victorian Bushfires. B. Esplin et al.
- 2003 (national): 'A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent
Australian Bushfires', House of Representatives Select Committee on the Recent
Australian Bushfires. G. Nairn, Chair.
- 2004 (national): Council of Australian Governments National
Inquiry into Bushfire Mitigation and Management. S. Ellis et al.
- 2006 (ACT): Inquests and Inquiry into Four Deaths and Four Fires
between 8 and 18 January 2003. M. Doogan, ACT Coroner.
- 2008 (Victoria) 'Report on the Impact of Public Land Management
Practices on Bushfires in Victoria', Victorian Parliamentary Environment and
Natural Resources Committee. J. Pandazopoulos, Chair.
- 2009 (Victoria): 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
Interim Report. B. Teague et al.
- 2009 (Victoria): 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
Interim Report 2: Priorities for building in bushfire prone areas. B. Teague et
- 2010 (Victoria): Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final
Report. B. Teague et al.
In Appendix 5 the committee reproduces the recommendations of these
reports, from the 2003 House of Representatives report onwards. The committee
has included government responses where available, as well as a brief comment
on the extent to which recommendations from those inquiries have been
Nearly all of these inquiries have been established in response to major
bushfire events in the south-eastern parts of Australia. As the Bushfire CRC
notes in its submission, these areas are more greatly affected by such events:
In northern Australia, few years pass without large areas
being burnt. These fires generally have a comparatively low economic impact due
to the limited population density and the dispersed nature of built assets. ...
In southern Australia however, large fires often have
significant economic and social impacts. The 2002-03 and 2006-07 fire seasons in south-eastern Australia, and most
particularly the 2008/09 season were bad, with very significant areas of forest
burnt during the summers, major asset losses occurring, very high suppression
costs being borne and complex incident management arrangements being required.
The submission also recognised the differences in the types of fires
that occur in the northern and southern parts of Australia:
Northern Australian fires tend to occur in savannah woodlands
and in hummock grasslands. The amount of fuel in these environments is
generally limited and the weather conditions in the dry season are generally
stable. Maximum fire intensities in these situations rarely exceed 20,000
kilowatts per metre. During bushfires in the mountain forests of southern
Australia maximum intensities can reach up to 100,000 kW/m.
The notable exception is the 1961 Royal Commission into Western
Australian bushfires that devasted the Dwellingup area. That inquiry found that
a build-up of undergrowth had contributed to the intensity of the fires and a
substantial prescribed burning regime was introduced in WA.
The claimed success of the response to the WA inquiry is discussed further at 3.125.
In evidence to the committee COAG inquiry panellist Professor Peter Kanowski
described the common themes to have emerged from the inquiries into Australian
bushfires. They include:
- the importance of prevention and mitigation activities before
fires occur: including protective burning/fuel reduction (both in the landscape
and around assets), improving community education and awareness, and improving
track access for fire fighters;
- the need for adequate resources: including resources for fire
agencies and land management agencies, using local knowledge more effectively,
and recognising the value of volunteers; and
- other issues relating to communications infrastructure, local
government responsibilities and the role of the insurance industry.
The foreword of the Nairn Committee's report on the 2002-03 fires
reported that evidence to the inquiry was overwhelmingly of the view that:
... proper land management, proper fire prevention principles
and proper fire suppression strategies could have greatly limited the risk of
these high intensity wildfires.
The Committee heard a consistent message right around
- there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on
public lands for far too long;
- local knowledge and experience is being ignored by an
increasingly top heavy bureaucracy;
- when accessing the source of fires, volunteers are fed up with
having their lives put at risk by fire trails that are blocked and left without
- there is a reluctance by state agencies to aggressively attack
bushfires when they first start, thus enabling the fires to build in intensity
and making them harder to control; and
- better communications between and within relevant agencies is
These broad themes reflected many of the committee's recommendations,
which are included in full at Appendix 5.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Bushfire CRC also outlined the
tasks identified by previous inquiries as needing to be resolved at the
national level. These mostly fell into the categories of effective fuel
reduction, better national co-ordination and the recruitment and retention of
volunteer personnel. Specific hazard reduction tasks included:
- the establishment of a ‘single, fuel classification system’;
- the development of private property based fuel management
monitoring systems for use by local government;
- the establishment of an auditing system for the management of
fuel loads on both publically and privately-owned land; and
- the establishment and maintenance of a national data base for key
fire related parameters including fuel conditions and the level of fuel
management, areas burnt by all forms of fire and agreed measures of
intensity/severity (to these could be added the monitoring and reporting of the
annual greenhouse impacts of fire regimes).
Within the scope of national co-ordination:
- developing a national approach to the interface between the legal
system and the responsibilities of Incident Controllers, and in relation to the
impact of occupational health and safety legislation and the performance of
- the standardisation of cross State boundary support arrangements,
and mutual support arrangements generally;
- further national coordination and resourcing of fire management
related aircraft services;
- a greater involvement of fire and land management agencies in the
national mapping program;
- the development and implementation of a ‘national strategic radio
system’, improved mobile data services and related enhancements to improve
safety on the fireline; and
- a greater nationally co-ordinated approach to land-use planning, building and
maintenance standards in fire-prone areas.
