SENATOR CHRIS BACK was Chief Executive Officer of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia and a member of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council.
WE can’t prevent wildfires but we can manage their impact and the damage they cause.
The conflagration we have just witnessed across three Australian states is not the effect of global warming.
What we are seeing is the long-term effect of ignorance, and a failure to implement well-established and proven land management practices.
Those well-versed in bushfire behaviour are all too familiar with the so called DEAD cycle.
It is unerringly accurate. Disaster followed by Enquiry followed by Apathy and the next inevitable Disaster.
Little is being done to break the cycle.
All that varies between different regions in southern Australia is the interval between disasters.
Australia’s eucalypt forests accumulate dry matter at a higher rate than it decomposes.
This is what burns.
WA’s jarrah forests accumulate over one tonne per hectare, per annum, of fuel loading.
Simple maths will spell out the inevitable if fuel build-up on forest floors is not managed.
Long-experienced forestry managers would regard 5 to 8 tonnes/hectare of flammable fuel as the upper, safe limit to send in crews to suppress fires.
In the Black Saturday fires of 2009 in Victoria, fuel loadings of 50 to 80 tonnes per hectare and even higher were recorded – up to ten times the recommended load.
The rest is history.
The fire triangle is simple: oxygen, a source of ignition and fuel.
We can’t control the oxygen in the air and nature and humans are the catalyst for ignition.
What we can control is the fuel.
In Australian bush dominated by eucalypt forests, the original pattern of mosaic burning by the aboriginals points to the solution.
Our forest plants and animals evolved around this practice.
Bushfires are inevitable. The community has two options to deal with them.
We can have low-intensity, cool season, controlled fuel reduction burns at relatively frequent intervals when humidity is high. Grazing or slashing can produce localised benefits.
Or we can have high-summer, hot winds, low humidity, highly dangerous, uncontrolled wildfires.
Unlimited expenditure on fire suppression will not change this basic fact.
All the resources in the world — human and mechanical – could not have suppressed the fires we experienced in three states during January.
Without a return to the proven patterns of the past, we will continue to place communities, fire fighters and both natural and built assets at high risk.
Exacerbating this problem is the trend to build inappropriate houses in bushfire prone areas.
Green groups and others opposing fuel reduction strategies need to reflect on the perverse impact of their position and the influence they have had on governments’ policies in recent years.
Their efforts to ‘save the environment’ have resulted in the decimation of this very asset.
Current firestorms in eastern Australia have destroyed many millions of tonnes of eucalypt forest timber along with the fauna and flora within the paths of these fires.
Many families have been devastated through loss of lives, livelihoods and memories.
A long-term strategy of fuel reduction programs would have significantly reduced the disastrous impact on these communities.
Green groups also need to understand the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions injected into the atmosphere by wildfires.
It has been estimated that the 2009 Black Saturday fires resulted in more than 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere.
The 2013 fires could contribute a third of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions this year.
Australia already has internationally acclaimed programs of low emission, fuel controlled bushfire management.
In open savannahs, the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement scheme in the Northern Territory, which commenced in 2005, provides a model which could guide fire management principles in Southern Australia.
With an annual financial contribution of more than $1 million from Conoco Phillips, and using traditional fuel reduction burning methods, the local aboriginal communities continue to reduce around 130,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually, some 35 per cent abatement on past practices.
In eucalypt dominated bush, management of the South West Australian forests is the international benchmark for control of fuel loadings and yet many well experienced foresters are critical we are not doing enough.
In WA, the aim is to cool burn around 10pc of the jarrah forests annually.
In many eastern Australian forests it is estimated the figure achieved is around 2pc or less. It is simply not enough.
In the August 2010 Senate report into the incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia, we made fifteen recommendations. Most have not been taken up.
Until they are, we will see more of the same with the devastation, risks to lives of residents and firefighters and loss of natural and built assets.
This is an abrogation of our civic responsibility.
Until Australians learn to live with wildfires and manage the fuel that feeds them, all that will vary is the interval between disasters.