Contributory factors that influenced fuels, forest fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, impact, cost, bushfire extent and intensity of the 2019/ 2020 major bushfires across south eastern Australia
John O’Donnell, Opinion
Across Australia the 2019/ 20 bushfires burnt 18.74 million hectares across Australia, much of the areas at high intensity, 34 lives lost (445 indirect by smoke inhalation) and over 3,500 homes/ 5,852 outbuildings were lost (Wikipedia 23 July 2023). The 2019/ 20 Gospers Mountain Fire grew to be the largest bushfire in the world that was caused by a single lightning strike and lasted over 79 days, despite the enormous amount of resources deployed. It is important to note that there were many tremendous efforts made across SE Australia during the 2019/ 20 bushfires by fire fighters (including brigades, private landowners and other citizens) and support personnel across firegrounds.
In relation to the 2019/ 20 major bushfires, it is the author’s opinion (and many others) that there has been inadequate listening to many communities and active and retired experienced land and fire managers in relation to bushfire management and mitigation concerns raised during and after the bushfires. Many submissions and concerns to improve bushfire management and mitigation have been missed, or worse, ignored. This matter is well explained in the valuable document “The Utter Failure of Yet Another Bushfire Panel” by Roger Underwood.
It is important to identify and consider all of the contributory factors that influenced the fuels, forest fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, impact, cost, bushfire extent and intensity in relation to the 2019/ 20 bushfires across south eastern Australia, of the order of 7.5 million hectares burnt.
This contributory factor assessment is the authors own individual assessment, in many cases own opinion/ judgement from the information at hand and has been documented using a bushfire contributory factor checklist; discussions with bushfire fighters/ retired fire fighters/ farmers; review of a number of key submissions to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements; review of a number of bushfire science papers; bushfire articles and other bushfire information. There have been a number of experienced fire practitioners that have contributed to this review and their comments and input are much appreciated, including by Brian Williams, President of the NSW Volunteer Fire Fighters Association and Greg Godde, Secretary of the NSW Volunteer Fire Fighters Association.
This contributory factor assessment is an important step in order to:
- identify factors that haven’t been adequately considered or missed, that influenced the fuels, forest fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, impact, cost, bushfire extent and intensity of the major 2019/ 20 forest bushfires across south eastern Australia.
- integrate the information in relation to this matter, assessing this area in detail, particularly in relation to south eastern Australia.
- identify important factors in relation to community, fire fighter safety, infrastructure and environmental safety. Considering the community and fire fighter safety factors alone, this concern area is of the utmost importance and hopefully this document will tease out issues that need urgent actioning.
- assist in reducing the impacts, costs, extent and intensity of ongoing major bushfires across south eastern Australia during the 2023/ 24 bushfire seasons and beyond.
- consider implementation of the identified contributory factors into fire management systems, policies, guidelines, legislation, agreements, mitigation, land management, bushfire attack, preparedness, risk management, auditing, learning systems, training and budgeting.
Contributory factors that influenced the fuels, forest fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, impact, cost, bushfire extent and intensity of major bushfires in 2019/ 20 across south eastern Australia are arranged into broad factor and contributory factor headings and are outlined in Annexure 1 Tables 1 and 2.
Particular contributory factors during the 2019/ 20 bushfires varied across individual bushfires, seasons (spring and summer), days, states, regions and locations. These contributory factors can and do occur together in combinations, increasing bushfire risks, extent and intensity and reducing potential of bushfire control options and effectiveness. The identified contributory factors are separated into relevant heading categories to optimise consideration of important issues and optimise actioning opportunities
The listed contributory factors in relation to the 2019/ 20 bushfires outlined in Annexure 1 Tables 1 and 2 include:
– Addressed in Table 1, drought, weather, climate and climate change contributing factors in relation to the 2019/ 20 bushfires.
– Addressed in Table 2, Land, fire, fuel load, management, bushfire attack, safety and people, resilience, learning, funding, risk/ auditing and other contributing factors in relation to the 2019/ 20 bushfires:
- Prescribed burning, ecological maintenance burning and cultural burning and grazing/ mechanical treatments across landscapes
- Native forest biomass/ ground and ladder fuel loads.
- Bushfire management approaches.
- Bushfires and attack.
- Safety, people, communities and preparedness.
- Safe, healthy and resilient landscapes and adaptive land management.
- Sound learning from all bushfires and history in order to optimise fire mitigation and bushfire attack.
- Bushfire mitigation funding and budget/ cost issues.
- Bushfire risk and auditing management.
- Extent and distribution of forest vegetation types, canopy cover species and forest issues.
- Challenges of terrain, lightning strikes and associated firefighting.
