Fire management: too important for party politics

Bushfire mitigation strategies need broad community support, not political posturing. [7 January 2014 | Peter Boyer]

David Bowman with a burnt specimen of Athrotaxis cupressoides, or pencil pine, in the central highlands of Tasmania.

With a coolish, dampish December in Tasmania and a forecast wetter-than-average summer in the south, it doesn’t seem the time to think about bushfire.

The fire experts say otherwise. For one thing, we function better when the air’s cool and clear, so now is the time to decide how you’re going to deal with a fire emergency, and act on it. And for another, the fact that it’s cool and moist right now doesn’t mean the same will apply next week. David Bowman, professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, says just a couple of days of hot mainland air is enough to make the bush dry enough to burn.

Bowman, co-author of the new book Fire on Earth (Wiley Blackwell, 434 pages), a multi-disciplinary study of wildfire around the world, has spent a lifetime getting to know the impact of fire on the Australian landscape, from Tasmania to tropical Australia. Bowman is worried that decades of growth in the bush around our major population centres has left them vulnerable to a “mega-fire” whose impact could affect not just the fringes of urban areas, but whole metropolitan areas, including inner-city Launceston and (especially) Hobart.

The debate has focused on what to do about accumulating fuel: bush that hasn’t burnt for decades. Our first response is to call on government to do more to keep us safe. Like issues around law and order, child education or public health, the focus tends toward “them”, as in “They ought to do more burning off.” But in this case, “they” simply aren’t able to fix the problem. This is far too big and complex an issue to be left to the government and its agencies. It requires a whole-of-community approach.

Last week Liberal MP Peter Gutwein again argued for more resources for prescribed burning to reduce forest fuel loads, to which Nick McKim, leader of the Greens, responded that the Liberals needed to focus more on the fundamental problem, which was a changing climate. They both have a point, but the problem of what to do about the threat from wildfire is far too complex to squeeze into a ten-second grab on TV news. As with climate change, the public debate on fire management loses out as soon as it becomes an issue between political parties.

Fire on Earth: An Introduction, published by Wiley Blackwell

So with the active involvement of politicians, we now have to turn this around. We have to make a determination that developing strategies to lessen the risk of devastating loss from large, dangerous bushfires is too important to allow MPs to use it as a weapon against their political rivals.

David Bowman believes that despite the political wrangling, we’re making headway on this. He has great respect for the capacity and professionalism of people like Mike Brown, chief officer of the Tasmania Fire Service, and Sandra White, manager of the State Fire Management Council (SFMC).

He has good things to say about how the state’s professional and volunteer fire-fighting crews managed the emergency that devastated Dunalley a year ago, and how they’ve used that event, plus others like Victoria’s 2009 fire disaster, to improve their knowledge and skills. He also believes the SFMC has made good headway in developing an effective fire management regime for Tasmania. Its report on prescribed burning and other fuel mitigation practices, incorporating evidence from recent events, is due to be released early this year.

What he’s concerned about is how this information is used by us, the wider Tasmanian public, and our elected political leaders. So many issues about fire management get tangled up in a web of other concerns, like public amenity, health and well-being, and the natural environment and ecosystems.

For instance, we’re all too ready to call for more fuel-reduction burning without even considering cost-effectiveness. Wildfire presents a high risk to Tasmania, but the public purse is limited by a relatively small taxpaying public, so risk mitigation work has to have maximum effect. Protecting major urban centres would ideally require a band of clear land and much sparser vegetation between houses and the bush, a far cry from the fringe-dweller’s ideal of a home among the trees. Even if residents agree to this, such a regime raises all sorts of other problems.

Prescribed burning on the urban fringe means fires close to or even among houses. That means having plenty of people and equipment to control perimeters to prevent break-outs and property damage. It also means considering the effect of smoke on human health. If we set broad targets like burning 5 per cent of public land each year, with a limited budget we could end up focusing on places with minimal risk of damaging property or affecting human health, some distance from human settlement. The target might be met, but to what useful effect?

And how might any sort of fire regime affect our natural ecology? A Victorian study after the 2009 fires found that too-frequent burning can threaten many animal species and plant communities, and advised extensive prior study of natural ecosystems to guide fuel reduction burns.

The same message is coming from David Bowman, who is currently studying the fire ecology of pencil pines in Tasmanian high country. These long-lived trees carry 1000-year proxy records of temperatures and fire events. With local soil evidence and historical evidence, these records say that while the species coped well with Aboriginal burning it has been severely affected by new fire regimes since European settlement.

Fire management needs to be informed by evidence, says Bowman, but its inherent risks also demand broad acceptance involving public-private partnerships. Developing that social licence takes time, commitment and slogan-free political leadership. It is a hugely complex business, involving economic and social needs as well as physics, biology, ecology and bushcraft. It does not need party politics.

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