Guest post by Mike Jonas 25 Aug 2020
With wildfires devastating California, it may be worth while seeing if lessons can be learned from Australia. Connections between American and Australian firefighters go back many years, with each helping the other from time to time. There were devastating bushfires in Australia last summer, and, tragically, three Americans who had come to help were killed when their water tanker plane crashed. It’s now Australia’s turn to help California, and let us all hope there is a better outcome.
Submissions to Enquiries
Australia’s federal enquiry into the bushfires is not due to report until 28 October 2020 but the NSW [New South Wales] state enquiry report was published today. There were nearly 2,000 public submissions. Before I go into the report’s recommendations, it may be worth looking at a couple of the public submissions in order to understand the extreme level of public frustration with green tape and the way that the fire hazard has been allowed to grow ever larger over the years.
This is a local farmers’ group in SE NSW. They open their submission with
“The 2019‐20 bushfire season is claimed by some to be the result of climate change, believed by others to be madeworse by climate change.”
, but they go on to explain that their opinion is rather different:
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The Valley Farmers Group of Lower Bago believe the 2019‐20 fire season was a hot dry
summer, made into the worst fire season this district has ever seen, by pine plantations, and negligent land managent by plantation managers and national parks and wildlife service.”.
“The Dunns road fire started in private pine plantation and ran through pine plantation, private land and national park, burning more than 330,000 hectares, including around 74,000 hectares of pine plantation, and it was almost always only able to be slowed or stopped on private land.
Most public roads in this shire have a lot of trees and native vegetation along the sides, which is great if one thinks that every available meter of land must be a nature reserve, but when these areas are unmanaged jungles with trees hanging over the road, they become the reason fire trucks and emergency vehicles cant access areas which desperately need help.
There were 17 fire tankers which could have helped in this valley on new years eve, but which couldnt, because of burnt trees across the road.
We are demanding two hundred meter buffer zone/fire breaks around all plantations, along all public roads (both sides) [which] run through plantations, along all power lines, along all creeks and around any infrastructure on plantations such as phone/radio towers.
These people (npws) have used green ideology as a basis for land management for thirty years, and the 2019‐20 fire season has demonstrated the folly and criminal negligence of this approach. Virtually all the fires on the east side of nsw started on npws land, which was utterly destroyed, and burnt thousands of neighbors out, for which it seems there are no consequences, and if npws are allowed to continue their madness, no lessons will be learned, nor constructive changes made.
The release of the Keelty report into irrigation water indicates the river flows in the murray‐darling system have halved over the last 20 years. We assume the alleged experts in the media and government will attempt to blame climate change, the Prime Minister and probably Donald Trump, but an objective look will certainly reveal that pine plantations have played their part in depriving river systems of water.
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I rather liked their last sentence.
Timber NSW (TNSW) is the peak representative body for NSW sawmilling and processing, private native forest managers, harvest and haul contractors and forestry professionals.
Theirs was quite a long submission, but maybe the crucial part was:
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Three months on since the last of the fires ceased, there has been no tangible progress in quantifying the impacts and the long-term effect on timber resources. The efforts of the Forestry Corporation of NSW have been directed to addressing the heavy demands of the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). This is political pressure at its worst. The EPA have prevented most harvesting in unburnt forest and are making harvesting in burnt forest economically unviable due to extreme regulation. The “stand-off” is resulting in the slow death financially of the native forest industry.
Repetitively throughout the fire front from September 2019 to February 2020 the same story was being told – arguments between agencies as a fire front approached on who would be in control of the fire; as fire raced towards houses and farming/plantation land – arguments between agencies on who controlled the fire and how long it would take to gain a permit to put in a firebreak – two days for a permit as the fire raced down and burnt two houses – agencies were still arguing about control and threatening anyone who took immediate and decisive action to prevent the fire from gaining ground.
The real stories were never told by the media or by government as it might tarnish the image of the agencies as heroes.
