Thursday, June 13, 2024

Opportunities for improved fire management in Australia: John O’Donnell

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Wildfire near Lake Elsinore, California 2018
The Holy Fire at Lake Elsinore, California on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kevin Key

This response relates to the ongoing debate on ARR.News: Open for Debate – Bushfires, Logging, Burns & Forest Management

The US Forest Service released the important document Confronting the Wildfire Crisis A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests and associated documents in mid-January 2022.

This positive USA fire development is summarised into key points below:

  • Annual US funding for fuels and forest health treatments has been limited and uncertain, and patterns of placing treatments have never approached the scale of the needed work.
  • Many western USA landscapes are at grave and growing risk of extreme wildfire impacts due to a combination of accumulating fuels, a warming climate, and expanding development in fire-prone landscapes. Past land use practices, drought, and an overemphasis on fire suppression are also contributing factors. Each factor alone elevates the risk, but the layering of each factor on the next has increased the risk exponentially, reaching the crisis proportions we see today.
  • In caring for the land, there is no substitute for wildland fire in fire-adapted forests. More than a century of research has shown that low-intensity fire reduces fuels across landscapes,slowing large wildfires and diminishing their severity. To restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk, a large multiorganisational workforce with expertise in proactive fuels and forest health management is needed for thinning forests, conducting prescribed fires, and using lightning fires and other “unplanned ignitions” to return fire to the land and restore forest health.
  • This is the new wildfire reality facing much of the West (US): it is nothing less than a forest health crisis. A healthy forest is resilient— capable of self-renewal following drought, wildfire, beetle outbreaks, and other forest stresses and disturbances—much as a healthy person stands a good chance of recovering from a disease or injury.
  • The Forest Service will work with partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at the scale of the problem, using the best available science as a guide. With the support of its partners, states, Tribes and local communities, the Forest Service is collaboratively implementing this new strategy across jurisdictions and landownerships to protect communities, critical infrastructure, watersheds, habitats, and recreational areas.
  • Under this 10-year strategy, the Forest Service will work with partners to: Treat up to an additional 20 million acres on National Forest System lands; Treat up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands; and Develop a plan for long term maintenance beyond the 10 years.
  • Forest Service partners include Firewise, local fire safe councils, the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and the Ready, Set, Go! Program.
  • The US will focus on key “firesheds”—large forested landscapes and rangelands with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities, and infrastructure to wildfire. Firesheds, typically about 250,000 acres in size, are mapped to match the scale of community exposure to wildfire. Together, they will treat the firesheds at highest risk first and, then, move on to other western firesheds, accelerating its treatments over 10 years.
  • In addition to creating defensible space around homes and other buildings, communities can support land managers in conducting fuels and forest health treatments at the pace and scale
    needed to reduce wildfire risk.
  • The (US) Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides nearly $3 billion to reduce hazardous fuels and restore America’s forests and grasslands, along with investments in fire-adapted
    communities and post fire reforestation.
  • The (US) National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy gives the US a common policy for addressing the challenge of wildland fire management through its three central goals: (1) restoring fire adapted ecosystems on a landscape scale; (2) building fire-adapted human communities; and (3) responding safely and effectively to wildland fire.

Bill Gabbert posted an article titled, “Forest Service announces 10-year initiative to increase fuel treatment” in Wildfire Today on January 19, 2022.

The key points summarised:

  • On September 29, 2021 in a hearing before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, new USFS Chief Randy Moore said, “…We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries…”
  • The Forest Service will work with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and other partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at a larger scale.
  • The Bipartisan Infrastructure bill signed by the President November 15, 2021 authorized about $2.42 billion for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects. (M = million) $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments; $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires; $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program; $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning; $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities; $500M, Prescribed fires; $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks; $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products.

The positives out of these US policy developments and land management commitments for the US are many and include:

  1. There is key federal legislation commitment in place for this work reducing fuel, increasing prescribed burning, improving forest health and expanding community mitigation work under the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill and other legislation.
  2. There is firm commitment to this work through Confronting the Wildfire Crisis A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests and also the earlier National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in place.
  3. There is a generally good awareness of the forest fuel load issue across forests, at very high levels and changes in openness of forests since fire suppression became the focus.
  4. There is improved funding to reduce fuel loads, prescribed burning, forest thinning and community protection.
  5. The Forest Service is a key component of the program, in cooperation with other land management agencies, as is forestry and forest products.
  6. There is active community involvement in fire management and this will increase. Forest Service partners include Firewise, local fire safe councils, the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and the Ready, Set, Go! Program.
  7. Optimising forest health is being actually considered and addressed.
  8. Thinning is accepted as a sound option to improve forest health. Open forests from a century ago before fire restriction policies were put in place are important considerations.
  9. Indian burning practices are being considered and addressed.

One concern with the approach adopted in the US is the focus on wildfire/ urban interfaces which misses large areas of the landscape. This is a critical issue when wildfires occur in untreated areas and move over large distances. Another concern is whether the major funding contribution is adequate considering the massive wildfire costs over the last few years in the US, especially on the west coast, it is understood that utility impacts alone have been huge and considerably greater than provided funding.

