Chapter 3 – Bushfire mitigation
This chapter focuses on bushfire management prior to the outbreak of a
fire; the actions that can be taken by land managers, fire agencies and at-risk
communities to prevent the loss of life and destruction of assets from
catastrophic bushfires. From the evidence taken during the inquiry three broad
the intensity of bushfires by reducing combustible fuel before fires start.
measures taken to protect life and assets in built areas by making communities
more resilient to fire.
Fire has always occurred naturally in the Australian environment so it
is not possible to prevent bushfires occurring entirely. However, measures can
be taken to minimise some of the human causes of fire. While education and
community vigilance are important elements in reducing ignition by careless
acts, evidence to the inquiry related mainly to minimising fires deliberately
lit by arsonists and fires caused by faulty power infrastructure.
An important consideration when managing bushfire risk is the potential
damage caused by fires deliberately lit on days when fire conditions are most
dangerous. Evidence to the committee noted, though, the elusiveness of this cause
and the difficulty of preventing it.
CSIRO commented that 'prosecutions relating to maliciously lit fires are
rarely obtained, so it is difficult to assess their magnitude', though they
quoted research suggesting that anywhere between 25 and 50 per cent of fires
are deliberately lit, subject to variations depending on locations and times.
The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that approximately
half of vegetation fires are deliberately lit. Their recent report on arson
prevention stated that:
Available evidence suggests that the risk of deliberate fires
is higher during certain times of the year and week and that there are ‘hot
spots’, most notably on the edge of urban areas. On known offenders there is
limited research and it primarily relies on small samples of convicted
arsonists. As a result situational and community crime prevention that
addresses the local environment is most likely to have an impact, whilst
offender based approaches have to focus on the treatment of known offenders, both
adults and juveniles.
The report acknowledged the difficulty of identifying cases of arson,
before even being in a position to pinpoint who might be responsible:
Arson is a relatively easy crime to commit and conceal. Many
bushfires are not subject to an investigation to determine their cause, and of
those that are investigated and concluded to be deliberate or suspicious, that
conclusion is often due to the lack of any clear indication that the fire was
natural: no lightning recorded in the area, and nothing else nearby that may
have caused the ignition. It is rare for fire fighters to find some form of
incendiary device that would unambiguously point to a deliberate fire. As such,
it is very difficult to determine exactly how many bushfires people have lit
and with what intent.
The Queensland Department of Community Safety's submission referred to
'the inherent difficulties of catching and convicting bushfire arsonists'.
They stated that in addition to mitigating the intensity of fires that occur a
co-operative approach to reducing arson is required:
Primary prevention techniques to reduce deliberate bushfires
need to rely on an understanding of the situations in which such fires occur
and either changing something about the environment or the community in order
to prevent it happening in the future. For example, available evidence on bushfire
arson suggests that the risk of deliberate fires is higher during certain times
of the year and week and often most notably on the fringe of urban areas.
A cooperative approach by fire agencies, land management
agencies and police is required to identify and document arson hotspots. Once
an understanding of the arson pattern is established, appropriate prevention
techniques can be applied in order to reduce bushfire incidents. QFRS is
currently working with the Queensland Police Service through an exchange
program to obtain data on the location of habitual arsonists to enable this to
be and mapped along with Australasian Incident Reporting System data on
Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA) told
the committee that in Western Australia FESA, DEC and the police arson squad
co-operate via web-based reporting to identify and act on series of localised
incidents indicating the work of arsonists.
South Australian MP Dr Bob Such advocated the wider adoption of that state's
Operation Nomad, where convicted and suspected arsonists are placed under
surveillance by police on high risk fire days.
The COAG bushfire inquiry identified arson prevention as an important
Arson is one cause of fire that can be reduced through
greater application of resources. The Inquiry found, however, that the focus on
arson varies significantly across the states and territories, depending on the
perceived size of the problem, community concern and identification of arsonists.
The inquiry encouraged co-operation and information sharing between
police and fire agencies:
The Inquiry considers that benefit would be gained if fire
and police agencies:
- provided information to other services when known arsonists
travel or move interstate or when there is potential for this to happen
- shared arson research, teaching and practical advice on arson
- collected nationally agreed statistics, perhaps through the
Australian Institute of Criminology
- monitored and reported on any incidents of politically
The Attorney-General's Department submission informed the committee that
the Attorney-General held a forum on the reduction of bushfire arson, the
outcomes of which were discussed at the Ministerial Council for Police and
The communiqué from that ministerial council in November 2009 noted:
The Council agreed to a National Work Plan to Reduce Bushfire
Arson in Australia including the development of a whole-of-government national
strategy on best practices to reduce bushfire arson. The strategy will use the
National Work Plan as a basis for its development. An interim report on the
strategy will be available to the Ministerial Council by the end of April 2010.
The Australian Fire and Emergency Services Council (AFAC) incident
reporting system database is an important aspect of this national approach,
however AFAC's website notes that:
Not all Australian fire services contribute to the national
database, and of the fire services that have contributed, some have not
included responses from the rural component of their service.
Another preventable cause of ignition is faulty power infrastructure. The
Bushfire Front Inc noted 'a long history' of powerlines causing fires. However,
the expense of updating power infrastructure meant that preventative measures
'are generally not implemented'.
The Hon. Judi Moylan MP stated that: 'The ageing power reticulation
system in Western Australia appears to have been the cause of many fires'.
She was particularly concerned that ageing wood power poles had long passed
their Australian Standard service life and their replacement has not been
prioritised as part of the national infrastructure development program.
Ms Moylan noted that this is a potential cause of fires that can be addressed:
The risk of fires due to ageing power reticulation
infrastructure is a risk that can be almost entirely eliminated by a commitment
of capital to update the system.
It will require political will at both a State and Federal
level for this urgent work to go ahead, but there is little doubt that putting
the lives of fire-fighters and citizens at risk, due to failure to renew the
system is unacceptable. The financial cost of such fires is another issue and
the Government should consider a Productivity Report into the cost of bushfires
with particular attention to links between ageing power reticulation systems
and fire risk.
Ms Moylan acknowledged that the privatisation of utilities had exacerbated
It is evident that power utilities once wholly Government
owned and controlled have in most cases become corporate or privatised entities
and, over the years, insufficient capital has been set aside to manage an
infrastructure replacement program that minimises the risk of fires from this
source and indeed power outages.
In addition, the political issue of the cost of energy to
industry and domestic consumers means that power charging policies bear no
resemblance to the real cost of delivery and therefore inhibit the capacity for
generators to make adequate provision for a sinking fund out of general
Despite these complications, Ms Moylan argued that the risks justify
Commonwealth intervention and assistance:
Although the energy network infrastructure falls within the
responsibility of the States and Territories, it could be argued that given the
scope and the risks posed by the problem the Australian Government has a role
in supporting the States to make the necessary upgrades.
While acknowledging the difficulties confronting the State
Governments and the power generators, the continuation of these practices is
patently unacceptable and the re-instatement of the matter on the COAG agenda
should be an urgent priority.
The committee notes that the Kilmore East fire that contributed
significantly to the Black Saturday disaster is believed to have been caused by
faulty power infrastructure, though the fault was attributed to a failure to
observe a defective fitting during maintenance inspections, rather than ageing
The committee is of the view that efforts should be made to prevent the
causes of ignition where it is possible to do so. In particular, arson is one
cause of bushfires which may be countered by improving strategies used to identify
those responsible. The committee is encouraged by reports of co-operation
between fire agencies and police at the state level, as well as the work being
done through the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management to
facilitate information sharing between the states. Such co-operation will
ensure that successful strategies identified in one state are able to be
adopted across Australia, as ought to be the case. The committee also considers
that the national incident reporting system administered by the Australian Fire
and Emergency Services Council is a valuable tool in this process and
encourages AFAC to continue to work to improve the comprehensiveness and
consistency of the data collected.
The committee supports greater efforts to share arson-related
information and strategies across jurisdictions and recommends that the
Commonwealth co-ordinate a standing arson forum between the relevant fire and
law enforcement agencies from across Australia every two years to ensure this
3.20 The Commonwealth co-ordinate a standing national arson forum between
fire and law enforcement agencies to be held every two years.
The committee recognises that the task of replacing ageing power
infrastructure will be time consuming and expensive. It is also a difficult
task for governments to prioritise when competing spending imperatives such as
transport infrastructure, health and education are more visible and immediate
concerns for the public. The committee also recognises that the private
ownership of utilities and concerns about rising energy costs means that there
is little incentive to impose on consumers significant maintenance costs for
the purpose of negating an unknown bushfire risk.
However, ageing power infrastructure is a cause of bushfires that can be
addressed by governments directly and leaving the situation to fester is not
acceptable. Furthermore, replacement costs would be to some degree offset by
the reduced cost of suppressing possible future bushfires attributable to this
cause, a question that should be the subject of further investigation by the
The committee is of the opinion that the Commonwealth should, through
COAG and subject to the findings of such a report, examine options for the
funding of replacement of power infrastructure that presents an unacceptable
3.24 The Productivity Commission undertake an examination of bushfire risk
from ageing power infrastructure, including an assessment of replacement costs
and likely suppression costs from bushfires caused by defective infrastructure.
3.25 Subject to the findings of the Productivity Commission, the Commonwealth
examine options for the funding of replacement of power infrastructure that
presents an unacceptable bushfire risk.
The issue of fuel reduction in the landscape was the most contentious
and debated topic during the inquiry. Although prescribed burning to reduce
fuel loads was recognised as an effective management approach, the committee
received conflicting evidence about the following issues:
- the efficacy of prescribed burning in mitigating the intensity of
fires in dangerous conditions;
the efficacy of prescribed burning in the landscape as a strategy
for protecting built assets and the people within them;
- the ecological consequences of prescribed burning;
community concerns relating to smoke and the threat of escaped
prescribed burns; and
- the adequacy of responsible agencies' implementation of
prescribed burning measures.
The committee also heard evidence on specific prescribed burning strategies
and proposals for reform. These are considered at the end of this chapter.
The adequacy of resources to utilise prescribed burning opportunities is
discussed briefly in this chapter. However, the availability of resources for
all aspects bushfire management is examined in more detail in Chapter 5.
Prescribed burning in bushfire
Even using the best fire prevention measures, bushfires cannot be
eliminated from the landscape and land managers are required to take measures
to reduce the seriousness of these fires and the damage they inflict. When
seeking to mitigate the effects of bushfires, fuel is the only variable affecting
fire behaviour subject to human intervention and control. Therefore reducing
combustible material in the landscape through prescribed burning programs is a
critical management tool.
Of the three components that combine to determine fire
behaviour (fuel, topography and weather), fuel is the only one that can be
modified by people to moderate the behaviour of bushfires... Reducing the fuel
hazard will reduce the overall danger posed by bushfires and increase the
potential that a fire may be stopped through natural or artificial means...
Given the inability of humans to control weather this view was not
contested. For example, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) said: 'There are
some things that we cannot control. We cannot control the temperature, the wind
or the humidity but we can control fuel loads'.
Mr Phil Cheney also said: 'the only thing that you can manage is the fuel'.
Although fuel hazards can be reduced via mechanical removal and chemical
treatment, prescribed burning is the most effective approach at landscape
CSIRO described the purpose and effect of prescribed burning:
Most hazard reduction burning conducted in Australia aims to
keep the amount of fine surface fuels (fuels less than 6 millimetres in
diameter) within the range of 8-15 tonnes per hectare... Hazard reduction
burning also reduces the height, mass and flammability of elevated fine fuels
such as shrubs and suspended dead material and is the only practical way of
reducing the fibrous bark on trees, the prime source of firebrands that cause
Hazard reduction burning is not intended to stop wildfires,
but it does reduce the intensity and the spread of unplanned fires, within the
area treated by prescribed fire, by reducing:
- the rate of fire growth from its ignition point;
- flame height and rate of spread;
- the spotting potential by reducing the number of firebrands
and the distance they are carried downwind; and
- the intensity of the fire.
As a consequence, hazard reduction burning lowers the risk of
crown fires developing in medium to tall forests, will limit the rate of spread
and potential impact of wildfires, and makes fire suppression actions safer,
more effective and thus more efficient...
The CSIRO submission stated:
Fires burning in areas that have a reduced level of fuel
hazard are much more likely to be quickly contained than those that are burning
in heavy fuels that are long unburnt.
The Bushfire CRC noted that fuel reduction had diminished over time:
...the area subject to regular fire in Australia has declined
somewhat over the past several decades as a consequence of changed land‐use patterns, fire
suppression practices and, and [sic] in many areas as a result of the cessation
of traditional burning by aboriginal populations. In southern Australia, urban
attitudes to the use of prescribed fire in more recent years have also been a
factor in the decline in its use.
The causes and consequences of declining fuel reduction are examined
Effectiveness in different
The committee received considerable evidence that there is a direct and
established relationship between fuel loads in the landscape and bushfire intensity.
The committee heard that while fuel reduction measures would not prevent fires
from occurring, it could mitigate their intensity and assist with suppression efforts.
However, some evidence suggested that reduced fuel may have a limited affect on
bushfire severity in extreme fire conditions.
CSIRO's Dr Andrew Sullivan explained the effect of fuel load on fire
...if you take one kilogram of leaf litter out of a forest,
there is the equivalent energy in that one dry kilogram of fuel to power a
100-watt light bulb for 50 hours—and it goes in 10 seconds when a fire burns
it. People have that around them, but there is a disconnect between what the
fuel is and what a fire will do in terms of releasing that as thermal energy.
The Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) claimed
the following relationship between forest fuel and fire:
The fundamental relationship between fuel structure and
quantity, and the speed and intensity of a forest fire, has been well
established since the 1960's. Doubling the quantity of fuel doubles the speed
of the fire and increases its intensity (killing power) four-fold. Reducing the
amount of fuel over a significant proportion of the landscape by prescribed
burning will significantly reduce the speed, intensity and damage potential of
wildfires and greatly improves opportunities for safe suppression.
