By Roger Underwood
The sudden outcry in the media from “fire chiefs”, asserting that the current bushfire crisis is the result of climate change, begs an embarrassing question. Embarrassing for the “fire chiefs” that is.
“Where were you when the root cause of this crisis was being laid down in the bush over the last 20 years, while you were in charge?”
Although the “fire chiefs” do not seem to be facing up to it, the reality is that, far from being the result of climate change, these fires are result of the deadly combination of drought and heavy fuel loads. This combination is hardly unprecedented. It has been associated with every bushfire disaster over the last 100 years.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of bushfire history, or the merest understanding of fire science, knows that the combination of drought and heavy fuels spells uncontrollable fires. But why on earth did our “fire chiefs” not know this, or if they did know, why did they not do something about it?
Indeed, you would think that a basic knowledge of bushfire history and fire science, plus having special insights into the dangerous trend of the climate, would have made the “fire chiefs” doubly concerned with getting rural communities and bushland well prepared for the inevitable doomsday.
What did they do instead? Focused on building up their suppression forces, buying and hiring more and bigger water bombers, and developing super-jazzy firefighting coordination centres. The ruling philosophy of most of our fire services in Australia (WA currently excepted) seems to be “if you give me enough troops and equipment we will control any fire”. Nobody mentions the F word – removing or reducing fuels.
Failure to invest in preparedness and damage mitigation, and focusing on fires only after they start has proven unsuccessful over and over and over again. Not just in Australia, but in the USA and Canada and in Mediterranean countries. Once a bushfire gets going in heavy, dry fuels with a strong wind, the firefighting resources of the entire world will not stop it. And if there are multiple simultaneous fire starts, the suppression organisation is soon swamped, and the situation becomes hopeless …. as it is in parts of NSW as I speak.
To my mind, the “fire chiefs” have done Australia a significant disservice. In the first place they did not take effective action in advance to make fires easier, cheaper and safer to control. This has put lives, community assets and the environment at risk of damage from high intensity fires burning in heavy, dry fuels. In the second place they are now trying to shift the blame to climate change – something that cannot be tackled with any certainty of making any difference to the current ghastly situation. Turning the focus to climate change is a serious distraction to people who are actually fighting the fires, and a disincentive to our political leaders to get on with the business of getting an effective bushfire management up and running.
Individually, I feel sure the “fire chiefs” are good people and well-intentioned. But each of them needs to face up to the realities of bushfire management in Australia: unstoppable bushfires are basically a product of drought and fuel, and only fuel can be dealt with. We need actions that will help to ameliorate the bushfire threat today, not in 20 or 30 years time.
Finally, for their own credibility the “fire chiefs” also need to resist being used for someone-else’s political agenda … or they should try to refocus the group onto promoting a real-world, practical and field-tested bushfire management approach. This will require our fire fighters to be supported by effective programs of preparedness and damage mitigation, especially fuel reduction in bushland.
Roger Underwood AM has 60 years experience in bushfire management.
He is a member of the Saltbush Club.