Australia Must Learn from Past Lessons to Increase Firefighting Efficiency

23 October 2019 Jack Richardson-Cooke, Research Assistant, Northern Australia and Regional Development Research Programme

Background

Northern New South Wales and South-East Queensland have experienced horrific starts to their bush fire seasons. The issues were not unanticipated, however; in its 2019 seasonal outlook the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre declared that large swathes of South-East Queensland and much of the northern NSW coast were showing above average fire potential.

Since the early twentieth century, Australia has been experiencing a long-term warming trend. This has brought an increase in the length of the fire season in Australia, with a consequent increase in the size and intensity of bushfires across the country. The Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, the bushfire emergency in Central Queensland in December 2018 and the destruction of the town of Yarloop in WA, are examples of major bushfire incidents in recent years.

Comment

While the Australian environment is relatively well adapted to the occurrence of bush fires, the growing intensity and regularity of major fires is putting it under increasing strain. The effects of fire on soil quality and erosion are prominent environmental impacts of bushfires. Correspondingly, fire drastically reduces the amount of plant nutrients and natural chemicals in the soil. Because plants rely on soil nutrients and chemicals to grow, natural revegetation after repeated or prolonged bushfires can be a slow process, even for native flora adapted to bushfire survival. Additionally, as bushfires can completely vaporize entire root systems, along with surface vegetation, the likelihood is that soil will erode while the landscape recovers.

Bushfires can have severe impacts on society. In the short-term, the issues facing affected communities are similar to those faced after any natural disaster: food security; accessibility to essential community services; and water security, are all concerns. In the long-term, the fiscal cost of rebuilding communities becomes a major issue. The recent fires in Queensland and NSW drew response from the Federal Government by activating the Disaster Recovery Allowance (DRA), through which individuals affected by the fires can receive income support payments. The DRA complements other Federal Government funds, like interest-free loans and grants for which affected individuals may apply, and the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA). While this increased expenditure is necessary, it incurs a steep economic cost for the Federal government.

The severity and regularity of bushfires over the last decade has serious policy-level implications for the prevention and management of bushfires. The Fire Preparation, Response and Recovery Report released in 2009 by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, was welcomed by emergency and firefighting services globally, who were anxious about increasing their capacity to fight and manage severe bushfires. In Australia, the paper raised the important issue of bushfire vulnerability at the urban-rural interface, defined as the area where urban sprawl meets an undeveloped rural or country landscape. To ensure that areas at risk are prepared for the eventuality of a bushfire, urgent steps must be taken at a policy level. Bushfire education must be provided; recruitment campaigns run to ensure that volunteer fire services are well resourced; and investments in fire management and prevention services must keep up with population growth.

Following the extreme 2018 fire season in Queensland, the State’s Inspector General for Emergency Management released the 2018 Queensland Bushfire Review. In the review he made 37 recommendations to increase the effectiveness of fire management. A key recommendation, Recommendation 18, asserts that ‘planning for response to bushfire risk should identify all stakeholders to be engaged in the response phase and their roles and responsibilities should be clearly documented’.

Effectively applying Recommendation 18 could help dissolve the bureaucratic confusion and contention that has occurred around the right of landowners to defend their property. Further it should help increase effective co-operation between local volunteers and professional firefighters. Also recognised in the subject review was the need for increased and more effective inter-agency cooperation, by combining local volunteer firefighter knowledge and the professionalism of career firefighters. This could be a vital tool in Australia’s future, as it continues to experience severe, prolonged and more intense fire seasons.

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