Citing research undertaken as part of Western Australian-based Project
Vesta, the department stated:
This research demonstrated that the forward rate of spread of
a fire is directly related to the characteristics of the surface fuel bed and
understorey layers, with the near-surface fuel layer having the strongest
effect on rate of spread.
The Project Vista experiments indicate that fires in fuels
older than about seven years will prove difficult to control under average
summer conditions of moderate high fire danger in open eucalypt forest.
The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of New South Wales claimed that
increasing fuel loads by four times multiplied the fire intensity 17 times.
National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) told the committee that:
...the higher the fuel load, the more intense the fire. In
terms of fire suppression, it obviously makes it more difficult with a higher
fire intensity. The research has shown that you have more spotting and faster
spread of fires. So, even when you have moderate fire danger ratings, if you
have a high fuel load, it is really a recipe for disaster.
The Bushfire Front Inc argued that fuel was more important in
determining fire severity than any potential climate change effects:
...increased temperature has little impact on fire behaviour.
Fires become intense when it is dry and windy and fuels are heavy. A rise in
temperature of a couple of degrees will have insignificant impact.
Drought is an important influence on fire, but droughts occur
in Australia already and always have done.
Doomsday projections of “unstoppable megafires” and
“catastrophic weather” are expressions of defeat. We are not powerless to face
up to hotter, even drier conditions. The trick is to prepare and to take steps
to minimise fire damage and make fires easier and safer to suppress.
From an anecdotal perspective, the Institute of Foresters of Australia
cited the Kingslake area as evidence of the effects of fuel reduction, claiming
that the Black Saturday fires were less severe in areas that had been affected
by a smaller bushfire three years before, which had the effect of reducing
The Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation argued
that their system of broadscale prescribed mosaic burning had prevented the
catastrophic fire events that have occurred in the south-east of Australia.
They noted that since its introduction in 1961:
...there have been no forest fires greater than 30,000
hectares, no lives lost in forest fires, few injuries, and only one instance of
multiple property losses. In the past 20 years, the average annual area burned
by wildfires in the south-west forest regions is about 20,000 hectares, which
is less than one per cent of the forested landscape managed by DEC.
In evidence at the committee's public hearing in Perth, the WA
Department of Environment and Conservation gave examples of a number of
successfully contained fire events that they claimed demonstrated the
effectiveness of their prescribed burning regime.
The Department acknowledged that a more subdued topography in WA makes
prescribed burning and rapid attack easier, but 'there is no practical
difference in the structure and flammability of forest fuels'.
Professor Neal Enright stated that the differences were in fact
[Victoria has] much more complicated topographic
circumstances, higher fuel load vegetation and more extreme to catastrophic
fire danger days than typically occur in the higher biomass forests of
A lot has been made of how well the authorities and agencies
do in south-western Australia. They do a very good job here. They treat a
reasonably high area per year. The record of wildfires indicates that there is
a small frequency and small size of wildfire events here, relative to
south-eastern Australia. I do not know that you can put that down solely to
them doing it better here. I think there are the environmental circumstances of
the more mountainous terrain, the much larger area of high-biomass wet forests
and differences in fire weather and fire behaviour conditions that make it a
more difficult problem in Victoria. They will have to throw a hell of a lot
more money at it to fix it. Then, of course, there are the biodiversity issues
that would be associated with trying to do that in those large areas of
The Bushfire Front Inc also mentioned the contained Donnybrook fire,
fanned by cyclonic winds:
Cyclone Alby provided winds of 130 kilometres an hour from
the north-west in April 1978. The fire started about five kilometres north-west
of Donnybrook, a town at that time of roughly 3,000 people. It headed straight
for the town coming out of private property.
It came out of private property as a crown fire and then hit
an area of state forest—Donnybrook block, as it used to be called. The whole
block had been burnt about 18 months previously, and as a result the fire
virtually stopped. It came down from the crowns, trickled around and was easily
contained within a very short period of time, with minimum effort and with
complete safety. If that burnt had not been done, there is no doubt whatever
the town of Donnybrook would have been obliterated, because the fire had been
running on the other side of the forest block into long grass and peri-urban
areas, which always carry heavy fuel loads. That is a classic example in our
case of the value of fuel reduction burning.
Conservation Council of WA suggested that fires brought under control may
often be due to other factors:
When we are told that the fire stopped because it ran into a
recently fuel reduced area ... we are not told that there was a change in the
weather or that the wind changed, and we are never told when the fires go
straight through recently burnt areas.
There were varying opinions about whether reduced fuel loads would
assist suppression on days of extreme fire danger. Dr Don Driscoll was of the
view that weather was the overwhelming cause of major fire catastrophes:
The weather conditions really drive the incidence of these
dangerous fires. The fires that have stimulated this sort of inquiry, the
Victorian inquiry and the South Australian inquiries have all occurred under
extreme weather conditions. So, really, considering what happens under mild or
low conditions is not very important; it [is] what happens under extreme
conditions that is very important. That is why the results emerging from
Project Vesta and some of these other studies that have looked at the way the
fire behaviour under different fuel loads have not really got to the nub of the
problem, because you cannot carry out field experiments under extreme fire
Professor Neal Enright emphasised that the effectiveness of fuel
reduction in certain circumstances remains unclear. He said:
...the relationship between the amount of fuel reduction
burning and the effectiveness of fuel reduction burning is still not clear in a
scientific sense. Most of the experimental research relates to fires conducted
under moderate to, at most, high fire danger weather conditions. It is very
difficult to actually conduct experiments under extreme fire danger weather
conditions. As we move up the scale, we do not really have as good an
understanding of how fuels will behave, even in fuel reduced situations.
There have been a number of [case] studies ... that have been
done looking at the fact that a particular wildfire may have been slowed or
stopped when it encountered a fuel reduced block. That is certainly true and
there are many examples of that in a number of forest types in southern
Australia, particularly where the fuel reduction burns had been delivered
within the previous five years. One of the main issues is that, once you get
beyond five years and you get into high fire danger weather conditions, the
value of those previous fuel reduction burns drops away quite quickly.
The committee notes that Professor Enright assisted the Victorian Esplin
inquiry into the 2002-2003 bushfires, which recommended that fuel reduction
burning be increased, especially in the zones surrounding built-up areas.
CSIRO informed the committee that the effectiveness of fuel reduction
depends on manageable weather conditions when fires start:
The degree of risk reduction will depend on fire weather.
During days of extreme fire danger, bushfires will be virtually uncontrollable
even if fuels are minimal. However, the number of days each year during which
fires will be controllable is many times greater for lighter fuels than for
heavier fuels. Thus, there will be more opportunity to suppress fires ignited
in summer, and to ensure that they are extinguished before weather conditions
CSIRO commented that the extent to which prescribed burning would modify
fire behaviour is still uncertain:
There are research questions as to the extent of prescribed
burning required to modify fires under different fire weather conditions. We
are limited in doing experimental work to fairly mild fire weather. If you
wanted to make a change allowing us to light fires under extreme fire weather
that would be a good thing so that we could actually study those fires at the
level where they make their impact in wildfires.
Nature Conservation Council of NSW claimed that fuel reduction
activities can be counter-productive, by curing previously green vegetation and
therefore increasing fuel loads.
The Conservation Council of WA disputed the notion that prescribed burning in
effect replicates natural processes the environment depends on:
Fire is presented as a natural phenomenon, but the only
natural fires are those started by lightning. If you drop an incendiary from a
helicopter, it is not a natural fire; it is no more natural than pivot
They suggested that prescribed burning may actually increase the fire
prone nature of certain forests by drying out 'wet' forest areas, introducing
weeds and germinating dense understory thicket.
The Bushfire Front Inc rejected the notion that fuel reduction is
ineffectual in serious bushfire conditions, telling the committee that this
view 'flies in the face of every experienced firefighter across the nation'.
Similarly, the WA Department of Environment and Conservation dismissed claims
that prescribed burning could not prevent catastrophic bushfires in extreme
There have been numerous examples where the fuel reduction
burning program has resulted in relatively rapid containment of bushfires and
significant 'saves', even under extreme fire weather conditions.
Forest fire managers who are directly involved in fire
control operations have no doubt about the value of fuel reduced areas in
reducing the intensity of bushfires and in providing safe conditions to apply
fire suppression tactics.
Effectiveness in protecting built
Another contentious issue was whether prescribed burning in the
landscape is an effective way to protect built assets and the people within
them, taking into account the potential negative ecological and social consequences
of the practice, and the resources required to undertake the task properly.
CSIRO's submission suggested that this remains an open question:
...relatively large amounts of prescribed burning would have
to be implemented in Australian forested landscapes to achieve modest levels of
risk mitigation for urban and other assets. The relative benefits and costs of
prescribed burning, and its effectiveness in achieving multiple land management
goals in different land tenures requires more research.
Professor Enright commented that: 'Fuel reduction burning is only one
part of the equation'.
Dr Don Driscoll concurred, citing engineering and social solutions as being
more effective to achieve the objective of protecting lives and assets than
prescribed burning. He told the committee that prescribed burning is limited
for the following reasons:
- climatic conditions are a greater determinant of bushfire
severity than fuel reduction; and
- the influence of fuel reduction is short-lived, necessitating regular
burns that are uneconomical and ecologically damaging.
Dr Driscoll argued that:
...we would have to ask: how much money do we spend on
burning the forest every three years and how effective is that? In damp and dry
forest, it is going to reduce the probability of a crown fire by five to 10 per
cent. Under extreme conditions—and that is from roughly 70 to 60 per cent in
dry forest or 85 to 80 per cent in damp forest—how does that small reduction in
the risk of crown fire translate into risk of houses burning down? I do not
think we know that yet. And was any marginal gain in saving houses a reasonable
trade-off against all of the other competing objectives? Is the marginal gain
in asset protection of burning the forest every three years so valuable that it
is worth trading off the other objectives? In this scenario, with the burning
of the forest every three years, we would certainly see a loss of species
throughout the forest and an increase in health related deaths and associated
costs, as well as an increase in carbon emissions.
Nature Conservation Council of NSW stated in their submission that 'risk
management strategies should include initiatives on both sides of the
They commented that controlled burns in bush areas are of limited value:
Management of fuel in close proximity to the asset, as
opposed to fuel management on the bushland side of the interface, is often a
far more effective strategy to achieve fire protection to a particular asset.
Short of cementing over or clearing vast tracts of bushland, fuel reduction at
the interface must be combined with strategies to increase the ability of a
house, structure, product or other economic asset to withstand a bush fire
Although not opposed to fuel reduction, Mr Justin Leonard from CSIRO
sought to distinguish fuel reduction in the landscape and in the immediate
vicinity of assets that require protection:
...fuel reduction burning at the interface or immediately
around an asset—say, within a few hundred metres of an asset—is a vastly
different process or has a vastly different outcome for that building or that
small community from a broadacre burning process, which would have some impact
in determining the rate at which a fire would move through the landscape and
its chance of arriving at a point in the landscape that would have an impact on
a structure. But it is only the last few hundred metres of a fuel load that has
an impact on the magnitude of the impact of that fire and its potential outcome
for the actual building. Separating those two issues is quite important.
He commented that random chance ember attack is the biggest risk to
...it is generally understood, from the fires that we have
extensively investigated, that it is something like 90 per cent of houses being
lost in the absence of a direct interaction with the fire front itself, which
means it is about more insidious activity like ember attack igniting the house
directly or igniting fences and other details around the house, which then have
an impact on the structure itself.
The contention therefore is that reducing fuel hazards at the urban
interface and improving house design to withstand ember attacks are the most
critical elements of protecting housing assets. Alternative mitigation
strategies are explored in more detail at paragraph 3.203.
The WA Department of Conservation and Environment disagreed with the
contention that only the immediate vicinity of assets is prioritised:
...if you do not burn the landscape to a reasonable
proportion, you are going to invite very large, intense fires, with the embers
that might blow kilometres ahead of the head fire. Dwellingup town itself was
actually burnt before the head fire got there by the ember storm that was
generated by the fire burning in old fuels. So what we attempted do is, yes,
focus around a town, but not to the degree that that is the only option. We believe
quite strongly that you need to burn the landscape so that you do not invite
those big fires.
The inquiry also attracted significant debate about the ecological
consequences of prescribed burning measures. Some evidence to the committee
expressed concern about the capacity of local biodiversity to recover from
burns conducted too frequently. For instance, Nature Conservation Council of
NSW stated that:
NCC recognises that fuel and fuel accumulation is an integral
part of the fire management process, and can influence fire behaviour and the
energy released during a fire. However, the NCC considers that the use of
hazard reduction burning to reduce fuels on a broadscale landscape basis
without scientific information, poses a high risk to biodiversity and
ecological processes ... understanding of the specific impacts of different
burning regimes on different vegetation communities is not yet fully
...Burning forests too often poses a serious threat to
biodiversity ... the cumulative effect of frequent fire may be as profound as
high intensity fires.
Nature Conservation Council of NSW stated that while mosaic burning
methods (see below from paragraph 3.152) may comply with the NSW Rural Fire
Service's environmental code, the primary objective is to protect life and
property, which 'may not be optimal for the protection of biodiversity'. They
suggested that burning intervals may need to be longer than nine years to
maintain biodiversity values.
The Conservation Council of WA told the committee that: 'Frequent fires
for whatever reason, whether it is wildfire or prescribed burning, have a
disastrous effect on many species of flora and fauna'.
Although not opposed to prescribed burns altogether, they argued that the Western
Australian objective of burning every eight years is too frequent for many
ecosystems to recover.
Plant ecologist Professor Neal Enright provided the committee with
research experience suggesting that fire regimes more frequent than 15 years in
Western Australian shrublands could lead to a reduction in plant species
richness, particularly where intervals are five years or less.
CSIRO stated that:
Both hazard reduction burning and wildfire can have positive
or negative impacts on biodiversity. In some landscapes, there are potential
biodiversity costs associated with the intervals between prescribed fires.
CSIRO also noted that this is a 'developing research area'.
