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Bushfire Frequently Asked Questions by the ACF

Australian Conservation Foundation

The devastating Victorian bushfires that started on 7 February 2009, now known as Black Saturday, have claimed more than 200 lives and 1800 homes to date. These deaths occurred on a day of unprecedented fire danger that followed a fortnight of record-breaking temperatures and the longest drought on record. In addition to those killed in the bushfires, at least 200 people are believed to have died in Victoria as a result of the heatwave.
ACF believes we must do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of these devastating bushfires. This means examining planning and urban growth issues across the state. It also means taking urgent action on climate change, as scientists are warning that it will bring hotter and drier weather in south-eastern Australia, together with more extreme heatwaves and heightened fire danger.

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Below, ACF’s answers to some frequently asked questions about bushfires and their management and how we might reduce the risk of days like Black Saturday occurring again.

These links will take you to their website or scroll down:

What is the role of fire in the Australian landscape?
How often do we have major bushfires?
What do scientists say about the link between fire and climate change?
What have fire-fighters said about climate change?
What can be done to reduce the risk of big bushfires in the future?
What can we learn from Indigenous burning practices?
How do fires start?
What causes really big fires?
Where do fires start?
What is ACF’s position on fuel reduction burning?
How effective and practical is fuel reduction burning?
How much fuel reduction burning is done in Victoria?
What are the risks associated with fuel reduction burning?
Can we do more fuel reduction burns?
Does ACF oppose the clearing of native vegetation to protect property?
Would cattle grazing reduce the fire risk?
What should the Royal Commission investigate?
What are the likely environmental consequences of the fires?

What is the role of fire in the Australian landscape?

Fire is fundamental to the nature of Australia. Our plants, animals and landscapes have been shaped by fire. Indeed, the very survival of many species and the health of entire ecosystems depend on fire. Crucially, different types of bushland respond differently to different patterns of fire frequency and intensity. This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to fire management. South-eastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone parts of the world. We can never control fire but we can learn to manage it in ways that protect people and maintain healthy ecosystems.

How often do we have major bushfires?

Due to fire records not being very good, and records in the early days of European occupation almost non-existent, a clear answer to this question is not easy. There have been almost 30 significant fires in Victoria between 1905 and 2009, including Ash Wednesday in 1983 and the original Black Saturday in the 1930s. Since 2003, however, Victoria has had at least four extremely large bushfires that have been difficult or impossible to control, even with the resources available today.

What do scientists say about the link between fire and climate change?

While the 2009 Victorian fire disaster was due to a combination of factors, scientists have been warning us that climate change will bring hotter and drier weather in south-eastern Australia, together with more extreme heatwaves and heightened fire danger. A recent joint CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology study of the impact of climate change on bushfires found parts of Victoria face up to 65 per cent more days of extreme fire risk by 2020, and 230 per cent more by mid-century.

Dr David Karoly, from the University of Melbourne and head of the Victorian Government’s climate advisory group, said in The Age (11/02/09):

"The risk of increased intensity and increased frequency of fires is real, it is already occurring and it will get worse under climate change".

Prof Neville Nicholls of Monash University and former Principal Scientist with the Bureau of Meteorology said in The Age (15/02/09):

"The really crucial thing linking this to climate change is the three-day heatwave rather than the really hot temperatures on the day of the fires. By then, the situation was already primed… I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that global warming and the enhanced greenhouse effect has exacerbated the severity of this tragedy.”

The CSIRO’s Dr Kevin Hennessy said in the Sydney Morning Herald (09/02/09):

“There does seem to be a human element to bushfire risk. In terms of human contribution it is clear that most of the global warming since about 1950 is likely due to increases in greenhouse gases. Higher temperatures clearly increase the risk of bushfires."

Prof Mark Adams from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre:

"Here in Australia fires are probably the thing that needs to be very high on our priorities list when we are concerned about possible effects of climate change. We are just facing a very dangerous decade or decades as our ecosystem recalibrates to the new climatic conditions." (SMH 09/02/09)

Blair Trewin, National Climate Centre:

"We have a fair degree of confidence that some of [the] long-term drying is consistent with climate change.” (The Australian, 09/02/09)

What have fire-fighters said about climate change?

Peter Marshall is the National Secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia. In an opinion piece in The Age (12/02/09) he said:

“Given the Federal Government's dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events. Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the ‘low global warming’ scenario of a 25 per cent increase in extreme fire days…”

What can be done to reduce the risk of big bushfires in the future?

We must do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of the devastating Victorian bushfires. ACF welcomes the Victorian government’s Royal Commission into the fires and hopes it will examine climate change risks, along with planning and urban growth issues.
The science is telling us if we don’t act immediately and strongly on climate change, we’ll see these climate conditions become more frequent and more intense. Yet, if adopted globally, the Federal Government’s weak 5–15 per cent emissions reduction target would condemn Australia to a disastrous future of catastrophic climate change with more bushfires. Handing on a future of more devastating bushfires, droughts and cyclones to future generations should be absolutely unacceptable.
Our Federal Government must strengthen its efforts to tackle climate change and play a leadership role at the crucial UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December.

