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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 706


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (19:37): It is with a sense of disappointment and frustration this evening that I rise to reflect on the topic of bushfires around Australia, particularly now in the days after the massive and horrific bushfires in the Northcliffe area in the south of Western Australia—the worst fires in two generations, where 85,000 hectares of pristine karri forest, jarrah forest and other land areas have been decimated. It comes very close to the sixth anniversary of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, which our colleague Senator Ronaldson would be very aware of, directly after South Australian fires that have occurred this summer, not long after the 10th anniversary of the Canberra fires and, of course, I refer to those that have had the severe effect they have had in Western Australia in recent times. The frustration comes due to the fact that we all know about the fire triangle. We all know that the three elements of bushfire and fire of any type are fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition. We know that lightning and humans are the main two causes—if not all causes—of ignition. We know we cannot do much about oxygen. Yet, we are continually confronted with this debate about fuel reduction. You cannot have a fire if you have not got the fuel.

There are so many arguments. The academics and the others stand in their ivory towers and say that fuel reduction is not necessary and that hazard reduction is not necessary. I want to explore that a little bit this evening. I want to ask them the question: if not hazard reduction, then what? Is it the intention that we stand by and watch Australia's forests burn—particularly in our southern Mediterranean climates, with our eucalypt-dominated forests? I certainly hope we will not.

The argument goes on about climate change and how we respond to it. Again, I want to examine those questions this evening. If the climate change issue is to the fore, then how do we reduce the risk? How do we reduce contact between humans and bushfires? How do we reduce fuel loadings? I remind those who are listening that, if greenhouse gases are a concern to sectors of the community, and they may well be, greenhouse gases emitted from major bushfires in this country would make the greenhouse gases emitted from the heavy transport industry around Australia look minimal.

The Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Related Industries, with which I was closely associated, looked at the incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia. Recommendation 5 of the committee's report stated:

The Commonwealth seek agreement from the states and territories that would enable it to evaluate the adequacy of fuel reduction programs applied by public land management agencies in high bushfire risk areas …

Recommendation 6:

The Commonwealth publish all fuel reduction plans and related audit findings on a national database.

Recommendation 9:

Further Commonwealth funding for bushfire suppression be made conditional on state fire agencies agreeing to the Commonwealth evaluating and auditing their fuel reduction programs.

The 14th recommendation of 15 was:

The Productivity Commission be tasked to assess the economic effects of recent major bushfires on the Australian economy to determine the cost effectiveness of prescribed burning as a mitigation strategy.

In that report, at the insistence of committee members, in appendix 5 we outlined recommendations, government responses and the implementation of recommendations relating to several major bushfires leading up to 2010. It is there for everybody to see, with the Canberra fires and the COAG responses. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a circumstance where, regrettably, little has been done.

I turn to three recommendations made by the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The first, recommendation 56, was for the Victorian state to:

… fund and commit to implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of 5 per cent …

Please keep that figure in mind. The second states:

The Department of Sustainability and Environment report annually on prescribed burning outcomes in a manner that meets public accountability objectives, including publishing details of targets, area burnt, funds expended …

And the third relevant to this area was that that same department:

… significantly upgrade its program of long-term data collection to monitor and model …

One of the people with whom I have had a close association and who contributed significantly to that Senate select committee is a gentleman by the name Roger Underwood in Western Australia. He and his colleagues were fire managers, land managers and forest managers throughout the south-west of Western Australia in the sixties, seventies and eighties, at the time of the massive Cyclone Alby, that you, Mr Acting Deputy President, will recall. I will refer to the recent writings and the protests by Underwood and that absolute list of legends. These are people who, when I was chief executive of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia in the mid-1990s, read like an absolute star list: Don Spriggins, Frank Bertini, Frank Campbell, Jim Williamson, John Clarke, John Evans, Kevin White and Noel Ashcroft. They had a wealth of knowledge and they have maintained a vital interest. They are frustrated today when they look at the forests for which they had responsibility for so many years, the forests that were in pristine condition before they were recently decimated by the Northcliffe fire. Those forests were testament to the excellent land, forest and fire management of those particular men.