However, the majority of evidence on this issue countered the notion
that prescribed burning is ecologically harmful, particularly when the
alternative to controlled fires is intense catastrophic fires that cause far
more damage to local biodiversity. The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of
New South Wales noted:
...we are not doing the bush any favours if we allow fuel
levels to reach levels where they ultimately destroy biodiversity.
Dr Christine Finlay said: 'there is nothing worse for the environment
than an intense burn'.
Victorian Association of Forest Industries (VAFI) commented:
...the greatest threat to threatened species and flora and
fauna within national parks, state forests or private landholdings is in fact
the threat of wildfire.
Mr Phil Cheney told the committee:
In assessing any impacts of prescribed burning one has to
say: what are the consequences of not doing it and what are the impacts of
these high-intensity fires that in this last decade have burnt several million
hectares of country in south-east Australia? From an ecological point of view,
although there is variation in intensity, pretty much every hectare of that
country is burnt. In 2003 and 2007 I travelled for hundreds of miles through
the forest on burnt ground. It was all burnt. The consequences on our fauna are
The Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation
rejected the notion that bushfire mitigation and ecological values are
... in fire-prone environments, proactive fire management is
integral to, not incidental to, good conservation and land management. If wildfires
cannot be managed, then it is unlikely that other land management objectives
will be achieved.
The department compared the effects of very large and smaller fires on
Very large and intense wildfires cause high levels of
mortality and damage to native plants and animals, and irreversible loss of
topsoil. Post-fire recovery may take many decades, or even centuries where
old-growth forests have been killed. On the other hand, low intensity, patchy
fires have little long-term impact on the biota, which recovers relatively
quickly from such events.
The department's submission added:
...there is no evidence that current prescribed burning for
fuel management and other purposes has resulted in any species losses or
environmental degradation. In fact there is growing evidence that, implemented
correctly (appropriate interval, intensity, season and scale), prescribed
burning can benefit biodiversity at the landscape scale by providing diverse
habitats (seral stages) and by reducing the size and intensity (secerity) of
In verbal evidence to the committee, the Western Australian Department
of Conservation and Environment referred to the need for balancing land
...when you put our biodiversity and conservation
responsibilities, our fire responsibilities and our community protection
responsibilities on the table there are some trade-offs against the purity, if
you like, of what I would like to do in biodiversity conservation. Having said
that, we have a program that is based around variety in fire size, intensity,
season and so on. We have studied the ecosystems—the flora and the fauna—to a
very considerable degree, and we are fairly confident that our programs are not
causing any undue damage to our biodiversity values.
The department indicated that satellite imagery evidence from one of
their prescribed burns suggests that ecological harm will be minimal:
...the majority of the area was burned very mildly—burns
spreading out about 20 to 30 metres per hour with flames of half a metre. Any
mobile mammal is going to be able to deal with that. The fact that they have
dealt with it over millions of years makes me confident that, although you may
get individuals that get compromised, as a community, that sort of fire
treatment is in fact more likely to enhance than detract from its health.
National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) also argued that
prescribed burns were not counteracting the goal of using forests as carbon
...the argument about whether we leave our forests for carbon
stores really needs to focus on what the implications are in relation to fire
if we do, because the outcome could very well be that, if we leave our forests
to store carbon up in that way, we are actually making them a very high fire
risk. We could end up with a situation where we have a high level of emissions
from fires. In their numbers, the government have calculated that the 2003
Victorian fires put out 190 million tonnes, I think it was, of CO2. That is
significant when you remember the total emissions from our economy are 560
million tonnes. So it is a significant amount.
Forest Fire Victoria Inc commented that it is inappropriate for the EPBC
Act to describe controlled burns as a process that is threatening to forest
...without fire most of the values by which we manage
forests, such as water, timber, soil protection and all the other qualities—all
these processes are threatened because inevitably we get major fires. We have
had fires of major size in Victoria, not just a million hectares but a million
hectares with 60 per cent of them burnt at the highest intensity. That is
frightening. That is not good ecology, that is not managing biodiversity, that
is not managing topsoils, that is not managing erosion and that is not managing
water. So to call the use of prescribed fire, fuel reduction fire, a threatening
process is I think very odd.
Australian Forest Growers also expressed concern that the implementation
of the EPBC Act to protect native species may prove an impediment to prescribed
...in the context of the EPBC Act nomination of prescribed
burning as a threatening process ... that is a benchmark process, and we are
very concerned about that. I know you know there is enough difficulty getting a
permit to undertake a prescribed burn as it currently stands without having to
go through a federal licensing process as well.
Responding to these concerns, the Commonwealth Department of Environment
Heritage and the Arts indicated that the EPBC Act had not interfered with
bushfire mitigation activities:
The Commonwealth Government may have a role in fire
management plans where national environmental matters may be significantly
impacted by those management measures, such as through impacts on threatened
species. In these circumstances state and territory governments submit fire
management plans that take these matters into account. Since 2001, 
bushfire management related projects have been referred under the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (not including
burns for research purposes).
All bushfire management related projects referred under the
EPBC Act have been assessed as not requiring formal assessment or approval and
have not been further regulated.
The department's submission sought to clarify the effect of fire regimes
being nominated for listing under the Act as a key 'threatening process':
Should the nomination be approved for listing as a KTP, there
would be no reduction in the priority that the Australian Government places on
the protection of life and property. Even if “Contemporary fire regimes
resulting in the loss of vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity throughout
Australia” were to be listed as a KTP, such a listing does not provide any
authority for the Australian Government to require any changes in prescribed
burning practices in the states and territories.
The listing of a key threatening process has no regulatory
implications other than requiring the Minister to decide whether or not to have
a threat abatement plan (TAP). A TAP provides for the research, management, and
any other actions necessary to reduce the impact of a listed key threatening
process on native species and ecological communities. Commonwealth agencies
must implement TAPs in Commonwealth areas and must not taken action that
contravenes a TAP.
If the process were to be listed, the Minister would need to
decide whether a TAP would be an efficient, effective and feasible way to abate
the threats. In making that decision, the Minister would be required to seek the
advice of the TSSC as well as each of the states and territories.
Community attitudes to prescribed
One major obstacle to land managers undertaking effective prescribed
burning measures is community opposition to the practice. The following issues
were raised during the inquiry:
- the effects of smoke drift on nearby communities;
- the potential for escaped burns; and
- poor understanding about prescribed burning.
Prescribed burns generate smoke that effects nearby communities to
varying degrees, depending largely on the weather conditions at the time and
how predictable these have been, as well as the competence of those carrying
out the burn. The Bureau of Meteorology told the committee that they had been
assisting land managers predict smoke drift from prescribed burns:
For nearly 10 years now we have been developing a system to
assist the land managers with where smoke from a prescribed burn would travel.
It is operationally supported by the bureau and it runs every day. The take-up
in different states is variable depending on the pressure that they are under.
Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania are the most enthusiastic partners.
They nominate the areas within the state where their major prescribed burning
activities are likely to be and we give them a forecast smoke plume from that
position for ignitions starting at several different times during the following
day, and that is updated overnight.
Despite the best available forecasting, smoke will inevitably cross the
path of those living downwind from the burn. The Conservation Council of WA highlighted
the health implications of smoke from prescribed burns:
...it is recognised that it is the particulates in wood smoke
that are a very serious health problem. Efforts are made to prevent smoke over
Perth, but the smoke invades country towns and rural properties and is a health
hazard to the people there as well as to Perth people. So it is not just a
minor nuisance to city dwellers; it is a serious health hazard.
A number of witnesses commented that the smoke 'problem' needed to be
kept in perspective. VFF told the committee:
The reality is that we get enormous smoke palls when we have
bushfires, but that seems to be tolerated because there are other worse impacts
from the bushfire. But when there is a bit of smoke from prescribed burning, it
seems like a terrible thing to occur.
The WA Department of Environment and Conservation told the committee
that the effect of smoke is taken into account when making daily decisions on
prescribed burns, however:
We are very conscious of those things, but the government has
taken the position that the community’s tolerance to some smoke has to be there
because the prescribed burning program is so important, and the government has
been quite strong in making those statements over the last year or so.
Bushfire CRC said:
I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that bushfire
smoke can have detrimental effects on the health of people. It is a matter of
degree. It is a matter of trade-off in the types of information on warnings
that we give to the communities about the smoke that is there. There is also
documented evidence that smoke may have an impact on some agricultural
crops—for example, grapes.
The committee notes that four vineyards recently took legal action
against the WA Department of Environment and Conservation for damage caused to
wine grapes from prescribed burning activities.
The department commented that:
That is a difficult juxtaposition of our burning
opportunities or windows in the southern forests beside the times when grapes
are ripening and pre-harvest. It is a difficult balancing act for us and one
that we do take seriously.
Bushfire CRC also commented that smoke from prescribed burning does not
necessarily add to greenhouse gas emissions:
Smoke from bushfires, and more particularly smoke from the
use of prescribed fire, is increasingly viewed in some quarters as further
adding carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As with
much of the science associated with climate change, however, the story is more
complex. New vegetation that establishes following a fire invariably grows
vigorously, generally locking up considerable quantities of carbon. Similarly,
any contributions to global warming that may result from prescribed fires must
be balanced against the global warming effects of more frequent and more
intense bushfires that will occur in the absence of the strategic use of
Another obstacle is the requirement for land managers to respect property
boundaries when conducting prescribed burns. Mr John Gledhill noted that fuel
reduction is more difficult now bush areas are more densely populated:
...fuel management, whilst it is very effective, is very
difficult. It is particularly becoming more difficult as more and more people
elect to go and live amongst the trees. Broad-area fuel reduction burning is
not as easy as what it was many years ago. There are lots of risks and people
are popped in the middle of them all. It is not easily undertaken. There is
much greater accountability. There are a lot of barriers imposed that make fuel
reduction extremely difficult to undertake in quite a few places. I know it is
successfully done, and I am sure you have probably heard of the Western
Australian example whereby huge areas are burnt annually. But when you look at
that, the areas that are burnt do not have houses dotted in amongst them. They
are large tracts of public land, whereas a lot of the public land in a lot of
Australia—and I am talking particularly about Tasmania—is a mosaic of public
and private land. When you mix it all together you have property boundaries
running through them. Fires do not understand property boundaries. But for fuel
management works you have got to respect property boundaries.
Professor Kanowski agreed that liability had become a 'real issue'. He
As a society we have become more risk averse in a whole range
of ways it seems ... prior to the 2009 Victorian fires, the Department of
Sustainability and Environment had sought to implement a greater level of fuel
reduction burning. There was a burn on the Mornington Peninsula that got away
and caused a lot of adverse publicity. That sort of response to the inevitable
vagaries of natural resource management is quite problematic.
VFF argued that, as with smoke from prescribed burns, the issue needs to
be kept in perspective:
...there is often an outcry if a prescribed burn escapes—and
the media do not help when they seem to delight in highlighting it and it is
all over the news—whereas the impact of that occurring is far smaller than the
impacts of the devastation of an uncontrolled bushfire.
I do not think we can ever expect prescribed burning to be
carried out with a 100 per cent safety record. I think that is one of the
problems that we have had in the past. We have assumed that we can prescribe
burn without a single incident occurring. I do not think that that is possible.
We have to accept that there is some risk involved. But the question is whether
that risk is greater than that risk of not burning at all.
Mr Phil Cheney suggested that landholders be afforded legal protection
for conducting controlled burns:
In some states of the US, Florida in particular, there is
legislation that says if someone carrying out a prescribed burn follows the
rules then he will not be liable if that fire should happen to escape. We need
something like that for our landholders here. If they get a permit to burn from
the rural fire service, the burn goes ahead, the weather changes unpredictably
and they have not been negligent within the terms of their permit, then they
should be covered.
People that own bush blocks are dead scared of doing their
own little bit of burning off, which used to be done through winter on an
almost daily basis 30 years ago. Now it is, ‘If the burn gets over my fence and
burns my neighbour’s grass, he’s going to sue me.’ So there is that social
impact on people that makes them averse to doing anything with fire.
The WA Department of Environment and Conservation told the committee
We burn under very mild conditions, so if we do get an
escape—and just about all burns have some minor escapes, whether they be a
square metre or more—because our forces are there, those fires are put out
rapidly. Occasionally a fire does get away, but the wildfires from prescribed
burns represent less than one per cent of our wildfires and, as I said, they
generally occur under mild conditions. It is a risky job. We have to do all the
things we do to minimise that risk. Good training, good equipment, good science
and good fire behaviour knowledge—the sort of knowledge that is available to us
from the research we have undertaken—enable us to minimise that risk, without
totally eliminating it.
Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) in WA indicated that they
try to minimise escaped burns, but that some escaped burns 'would probably be
something that we would have to accept' in large areas with large fuel loads.
Officers suggested that minimal escaped burns needed to be balanced against the
task of meeting prescribed burning targets within the window of opportunity
dictated by weather and moisture levels.
The Rural Fire Service Association of NSW said that legal protection for
fire fighters is essential:
...our clear policy on this is that where an individual
firefighter or a group of firefighters acts in good faith in carrying out their
duties, regardless of outcome they must have absolute protection under the law,
and that wherever there is a legal manoeuvre or a test case for changes to
that, governments must act immediately to restore that protection.
The Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades of Western Australia told
the committee that fire fighters acting in good faith and in accordance with
their powers under the WA Bushfires Act are protected:
We have not come up against a situation yet where those
powers have been exceeded and volunteers have been in trouble with the law.
Forest Fire Victoria Inc was of the view that there are too many
restrictions on local people using their own experience and judgement:
It is rules and regulations. The more rules and regulations
you make, the fewer and fewer days are available for controlled burning, until
you make so many rules that you cannot possibly do it on any day of the year
because of the possible danger of something happening. ...People in the bush
want more control. People in the bush know when it is a good day for burning if
they have local knowledge and experience and knowledge of the local topography
and the terrain. You cannot plan this three months ahead and get permits and
all the other things you need.