What can we learn from Indigenous burning practices?

Indigenous people have been using fire for millennia to improve hunting, for shoot growth promotion, fruit production and the protection of sacred sites.
Some advocates of more aggressive fuel reduction burning have claimed that indigenous people carried out such burning in south-eastern Australia on an annual basis. However, this is not supported by a growing body of scientific evidence.
Aboriginal fire management seems to have been prevalent in grassland, heathlands and open forest, but not Victoria’s Great Dividing Range, Otways and South Gippsland where big, centuries-old Mountain Ash were common.
It is believed fire frequency has actually increased since European settlement. Beyond this, we can only make an educated guess about how Indigenous people applied fire in south-eastern Australia before European settlement.
Even if we did know, pre-European patterns of fire management would not necessarily be relevant today given the scale of change over the last two centuries. Protecting towns and dealing with fragmented bushland are 21st Century considerations that would not have been relevant to people prior to 1788.
While it is unrealistic to ‘return’ to Aboriginal fire management, Indigenous burning practices – where they are known - can provide powerful insights into better fire management today. Fire authorities should work in partnership with Aboriginal people as we learn to live with and manage fire sustainably

How do fires start?

The vast majority of fires are deliberately or accidentally lit. Causes include arson, escaped fuel reduction burns, discarded cigarettes, sparks from power lines and vehicles and unattended campfires. Lightning is the most common natural cause of fires.

What causes really big fires?

The worst fires are associated with extreme weather conditions – high heat and dry, gusting winds. Saturday 7 February 2009 was one such day. It came during the worst drought on record, following a fortnight of unprecedented temperatures across southern Australia, with high winds and the mercury rising above 46°C. Where these conditions prevail, fire reduction burning and firebreaks do little to prevent the fire from spreading, although they can result in local changes in fire intensity.

Where do fires start?

Some say national parks and nature reserves pose the biggest fire risk to the surrounding landscape. This notion does not stand up to the evidence:

  • The Australian landscape has experienced fire since time immemorial – long before areas were set aside in national parks. (Around 16 per cent of Victoria is in parks and reserves, half of this is public land.)
  • Parks are not ‘locked up’. Rather, they are actively managed as part of regional fire protection plans. The Department of Sustainability & Environment routinely conducts fuel reduction burns in most national parks, and creates access roads and firebreaks in and around parks.
  • The majority of fires do not start in parks and reserves. A study by Rees (1984) of fire and land tenure for the period 1974-84 in Victoria found forest fires were four times more likely to occur in ‘managed state forest’ than in national parks and that state forest fires burnt eight times the area of park fires. Only 5 per cent of fires started in national parks.

On Saturday 7 February fires raged through towns, timber plantations, managed state forests, national parks and farms. By Sunday night, most of the area affected was private land, not state forest or national park.

What is ACF’s position on fuel reduction burning?

Some commentators suggest environmentalists are opposed to fuel reduction burning or other hazard reduction strategies. This is incorrect.
ACF supports the use of fuel reduction burning as part of a sensible, scientific and comprehensive approach to reducing the risk to people, property and wildlife.
A single burning regime across more than 400 different classes of vegetation community in Victoria simply wouldn’t work; unfortunately there are no simple recipes for managing a flammable continent.
Striking the right balance between the twin goals of ecosystem health and fuel reduction is an ongoing challenge. In most cases, however, it is doable. The key is to burn ‘patchily’ to mimic the natural conditions under which wildlife and their habitats evolved. This leaves unburnt areas in which wildlife can shelter and from which plants and animals can recolonise burnt patches.

How effective and practical is fuel reduction burning?

Fuel reduction burning is just one of the tools available to manage bushfire risk. Senior Lecturer in the Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne, Dr Kevin Tolhurst, said on the ABC’s 7.30 Report (18/02/09):

"It's the severity of the weather conditions, not just the fuels. I'm a great advocate for prescribed burning but it's not a panacea for fire protection."

Prof Ross Bradstock from Wollongong University’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires said in the Sydney Morning Herald (17/02/09):

“Was the Victorian disaster preventable through fuel reduction? Yes – the wholesale removal of forests and replacement with concrete would have prevented it. This (fortunately) is unlikely in practice. Fuel reduction measures therefore can only mitigate the risk posed by fires to people and property. They cannot eliminate it …We cannot expect miracles. The creation of unrealistic expectations fosters complacency, angst and unwarranted pressure on emergency services and land managers. A sober assessment of what can be practically achieved is required.”