Roger Underwood wrote a letter to Senator Milne earlier this year, having heard her speak in the Senate in early December. He was protesting her commentary about the fact that it was climate change causing bushfires and there was not much we could do about it. Three points that Underwood made were prophetic. Firstly, he said that the number of people living in bushfire-prone areas had expanded massively. Many of them were city-bred and—Senator Ronaldson will relate to this—not bushfire wise, living in houses in suburbs that were not designed or constructed to resist bushfires.

Underwood's second point to Senator Milne was that our bushfire authorities are now so focused on suppressing fires after the event and not on understanding that large intense fires are inevitable. He protests about that. He speaks of his own experiences and those of his colleagues. Of course, now fuel loadings are getting heavier and heavier. His third point was that authorities are failing to take the one single measure that will make firefighting safer and more effective. In the letter to Senator Milne, Underwood said: 'The one thing that will minimise bushfire damage and will allow people to defend well-prepared homes is systematic fuel reduction in bushland and residential areas.' He wrote that in early January, and he stood by and watched 85,000 hectares of Northcliffe go up in fires only some three weeks later.

It is a disappointment. I found this myself in my time as chief executive of the bushfires board. When we did have major bushfires, in my naivety I would go to the minister of the day. They were usually from the coalition, although I had also been a chief executive in a different agency under the Labor government. I would say to the minister, 'I want those with an interest from the Greens and wilderness societies to come to the fire grounds and speak to the firefighters and have a look at the results of their policy of not participating in fuel reduction. Minister after minister would look at me and say, 'You've got a lot to learn.' Indeed, I did.

We saw in recent days—and this has frustrated many, many people—the particular case of two professors at Murdoch University, Professors Enright and Fontaine, being quoted in a peer reviewed published paper, if you do not mind, stating: 'There is no evidence that fuel reduction burning has any value in wildfire control. From the comfort of their offices at Murdoch University in WA this is what they said. It was picked up, of course, by people and groups such as the Wilderness Society and Peter Robertson and repeated ad nauseam. You can imagine the frustration of volunteer and paid firefighters at hearing this when they are out there confronting these fire levels.

I will turn to some commentary that came in from a gentleman by the name of Mr Rick Sneeuwjagt with whom I am closely associated because he ran what was then called CALMfire—the Conservation and Land Management fire department—when I was CEO of the bushfires board. He is a man with many years of experience in fire management and research. From the 1960s through until 2007-08 we in Western Australia had an enviable record—probably the most enviable in Australia if not the world. We would burn around six per cent to eight per cent of those land areas under the responsibility of CALM on an annual basis. They were controlled burns in the cool of autumn or spring when you would know that you would have good conditions. You would have higher humidity. You would have winds about which you would have more knowledge and you would have a pattern of fire movement. At that time the pattern was to be burning somewhere between six per cent and eight per cent of the forest and then restricting summertime bushfires to areas of 12,000 hectares or less. Compare that with the 85,000 hectares of the Northcliffe fire recently. As Sneeuwjagt says quite rightly, those figures are now down to less than three per cent.

John Evans, who I mentioned a few moments ago, corresponded with me about prescribed burning. This of course goes to the absolute faith of some of the expert commenters who say that fuel reduction burning does not work. It was pointed out about the Northcliffe fire that because that fire started in fuels that were six years old that therefore fuel reduction does not work. Well, of course, the subsequent days proved that statement wrong. But Evans himself was involved in major bushfires in those same areas in the 1960s, such as the 1961 fire when I think he was a fire boss in one of the sectors. Evans made another interesting point in his commentary to me the other day. He said, 'I have never seen a dead animal as a result of a prescribed burn. In a cool season controlled burn, I have never seen a dead animal.' Have a look at the decimation we saw in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, the South Australian fires and our own. There was absolute devastation not just of wildlife but of the foliage and the horticultural assets as well.

Sneeuwjagt was kind enough to send me a paper which I hope to table the next time the Senate sits on the effectiveness of prescribed burning in controlling large eucalypt forests in Western Australia. He referred to Cyclone Alby in 1978. Mr Acting Deputy President Smith, you will probably remember that as well as I do. It was in autumn, as I recall. There were 92 fires burning out of control around forested areas in the south-west of our state. Wind speed was up to 130 kilometres an hour. Humidity levels would have been down to 10 or 12 per cent. For the understanding of those listening, at around 18 per cent to 20 per cent humidity or above you will find that the plant matter takes in moisture from the atmosphere. When humidity gets down to those low levels, plants give up moisture to the atmosphere and become at greater risk of fire.

