Yesterday, Frank Campbell outlined how the state of Victoria failed to protect its citizens on Black Saturday. Today he outlines the bushfire reforms that he believes need to be implemented to avoid another disaster:

By 2010 Australian bushfire policy will be literally turned on its head.

How is it possible that fire authorities in the two most dangerous wildfire places in the world, Victoria and Southern California, give diametrically opposed advice?

Consider Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. Steep and rugged, with just one road out. Three died in a 1993 wildfire, so the locals came up with a five-stage plan. Ideally, leave the canyon or go to a Regional Shelter. Failing that, go to the nearest Community Safety Area. Few people are more than a kilometre or so away from one of these.

If there’s no time, go to your Neighbourhood Survival Area. If you can’t do that and are caught in the open, lie face down in a ditch or similar where the air is cooler. Finally, the most dangerous option is to stay home. Don’t stay home unless instructed to by fire officials.

So the most dangerous place is your house. Better to lie face down in a ditch.

Californians who were flirting with “stay and defend” have dumped the idea since Black Saturday.

We’re told that evacuations are impossible in the worst areas because the roads can’t cope. This is disingenuous. Local safe zones existed until recently. There’s no need for thousands to clog the exit. Many fled to Otway beaches on Ash Wednesday, just as they escaped to Gallipoli Park in Marysville. Staged, controlled evacuation is essential.

Bushfire Reforms:

1) Designate a hierarchy of safe evacuation places on the Topanga model. A range of refuges is necessary to cope with sudden unpredictable threats and/or where retreat has been cut off.

2) Categorise wildfires like cyclones, on a scale of 1 to 5. Warnings calibrated accordingly. Define Category 5 as “firestorm” conditions. Scale evacuations appropriately for Categories 3-5. Category 3 for example might necessitate a purely local evacuation. Revise the “Total Fire Ban Day” system. People are blasé about these warnings. Revise the “Forest Fire Danger Index”. Any index which rates a location at 300 out of a maximum of 100 is misleading, as is a rating of “extreme” for an FFDI of only 50.

3) Abandon “stay and defend”. For those who do stay, mandate professional equipment, fire bunkers and defendable space. Dependants may have to evacuate. Why should your children die because you are over-confident?

4) Rationalise the various fire bureaucracies. Refer to Black Saturday’s chaos. Too many cooks, yet professional urban firefighters are excluded. A long list of necessary reforms…

5) Form Neighbourhood Firewatch to combat arson. I suggested this to the police and the CFA in 2008. No response. The Santa Monica Mountains Arson Watch is a good model.

6) Fire audit for every town and house in risky areas. Many Australian towns are shambolic accumulations of fuel waiting for a bushfire. Long grass, dead cars and stacks of firewood abound. There are also pine and bluegum plantations on the edge of and even inside towns. They have to go. The 2003 firestorm penetrated right through house-proud Canberra. Low-fuel Bendigo and Horsham burned on Black Saturday. They are Tidy Towns compared with the archipelago of neglect across the Goldfields.

7) Define defendable space for towns and houses. This will vary according to specific situations, but in firestorm-prone areas, safe space needs to be far greater than the current vague and small prescription. Flammable vegetation close to buildings should be replaced with low-oil deciduous vegetation. But remember that removing gum trees for twenty metres around your house won’t stop a firestorm.

8) Razing the bush for hundreds of metres around your house is absurd. Eliminating the bush in order to live in it is redneck mentality. If you want to live in the forest, clear a modest space and accept that the property is undefendable in severe wildfire. Either that or buy a paddock.

9) “Controlled burning” merely creates a false sense of security while encouraging flammable vegetation. The crescendo of shrill demands for “controlled burning” is the most self-defeating and dangerous feature of the aftermath of Black Saturday. 3 million of the 8 million hectares of public land in Victoria have burned since 2002, some in the Black Saturday zone. It made no difference to the firestorm. It would make no significant difference to any firestorm.

Worse, repeated burning dries out wet forests, altering the ecology permanently. Fire risk will escalate. “Controlled burning” gives a false sense of control, Black Saturday’s fatal flaw. It also gives CFA/DSE a new but irrelevant justification for their existence. They are both too valuable to be wasted on bush-burning. Public land is sadly neglected now by the ill-funded DSE. If resources are wasted on bush-burning, the neglect will worsen. The fundamental assumption behind “controlled burning” is false. Deliberate burning, as now practiced, burns fuel where it matters least — in the forest.

A new strategy, combining fuel-free zones adjacent to assets, fuel reduction and fire barriers close to assets, as well as barrier vegetation, should be developed promptly. The question should be “how do we stop wildfire reaching property”?

Reducing “fuel load” in the bush is a seductive but bogus notion. Defendable space is the key, not burning Mt Baw-Baw. The CFA currently gives no clear or adequate definition of defendable space for any level, whether of house, town or district. The planned 140km of 40 metre wide fire-breaks in the Otways is a case in point. Even a modest fire will carry easily across a grass and shrub firebreak. Even if the fire-break was concreted, severe fire would cross by ember blizzard and spotting. As usual, CFA/DSE policy plans for modest fires, not critical ones.

Examining the 3km burn zone around Anglesea recently, the stupidity of this policy is self-evident: recently burned areas are neck-deep in rampant fine fuel. DSE intend to burn once in ten years, in rotation. The result will be long-term ecological damage to the national park, increased fire risk and false confidence among residents.

Anglesea is just one of many undefendable towns.

Ironically, the CFA, DSE, local government and residents do not burn where they should burn. Grass and flammable weeds like gorse infest towns and town outskirts everywhere. Fatal grass fires are not uncommon in Victoria.