The limited window of opportunity for prescribed burns is discussed
further from paragraph 3.141.
Evidence to the committee also suggested that many people do not
understand the significant effect that prescribed burning can have on
mitigating bushfires. Mr Phil Cheney told the committee that there was poor
understanding in the community about this relationship:
Until there is a very firm view that this is the controlling
factor, stories that there is nothing which can be done about the catastrophic
end, which is really a fabrication and absolute nonsense, will persist. You
cannot stop it—that is for sure—but you can do something about reducing the
intensity and the impact on people and towns.
We have known for decades, if not hundreds of years, that
burning off, prescribed burning or removing the fuel modifies the fire
behaviour. In my lifetime there has been a continual battle against certain elements
of the community to convince them that it can be done, that it is ecologically
sound and that it actually works.
Mr Cheney suggested that much of the opposition to prescribed burning
may be due to aesthetic reasons:
...we do have the unfortunate fact that burnt ground is black
and people do not like the look of it. Often why they do not like prescribed
burning is as simple as that, and they make up all sorts of other excuses.
In evidence to the committee, the Conservation Council of WA noted that for
tourists visiting Western Australia's forests, 'burned bush land is not
The Rural Fire Service Association of NSW suggested that the passing of
time affected attitudes about the urgency prescribed burning:
...the bottom line is that fuel management is critical for
fire behaviour purposes, and it is fair to say that after the 1994 fires in New
South Wales the enthusiasm was there to get on with a lot of hazard reduction
work. But someone once said to me that the enthusiasm sometimes dies with the
flames, and that is exactly what happens.
Our membership went up significantly after the 1994 fires
because people saw it as a critical organisation to be involved in and there
was a big push for added hazard reduction. But because of the gap between major
fire events the enthusiasm tends to die and it is a matter of getting on with
it and trying to get people motivated to do it.
Australian Forest Growers also spoke of the difficulty in maintaining
momentum for prescribed burning:
We have had lots of hearings over the last decade where there
have been recommendations that have come out that we need to increase the level
of prescribed burning to reduce the fuel. Everybody goes away and nods their
head and says, ‘Yes, that’s what we need to do.’ Then you get a couple of cool
years and people forget what Black Saturday or the Canberra fire or whatever
fire were all about and, before too much longer, Mrs Smith who complains about
her washing getting smoky on the ground gets a big hearing or some
environmental group that does not believe it is a natural thing to do to
artificially burn land gets a say or something else happens and, for whatever
reason, we do not seem to get the burning done.
Dr Thornton of the Bushfire CRC suggested that there needs to be better
understanding, through social research, about the motivations for resisting
We do need to better understand those values and we need to
better understand how people think ... how do we do fuel reduction in an area
where the community themselves do not want it but they do not want the fire
either? So we need to better understand that in order to be able to get to
FESA spoke to the committee about winter burning program for private
landholders on hobby blocks in Perth Hills, in which FESA provides field
demonstrations and simple instructions on conducting cool burns. Officers
indicated that initial trials had been successful and the program would be
FESA also suggested that the program would give the public a better
understanding of fire and the need for prescribed burns that occur on a larger
...while people are very timid around fires, when they see
fire in a controlled environment in a winter burn, where the fire behaviour is
very mild, they really start to understand that fire can work for them. That
really helps with them understanding the way fire works. After setting a break,
we just burn back. On a bigger scale, they understand what has to happen in
prescribed burnings, so it is a very good offset in getting the community to
understand that fire is actually a friend in many instances. That is a really
good offset of it. We feel that the high profile of fire has assisted in the
acceptance of the smoke around the community in this last year in particular.
The adequacy of current prescribed
In addition to the limitations associated with community attitudes, the
committee heard from a number of organisations citing the inadequacy of
prescribed burning measures carried out by some agencies responsible for
managing public lands. Australian Forest Growers stated that fewer burns were
being undertaken each year, 'resulting in a gradual build up of fuel loads in
native vegetation, to a point where actively managed fuel reduction has become
almost impossible in some areas'.
The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of New South Wales warned:
'Canberra and Victoria are just the start of it. We are going to have bigger
and worse fires unless we start to manage the fuel loads'.
Indeed, the Victorian situation was the source of much concern. As noted
in Chapter 2, in 2008 the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on Environment and
Natural Resources tabled a report on the impact of public land management
practices on bushfires in Victoria. The committee noted that:
...the current targeted level of prescribed burning,
approximately 130,000 hectares per annum, undertaken by DSE and its partner
agencies is insufficient to mitigate the impacts of future bushfires and
provide the level of fire needed to promote healthy ecological outcomes.
Although recognising that quantifying the effectiveness of prescribed
burning is difficult, the Victorian parliamentary committee recommended that
the target be increased to 385,000 hectares 'to mitigate the risks associated
with future bushfires'.
The Victorian government response indicated in-principle agreement,
though it did not support a hectare-based target:
The Victorian Government supports this recommendation in
principle. The Victorian Government supports planned burning to improve
protection, conservation and production outcomes. However, the annual area
treated by planned burning needs to be determined based on science and risk
management frameworks and be subject to suitable opportunities as dictated by
seasonal conditions. Given this, the Government recognises that the amount of
planned burning will vary to take into account these factors.
The Government supports a move away from focusing on
hectare-based targets which may lead to inappropriate planned burning programs.
They do not account for differences in the effort required for small area asset
protection burns (often around settlements) compared with larger scale mosaic
burns in more remote areas. The latter, while not providing immediate and
apparent asset protection are important for achieving multiple outcomes. A
combination of both is required.
Further discussion about the merits or otherwise of setting
hectare-based prescribed burning targets is included below from paragraph 3.152
(methodology) and 3.174 (proposals for reform).
Victorian Lands Alliance provided a strong warning to this committee about
the imperative to now get fire management right:
No other values on public land can be managed successfully if
fire management fails. There is no use talking about having a national forest
strategy, management of water or management of conservation values—if you get
fire management wrong then all of those other values will fail. Victoria will
inevitably burn; it is our choice as to how it burns.
They indicated that 'fire management is the primary task of the land
manager' and argued that current approaches in Victoria fell short.
Victorian Lands Alliance concluded that:
Currently in Victoria, just 2% of the forests regarded as
being suitable for prescribed burning are planned for treatment each year.
We can either burn more forest under prescribed conditions at
cooler times of the year when fires burn slowly at low intensities causing
little damage; or we can allow fuels to build and consequently consign our
forests to greater areas burnt by periodic unplanned wildfires during hotter
times of the year when they move quickly with high intensity and are infinitely
more damaging to ourselves and the environment.
Forest Fire Victoria Inc also claimed that successive Victorian
governments had neglected fuel management:
...over 2½ or perhaps three decades, successive Victorian
governments have allowed fuel levels to build up on public land to levels that
are quite unnatural. They are probably higher than at any time in history. They
are also high on private land—also, in our view, through failures by government
at various levels to tackle the problem. When those fuels get dry, as they do
after a prolonged drought, and if a fire starts when the fuel is very, very dry
and there is a wind blowing, you will not put that fire out even if you are
standing beside it.
They cited the written history of Australia, with reports of open
forests with grassy understoreys allowing horse riding, as evidence of their
claim about historically high fuel levels.
Other organisations also cited historical landscape changes when suggesting
that current approaches have been inadequate. The Mountain Cattlemens
Association of Victoria argued that the high country landscape has changed
considerably since Aboriginal fire practices were ceased in the early twentieth
In the early days the country was similar to open parkland
and this is confirmed by reports from the early explorers and settlers,
writing, painting then later photographing the Australian bush.
They stated that a ban on burns around 1920 had left many cattle runs
overgrown and unsuitable for grazing:
After 1920, the buildup of fuel began, especially in the non
grazed areas of the High Country. The lack of patchwork burning and cattle
grazing meant that vegetation grew unchecked and gradually choked the forests
with scrubby understory which shaded out grasses and changed the viable
Professor Neal Enright agreed that fire practices had indeed changed,
though as a consequence of modern attitudes and understanding, rather than
...individuals were able to use fire much more freely back
then. So you had farmers and other people in bush settings who were using fire
to manage the landscape themselves in whatever way they saw fit. That is no
longer acceptable and that probably has had an effect. But the question is:
were they impacting on biodiversity values by doing that, and could we go back
to such a procedure now? I do not think we could, on occupational health and
safety grounds on biodiversity.
The CSIRO also cautioned about making assumptions about historic
Indigenous Australians certainly burned some parts of the
landscape, but the extent and frequency of burning, along with their impacts on
native plants and animals are poorly understood.
Professor Neal Enright said that the Victorian government had attempted
to act on the earlier Esplin report recommendations to increase fuel reduction
burn targets, but:
...they have had trouble in meeting any new targets, so fuel reduction
burning levels are still relatively low and there have been subsequent
inquiries and reports [since 2003] that have continued to recommend increases
in the amount of fuel reduction burning.
The obstacles faced by land management agencies attempting to meet
prescribed burn targets are discussed below from paragraph 3.141. Although
recognising that land managers operate different circumstances, the WA
Department of Environment and Conservation said 'that there would be scope for
more active prescribed burning in other parts of the country'.
During the inquiry Western Australia was given as an example of a
jurisdiction where adequate measures had been taken. The WA Department of
Environment and Conservation indicated that prescribed burning served the dual
purpose of mitigating bushfires by reducing fuel hazards, and managing
ecosystems that often depend on certain fire regimes.
They stated that controlled burns were varied to achieve land management
In many cases, planned burns are undertaken at landscape
scales to achieve both protection and ecological management objectives by
varying the seasons, fire intensities, and the interval between fires. The
Department has an obligation to ensure that the condition of the public land
which it manages does not pose a threat to human life and property as a
consequence of wildfires.
The WA Department of Environment and Conservation informed the committee
that six to eight per cent of crown land in the state is burned each year,
arguing that this regime had allowed fire managers to 'achieve a high level of
protection for community assets and natural values on and near the lands
managed by DEC'.
Not all Western Australians agreed with the department's claims. WA
Farmers' Federation suggested that WA Department of Environment and
Conservation did not have the resources to manage all the land under their
What has happened is that people like DEC have now got
responsibility for fairly big areas of what we call unallocated crown land in
this state. It used to be the country that we were opening up 20 and 30 years
ago that did not get opened up. It is not national park; it is really just
vacant public land, and that is the sort of country that DEC have a lot of
problems keeping tabs on because the resources just are not there for them to
be able to manage them properly.
The Bushfire Front Inc told the committee that while the WA approach
'has not been as bad as in Victoria or New South Wales', prescribed burning had
been wound back due to a lack of political support and was insufficient.
There were a number of barriers to prescribed burning raised in evidence
to the committee. NAFI referred to a variety of these:
...multiple land agencies and tenures with responsibilities
for fire management; inadequate funding, skills and equipment; a focus on fire
suppression at the expense of fire prevention; a decline in forestry trained
fire managers and infrastructure from the transfer of multiple-use public
forests to national parks and reserves; and a political and institutional
environment that has fostered a passive approach to fuel management in
conservation reserves and protected areas.
Co-ordinating multiple agencies
The committee heard that effective prescribed burning requires a
co-ordinated approach between adjacent land managers, recognising that the behaviour
of fire in the natural landscape does not adhere to artificial ownership boundaries.
NAFI argued that a reluctance to conduct prescribed burns by one agency
can affect other neighbouring landholders, even where they take appropriate
measures to mitigate fire risks:
If we look at the current situation, we have a landscape that
is fragmented with a range of tenures. We have forests in state parks; we have
got agriculture; and we have got an increasing number of forest reserves and
protected areas over the last few decades. One of the issues for the forest industry,
in particular, and other landholders is that there has been this build-up in
fuel loads in that part of the estate. Given the physical relationships when
you have a high fire danger rating, we get the crossover into the other
elements of the landscape, which then obviously affects the communities and the
industries that depend on the natural resource.
NAFI called for a more strategic risk management approach:
There needs to be integration across the state, across land
tenures and across state boundaries at the national level.
VAFI also argued that land management must be 'tenure blind':
That means that irrespective of whether we are talking about
state forest, national parks or in fact private landholdings, the approach to
the land management must be exactly the same.
Australian Forest Growers suggested that future fire models should seek
to remove the tension between agencies' land management objectives, the most
difficult being at the urban interface where the mixture of tenure is most
Although disagreeing with many other witnesses over bushfire management
strategies, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW agreed on the importance of
co-operation across agencies:
To be effective, management of bush fire across the landscape
requires a tenure blind approach. While not without challenges, such a
management strategy ensures that: all land management agencies (including
private property) contribute to the outcomes; there is minimal bias; and
inappropriate land management issues can be openly addressed.
Because successful bush fire management is dependent on the
participation of all property owners who experience bush fire risk, bush fire
management must involve all stakeholders at a planning level.
The WA Department of Environment and Conservation told the committee
that their management of both state forests and national parks in WA allowed
co-ordinated management across those tenures.
However, officers noted that the management of fuels on private lands 'is very
... [over the past 40 years] there has been a diminution of
burning by local volunteer bushfire brigades and by landholders. Many of the
farms that used [to] have the capacity to burn on their land are not
subdivisions. The equipment has gone, so there has been a diminution of active
fire management on private lands. We are trying to address that, working with
our colleagues from FESA to see how we might be able to come up with a more
coordinated program. But it is still going to be difficult to see how that can be
done if the individual does not want to get involved and has not got the
capacity to do it.
Strategies to achieve a more co-ordinated approach to prescribed burning
are contained below from paragraph 3.151.
Passive approaches to land
A number of contributors were critical that responsibility for managing
public land had been driven by an ideological approach favouring minimal
intervention. For example, NAFI criticised 'an increasing trend over the past
few decades for large increases in the area of formal conservation reserves
with a passive approach to fire management'.
While acknowledging that fire is an inevitable part of the
Australian environment, the challenge will be to move from a passive approach
to fire management with high uncertainty to a more active management approach
across all land tenures that shifts the focus and outcomes from extensive high
intensity fires to more frequent but controlled low intensity fires.