Meanwhile back in Australia, the wildfire situation is also not good and as time goes by it is getting worse. Considering Australia’s situation against the nine positives out of the US policy developments and land management commitments, this is assessed below:

  1. There is no such bill or similar bills across Australia in regards to the US bipartisan infrastructure bill, US National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and other legislation. There is no effective, integrated nor broad federal/ state commitments in regards to what the US has committed to, reducing fuels, increasing prescribed burning, improving forest health and expanding community wildfire mitigation work.
  2. There is limited funding and strategy for improving resilience in Australia’s forests and protecting communities, irrespective of the fact we don’t have a federal forest service. There are systems and opportunities to address this.
  3. There is a poor consideration of the fuel load issue across forests and actual forest fuel loads in forests, at very high levels and heights and increasing. There is inadequate action addressing the fuel load issue and reducing community, infrastructure and fauna impacts from wildfires.
  4. There is totally inadequate funding, focus and commitment for reducing fuel loads, undertaking prescribed burning, forest thinning and community protection. There is inadequate state funding for prescribed burning and minor federal funding to increase prescribed burning, noting areas of prescribed burning are very small and decreasing and communities are at risk. There is inadequate funding for prescribed burning for many land management agencies. On data I have, areas of annual prescribed burning in NSW have reduced since 2000, but were never at adequate levels across the 27 million hectares of forest in NSW, likely since the 1960’s and 70’s. The 1998 NSW Auditor General performance audit report information refers to 600,000 hectares per year of prescribed burning (2.2 % of NSW forests) in NSW around the year 2000 in NSW. The prescribed burning of the 7 million hectares of NPWS land in 2020/ 21 was 53,145 ha, which is 0.76 % of NPWS lands. The incidence of large wildfires in Western Australian forests over the last 67 years data unequivocally show that when the area of prescribed burning trends down, the area of uncontrolled wildfires trends up, the ideal area of forest burnt annually appears to be about 8 %.
  5. In many states, forest services are being destroyed and skills of many forest services inadequately utilised. Thinning of regrowth forests and mild fire is a good option to reduce wildfire risk. There has been a loss of wildfire skills over the last 30 years, I myself and many others have seen this, particularly at mid to higher levels. This applies with wildfire control, backburning, prescribed burning and in some cases the use of aircraft in prescribed burning.
  6. There is little active community involvement in fire management across Australia, only in a small number of cases. The wildfire impacts on towns and cities across Australia has been large over long period. Heavy investment in avenues such as the fire adapted communities, firewise, local fire safe councils, would be beneficial.
  7. There is generally very poor actioning in regards to forest health and the decline of forest health across Australia’s forests, mild fire is an important component of improving forest health and setting up healthy and landscapes. Completed research work by a number of experienced forest researchers clearly shows this. This includes research by Jurskis (2016) ‘Dieback’ (chronic decline) of Eucalyptus viminalis on the Monaro is not new, unique or difficult to explain”; Jurskis and Walmsley (2012) “Eucalypt ecosystems predisposed to chronic decline: estimated distribution in coastal New South Wales”; Jurskis (2005) “Eucalypt decline in Australia, and a general concept of tree decline and dieback”; Jurskis and Turner (2005) Eucalypt dieback in eastern Australia: a simple model; Turner et al (2008) “Long term accumulation of nitrogen in soils of dry mixed eucalypt forest in the absence of fire”; Turner and Lambert (2005) titled “Soil and nutrient processes related to eucalypt forest dieback” clearly highlights the research is there to be adopted.
  8. In many cases, thinning is not used nor allowed to improve forest health and yet is an important tool to maintain forest and tree health, reduce fuel loads and establish healthy and safe landscapes. This is occurring because land is being locked up, restrictions placed on forestry, state forest service reductions, fire restrictions, rules and other factors.
  9. There is inadequate consideration of Aboriginal cultural burning in this country, note this is starting to change. Aboriginal people set up healthy and safe ecosystems across landscapes, noted by explorers, early settlers and Aboriginal people.


There are very serious issues occurring in Australia restricting prescribed burning, thinning, improved forest health and healthy and safe landscapes.

It would be positive for Federal and State governments, politicians, agencies and local governments to step up in relation to these issues and learn from the developments in the USA.

In addition, it would be positive for the political parties, governments, politicians, agencies and local governments to address the failures in wildfire management by considering the above information and listening to skilled land management/ wildfire professionals (active and retired) in development of their policies. There is considerable opportunity for inter party cooperation and for taking a lead on these issues, especially considering the devastating wildfire impacts that have occurred.

Federal, and possibly state incentives, to increase prescribed burning, thinning and improve forest health are very good opportunities. Reviewing the Federal focus on part payment of emergency wildfire costs, when mitigation activities such as prescribed burning are very small/ inadequate, would be a good option, using that funding increasing incentive payments for sound prescribed burning operations meeting minimum targets.

It is opportune for communities to start pushing for community wildfire reforms and actions and setting up fire adapted communities.

The time for adaptive land management action is well past overdue, increasing mild prescribed burning, thinning and improving forest health across all forested landscapes.

Related story: Science says thinned forests are healthy forests: USDA Forest Service

About John O’Donnell

John is a retired district forester and environmental manager for hydro-electric construction and road construction projects.   His main interests are mild maintenance burning of forests, trying to change the culture of massive fuel loads in our forests setting up large bushfires, establishing healthy and safe landscapes, fire fighter safety, as well as town and city bushfire safety.


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