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NB. It is important to distinguish between the agencies and the local people actually fighting the fires.
The NSW report, released today, made 76 recommendations. In my view, that’s probably about 71 too many, but the state government has said they will implement all 76. After an introduction which included a standard genuflect to climate change –
“Climate change as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions clearly played a role in the conditions that led up to the fires and in the unrelenting conditions that supported the fires to spread, but climate change does not explain everything that happened.” – The recommendations begin:
– – –
[.. 18 bits of bureaucratic stuff ..]
That Government re-commit to the current, regionally based approach to planning and coordinating hazard reduction activities across all tenures through Bush Fire Management Committees but ensure that it is actually being implemented [..]
That Government, noting that hazard reduction targeted in proximity to assets is on balance more likely to provide help than hinder, should: a) support local councils and partner agencies to implement more comprehensive hazard reduction at a local level around towns/cities, communities and local infrastructure assets, and provide incentives for communities to organise themselves to prioritise and implement local hazard reduction initiatives. [..]
[5 more waffly recommendations about hazard reduction]
That, in order to increase the respectful, collaborative and effective use of Aboriginal land management practices in planning and preparing for bush fire, Government commit to pursuing greater application of Aboriginal land management, including cultural burning, through a program to be coordinated by Aboriginal Affairs and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment working in partnership with Aboriginal communities. This should be accompanied by a program of evaluation alongside the scaled-up application of these techniques.
[.. 50 more bureaucratic recommendations ..]
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The significance of the recommendations referring to Aboriginal practices is that before the Europeans arrived, the Aborigines burned all the time wherever they went. Because they burned so often, the fires were “cool” fires and didn’t wipe out the huge areas that fires do today. The result was that the burning followed a patchwork pattern. Most of the areas that are now thick eucalypt forest were then grasslands with trees, thanks to these practices.
It’s different this time
There have been well over 50 public bushfire enquiries in the time that Europeans have lived in Australia. It sometimes feels like virtually nothing ever came of those enquiries. Every time there is a major bushfire, houses and lives are lost.
But the 2019 fires were so severe – almost as severe as the fires of 2009, 1983, 1939, 1851 and maybe a few others – that everyone realises that it’s different this time: governments are going to have to change things so that it can’t happen again.
I listened to the government minister’s press conference this morning, following the release of the state government report with its 76 recommendations. The very first mention of hazard reduction was in the first question after the minister finished speaking – the minister had managed to give a complete run-down on the report without once mentioning hazard reduction.
If it really is different this time, there’s no sign of it yet. Did you notice that Recommendation 20 above said “hazard reduction targeted in proximity to assets is on balance more likely to provide help than hinder“? One of the basic laws of physics is No fuel, no fire, and these clowns say “on balance” and “more likely”! Now maybe I’m being unduly cynical, but I’m going to have to see some real change before I can accept that it’s different this time.
Curiously, there’s a USNews report, Australian State to Make Landowners Clear Fire Hazards, citing Reuters, which says
“Australia’s most populous state said on Tuesday it will compel owners to clear their land of flammable material as it endorsed 76 recommendations from an enquiry into deadly bushfires.”.
What is curious about this report is that the 76 recommendations make no mention of compelling landowners to clear land. The nearest it gets (unless I missed it while reading all 76 recommendations twice) is in Recommendation 28, which can perhaps be summarised as “bla bla bla”. It says:
“That Government [..] should immediately: – prepare [..] a model framework and statutory basis for the establishment of an enforcement, compliance and education program which adopts a risk-based approach to routine inspection of local bush fire prone developments to ensure that every local development on bush fire prone land is prepared for future bush fire seasons in accordance with bush fire protection standards of the day, that account for worsening conditions
– ensure local government is resourced to enable effective audit, enforcement and compliance powers in respect of local developments and assets on bush fire land
Are there lessons to be learned from the Australian experience, for California? Maybe, but not I think from today’s NSW report.