Reducing the risk of bushfire is a complicated business and should not be over-simplified. It seems that more aggressive fuel reduction burning would have made little difference in the extreme conditions we saw on Saturday 7 February. The scientists are saying the heat and wind were off the scale and several areas that had been burnt recently burned on the day.
Ewan Waller, DSE’s Chief Fire Officer said in The Australian (11/02/09):

"The extreme fire conditions that we experienced on Saturday would have caused significant fires regardless of the fuel levels… We experienced severe losses in areas where fuel was extremely low."

How much fuel reduction burning is done in Victoria?

In 2007-08, some 464 fuel reduction burns took place over 153,000 hectares of public land in Victoria, for public safety and ecological purposes. These burns were done in all areas of public land, including extensive burns in many national parks. This was an increase on the burning done in recent years, with an average of 350 management burns per year between 2003 and 2007. Since 2003, a combination of management burning and wildfire has burnt nearly three million hectares of native vegetation in Victoria, which is close to half Victoria’s public land.

What are the risks associated with fuel reduction burning?

Many types of bushland are very resilient to fire. Indeed, they need occasional fire to maintain a diversity of plants and animals. However, the wrong approach to fuel reduction can actually make parts of the landscape more, not less, fire prone. Rainforests (such as those in pockets of the Otways and east of Marysville, or the Sassafras forests in East Gippsland) are ancient forest types, much older than 50 million years, and are very vulnerable to any fire. Fuel reduction burning in rainforests can create a long-term hazard by encouraging the growth of more fire-prone types of vegetation.
The wrong fire frequency or intensity can permanently change habitats and wipe out native animals. This does not mean all fuel reduction burning should cease, but that it should be scientifically informed and monitored to avoid the long-term loss of biodiversity.

Can we do more fuel reduction burns?

Fire authorities struggle to find enough suitable days in the year when conditions are right and when it is safe to light fuel reduction burns. Control or fuel reduction burns can only take place when moisture levels are low enough for the bush to burn, but not so low that the burn is likely to escape.
In addition, weather forecasts, including wind forecasts, must not present a threat in following weeks, as the smouldering remains of control burns can take off at any time, as happened in 2005 at Wilsons Promontory National Park.
Between January 2001 and winter 2005 there were 2151 prescribed burns on public land in Victoria and 12 of these (less than 1 per cent) escaped. If authorities burn more often – probably in less favourable conditions as the climate changes – the chance of escapes increases. This is particularly difficult in areas around towns, where even small escapes can cause considerable damage.

Does ACF oppose the clearing of native vegetation to protect property?

ACF is not opposed to clearing for legitimate fire breaks around homes and infrastructure in fire prone areas. The law allows landholders in fire prone areas to apply for permits to clear firebreaks. This shouldn’t lead to complacency, however; the 2009 Victorian fires were so intense and of such a scale that, in many instances, they leapt containment lines and firebreaks. A bigger question is how we manage urban growth in a rapidly changing climate.

Would cattle grazing reduce the fire risk?

Grazing can be helpful in reducing some more flammable weedy grasses, for instance along roadsides. However, given that lives and property were lost in farmland, it is unlikely grazed areas proved much of an obstacle to the 2009 Victorian fires. Decades of research in Victoria’s High Country show that cattle grazing had no effect on the extent of severity of fire in alpine areas. Fire is spread by shrubs that the cattle don’t eat.

What should the Royal Commission investigate?

ACF welcomes Victorian Premier Brumby’s swift decision to establish a Royal Commission to thoughtfully and soberly explore the facts. The Premier has said “no stone will be left unturned”. ACF hopes the Royal Commission will, amongst other things:

  • Examine planning and urban growth policies in an increasingly harsh climate.
  • Use the best available science to assess what difference, if any, different land management practices could have made.
  • Consider how stronger action on climate change now can minimise the risk of more and more intense fires in the years to come.
  • The Royal Commission is an opportunity to strongly engage the community in these and other issues concerning fire management.

What are the likely environmental consequences of the fires?

ACF is still gathering information about what areas have been affected and the possible long-term effects on the bush and wildlife. It is clear many thousands of native animals have been killed or injured. Many more will suffer in the absence of shelter, food and water.
Some of areas of bush will recover well; others may be more badly affected. If this marks the beginning of a new fire regime then the health of forest ecosystems may suffer. If fire-ravaged Mountain Ash forest is burnt again too soon, for instance, it is likely to be severely degraded.
Melbourne Water has had to move many billions of litres of the city’s drinking water away from bushfire affected areas to protect it from being contaminated by ash. The drinking water supply is unaffected at this stage.
Smoke and small airborne particles pose a risk to human health. The fires will have released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – adding to global warming. Some of this should be recovered from the air as the forests regenerate. However, as climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of bushfires, there is a real risk of a feedback loop developing – where more fires encourage more global warming, creating an even greater fire risk.