In evidence to the committee NAFI commented that a 'hands off'
philosophy had been spreading:
I think there is a philosophy there that, when you create a
national park, you lock it up and leave it. Unfortunately, that sort of
philosophy has permeated itself not only into national park management but also
into a lot of local council managements.
In evidence Mr Gary Nairn described this as the ‘lock it up and throw
away the keys’ view, though he noted that attitudes had shifted somewhat since:
I think that, over the last six or seven years, there has
been some backing away from that by some of those often referred to by
witnesses as the ‘extreme green’ element, when looking at land management. I
think there has been some rationalisation since in that respect, but to what
extent I am probably not well qualified to know.
Opportunities for prescribed
The committee was also told of the problems associated with achieving prescribed
burn targets given the limited number of days suitable for conducting these
burns, which are relatively labour intensive and require a degree of knowledge
and skill. These problems relate directly to the difficulty of obtaining
adequate personnel and equipment resources for the task, which is discussed in
greater detail in chapter 5.
Victorian Lands Alliance said that money and personnel were major
impediments to meeting controlled burn targets in Victoria:
The primary operational constraint on meeting current fuel
reduction targets is a lack of financial and personnel resources. The
permanent, experienced workforce in the bush has fallen from around 2,000
individuals in the 1980s to the current level of 237. Funding is year to year.
The fire prevention program funding in Victoria fell this year, down from $223
million two years ago to $198 million this year. If the land manager does not
have adequate funding and does not have adequate personnel or political support
for an ongoing program, then I would suggest that he has little to work with.
VFF commented that a declining rural workforce meant fewer volunteers to
Professor Enright queried whether effective prescribed burning is
achievable given the constraints that exist:
...a large issue surrounds how much fuel reduction burning of
the public estate in different parts of the country in different vegetation
types can actually be done at the frequency required to deliver the wildfire
suppression and life and property protection benefits that we want. If we were
to deliver at that level, what would the costs of that be? Do we have the
economic, manpower and time resources?
The small window of opportunity for burning compounds the limited
resources available for the task. Professor Enright commented:
...delivering the fuel reduction burns is quite problematic
in terms of the window of time that is available. If you think purely of the
parts of the year that are not too cold and damp or to hot, dry and windy and
take out weekends, school holidays and the days within those zones in spring
and autumn that are too windy or fall outside the prescription envelopes, the
estimates for most places in Victoria are that fewer than 20 days a year are
available for fuel reduction burning and in some years zero days a year fall
within the prescription envelope.
He related the difficulty of conducting prescribed burns in the areas
affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires:
One of the issues with some of the high impact areas in the
2009 fires relate to the vegetation types and the fact that some of these areas
were high biomass, wetter eucalypt forest areas dominated by mountain ash, and
these areas are probably the most difficult to fuel reduction burn because the
fuel loads can become very high. At the same time the fuel moisture levels are
high and tend to remain high right through the spring so that by the time the
fine fuels are dry enough to allow them to burn you are probably entering
weather conditions that are inappropriate or too dangerous to risk the burning
CSIRO also noted the constraints:
Execution of hazard reduction burning is problematic in many
areas due to constraints of smoke management, resources and opportunity (i.e.
prescription 'window'). In a number of forest types, such as tall, wet montane
eucalypt forests successful execution can limited by the low flammability of
surface fuels in general hazard reduction prescription windows. With the
expected warmer and drier conditions forecast under changed climate conditions
in the future and the subsequent increase in the number of days of extreme fire
danger ... it is expected that current 'windows' for applying prescriptions of
hazard reduction burning will change and possibly narrow, meaning less
opportunity to conduct safe and effective hazard reduction burns. This will
require reassessment of the current operational limits (i.e. work hours, smoke
levels, etc) of conducting hazard reduction burning.
Mr Phil Cheney indicated that a proper fuel reduction program is
expensive, but ultimately worth the price:
Prescribed burning is a rolling process that is continuous.
In Western Australia, for example, it occupies some 21 per cent of the annual
man hours of the relevant department. So it is a big commitment that has to be
put in—and it is costly; there is no doubt about that. But I believe that cost
is relatively small compared to the costs of suppression...
The Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation stated
that less resource intensive aerial prescribed burning had proved effective
A technique for lighting prescribed fires by dropping
incendiaries from aircraft under specific conditions of fuel and weather was
conceived and developed in Western Australia. Not only did this allow more area
to be prescribed burnt under the desired (prescribed) fuel and weather
conditions, it was much safer and less expensive than using ground crews.
Issues relating to land management resources are examined further in Chapter
Fuel reduction strategies
Evidence addressing specific fuel reduction strategies fell into two
(i) prescribed burning methods; and
(ii) grazing as an alternative.
Prescribed burning methods
The committee heard a range of evidence on effective prescribed burning
- discussion on burning targets based on area by hectare or
percentage of landscape;
local risk-based approaches balancing risk to property, available
resources and ecological considerations; and
- details of existing prescribed burning programs that are claimed
to have been successful in mitigating the damage caused by bushfires.
Mr Phil Cheney told the committee that to be effective prescribed
burning needed to be conducted at a rate of 'around eight per cent of the
burnable forest per annum on a rolling basis', undertaken by 'an organisation
that is pretty skilled in both understanding fire behaviour and applying
Mr Cheney suggested:
...my practical experience is—from looking at what it takes
to slow down a high-intensity fire—that you need to burn around eight per cent
of the burnable country per annum. That is not to say you burn everything,
because there are certain ecotypes that you do not want to burn, but you should
burn eight per cent of the burnable country. There is a lot of forest that
falls into that category. It has to be around 70 per cent of that area burnt,
and it has to be in big blocks of greater than a thousand hectares. That is the
practical reality of stopping a bushfire.
CSIRO explained that the vegetation type dictated the frequency required
for burns to be effective:
The length of time fuel hazard reduction remains effective in
assisting suppression of unplanned fires depends upon the number and type of
fuel layers involved, and time since fire, as governed by the rate of
accumulation of these fuels and the time that it takes for the key layers to
build up to their full potential for the site. This ‘effectiveness time’ may be
relatively short (less than 1 year) for fuels with a simple structure, such as
annual grasses, or it may be many years in more complex fuel types such as tall
forests with complex understoreys...
Professor Kanowski supported increased fuel reduction burns but was
reluctant to advocate a blanket target:
...the answer in quantitative terms is very much a question
of the part of the landscape that you are dealing with. It is different in
south-western WA to what it might be in south-eastern Australia and different
again in Queensland.
The Nature Conservation Council of NSW also cautioned against blanket
targets across different vegetation types:
It would not be eight years for every vegetation community.
Some grasslands might need to be burnt more often and then you have wet
sclerophyll forests that probably, for ecological reasons, need to be burnt
less often. It is probable that, if you took a blanket approach to all the
different vegetation communities, at least across New South Wales, you would
really affect the biodiversity values of those communities and you might not
alter fuel significantly anyhow.
Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) said
that different regions require different approaches:
Every region has a different fuel load of vegetation... That
is why we cannot just implement this statewide immediately; the fact is that we
have to focus on those zones and say, ‘Right, get the science right for that
area and then come in and teach people and then move to the next.’ It is not
something that you can say that one fits all about.
Officers from DEC told the committee that medium and long-term
prescribed burning plans are developed on the basis of three major
analysis: identifies values at risk, ignition potential fuel load/fire
behaviour and capacity to control small fires.
requirements: burn programs are tailored to suit local habitats.
burns: prioritising burns made necessary following mining or harvesting.
Information was provided about the 'Canobalas Bush Fire Model',
otherwise referred to in evidence as a risk-planning model. A 'tenure-blind'
approach is used through co-operation between a particular region's responsible
fire and land management agencies, as well as other relevant organisations such
as conservation groups, farmer bodies and catchment management authorities. The
bushfire management committee for that area classifies the landscape, according
to risk, into one of the following three zones:
- an asset protection zone around the immediate vicinity of assets;
- a strategic fire advantage zone where it is possible to reduce
fuel frequently, for example through cultivated breaks or livestock grazing; or
- a land management zone covering the remaining part of the
After risks have been identified and analysed, a fuel reduction plan is formulated,
implemented and then audited. The aim of the plan is to control burn to achieve
a mosaic pattern of fuel reduction across the landscape regardless of whether
the land is managed as national park, forestry or privately owned land, while
recognising the need to prioritise the protection of areas containing assets of
Mr Graham Brown indicated to the committee that this risk planning
approach is now being introduced to 68 zones across New South Wales, which
involves bushfire management committees in each zone developing and
implementing their own risk plans.
The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of New South Wales described a
similar approach at Kurrajong Heights, using a cyclical mosaic burning pattern:
Kurrajong Heights has got 18 blocks that we burn. We try to
burn two of those blocks on a yearly basis, which means that it takes about
nine years to get around our zone. The secret with this is to create a mosaic
pattern of burning on different time frames ... the 2001 fire was the worst
fire to impact at Kurrajong Heights. The fire came into [two reduced fuel]
areas. Those fuel loads were four years of age and it took six days to travel
five kilometres. The very same fire ran 30 kilometres in a day and burnt down
homes on Blaxlands Ridge. It is just the difference between having a plan
prepared and managed at the local level. It is so simple.
FESA informed the committee that an interagency bushfire management
committee had been established in WA to take a co-operative and tenure-blind
approach to mitigation.
Officers stated that:
The aspect of properly managed fuel or prescribed burning is
something that we are now wanting to get a lot more cohesive and strategic
about across the public and private lands, the plantations and the unallocated
Crown land. That is the intention of our interagency bushfire committee, in
which we are now sharing all of those values at risk.
That committee is undertaking an analysis of bushfire threat areas
across WA to determine what fuel management arrangements will apply in future.
Forest Fire Victoria Inc advocated the national use of a publication
called Forest Fire Behaviour Tables for Western Australia, otherwise
referred to as the 'red book'. They stated:
Until Australia adopts the red book as the way to go about
your prescribed burning, we will still be stuffing it up. We will still have
fires that are too hot or fires that do not burn. The red book says how you
should do it. What [author George Peet] said to me as we walked across the road
at Manjimup was, ‘Look, all we’re doing is to gather this information because
the people who know how to burn have made so many mistakes in learning how to
burn that we can’t afford to make those mistakes anymore.’
The Western Australian 'red book' contains information on fire behaviour
under different circumstances, including climatic conditions, vegetation type,
moisture content, fuel quantity and type, and available burning time.
The Commonwealth's role in facilitating the implementation of effective
strategies for conducting prescribed burns is examined later in the chapter
from paragraph 3.181.
Where prescribed burning is not appropriate or practical, some
organisations proposed grazing as an alternative. Victorian Lands Alliance suggested
The beneficial impact cattle grazing can have on reducing
fine fuels to aid fire management on public land I do not believe has been
adequately covered. Some landscapes are just clearly not suited to fuel
reduction burning. Apart from mechanical removal, the only other options are
grazing or do nothing. Noted fire ecologist Dr Kevin Tolhurst states that
cattle can remove the dangerous fine fuels that drive fire intensity. Grazing
is the only fuel reduction method apart from forestry activity that actually
earns money to the state via licence fees. It is a fuel reduction method that
They particularly recommended its use in the Barmah State Forest, where
red gums are very fire sensitive and very little prescribed burning is done.
The Mountain Cattlemens Association of Victoria stated that cattle
grazing areas of the high country were less severely affected during the alpine
fires of 2003, 2006 and 2009. Their submission argued that an absence of
grazing in these areas enables the buildup of long dry matted grass that 'will
explode in an intense environmentally damaging fire'.
They noted that re-introducing grazing to the Victorian high country would not
prevent wildfire, but would reduce their intensity by reducing fuel loads.
The Mountain Cattlemens Association of Victoria also recommended that
further research be conducted on grazing as a fire management technique:
Given the imperative that fire management is the cornerstone
of public land management in Victoria and the stated first priority of public
land managers, a strong case exists for the State and Federal Government to
commission a truly independent scientific study to establish an evidence based
view of the link between grazing and fuel reduction on all types of public land
in Victoria including National Parks.
In 2005 a Victorian Government taskforce found that grazing cattle in
the Alpine National Park causes environmental damage and does not affect fuel
reduction and wildfire behaviour.
The practice was subsequently banned there in 2005, when existing national park
leases were not renewed, though it has been allowed to remain in neighbouring
state forest areas.
Dr Richard Williams informed the committee that research he had
conducted led to the conclusion that: 'there was no detectable impact of
grazing history on either the incidence of fire—the rough proportions were not
statistically different—nor the severity'.
Proposals for reform
The committee received considerable evidence on the inadequacy of
prescribed burning measures being implemented by state (and to a lesser degree
local) land management agencies. However, identifying practical and achievable
solutions to be implemented at the Commonwealth level remains a significant
challenge. Evidence to the committee emphasised that federally driven change is
needed to ensure the following:
- land management agencies establish and maintain a co-ordinated,
long term and considered approach to fuel reduction across the landscape; and
- the fuel reduction activities of land management agencies are
subject to oversight and input at a national level.
Victorian Lands Alliance argued for a long-term, planned, prescribed
Fuel reduction burning must be undertaken in a programmatic
manner for Victoria to maximise its fire management opportunities. Fuel
reduction burning over the landscape needs to achieve long-term risk
minimisation and biodiversity benefits, and that cannot be successfully
achieved by three-year planning, which is the current planning that we
undertaken within Victoria. Ten-year adapted management programs are required,
and these need political and funding support to achieve this. The planning that
is required extends past one electoral cycle, and until we get past the idea
that we can plan for and manage it in three years I think we will continue to
VFF also stressed that prescribed burning needs to be 'a long-term
...it is no good doing a spate of prescribed burning over the
next three years because there is some public pressure to do so and then ease
back on it. It has to be an ongoing program.