Sneeuwjagt makes the point that these fires were moving at eight kilometres an hour—8,000 metres an hour—through those areas, with extensive crown spotting, which means that there was jumping from the top of the forest areas—as there was in the Black Saturday fires, Senator Ronaldson. Often at two kilometres at a time those fires were spotting. Yet in that particular case only 54,000 hectares, despite there being 92 fires, were burnt. It was as a result of excellent prescribed burning in those areas. Most of the fires were allowed to run until they got to low fuel areas where they were extinguished and the losses were minimal. The people I mentioned earlier—Underwood, Bertini, Campbell, Sneeuwjagt, Evans and others—were themselves intimately associated with that.

We do not think of Tasmania all that much in terms of fires, but the Tasmanian fire scientist Tony Mount compared fire management in the south-west of WA with that of Tasmania from the period 1951-52 to 1983-84, long before we were having these arguments about global warming et cetera. This is work that is quoted in this paper from 1983. He found the average Tasmanian wildfire was 270 hectares in size, while that in WA was 15 hectares. He put that down to the practice of fuel reduction burning that occurred in Western Australia but was not occurring at that time in other states.

There is more in this paper which certainly is of interest to our discussion, but I want, if I may, to return to the words of Underwood in very, very recent correspondence—in fact, only yesterday—where he wrote to Professor Fontaine from Murdoch University. Underwood is not a scientist; Underwood comes from that university of hard knowledge, hard knocks, hard interest and successful land and fire management. He acknowledges the work of the Department of Parks and Wildlife staff, the volunteers and paid officers, because the work they did was phenomenal. He invites Professor Fontaine to go and speak to the firefighters, and I hope the man does. The message from the firefighters is that they were only able to make headway against fires when they could operate in light fuel loadings. He invites the man to speak to them. We have had people from the Wilderness Society and other places say that lightning does not cause forest fires. Have them go to Northcliffe and have a look at the events of recent days.

Underwood gives for Fontaine a very quick chronology from 28 January, less than three weeks ago. There were thunderstorms and lightning and a couple of fires, mopped up quickly because they ran into light fuel loadings. He then goes on to Thursday the 29th. Some fires in that area were detected by departmental personnel. The fires were captured when they got into fuels that were four years old, and they were able to be suppressed easily. On the same day, 29 January just gone, the Pemberton department group observed fire in the jarrah forest, again caused by lightning—it is amazing, isn't it, Mr Peter Robertson; they really are caused by lightning. It was two days before they could get to those fires because they were so busy elsewhere, but, fortunately, in that instance the fire ran into an area that had been burnt some five years earlier. They were able then to mop those fires up.

We then come, regrettably, to the main, so-called Northcliffe, fire, which did start in fuel loadings of some six years. In a Karri forest, according to Underwood, we are looking at somewhere around 20 tonnes of dry litter to the hectare on the forest floor. That is getting really dangerous. Senator Ronaldson, who is in the chamber, might be interested to know that in the Victorian fires in 2009 the firefighters confronted fuel loadings sometimes of up to 50 or 80 tonnes per hectare. Nevertheless, in this instance they could not contain the fire initially because they were limited in resources and limited in access and the fire ran into 40-year-old fuels in a Karri forest. The rest, of course, is history. They could not attack the fires; they could not control them.

That brings me to the topic of water-bombing aircraft. I was the CEO of the bushfires board when I influenced then Premier Richard Court to give us the princely sum of $250,000 to trial water-bombing aircraft with two crop dusters. Today, of course, many hundreds of millions of dollars are spent around Australia, but the point I want to make is this: in a huge forest fire of the type that we saw down there—despite every effort and despite the lovely imagery on television of an evening and despite the fact that officials could then go back to government and tell them how much more money they needed—we are better to be putting the funds into fire prevention through prescribed burning than we are to be spending endless millions only on that particular area.

To finish my story, once again, with that fire in Northcliffe having burnt out 85,000 hectares, it was only when the fire eventually ran into a low fuel loaded area that it burnt out and they were able to control it. There was a time when some 200 firefighters were protecting the town of Northcliffe, but little or anything was being done to actually fight the fire front.

We have to do something. We know the history; we know the success; we know what works. We have got to return to good land and forest management.