Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Opportunities to improve fuel management across NSW: John O’Donnell

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John O’Donnell

The NSW Rural Fire Service 2022/2023 Annual Report is now available. The annual report notes that there are a number of achievements.

Hazard reduction burning and mechanical removal totalled 90,089 hectares for NSW (Appendix page 100):

  • 82,393 ha burning.
  • 7,696 ha mechanical.

Unfortunately, areas of annual hazard reduction burning and mechanical reduction in NSW are both at very low rates and vary by year.  The areas  of fuel reduction in NSW and estimated percentage of forested area based on 20 million hectares of forest in NSW were:

  • 147,625 hectares in 2017/ 18 (estimated 0.7 per cent of NSW forested area);
  • 199,248 hectares in 2018/ 19 (estimated 1 per cent of NSW forested area);
  • 55,548 hectares in 2019/ 20 (estimated 0.3 per cent of NSW forested area); 
  • 176,499 hectares in 2020/ 21 (estimated 0.9 per cent of NSW forested area) and
  • 44,642 hectares in 2021/ 22 (estimated 0.2 per cent of NSW forested area). 
  • 90,089 hectares in 2022/ 23 (estimated 0.5 per cent (actually 0.045 per cent) of NSW forested area

Over time, shortfalls and inadequate fuel reduction add up and result in build-up of very high fuel loads and strata across landscapes.   Only 3.6 per cent of the NSW forested landscape has received fuel treatment over six years, this is extremely low and inadequate to reduce bushfire areas and risk.

In addition, most of the forests with extensive hot bushfires of 2019/ 20 are now four years old and in many cases there are extensive areas of dead trees, heavy grass and bark, fuel and dense understories which contributes to a potential time bomb in many bushfire seasons.

Further detail that highlights the low levels of prescribed burning across Australian states is set out in my 2022 article, “Review of prescribed burning and wildfire burning areas across Australia”.

The information and graph in that article places prescribed burning and wildfire (bushfire) areas in each of the States across Australia into perspective.  The tabulation in regards to NSW is very clear, particularly in regards to ongoing inadequate prescribed burning over the long term, resulting in increased bushfire areas and risks.

In relation to the risk remaining for future fire seasons, it is critical the bushfire risks for future fire seasons are soundly addressed, potentially including increased programs to manage fuels to catch up on shortfall seasons, fully using the additional fire mitigation employees identified in earlier NSW media releases, expanded maintenance burning and other available measures.

There are many opportunities to expand the use of small aircraft, helicopters and drones for low intensity burning operations, using placed grid patterns for fires to join up in the cool of the evening and unburnt patches. There are potential opportunities for a number of prescribed burning drones with individual brigades/ mitigation officers and fire regions.

There are apparent opportunities to increase low intensity burning and mechanical treatment operations by NSW NPWS, noting a level of 71,768 hectares in 2022/23.   Noting a land area of 7.6 million hectares, this represents 0.9 per cent of area treated per year.  Using a forest area of 4,812,045, this represents 1.5 per cent of area treated per year if treatments only addressed forested areas.

There are apparent opportunities to increase low intensity burning and mechanical treatment operations across private land, noting a level of 4,270 hectares treated across NSW in 2022/23.  Using a forest area of 6,937,308 hectares of private land, this represents 0.06 per cent of forest area treated per year.  There are major apparent opportunities for cooperative fuel reduction and maintenance programs between private landholders and government.

There are apparent opportunities to increase low intensity burning and mechanical treatment operations by local government, noting a level of 4,254 hectares by NSW local in 2022/23.  This had increased from 2021/ 22.

If we don’t increase prescribed burning, Australia will continue to get more of the same intense bushfires as in the photo below.

Resilient, safe and healthy landscape is a critical issue being considered in many countries across the world, including mitigation/ adaptive management work in the US on resilient landscapes in relation to bushfires.  Considering the extent of chronic eucalypt decline and thick understories in many NSW forests, strategies and actions to address these major issues across NSW landscapes and reduce intense bushfire risks are opportune but overdue, using low intensity maintenance burning and mechanical treatment of forests.

The safety of fire fighters entering forested areas, particularly where there are high fuel loads, is a critical issue and major risk area and has been for a long time.  The same observation applies in relation to the protection of  communities, including towns and cities. The safety of communities needs addition mitigation and focussed discussion with communities. 

These matters and opportunities are raised in order to optimise the safety of fire fighters, communities, forests, the environment and heritage sites.

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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