Redneck demands to strip roadside verges of vegetation perfectly express the bankruptcy of the extractive mind-set. Neither Greens nor wildlife cause firestorms. As most farmland is sterile wasteland, wildlife has no choice but to rely on remnant habitat on roadsides. Stripping trees from roadsides generates fire fuel such as grass. 17 were killed by grassfire on the wide highway at Lara in 1969. Feral right-wing commentators inflame redneck hysteria by defining roadside stripping as a choice between possums and people. We now know that few people died in crashed or blocked cars on Black Saturday. Some did, but that resulted from bad fire policy and administrative breakdown. Timely evacuation will keep people off the roads when severe fire strikes.

10) Barriers to wildfire are one solution: Deciduous Defence Removing fuel close to “assets” is crucial. So is the creation of wind, radiant heat and ember barriers. There are many engineering solutions, but given that flammable vegetation such as eucalypts close to buildings should be removed, deciduous trees such as English oaks, elms and poplars can be planted in depth, allowing suckers (and understorey oaks) to limit ground fire and ember attack.

Native vegetation zealots should remember that eucalypts are messiduous. They drop flammable detritus 24/7/365. This detritus does not easily decompose as deciduous litter does. Eucalypts do not provide shade. They drop branches without warning. Eucalypts are designed by fire, for fire. Compromise is necessary. With 4% volatile oils, gum trees must go. If you want to live amongst them, accept the risk and plan accordingly.

11) Commence a complete critical review of fire science. Funding, organisation, and ideology should be assessed. There needs to be a critical analysis of all studies done to date. Vested interests which currently infest research institutions, departments and funding sources should be identified, with a view to forming independent, self-critical research bodies.

12) We need an independent bushfire commission. The single greatest flaw in Australia’s response to wildfire has been the isolation of fire science and fire management from public view. The entire structure is dysfunctional precisely because it has been ignored. Fire policy and science has evolved without scrutiny. Fire history has been forgotten. Dubious concepts and irrational practices have flourished uncontested. Vested interests have had a malign and distorting influence.

The Independent Bushfire Commission (IBC) should permanently review the activities of all fire agencies. It should review every “controlled burn”, for example. Many “controlled burns” escape, some causing great damage and risk, such as the 2005 Wilson’s Promontory fire. Fire agencies cannot be trusted to self-regulate. We only have ourselves to blame for dysfunctional fire authorities and dubious fire science. There is scarcely a single journalist in the country familiar with wildfire. The “rural affairs” tag in big-city journalism is the kiss of death. At best a one-way ticket to Landline.

The IBC should encourage public debate in the media. The urban bias in media reporting and analysis must be remedied.

As for the commentariat, not one urban ideologist has even a passing acquaintance with wildfire. This did not inhibit them from pontificating after the event. Most gullibly accepted simplistic nostrums, unaware of the ulterior economic and political motives which generate them. As for the intellectual class, they’re more interested in Qantas leg-room than wildfire. Their fire plan is not to leave the café.

Journalistic coverage of Black Saturday rarely transcended “colour” treatment. There was a kaleidoscope of incidental colour but precious little analysis. Journalists failed to interrogate bushfire or government officials. Few if any had the time or interest to familiarise themselves with bushfire science (which, you will have noticed, is not rocket science). Most were unaware of the sectional and sectarian motives driving the noisiest bushfire activists, repeatedly treating their views as gospel.

Australia’s current affairs and intellectual magazines showed the briefest spasm of interest, followed by silence. The Spectator and The Monthly managed little more than colour sprinkled with some disconnected generalities. The Age, hometown newspaper and indispensable journal of record, has 28 op-ed spots per week. It hasn’t printed a single opinion piece on the fires for months. On the other hand, Crikey a dozen analyses of the fires.

The media’s great success was to inflate the myth of the heroic fire-fighter. The common belief that CFA warriors will charge over the hill like the Light Brigade and stop the fire is truly dangerous. The Prime Minister’s excruciating oratory said it all.

“Courage is a fire fighter standing before the gates of hell — unflinching, unyielding, with eyes of steel saying this: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.'” (23rd Feb 2009) Meanwhile, back at the branch, Greens fended off vicious attacks from rednecks and the Murdoch commentariat, even though Green policies were irrelevant to the firestorm. Green irrelevance was compounded by their opportunistic depiction of Black Saturday as Nature’s retribution for our carbon sins. Firestorm was the black raven of anthropogenic global warming. Climate change has not been mentioned once in this paper, for good reason. Regardless of global warming, new wildfire policies will be the same.

While Greens hyperventilate about CO2, environmental degradation of the state continues unabated. Crikey’s environmental group blog Rooted managed only two brief, marginal comments on the fires (9th and 12th Feb.) Nature dies the death of a thousand cuts while the Green legion, with eyes of steel, marches off to Armageddon.

13) Integrated Land Management. Control of wildfire depends on integrated land management, which doesn’t exist. Wildfire planning is stymied by contradictory environmental policies. Here are a few:

  • Suburbanisation of the bush converts mere forest fire into mortal threat.
  • Power company equipment is a common cause of wildfire in severe weather. So are wind turbines.
  • The pandemic of flammable plantations is not only economic insanity, it puts thousands at risk, as Canberra 2003 showed. Now the Victorian government intends to strip municipalities of planning powers over plantations. Then they can be put anywhere.
  • Logging of old-growth and regrowth forests dries out forests, dams, creeks and farms. De facto single-species plantations often replace mixed forests.
  • State forests are flogged off by government for a song, encouraging waste and reducing the viability of plantations.
  • Catchment management authorities and other agencies surreptitiously poison “woody weeds”, aka deciduous trees, causing loss of habitat, evaporation, erosion and the spread of real weeds. They rarely replace deciduous trees with anything. This secret war by nativist zealots inhibits the adoption of a Deciduous Defence wildfire policy.

And that’s just for starters.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW