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SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE RECENT AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRES
29/07/2003
The recent Australian bushfires

CHAIR —Welcome.

Mr Packham —I am currently a grower of grapes and maker of wine. But come next December I will have been involved in the scientific side of bushfire research for just on 45 years. My first blooding in this area was to be involved with some fire behaviour experiments with Mr Allan McArthur in Black Mountain in 1958 and, subsequently on their return to Melbourne, in some extraordinarily large fires in East Gippsland, Cann River and areas like that.

I wish to support some of the statements made by previous people. I can just say the fire behaviour, whilst certainly interesting for a young fellow, was nothing like I can imagine it has been here, mostly because up to that time there had been a lot of grazier activity and a lot of burning in that area, so the fire behaviour was mitigated and the effects were mitigated as well.

In my time, I have therefore had 45 years of fire research. I have five minutes now. That is one minute per year. I will not cover those things that I have been involved in. I have published over 50 papers, usually in refereed scientific papers. They would have to be included in that one minute as well.

I was engaged by the Victorian coroner, through the WorkCover authority, to provide the scientific brief for him on the Linton inquiry. That I did. That report was, I believe, although I have never been advised, a suppressed document. However, the attachments to that document upon which I relied for the contents of my report were not suppressed and are therefore in the public arena.

I will not go into so many of the aspects I could go into. My very good colleague from the Western Australian forest department, as it was then, Mr George Peet, was also honoured with an Order of Australia medal for undertaking fuel reduction by aircraft in particular in the Western Australian forests. The Western Australian forests had had a policy of fire exclusion up to the disastrous 1962 Dwellingup fires. The Western Australian government decided that they could no longer withstand that destruction to the environment and to their forest assets. Through the commissioner or the conservator of forests, who was immediately dismissed, and a man called A.G. Harris, who was put in his place and told to fix it, he passed that requirement down to a brilliant fellow called Wally Eastman, who passed it on to my friend called George Peet and said, `Fix it'. I was a slightly renegade chemist who had had slight experience in the explosives factory. I sort of knew how to, I believe, drop fire successfully out of aircraft in a safe fashion.

The Western Australians believed at that stage that 25 per cent of their dry sclerophyll forests had to be burnt each year—and we did—to achieve a degree of fire safety. That generated a problem with smoke. Five CSIRO senior scientists undertook 10 years of study of smoke. We flew through smoke. We did everything you could possibly think about in the Division of Applied Chemistry, so that science was particularly powerful. We found ways of coping with the smoke.

I did an around-the-world trip in 1969. At that stage, the Americans were very antagonistic to fuel reduction burning. Their excuse was the excuse we hear now, which is that the smoke is a problem. The smoke is not a problem. It can be handled. I say that because for about eight years I was the supervising meteorologist of the Bureau of Meteorology responsible for rural fire weather services in Australia. Just incidentally, there are two things I must say in defence of some of my colleagues. First, not all foresters are as we have heard. I believe some of the foresters and some of the policies pushed upon them are disgraceful. I feel, however, that by and large the foresters do understand the necessity of, and look forward to, undertaking precision prescribed burning with enthusiasm. They are restrained, to my horror. I suspect you will hear when you go to Western Australia that they have retreated from their fuel management program. They are now in the same boat as the rest of Australia.

In other words, we now have in Australia, I believe, the highest fuel concentrations we have had for some 60,000 years, or whenever it was the Indigenous people first arrived. There has never been a more dangerous situation than what we have confronted. We have had a small example of what can happen. We have heard what has happened to the water catchments. You would probably have had evidence on the effect of the water yield from now on for the next 50 years in the areas that have been burnt. It is, in short, cut in half. If that happens in and around Melbourne as it has happened in and around Sydney and it has happened in and around Canberra. If and when it happens in Melbourne, we are going to face a very substantial economic threat to the state that no numbers of Commonwealth grants will overcome.

In terms of the alteration of meteorological forecasts during this fire event, I live just south of Rosedale just north of the Mullendung fire and just to the west of the Holey Plains fire. It just shows that I have learnt something after 40 years. Both of them were safe sectors. With access to the computer and into the bureau's site and a fair knowledge of fire weather meteorology, I was able to predict almost precisely the spread of the fire every day, which was confirmed by the available satellite photos sent to me—my computer is steam driven—from a man with a very fast computer. He would fax that or mail it to me each day. There was nothing unexpected about these fires. In fact, on 27 July last year, I wrote letters to the Herald and Weekly Times. Copies went to various state ministers and others saying exactly what was going to happen. Unfortunately, it did. All I have to do today, unless these wonderful rains continue, is to just change the date.

There are large numbers of areas that I could cover here. I did give evidence to the excellent House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment after the Ash Wednesday fires. It would be interesting to go back and read them about 20 years later.

There are two things I ask the committee to consider. I have been denigrated and attacked from a public point of view, publicly in the paper, over my Linton report. I believe my only sin has been to tell it as it is. Those were the things I saw. Those were the things that I observed. Those were the things I could measure or could calculate. I do not appreciate being attacked because of the truth I tell, but that is how it is and that is how it continues. I thoroughly believe that I have been—the word `discredited' has been liberally used around the place. I am fairly confident I could write to almost any minister now and have it consigned directly to his waste bin. It would not even have to go past anybody of any degree of seniority.

I ask two things. I gave evidence to the Esplin inquiry. As far as I could tell, there was no public record. There was a person taking notes. I had a private audience. He was using a CFA pen at the time, I noticed. I have seen an email document from a person to whom this has happened. The two experts to the Esplin royal commission not only had to be satisfactory to the CFA and the DSE but they had to be approved by them as well before they could become experts to the committee. There is no independence in it. However, I have been assured by Bruce Esplin that the Premier himself takes the matter extraordinarily seriously and things will change. I will wait and I will hope that we do not have this conversation again.

The only way we will achieve anything, as happened after the Hobart fires, the 1939 fires and the fires in Western Australia, is there has to be either a royal commission or something similar to achieve a degree of truth. That has got to be well-supported by thoroughly trustable experts because it is an extraordinarily technical matter, fuel reduction, heat and mass transfer in fires and the modelling of fires. These are very technical things which cannot be resolved without the help of expertise. The other area—

CHAIR —Please finish up on this.

Mr Packham —Yes, I shall. I believe the federal government in itself has dropped the ball. It has dropped the ball because there is no federal agency or part of the federal government that takes an interest in the bushfire situation in Australia. I was at the Bureau of Meteorology head office; I had nobody to talk to at the Commonwealth government level. Interest from overseas would come in. It would come in probably to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It would go to CSIRO, who would declare the national policy. Now it comes in and it goes to the Australian Fire Authority Council. There are two individuals in Australia—who I call the Murdoch and Packer of the fire situation—who now, behind the scenes, have almost total control of the whole situation. The federal government has got to establish high quality interest in this area. Thank you.

CHAIR —Do you want to name the two people?

Mr Packham —Am I protected?

CHAIR —You are protected by parliamentary privilege.

Mr Packham —Mr Koperberg and Mr Len Foster.

CHAIR —Thanks, Mr Packham. You made reference to published papers that you have done. Perhaps we might get a copy of those at a relevant point in time. Perhaps we could get references to them if they are publicly available.

Mr Packham —I can certainly give you a list of references, yes. But as for the actual copies, I have a box which only has one copy, and that is about it.

CHAIR —A list of references that we could access would be useful. We may come back to you about that as well.

Mr HAWKER —You were talking about the use of meteorological reports and the fact that you could predict exactly the path of the fires. Yesterday the committee heard from someone who had been involved from the media covering the fires who had reason to believe that the meteorological reports were being doctored for the benefit of DSE to try and portray themselves as somewhat more great saviours, I suppose. From where you were, do you think there is anything to support that?

Mr Packham —The Bureau of Meteorology forecasts that I saw, I believe, were remarkably accurate. I was most interested in this because it was my responsibility for a number of years to ensure that the various states did give forecasts that were very accurate. I think they were extremely accurate. However, the interpretation of a forecast is not an easy thing. There are situations where you can have 45 knots of north-westerlies sitting over the top an alpine area or just above an inversion that is totally calm on the ground.

In the Sydney fires, there were outposted forecasters. I arranged that they be there. I spoke to them afterwards. They were having enormous forecasting problems. At one end of the fire, it would be a south-easterly wind. At the other end of the fire, it would be a north-westerly wind. Now what sort of forecast do you put out for that? The forecasts were extremely accurate. During that time, my son-in-law's brother, who was up in the north-east and surrounded by fire and chaos and could not get any information at all, contacted me every day. I gave him very accurate fire behaviour forecasts for that situation. I had never seen the area. Time and time again, I accurately predicted what the fire was going to do in his area. That is in fact how it turned out. The science is known. It is there. I do not believe it is being correctly used. Now whether the forecasts are being misinterpreted or not I do not know. I do know that in the Linton case—this is in my attachment, so it is on the public record—the information did not get back from the incident control centre into the regional forecasting centre. If some of that information had gone back, they would have seriously amended the forecast. I think there is trickery going on.

Mr HAWKER —Trickery by who, would you like to suggest?

Mr Packham —I am giving an opinion now, not fact. Everything I have said before has been a fact, but this is an opinion. I think a lot of stuff is being massaged either accidentally or on purpose by the fire management people for various purposes. Maybe it is political. Maybe, and more likely, it is because I just do not think they know what they are doing. They do not know what they are doing. I have been through a number of fires. The last one was Ash Wednesday in 1983. That was 20 years ago. There may not be people in positions now who have ever been through a big fire. Each one is a learning experience for them.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for input today. We appreciate that.

[12.06 p.m.]