Tasks relating to volunteers were:
- reviewing the financial impacts borne by volunteers and their
employers and exploring taxation related and other ways of reducing these
- developing a national approach to the insurance arrangements applying
to volunteer fire fighters.
Most of the themes and issues identified from previous bushfire
inquiries were again raised with this committee and form the basis for the
remainder of the report. The committee recognises the frustration many people
feel about raising well established concerns over bushfire management to yet
another inquiry, when previous inquiry processes have not resolved the issues
that have been so consistently brought to the attention of governments.
Professor Kanowski described the bushfire 'cycle of response' that needs
to be broken to improve the way Australia manages bushfires:
The COAG Inquiry ... found a repeated cycle of response by
governments and the community to major fire events: first, suppression and
recovery processes are always accompanied by assertions, accusations and
allocations of blame, even while the fires are still burning; second, inquiries
are established and report; third, recommendations are acted upon, to varying
degrees; fourth, the passage of time sees growing complacency and reduced
levels of preparedness... and the cycle begins again with the next major
The COAG Inquiry concluded that breaking of this cycle,
collectively and individually, was perhaps the greatest challenge we face in
learning from the impacts of each bushfire on life and property, and applying
our learning in time for the next bushfire event.
Bushfire CRC noted that:
The period 1998-2009 has seen an unprecedented
level of scrutiny of the management of bush (wild) fires in Australia.
Yet despite all the reports and recommendations, many fundamental issues appear to remain
unaddressed. As an example, over two and a half
million hectares or over one-third of Victoria’s public land
has been burnt by wildfire since late 2002.
Victorian Association of Forest Industries (VAFI) lamented the frequent
bushfire inquiries followed by inaction:
It is quite unfortunate, from my brief experience with this
industry, that we continue to have inquiry after inquiry and we continue to
have the same recommendations made time and time again. The reason that that
occurs is because it is common sense. The recommendations cannot change.
However, the attitudes do not change either—that is, the implementation of
those recommendations, unfortunately, fails to see the light of day in respect
of many of them.
The Institute of Foresters of Australia also expressed their
The Institute of Foresters of Australia has previously
contributed to a wide range of Federal and State Parliamentary Inquires
including the 2004 COAG Inquiry and the current Victorian Royal Commission into
Institute members are concerned with the lack of
implementation of recommendations arising out of the various
Inquiries/Commissions and the Institute wishes to register its strong opinion
that any further inquires into Australian bushfire management are futile until
recommended actions arising out of previous inquiries are resolved.
The IFA calls on the Federal Government to set up a peak body
to co-ordinate implementation of the key issues that have arisen out of at
least 18 major inquiries dating back to 1939.
One Bushfire Front Inc representative related his experience
contributing to the 2008 Victorian parliamentary committee inquiry, noting that
the committee's report is 'gathering cobwebs':
The committee came to Perth and I met with them for almost a
whole morning. I was impressed by the committee. They were enthusiastic and
interested. They went away and in the end published a report, a copy of which
was sent to me, and I thought it was one of the best reports that I had seen come
out of a parliamentary group for many, many years. I understand that report was
submitted to the Victorian parliament and to the Victorian government and it
was noted. I understand that is about all that happened to it.
The Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management indicated in
its November 2009 communiqué that:
The Council acknowledged the significant role that these
reports have played in shaping the reform of Australia’s emergency management
arrangements over recent years. The Council has conducted an audit of the
implementation of these recommendations, which found that most recommendations
have been addressed.
The Council agreed that further work in regard to risk
assessment and modification, land use planning, development and building
control regimes will now be undertaken as part of the national disaster
The committee realises that not every recommendation from parliamentary
committee, coronial or Royal Commission inquiries can or should be implemented
by the governments and their agencies to whom they are directed. It is also
understood that following a natural disaster many of those affected will seek
to identify contributing policy failures that can and should have been
rectified by government action, rather than attributing the devastation to the
grim reality of natural forces alone.
However, the committee is of the view that the consistency of
recommended action over a number of years indicates that some states have not
adequately addressed deficiencies in bushfire management. The clearest example
of this is the apparent lack of political will in some jurisdictions to
comprehensively plan, fund and implement fuel hazard reduction strategies on
fire prone public land, despite consistent advice from fire fighters and other
bushfire experts to do so.
The committee understands that improving bushfire management practices
is not a straightforward task, nor is there universal agreement about the best
way to do it. But the committee makes the observation that governments at all
levels are obliged to take all reasonable measures to avoid the catastrophic
loss of life that occurred in Victoria in February 2009. The committee
therefore suggests that governments and their agencies re-consider inquiry
recommendations they have previously rejected, and hasten the implementation of
those they have accepted, bearing in mind the real possibility that a similar
disaster could occur again.
The committee also proposes that the Commonwealth Government take the
necessary measures to assist the states carry out their responsibilities as
effectively as possible, and makes a number of recommendations to this effect
in the remainder of the report.
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