It is readily apparent that there are a large number of contributory factors that influenced the fuels, fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, bushfire extent and intensity of the 2019/ 20 major bushfires across south eastern Australia across the broad heading issues outlined In Annexure 1. The author has prepared this document in good faith, was focussed on assessing the key issues in detail and accepts he may not have identified all issues, noting it was a time-consuming task. It is essential for Australia that contributory factors that influenced fuels, forest fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, impact, cost, bushfire extent and intensity of the 2019/ 2020 major bushfires across south eastern Australia are identified.
Considering all the contributing factors in Annexure 1, the author considers that the devastating 2019-20 fires were inevitable under difficult bushfire conditions at the time.
The author is not the only one who has identified risks and deficiencies in fire management. As noted in Davey and Sarre (2020):
“The Black Summer bushfires are a watershed for how Australia must manage fire risks in its landscapes and to be better prepared for such fires. The fires of 2019/20 have shown that current fire management will not, or is unlikely to, sustain the full range of ecosystem processes and biodiversity, nor reduce to an acceptable level the impact of wildfires on local and rural communities, forests and ecological communities, biodiversity and wood resources. Finding sustainable, affordable and socially acceptable approaches to managing fire requires a cohesive, considered, evidence-based approach across jurisdictions and tenure.“
Considering the above, the author believes that we as a society have not adequately achieved management of fire risks in our landscapes and are not better prepared for such fires since the 2019/ 20 bushfires, especially noting the limited prescribed burning, current heavy fuel loads, dense regrowth, large areas of dead trees and noting the recent release of NSW areas of bushfire fire concern outlook for spring and summer 2023 covering the majority of the state.
Nolan et al. (2021) in their paper “What Do the Australian Black Summer Fires Signify for the Global Fire Crisis?” ask a critical question “Is Australia Better Equipped for a Future of Extreme Fire Seasons?” and their response is:
“While governmental inquiries produced broad-ranging recommendations, we argue that they have not resulted in a fundamental shift in the way in which fire will be managed in the future. Overwhelmingly, they reinforce the status quo of a centralised and technology focussed approach to the mitigation of risk, with greater strategic nuance and an expanded role for national level co-ordination. While technological solutions can provide important support for fire management, the implementation of technological solutions may also lead to perverse outcomes if not implemented thoughtfully.“
This author agrees with the Nolan et al. findings above, especially in regards to “they have not resulted in a fundamental shift in the way in which fire will be managed in the future”. Limited state prescribed burning data over the last five years supports this view.
The 2019/ 20 bushfire contributory factors in Annexure 1 provide a base allowing consideration of opportunity areas and exploring ideas and innovation, including in relation to the establishment of safe, healthy and resilient landscapes, importantly reducing bushfire extent and intensity, and improving community safety, fire fighter safety and native fauna habitat safety.
Considering the contributory factors in relation to safety alone, including community, fire fighter safety, infrastructure and environmental safety, these identified factors are of the utmost importance and hopefully this document has identified they key issues that need urgent actioning. Discussions in communities and amongst fire fighters may be useful in further progressing these issues with government.
It is essential to consider and address identified contributory factors, noting that if we as a society don’t actively identify, consider and effectively address the contributory factors that influenced the fuels, fire resilience, bushfire attack, safety, bushfire extent and intensity of the 2019/ 20 major bushfires across south eastern Australia and action associated opportunities, Australia will continue to have more of the same disastrous bushfires, impacting on communities, fire fighters, infrastructure, flora, fauna and the environment.
Actioning contributory factors is all the more important as Australia has now entered a drier period, considering the lack of progress on addressing important contributory factors, considering low rates of prescribed burning and also considering in many cases the complacency in regards to bushfire mitigation management. A cooperative spirit is required to pull this all together.
An important map prepared by RFS in July 2023 highlights the current areas of fire concern covering of the order of 3/ 4 of NSW of the greatest concern ahead of the looming fire season, noting that these areas have had significant growth due to three years of heavy rain, and will dry out quite rapidly if there is hot and windy weather and hampered hazard reduction mitigation efforts.
In this article RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers also raises important preparation issues:
“We ask people not to be complacent just because there have been some quiet times. People need to do simple things: clean out their gutters and get their bushfire survival plan ready.”
The Bushfire Front document A Blueprint For Effective Fire Management outlines many opportunities to rectify a number of the contributory factors.
There are opportunities for bushfire fighters and land managers to use the contributory factor tables as checklists to assist in identifying local area, district, regional, state and national bushfire opportunities.
About John O’Donnell
John is a retired district forester and environmental manager for hydro-electric construction and major highway construction projects. His main interests are mild maintenance burning of forests, addressing the culture of massive fuel loads in our forests setting up large bushfires, forest health, establishing safe/ healthy and resilient landscapes, adaptive forest management, fire fighter safety, as well as town and city bushfire safety.