VFF's submission recognised the limitations of a hectare-based target,
proposing that a risk based approach could achieve the transparency sought via
The benefit of a hectare based target is that it is
transparent and measurable; however if only token consideration is to be given
to the area target an alternative system that is transparent and provides the
community with detailed information of the fire risk factors within forests
must be implemented.
The development of a prescribed burn plan that takes a risk
based approach to establish priorities and urgency of reducing fuel loads would
assist in providing this transparency. Triggers for burns could be based on
risk factors such as the type of vegetation, terrain, fuel load and the
proximity to population and private land. The relevant Department with
responsibility for managing the particular piece of land should be required to
publically report a fire risk rating for discrete areas of crown land.
The lower the level of risk for any particular area, the
lower the priority to conduct a prescribed burn. As the risk factors increase,
the priority and urgency for a prescribed burn also increases.
This approach would also direct the level of risk that would
be acceptable in conducting a prescribed burn. If the level of wildfire risk to
private property is low, there would be time to wait for the weather conditions
necessary for a prescribed burn at a lower level of risk. As the risk of
wildfire to people and property increases a higher level of risk is acceptable
when conducting the prescribed burn.
This system also emphasises the wisdom in taking preventative
measures before risk becomes too great. If burns are consistently conducted at
low risk points, fuel loads are less likely to achieve high risk levels.
VFF also called for broad input into management of public lands:
An additional step that could assist would be the
establishment of regional fire committees with representative from landholders,
Government land managers, Catchment management Authorities and the CFA. This
committee would provide recommendations, advice and guidance on the management
of crown land in order to manage fire risk.
The strategies above referred to above from paragraph 3.152,
particularly the Canobalas Bush Fire Model, broadly reflect these Victorian
perspectives about the need for a more co-ordinated, long-term and considered
approach to fuel reduction, tailored for each region on the basis of local
characteristics and risk imperatives.
In their submission to the inquiry the Western Australian Fire and
Emergency Services Authority (FESA) commented that:
The effectiveness of bushfire mitigation would be enhanced if
the multiple agency and jurisdictional arrangements were abandoned. The
principal or pre-eminent fire agency should be enabled to manage bushfire
preparedness, regardless of tenure or ownership.
One central agency must be made responsible through the State
statutes to coordinate and approve the regional and strategic fire reduction
strategies. The onus for developing the strategies and then implementing the
strategies should quite rightly remain the responsibility of the local
government and the local land owners/managers or managing authority. Where the
local government, local land owners/managers or managing authority did not
undertake the work the pre-eminent fire agency must have the statutory
authority and resources to undertake that work in a timely manner and where
appropriate recover the cost of that work from the local land owners/managers
or managing authority.
To ensure that land managers meet their responsibility to manage fuel
loads effectively, a number of organisations recommended that the Commonwealth
government be responsible for monitoring the implementation of fuel reduction
measures. The Rural Fire Service Association of NSW proposed greater Commonwealth
responsibility for ensuring that the states are meeting benchmarks and
VAFI also called for a national framework to impose greater accountability on
...having a national framework that looks at fuel hazards and
appropriate levels of fuel reduction and which could actually compare results
to plans would be of benefit and improve the transparency and accountability of
Victorian Lands Alliance recommended that reduction activities be
Monitoring the benefits and impacts of fuel reduction burning
and inevitable bushfire through research is essential and must be mandated and
They also suggested that targets be established to ensure
As accountability has been an ongoing issue for the
achievement of fuel reduction burning targets, clearly defined targets must be
set, with a minimum target of 385,000 hectares, as recommended by the Victorian
parliamentary inquiry in 2008. The government and/or the land manager in
Victoria clearly have a reluctance to commit to a target. I think that the
community is sending a clear signal that they want to see targets so that there
is some accountability.
Australian Forest Growers queried the accountability of land management
agencies under the current structures:
Where you rely on a state government agency to monitor and
also to implement fuel reduction, often they get lost in their own bureaucracy.
No-one is standing there saying, ‘You’re not achieving your goals or your
They proposed that the Commonwealth should have a stronger monitoring
role: 'there needs to be some national organisation that looks at...the
effectiveness of fire preparedness in every state'.
As referred to earlier as part of the committee's discussion on national
co-ordination from paragraph 1.102, Australian Forest Growers recommended that
a new auditing body be established to report to federal Parliament on a number
of fire preparedness measures, including 'the extent of pre-season fuel
The Bushfire Front Inc stated that auditing is the Commonwealth's most important
...probably the most important thing is that the Commonwealth
can provide a system of auditing and public reporting on actual performance in
terms of bushfire management. The situation at the moment is that state
agencies around Australia who are responsible for bushfires audit and report on
themselves, or else they are not audited and reported upon by people that know
anything about it. The Commonwealth could set up a system that says, ‘This is
an ideal bushfire management system; this is best practice; this is the way the
states are performing against it.’ It could provide an independent audit and
make it public. That has never been done yet, and until it is done people will
be able to get away with doing anything.
Australian Forest Growers explained that their recommendation stemmed
from frustration at previous inaction:
...this has arisen from an ongoing frustration that out of
every inquiry you seem to get a recommendation that we need to be more careful
about controlling the build-up of fuel load. Everyone nods sagely and they go
back to their departments and fail to meet their own performance criteria. So,
if they are not being audited at a state level, then our only other avenue
seems to be the federal level. I think you can probably do that without intervening
in the states’ rights to manage land.
Mr Nairn reiterated the select committee's call for prescribed burning
activities to be published and audited.
The recommendation from that committee was as follows:
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth seek to ensure
that the Council of Australian Governments seek agreement from the states and
territories on the optimisation and implementation of prescribed burning
targets and programs to a degree that is recognised as adequate for the
protection of life, property and the environment. The prescribed burning
programs should include strategic evaluation of fuel management at the regional
level and the results of annual fuel management in each state should be
publicly reported and audited.
Fuel load is the only contributor to fire intensity that land managers
are able to control to any degree and prescribed burning is the most effective
way to minimise fuel loads at a landscape level. Opponents of prescribed
burning have not proposed suitable alternatives for reducing fuel loads and
would therefore tolerate continually increasing fuel in the landscape, condemning
fire prone communities and the environment to ever more serious fires.
The committee accepts that there is disagreement and uncertainty about
the effect fuel reduction has on fire behaviour in extreme hot and windy
weather. As the CSIRO noted, there are unanswered questions as to the extent of
prescribed burning that would be required to modify fire behaviour on extreme
fire days, and obvious problems with conducting fire behaviour experiments
under such conditions. However, the fact that fuel loads are known to affect
fire behaviour under more benign conditions is in the committee's opinion a
good enough reason to recognise the value of prescribed burning programs.
Reduced fuel loads can aid fire suppression efforts when fires start under
moderate conditions, allowing fire fighters to gain control of them before
conditions become unfavourable. Similarly, bushfires running uncontrolled during
extreme conditions can be more readily brought under control when the weather
moderates if fuel reduction measures have been undertaken.
There are also legitimate claims about the diminishing returns from
prescribed burning over time, recognising that burns are unable to be conducted
too frequently because of ecological and resourcing reasons. Even so, a long
term prescribed burning program using a mosaic approach to fuel reduction will
ensure that neighbouring parts of the landscape will have been burned more
recently than others, assisting fire suppression efforts when fires reach those
recently burned areas.
A precautionary approach must also be taken when considering the effectiveness
of prescribed burning for protecting assets. Without discounting the importance
of hazard reduction measures at the interface between built assets and the
bush, fuel reduction measures taken to reduce fire intensity in the landscape are
an important element in mitigating bushfire risk. Houses are less likely to be
ignited from random ember attack if the intensity of the fire catapulting those
embers ahead of the fire front has been reduced.
The committee is firmly of the view that it is not an option to neglect
prescribed burning in the landscape because its effectiveness cannot be
quantified. To do so would be to allow fuel levels to reach untenable levels
and make suppressing bushfires in even moderate conditions much more difficult
than it should be.
The committee does not underestimate the considerable difficulties
confronted by land managers trying to implement an effective prescribed burning
strategy. Community resistance to prescribed burning is often unhelpful,
engendering a highly risk-averse approach from land managers that counters
effective strategies. Land managers in areas with certain vegetation types also
have to deal with constraints imposed by short windows of opportunity in which
to conduct burns, as well as having their efforts diminished by neighbouring
land management agencies that do not see fuel reduction as a priority, or who
do not have the resources for the task.
However, the committee is of the firm view that all fire prone communities
in Australia should be part of a well considered, risk-based and co-ordinated 'tenure
blind' prescribed burning program, devised on a region-by-region basis with the
co-operation of all responsible land managers. Risk planning strategies
recognise that different regions and different vegetation types require a
tailored approach, taking into account bushfire risks to communities and the pattern
and frequency of burning that can mitigate these risks, bearing in mind
constraints imposed by needing suitable conditions to burn and the need to
manage ecological values appropriately.
The committee realises that there may be biodiversity costs where
prescribed burns of certain vegetation types are conducted on a frequent basis.
These factors should certainly be taken into account when burn strategies are being
developed, but need to be balanced against the ecological consequences of high
intensity fires that are more likely to occur if hazard reduction burns are too
infrequent or not carried out at all. There is nothing worse for protecting
biodiversity than an intense bushfire tearing through the landscape. Nothing
survives. Prescribed burning is therefore an important part of maintaining
biodiversity in fire prone areas.
The Commonwealth's limited land management responsibilities mean that its
role in developing and implementing fuel reduction programs is also limited,
which is properly the role of the relevant land manager and/or fire agencies. Consequently,
practical solutions on fuel reduction able to be implemented by the
Commonwealth are concerned with providing technical and scientific expertise to
assist with risk planning, and taking a monitoring role to ensure that the
states and territories' public land management agencies are developing and
implementing effective prescribed burning programs.
The committee agrees with the evidence provided during the inquiry that
the Commonwealth should be more involved in ensuring that managers of public
land are meeting their obligations to protect communities for bushfire risks,
by monitoring progress on the implementation of effective fuel reduction programs
in high bushfire risk areas. At present, land management agencies are not
adequately accountable for their bushfire preparedness, particularly in respect
of fuel reduction. The committee therefore recommends that the Commonwealth
seek agreement from the states and territories that would enable it to evaluate
the adequacy of fuel reduction programs being applied by public land management
agencies in high bushfire risk areas, and audit their implementation against
the program's stated objectives. In the committee's opinion, these programs
should be based on the region-by-region, co-ordinated risk planning model
described above if they are to be considered effective.
3.199 The Commonwealth seek agreement from the states and territories that would
enable it to evaluate the adequacy of fuel reduction programs applied by public
land management agencies in high bushfire risk areas, and audit their
implementation against the program's stated objectives.
The committee further recommends that the Commonwealth publish all fuel
reduction plans and related audit findings on a national database, so that
communities living in bushfire prone areas are properly informed about the
adequacy of bushfire mitigation strategies in their surrounding landscape.
3.201 The Commonwealth publish all fuel reduction plans and related audit
findings on a national database.
Finally, the committee notes that while grazing would not provide a comprehensive
solution to fuel hazard reduction deficiencies, where appropriate it should be
considered by public land management agencies as part of each region's fuel
reduction strategy. The committee also supports further research in alpine
country environments to establish the relative long term benefits to those areas
of grazing, prescribed burning, or management without fuel reduction.
Additional risk management approaches
Although mitigating bushfire risk through fuel reduction is contentious,
it is well recognised that additional bushfire risk management strategies are
needed to protect built assets and those who inhabit them. During the inquiry,
consideration of these strategies focussed on the measures that enable
communities to be more resistant to the effects of catastrophic bushfires.
Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC)
commented in their submission that communities need to accept shared
AFAC believes managing risk and reducing loss is a shared
responsibility between government, householders, property owners and land
Fire agencies and some land management agencies have
statutory responsibilities for managing bushfires. However, the steps that
householders and business owners take to prepare for bushfires are crucial to
the protection of their life and property. Communities need to be assisted in
building their resilience to be able to better cope with bushfires.
The following issues relating to community resilience were explored:
- Improving communities' understanding of their bushfire risk.
- The appropriate imposition of planning controls to protect
communities from bushfires.
Insurance arrangements that provide appropriate risk management
incentives to households.
Improved risk information
One important strategy for protecting lives and built assets is to equip
communities to better understand the risks bushfires present in their area. However,
evidence to the committee suggested that general awareness and understanding
about fire in the community was declining. Mr Phil Cheney commented on the
general lack of experience with fire:
...fire has passed out of the consciousness of most people
... Very few people light a fire. They are often not allowed to light a fire
just to burn off rubbish in their backyard, for which there are all sorts of
reasons put up, most of them spurious in my view.
Emergency Management Australia (EMA) also noted that changing demography
has meant a poorer understanding of fire risks by those living at the
AFAC commented that the task of educating people moving into fire prone
areas is complex:
We have to get past the idea that a brochure is going to
change people’s behaviour and that the complexity of it is a lot more than that
when people have so many other things going on in their lives. A long-term and
quite highly skilled approach is needed.
Mr Justin Leonard argued that community understanding of the interaction
between landscape risk and design risk is critical:
The ... most important component is community education where
the occupant of that structure completely understands the nature of his built
house or his design and the risk of his landscape and has the relevant tools to
be able to self-assess and come up with a specific understanding of his risk in
According to Mr Leonard, the extent of this understanding would underpin
a householder's 'stay or go' decision:
...the occupant, in order to make an effective decision about
whether they should be leaving the night before or early in the morning of an
impending high fire danger day, needs to understand how vulnerable they are to
a fire that would arrive under those conditions. They need to understand the
fundamental assumptions of fire weather intensity that were inherent in the
decisions that led to their house design and how it was built. If they do not
actually have that knowledge, they more or less fall into the category where
they must leave well and truly ahead of any impending fire event. So a
vulnerability assessment and a detailed understanding of your own circumstances
are an inherent part of, or go hand-in-hand with, that policy doctrine.
CSIRO's submission said that better information about risk could assist
communities to make informed decisions:
There is potential for an improved house loss risk index to
be developed and used to better inform communities of the potential for a fire
under given fire weather conditions to cause life and property loss.
Accompanied by an integrated education policy this tool could assist
individuals and communities to understand:
- the potential worst case weather conditions in their
capacity to prepare and adapt to their regionally specific weather conditions,
significance of forecast weather conditions in relation to the level to which
they are prepared, so that an informed decision can be made to stay and defend
or leave well before the fire arrives.
Professor Neal Enright advocated a more realistic assessment of risk of
asset destruction and threat to life:
If [high fire danger] conditions are going to become more
frequent then we have to look at how people assess risk and respond to risk.
Some of the local councils are probably partly at fault here because they want
ratepayers and they have allowed building in locations that are perhaps not
particularly fire safe and do not meet building codes that are suitable for the
circumstances. We need to ask what level of individual responsibility people
are prepared to accept, what levels of community responsibility local councils
are going to front up and accept and what demands they are going to make on
people when they move into those areas.
The committee notes that the Western Australian Fire and Emergency
Services Authority (FESA) has begun analysis in this area to assist fire
agencies assess bushfire risks:
In 2003 FESA developed the 'Rural Urban Bush Fire Threat
Analysis (RUBTA)'. The purpose of this analysis tool is to provide a system
that fire managers can use to quantify decisions associated with bush fire
hazards, risks and values to determine the threat that a bush fire would pose.
It is expected that the RUBTA tool will be applicable in
situations where bush land and communities interface. This may include several
streets in the metropolitan area, or a brigade zone, or local government
authority area. The expectation is that the hazards, risks and values analysed
and the resultant threat determined by use of this analysis tool can be applied
with equal success in all areas. This analysis tool is not designed to be
applied in isolated areas that contain little residential or commercial
As most bush fires are caused by human activity, either by
deliberate actions or carelessness, risk can be equated with human activity and
available fuels. For the development of this analysis (RUBTA), a zone is any
area that is being assessed. It can be a local government area, brigade area, or
Concerns were also raised about confusion in the community about fire
because of inconsistent or inaccurate use of terminology. The Bushfire Front
Inc stated that:
A major issue in community education is terminology. It is
common in Australia for bushfire terms to be used incorrectly (“back burn” used
to mean “prescribed burn”) or vaguely (“frequent fire”). To help overcome this
problem The Bushfire Front has developed a standard glossary... There is an
opportunity to take a leadership role in this, and to promote the development
and provide custodianship for an Australia-wide bushfire terminology, thus
ensuring consistent and accurate use of critical words and terms.
The Bushfire Front Inc recommended a national bushfire terminology be adopted
In conjunction with households taking their own measures in response to
bushfire, discussion also focussed on the imposition of planning regulations
that can mitigate the effects of uncontrolled bushfires on lives and assets in
high-risk areas. This includes hazard reduction at the urban interface and more
fire resistant building design. In particular, there were concerns about the
adequacy and enforcement of existing planning regulations and the emerging
demand for bushfire bunkers.
The 2005 COAG report stated that:
...land use planning that takes into account natural hazard
risks is the single most important mitigation measure for preventing future
disaster losses (including from bushfires) in areas of new development.
Planning and development controls must be effective, to ensure that
inappropriate developments do not occur.
The Queensland Department of Community Safety noted recent development
trends and environmental constraints that had increased bushfire risk around
In the past, urban development was often surrounded by a
cleared rural buffer. More recently, urban development is moving into rural
areas and natural vegetation. Additionally, there has been a tendency to
subdivide large bush blocks on the urban fringe.
Environmental controls generally prevent the clearing of
native vegetation. Where rural land is subdivided, revegetation with native
species often creates the same bushland environment without adequate means to
manage the bushfire risk. Future disasters in these areas are inevitable unless
adequate precautions are taken.
Mr Justin Leonard explained that trees near houses are not necessarily a
fire risk in themselves, stating that 'trees on their own do not burn'. He indicated
that the fuel they create needs to be managed:
They are certainly a source of fine fuel debris and may allow
accumulation of that under them, but that fuel can be managed and it can
co-exist with the tree, so to speak. I certainly would not advocate having
trees so close that when their branches drop in a bushfire they knock a hole in
your roof, because that is not particularly effective. But in fact trees
between you and a continuous unmanaged forest environment are actually quite
useful in attenuating radiant heat, attenuating the wind loads and also
filtering out ember attack between you and the fire.
The Planning Institute of Australia told the committee that reducing
hazards at the interface reduced demands on building design:
If we have sufficient cleared areas around buildings, the
demands on the structures in terms of the techno fix are much lower. That is
why we can either manage the fuel loads or increase the resistance. It is a
matter of striking an appropriate balance between those two things.
I think we do have to accept that if people want the
trade-off of being closer to vegetation then they have to accept that part of
that trade-off is substantially increased building costs as they move up
through the AS requirements. At the end of the day, the issue is whether it is
appropriate for us to mandate and legislate these things or to provide some
personal discretion to people.
The Institute added that the implementation of that balance could be
improved with flexible arrangements:
...what we are trying to do is balance competing issues
within the overall framework of what is affordable—because everything costs
money. I think we can provide building codes and planning regimes that provide
first cut at those balances in a much better and much more affordable way than
we have done in the past. We know enough to do this; we are just not
integrating it all.
Once we do that, if somebody wants to go outside one of those
solutions then they have to put their case. That is when they call in the fire
expert consultant and say: ‘We don’t want to fit that box. We want to do this.
We think we can do that safely because of X, Y and Z. We found this alternative
solution that meets the objectives of the standard and the objectives of the
BCA, but it’s a different solution.’ ...What that allows is the ability in
every circumstance for an optimised solution and standardised solutions that
have been worked through to provide a reasonable balance of cost versus
effectiveness in the context of the risk we are trying to manage.
Mr Justin Leonard told the committee that because most house losses
occurred on catastrophic fire risk days where fire suppression is difficult,
asset design is critical:
...if the issue of urban asset vulnerability and urban design
is not solved then we still have a fundamental problem where fires, no matter
what broadacre fuel management regime is implemented, will turn up at urban
assets, and we will lose houses and we will lose lives. That is of course
exacerbated by the potential climate predictions that we will see a greater
prevalence of more days of extreme fire danger and, potentially, days when the
fire danger is more extreme than we have seen historically.
Requirements for the construction of buildings in bushfire prone areas
are specified by Standards Australia in AS3959-2009, the purpose of which is to
reduce the risk of buildings igniting while a bushfire passes through. Construction
requirements vary depending on the bushfire risk the property faces, determined
following a site assessment.
Formal implementation of AS 3959-2009 occurs through its adoption into the
Building Code of Australia (BCA).
However, the Australian Building Codes Board notes that while AS 3959
provides for construction standards offering bushfire resistance in accordance
with the assessed level of risk, it does not fire-proof houses built to the
...compliance with AS 3959 will not guarantee that a building
will survive a bushfire event on every occasion due to the unpredictable nature
and behaviour of fire and the difficulties associated with extreme weather
conditions. Construction standards are an important part of what should be a
holistic approach to risk mitigation that includes planning controls, ongoing
building and vegetation maintenance, occupant ability and preparedness,
education campaigns and emergency response.
Some evidence advocated preventing future development in fire-prone
areas altogether. For example, Dr Bob Such MP stated that potential housing
sites in fire-prone areas should be quarantined under planning regulations.
Conservation Council of WA argued that more stringent restrictions are needed:
...we are in a situation where there are more and more
assets, homes, being built in high fire-risk areas—not just in forest but in
coastal heath. In Western Australia the local governments have the ability to
identify fire zones, under legislation, but they do not do it. We are getting
more and more subdivisions in high fire-risk areas.
In evidence to the committee the Planning Institute of Australia warned
that lessons about bushfire probability were not being learned:
We are still recreating the problems—the same thing in the
same place. I cite the case of Warrimoo in the Blue Mountains of New South
Wales, where some dwellings have burnt five times since 1957. When will we get
the point? Some areas—and I think we must accept this—may never be able to be
made safe from these catastrophic events. In Australia we have a history of
shifting communities that get flooded—Gunnedah, Nowra, Maitland—yet we will not
even go there in terms of bushfire vulnerable communities.
The Institute expressed concerns about the haste to re-build in areas
affected by bushfires:
At present, there is an increasing move by governments to
exempt a range of developments from planning approvals, such as in the context
of post-bushfire reconstruction. The effect of this approach is that the role
of land use planning in providing input into the re-building process would be
removed, generally resulting in little or no regard for critical and
- the siting of a dwelling (of vital importance when one
considers the impact of topography on fire behaviour);
- access for emergency vehicles; vegetation management; the need
to critique existing subdivision layouts (including the need to plan road
networks to better facilitate efficient evacuation of such communities);
- building styles and design; and
- water supply.
Naturally, many people who have lost their homes through
bushfire want to re-build quickly. The speed of re-building, however, can
hamper efforts for a strategic analysis, giving due consideration to 'lessons
learnt' and the
implementation of risk management practices.
They also suggested that the Commonwealth provide assistance to owners
of older dwellings in high risk areas to retrofit their homes to the existing
The Institute of Architects of Australia observed that restrictions on
the rights of property owners to build as they wish are inconsistently applied:
The community generally accepts the value of these
regulations and the need for compliance to prevent the possibility of death or
injury, even where the statistical risk to the safety of occupants is low, or
It seems inconsistent with the general policy of safety based
regulation ... that the risk to occupants of bushfire, where that risk is
enhanced by an extraordinarily dangerous location, could fall outside the scope
of such regulation, given that setting standards of construction cannot
realistically eliminate this risk.
The Institute of Architects of Australia indicated that a more stringent
approach be taken if supported by the available evidence:
While the Institute strongly advocates that any such decision
to regulate the right to build should only be made on sound research evidence,
if the Senate Select Committee finds there is such a case for more extensive
regulation to be made on the basis of research, then the Institute considers it
a necessary and appropriate part of protecting our community.
The Planning Institute of Australia recommended that an assessment of
high risk communities be incorporated into state and regional planning
regulations and that vulnerable developments such as schools and aged care
facilities be restricted from being built in areas where evacuation would be
They advocated a national position to reflect this:
The submission also noted that consideration should be given
to developing a national planning policy position regarding the location of new “vulnerable” land uses such as hospitals, aged care facilities, tourist
facilities and schools, among others. That is, the establishment of these types
of facilities should not be permitted within high or extreme bushfire prone
areas, as evacuation of such facilities during a bushfire could prove difficult
Mr Justin Leonard also commented that special measures are required in
There is definitely a strong case for special consideration
and a special strategy for retrofitting or building new facilities for aged
care and infirm care hospitals that are defined as being exposed to bushfire
risk. Because of the inherent inability of the occupants, and the fact that sometimes
you get two days warning of an impending fire attack and sometimes you get two
minutes warning, you more or less have to consider that the shelter strategy
will have to be an important consideration in future events. So they have to
have an effective, robust strategy that combines building detailed design, land
management and emergency reaction.
The Planning Institute of Australia advocated a national framework
integrating existing bushfire mitigation knowledge into the planning and
development system. This would involve seeking the agreement of the states to
incorporate into their planning systems newly developed national risk
management strategies for natural hazards, including bushfires.
The Institute was critical of the application of existing planning measures:
While planning tools exist to assess risks and mitigate
against bushfire hazards, the effectiveness of such measures is limited by the
enforcement, management and communication between various planning regimes,
fire authorities and the community that will determine the effectiveness of
these tools. From a planning perspective there is a perceivable lack of
interaction, awareness, enforcement and management between various planning
regimes which is threatening the efficient application of all existing planning
tools regarding bushfires.
a considered approach to risk mitigation and management forms
the basis of approvals permitting development of land in high-risk areas in the
first instance. PIA believes that better planning for risk identification, risk
management and mitigation of bushfires requires actions at all levels of
government. Specifically, the key actions relate to governance; development
assessment, approval and compliance processes for subdivision, site planning
and building; community education and engagement and professional education and
training for those involved in planning processes across a variety of agencies.
Enforcement of existing regulations was also the subject of concern. Conservation
Council of WA suggested to the committee that current national standards are
not being adequately applied at the local level:
...there are national building codes that provide for
different building standards for areas that are declared as fire prone areas.
Those building codes are available for implementation by local councils and by
authorities, but that relies on the identification of fire prone areas. In
Western Australia, I think there are only two shires that have declared fire
prone areas for the application of those building codes. As a result of that,
you get ... [advertisements for fire prone dwellings] with no indication to the
potential purchaser that it is a dwelling in a fire prone area. There are some
disincentives to the actual identification and listing of fire prone areas for
the application of those building codes. It may be that it has an effect on
property prices and it may be that it becomes more expensive to develop land in
those areas for those reasons, but that absolutely needs to be looked at ... as
a first priority.
FESA provided a similar view:
The planning and building codes in Western Australia are
deficient in that the declaration of bush fire prone areas is left to the local
government authority to declare areas bush fire prone. The declaration of bush
fire prone areas generally occur when the local government updates is town
planning or regional planning scheme. This occurs only every five or 10 years
depending on the scheme.
In Western Australia most local governments have not declared
their municipal areas or portions of the municipal areas bush fire prone. By
not declaring the municipal areas bush fire prone proves problematic for
building surveyors who wish to impose the "Australian Standard 3959 -
Construction in bushfire prone areas" which would increase the
survivability of the building if attacked by a bush fire. There are a number of
local governments who have declared portions of their municipal areas bush fire
prone and they should be commended. When a municipal area declares a bush fire
prone area the Building Code of Australia applies, as does "Australian
Standard 3959 - Construction in bushfire prone areas". It is the absence
of the declaration of the bush fire prone areas that is holding back the
protection of the community. By unilaterally declaring their municipal areas
bush fire prone may act as a deterrent for a local government as it may lead to
increase building costs, or a reduction of lots in a zone leading a reduction
The Planning Institute of Australia raised the problem of local
enforcement beyond initial construction:
At the local level, issues of enforcement and compliance can
impact upon land use and management in bushfire-prone regions. This can include
conditions on permits not being followed up or enforced by the relevant
authority. For example, screens that assist in protecting against ember attack
may be removed by some residents following receipt of their occupancy permit.
There is a need to ensure compliance over the life of the development in order
to maintain the level of protection anticipated by the bushfire development
requirements. This, however, may not always be practicable due to individual
resourcing limitations of the relevant authority.
The Institute stated that even best practice planning regulations have
limited value if they are unable to be enforced:
We ... recognise the perennial problem of follow-up on
planning requirements. Put a requirement on a permit—fine—put 30 requirements
on a permit, but who is going to check that the clearing is done, the buildings
are maintained, the preventative measures are in place and that the fire
planning is being done. Local government does not have the resources to do
this, and this is a serious issue that we need to address: the follow-up.
The committee also considered the emerging and controversial issue of
private fire refuges used as a shelter from bushfire attack, or 'bushfire
bunkers'. The loss of life that occurred on Black Saturday has spurred debate about
the safety implications of bushfire bunkers and how they may be appropriately regulated,
as there are currently no technical standards for private bushfire bunkers in
the Building Code of Australia.
The Institute of Architects of Australia warned of a potential surge in
demand for bunkers, without suitable understanding of their safety:
It is imperative that the community understand that within
Australia there are no prescribed standards or regulations for the construction
of fire refuges. To the Institute’s knowledge, there is also no known research
based evidence within Australia supporting the safe design of fire refuges.
We submit that this is a critical issue as it is apparent
community concern is driving this issue with the potential for further disaster
where people may make futile purchases or have a false sense of safety which
could ultimately lead to future loss of life. The architecture profession has
experienced an increase in inquiries about fire refuges for current and future
projects and anecdotal evidence suggests that some businesses are already
advertising ‘fire bunkers’.
They recommended that further 'research, testing and modelling done to
determine both their effectiveness and the safety features they need to
provide', which would inform an Australian standard on fire refuges.
The Planning Institute of Australia suggested in evidence that bunkers are most
effective when incorporated within dwellings and able to be accessed from
within and outside.
The Planning Institute of Australia recommended that a national standard
for bunkers be developed, including consideration of location, fire ratings for
walls and doors, life supporting amenities, and maintenance of surrounding
AFAC also supported a national standard for bunkers, with the caveat that:
...bunkers are not and should not be relied upon as a
substitute for adequate preparation of an existing home and appropriate
mitigation measures at the planning and building stage.
In November 2009 the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission released an
interim report which made the following recommendation:
The Australian Building Codes Board continue to progress the
development of a standard for bushfire bunkers, that addresses matters
including, but not limited to, fire resistance, structural strength, resistance
to high winds, maintenance of tenable conditions, minimum functional size,
maximum period of occupancy, visual communication with outside, siting, access
and egress and signage, and make it publicly available no later than 30 April
Since then the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has developed 'a
national performance-based standard for the design and construction of private
bushfire shelters'. According to the ACBC:
The Standard has been developed as a performance-based
document. Release of the document in early 2010 will enable State and Territory
building regulators to use it as a basis for the regulation of private bushfire
shelters prior to consideration for inclusion by the ABCB in BCA2011. The
document will enable building designers and approval authorities to make
informed professional judgements regarding the most appropriate means of
mitigating life safety risk by the use of private shelters during a bushfire
The ABCB have also cautioned against an over-reliance on bunkers as 'a
stand-alone solution to mitigating bushfire risk'.
Finally, evidence from Victorian organisations referred to potential
regulatory conflicts stemming from state vegetation laws. The Victorian lands
Alliance complained that local vegetation regulations regularly inhibit the
protection of assets:
Excessive regulation that restricts native vegetation removal
and management overlays for activities, such as roadside burning by CFA brigades,
are as effective as a total ban by preventing the practical implementation of
these activities. This is prohibition by default.
It is not uncommon for local CFA brigades, staffed by
volunteers, filling out forms on multiple occasions, sometimes weeks in
advance, seeking municipal permission for the same burn area when the weather
on the nominated burn day turns unfavourable for conducting a burn. Some
smaller brigades have ceased conducting roadside burns because of the paperwork
and road safety compliance measures the brigade must undertake for each burn.
Obviously, this is counter-productive for fire prevention in local communities.
It is not uncommon for restrictive local council vegetation
clearing by-laws, administered by over- zealous council officers to result in:
- Compliance with the regulation, which results in minimal fire
protection for the property in question and /or adjoining properties.
- No clearing of native vegetation by landowners because of the
complexity and perceived low fire protection value of such regulations, which
increases the risk for all in that community.
- Refusal by the landowner to abide by the regulation which can
result in prosecution. Numerous Victorian landowners have suffered this fate in
trying to protect their properties resulting in fines of up to $50,000 in
- Apathy in the community from conflicting messages from
[authorities], for example CFA advice to have a wide clearance around buildings
from native vegetation, whereas some local councils severely restrict the
amount of vegetation [allowed to be] cleared.
VFF also complained that native vegetation regulations in Victoria are
too cumbersome to enable property owners to take measures to reduce the risk of
bushfire destroying their assets.
Insurance is an integral part of bushfire risk management, not because
it protects assets from being destroyed by fire, but because it has an
important effect on the risks people are prepared to take to defend their
properties. By providing property owners with the knowledge that their assets
will be replaced in the event they are destroyed in a bushfire, adequate
insurance cover encourages people to take sensible choices about
self-protection in the critical moments of a bushfire disaster.
The Queensland Department of Community Safety indicated that insurance
is a personal choice for consumers and made the following suggestions for
improving insurance arrangements:
In the aftermath of natural disasters there has been much
debate about whether insurance should be compulsory. Putting aside the
financial ramifications for insurance companies, it is difficult to imagine any
government pursuing a compulsory insurance scheme as bushfires are only one of
the many natural disasters potentially impacting on communities. For many
individuals, insuring their private home and other possessions is a personal
choice and decisions about insurance cover are made based on a perceived level
of risk and available and affordable insurance policies.
There is scope to work with the Insurance Council of
Australia and industry to provide consumers with more flexible insurance
options that may lead to a wider public acceptance, including:
- working with the insurers to explore broader cover under
their policies and identify and provide consumers with access to more reliable
tools for calculating rebuilding costs;
- facilitating better communication between insurers and
their clients to improve understanding of insurance coverage need; and
- continued promotion of appropriate community education
messages about underinsurance and non insurance.
FESA suggested that insurance companies provide incentives for
householders to prepare for bushfires:
Incentive schemes for increased property preparedness similar
to those related to security measures are an aspect that the Insurance industry
should consider. It would be another way of assisting fire agencies to
encourage appropriate community response to bushfire preparedness.
Mr Justin Leonard suggested that the insurance industry, like the
community generally, lacks the 'tool kit' to assess appropriate premium
variations that reflect the relative risks associated with different mitigation
measures taken by householders.
He suggested an alternative incentive mechanism, based on mandatory disclosure
of a house's vulnerability when it is being sold:
...something like a mandatory disclosure of the level of risk
that an individual has or a vulnerability assessment of them is a potential
process that someone could explore. For example, legislation is coming in where
you have to compulsorily declare what the energy rating of your house will be.
If you do not have an assessment that says my house is a three-star or a
six-star house then it is basically declared as a zero star. Whenever you sell
that house, you must declare its rating. The market then becomes highly
perceptive as to ‘I’m going to buy a three-star minimum house when I go and
purchase,’ and so all of the zero star and unassessed houses lose perceived
value in the market. You could certainly explore similar ways of encouraging a
large uptake of a formal vulnerability assessment method so that the community
starts to become quite focused on that as being a very important part of
dealing with the inevitable nature of the environment they are living in.
Most evidence to the committee regarding fire insurance concerned those
jurisdictions that fund emergency services in large part through levies on home
and/or business insurance premiums. Presently, Victoria and NSW impose a fire
levy on home and business insurance premiums and the Tasmanian government
applies a levy on business insurance premiums.
Evidence to the committee criticised these arrangements for creating a
disincentive to insure. The NSW Rural Fire Service Association said that:
...taxation relief should be provided to those who choose to
insure their properties. This would not only ease the burden on policy holders
but will serve as an incentive to insure.
Furthermore it would result in savings for the government
which has traditionally in times of natural disasters supported appeals etc
directed at assisting the recovery process and in fact “bailing out” the
For example, Victorian Lands Alliance stated:
I think that all members of the community need to equitably
take responsibility for insuring. With the current methods of funding, which I
am sure you are well aware, the fire services levy funds a lot of the CFA
activities, and that is borne by those who choose to insure. I think that if
there were price signals that encouraged people to take more responsibility
then that would be better than what we have.
VFF were very critical of the fire services levy:
It is totally inequitable. It actually acts as a disincentive
to people to insure. It is a totally inappropriate way to fund fire services.
It means that people who are paying the fire services levy are paying for those
who do not, and that is a disincentive for them to insure.
VFF told the committee that the funding arrangements are in need of
The Victorian Farmers Federation has long advocated reform of
the funding arrangements for Victoria's
fire services, in particular, the abolition of the fire services levy on fire
and property insurance premiums.
Victorian farmers support reforming the fire services levy
because of the clear inequities of the system where the Country Fire Authority
provides a protective and emergency response service for the whole community
but is being paid for only by those who insure. The levy makes it more
expensive for farming businesses to manage risk by raising the cost of
insurance and provides an incentive for people to under-insure (or not insure
In addition to paying for the service through insurance,
farmers experience the inequity of the current system when they serve as
Country Fire Authority volunteers, donating their time and resources for the
benefit of the community, including those community members who do contribute and
those who do not.
The most obvious way to increase the affordability of
insurance coverage is to remove the fire services levy from insurance policies
and fund fire services through a broader based and more equitable system that
all who benefit from the provision of fire brigades contribute.
VFF suggested Victoria adopt a levy model of the sort used in WA:
Our preferred model would be something akin to the Western
Australian model where it would be charged on a capital improved value—a site
value or a capital improved value minus the site—basically ensuring that the
built asset applied to all landholders, and collected through a central state
Dr Bob Such MP submitted:
Change the law regarding levies on insurance premiums so that
all residents and property owners pay an Emergency Services Levy, as per South
Australia, so that all citizens contribute to the adequate funding of emergency
services, including fire fighting, not just those who insure!
The select committee chaired by Mr Gary Nairn also considered this
issue, stating that 'taxing on premiums is an impediment to its affordability.
That committee made the following recommendation:
The Committee strongly recommends that the New South Wales,
Victorian and Tasmanian Governments abolish the Fire Levy tax they impose on
home and business insurance premiums.
The committee recognises that improved fuel reduction alone will not
protect communities from the devastating effect of bushfires. People living in
areas of fire risk need to fully appreciate the nature of the risk they face
and the actions available to them to mitigate that risk.
The committee agrees with CSIRO that a useful starting point for
households would be a better understanding of their own risk via a house loss risk
index. On the basis of this knowledge, individual households would be better
motivated to implement measures to increase the resistance of their home to
ignition and make adequate preparations for a catastrophic fire passing
The committee is of the view that local governments in fire prone
regions are best placed to provide this information to households as part of
their regular communication with their communities. Such an initiative would
require Commonwealth agencies such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology,
in conjunction with relevant state fire agencies and local, state and territory
government planning authorities, to assist with the development of fire risk
index. Starting with Australia's highest risk bushfire regions, the committee
recommends that the Commonwealth consult with local, state and territory
government planning authorities on the development and dissemination of a house
loss risk index.
3.262 The Commonwealth consult with local, state and territory government
planning authorities on the development and dissemination of a house loss risk
index for households in Australia's highest risk bushfire areas.
The committee also agrees that inconsistent use of bushfire terminology
can cause confusion in the community and does not assist people in taking steps
to mitigate their personal bushfire risk. The committee therefore recommends
that the government work with the states and their agencies to ensure
consistent terminology is used when communicating with the public.
3.264 The Commonwealth Government work with the states and their agencies to
ensure consistent terminology is used when communicating with the public.
The increasing desire of people to live in close proximity to natural
bushland raises a number of important issues about the development and
implementation of appropriate planning regulations. In this field, the
committee recognises that the Commonwealth again has a limited role, which is
entirely appropriate given the local nature of planning decisions. It is not
for the Commonwealth Government or its agencies to dictate where people may or
may not be permitted to build houses. However, the committee encourages local
planning authorities to take a prudent approach to allowing development in areas
where fire poses an extreme risk and evacuation would be difficult.
Local planning authorities also need to take seriously the risks of
inadequate enforcement of existing regulations, taking a rigorous approach to
compliance as is reasonable within their budgetary limits. Furthermore, they
need to ensure that native vegetation laws are not enforced in such a way as to
limit the ability of households to take sensible bushfire hazard reduction
measures in the immediate vicinity of their property.
The committee shares the concerns of the Planning Institute of Australia
with regard to vulnerable land uses such as hospitals, schools and aged care
facilities. Although many such facilities already exist in fire prone areas,
local authorities need to consider in depth the potential implications of
constructing these facilities in locations where it would be difficult for
those within these facilities to reach safety if a fire threatened their
The committee supports the introduction of a national standard for
bushfire bunkers and reiterates the view that bunkers should not be relied on
as a substitute for appropriate mitigation measures.
With regard to insurance, the committee is of the view that people
living in fire prone areas should adequately insure their assets against the
risk of destruction from bushfires. This not only encourages individuals to
make sensible choices about their personal safety, but reduces inequities
between the insurers and non-insurers when post-disaster assistance is being distributed.
Insurance companies could assist with a greater take-up of insurance by
providing premium incentives for households that take bushfire preparedness
measures in and around their insured asset.
Finally, the committee notes continuing concerns about the imposition of
a fire levy on insurance policy holders in some states. Such an arrangement is
inequitable and discriminates against households and businesses who take out
full insurance against bushfire damage. The committee considers that it would be
more equitable if fire services are funded by levying property owners directly.
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