Catastrophic bushfires have raged across NSW burning millions of hectares and causing loss of life and widespread damage to communities, homes, properties and wildlife. This article addresses some of the common questions that our members and the public may have about bushfires.
1. How can I prepare for bushfire?
Personal preparation is essential to managing your and your family’s safety in a bushfire situation. Have a look at the RFS guide to preparing a bushfire survival plan. The time you spend now thinking about what you’d take, whether you’d stay and how you would leave is invaluable- when it is all happening is not the time to develop a plan!
The more prepared your home is, the more likely it will withstand a bushfire or ember attack. Even if there are not current bushfire threats or you live in a low risk area, it is always a good idea to maintain your property against the threat of fire and develop a bushfire emergency plan with the rest of your household.
If you are stuck in a bushfire you should seek shelter immediately so that you are protected from the radiant heat. You must ensure you have torches ready as it is likely to become completely dark as night and prevent you from seeing. Shelter in a room where you can monitor the approaching fire. The room should have a clear exit out of the house. Patrol the inside of the home for embers and sparks, block gaps under doors and look for any discolouration of the ceiling or walls. Remember: If a bushfire is approaching, call Triple Zero (000) immediately and advise your intentions of staying or leaving. Leaving early is always the safest option.
2. How do I know if I am at risk?
If you are in an area with an active fire ABC local radio is the best way to stay informed about the local condition. To stay up-to-date on fires across the state, download the Fires Near Me App from the NSW Rural Bushfire Service. Alternatively, you can call the bushfire information line on 1800 679 73 or view the Fires Near Me website: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me
3. What do the bushfire danger ratings mean?
The Bush Fire Danger Ratings give you an indication of the possible consequences of a fire, if one was to start. Bush Fire Danger Ratings are based on predicted conditions such as temperature, humidity, wind and dryness of the landscape. In many areas, you can find bushfire danger meters on the sides of roads in prominent positions. The higher the fire danger rating, the more dangerous the conditions. On days of Catastrophic Fire Danger, you should relocate to a safer place outside of any potentially bushfire affected areas.
Find out more about bushfire ratings and check the fire danger rating for your area: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/fire-danger-ratings
4. How do I know if it is safe to go into bushland areas?
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service provides updated alerts for all for all national parks in NSW. For camping, remote areas and longer walks, it is essential that you check with the local NPWS office first to get the latest fire safety information. View current NSW National Park alerts: https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/alerts/alerts-list
Generally speaking, if a total fire ban has been declared for your region, think twice before going into bushland areas, especially into areas where there are no large fuel free areas such as beaches or clearings. Remember, under emergency conditions your planned exit route, including public roads, may not be accessible.
5.Who is responsible for managing fire and fire risk in NSW?
The NSW Rural Fires Act 1997 (RF Act) provides the legal framework for both the mitigation of fire hazards and the response to wildfire events. The RF Act applies to Rural Fire Districts across the state, covering all private and public lands, including conservation reserves gazetted under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
A Bush Fire Management Committee (BFMC) is established in each Rural Fire District (Section 50 of the RF Act). The local BFMC must prepare three plans for their district:
- A draft Plan of Operations, which describes the predicted fire risks and specifies local response arrangements for any wildfires (Section 53);
- A draft Bush Fire Risk Management Plan, which schedules hazard reduction activities for implementation across the district (Section 54); and
- A draft Fire Access and Fire Trail Plan, which describes the local network of fire trails and access points and sets standards for their maintenance (Section 54A).
The draft plans are publicly exhibited (Section 57) before being reviewed and adopted by the Bush Fire Co-ordinating Committee or the Rural Fire Service Commissioner (Sections 58- 59A).
These arrangements are designed to ensure a consistent approach to fire mitigation, preparedness and response across NSW. The decisions of the local BFMC in respect to hazard reduction works and the maintenance of the fire trail network are binding upon all land owners and managers. The result is that National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) must conduct hazard reduction activities in accordance with the relevant Bush Fire Risk Management Plan and maintain fire trails and access points as per the relevant Fire Access and Fire Trail Plan. NPWS cannot, for example, close a track that is classified as a fire trail under a Bush Fire Risk Management Plan. It is important to note, however, that not all historic tracks and trails will necessarily be classified as essential for fire management purposes by the local BFMC.
The Rural Fires Act requires a rolling program of performance audits for adopted plans.
Media commentary suggesting that NPWS sits outside of the integrated, legally binding BFMC framework is simply incorrect. Moreover, NPWS participates on all relevant BFMCs and the Bush Fire Co-ordinating Committee, as do representatives of the NSW Nature Conservation Council.
NPWS had traditionally reported on hazard reduction performance for gazetted reserves in terms of hectares treated, whereas the Rural Fire Service generally refers to the number of residential properties protected. The NPWS works are included in the Rural Fire Service’s annual reporting which covers hazard reduction works across all tenures.
6. What are the main causes of bushfires?
The basic factors which determine the intensity and spread of the bushfire include the weather conditions (temperature, humidity, wind speed and drought conditions), the type and arrangement of fuels (including native vegetation, weeds, crops or pasture) and an ignition source. The intensity and speed at which a bushfire spreads is also influenced by terrain, with fire travelling faster upslope due to the ‘preheating’ effect on fuels.
Bushfires are ignited on all land types, public and private. Fires start in residential areas, all types of bushland and on agricultural properties. Arson attacks often take place on the edge of roads and tracks, while lightning ignitions are most common on ridgelines and other elevated landforms.
The majority of fires in NSW are started by human activity, however arson only makes up a small percentage of this. In some years, like the current season, lightning strikes can also be the major source of fire initiation, especially in remote areas.
Lightning ignitions are a particular problem in remote areas, many in national parks. All the major blazes in the Snowy Mountains and South Coast which have taken hold since New Year’s Eve 2019 were started by lightning. In general 90% of the fires that are started in national parks are contained within the park, however the unprecedented fire conditions in 2019-20 have made many fires uncontainable.
Find out more about current bushfires conditions: http://www.bom.gov.au/nsw/warnings/
7. What is hazard reduction and how effective is it at preventing bushfires?
Hazard reduction simply means changing the quantity and arrangement of the fuels that have the potential to sustain fire if ignited. The purpose of hazard reduction is to reduce the potential for those fuels to sustain a fire, and if they do ignite to reduce the intensity of those fires. Hazard reduction can range from near total removal of all fuel, such as in an Asset Protection Zone, through to the selective removal of a subset of fuels such as leaf litter or grasses.
There are several different types of hazard reduction. The most common techniques are prescribed burning (sometimes referred to as ‘controlled’ or ‘hazard reduction’ burning) and mechanical clearing. Prescribed burning involves the introduction of fire under carefully controlled conditions. It requires extensive planning, pre-burn works (notably the establishment of control lines), expertise and resourcing to ensure that the fire remains within the intended area. Prescribed burning tends to become more difficult and resource intensive where the burns are planned around sensitive assets such as residential properties. Even small burns of less than a hundred hectares may involve dozens of trained firefighters, several appliances and often water bombing aircraft.
Mechanical clearing is usually restricted to the immediate vicinity of vulnerable assets such as properties, fence lines or roads. Techniques range from the use of agricultural machinery for slashing to the selective removal of trees to reduce the connectivity of canopies. In some cases the primary purpose of mechanical clearing is to enable safe access by fire fighters in the event of a wildfire.
In agricultural lands grazing offers a third way of reducing overall fuel loads, especially in relation to pasture grasses.
Prescribed burning is the most practical means of treating large areas, while mechanical clearing is generally only feasible for thin strips of land. In combination, these hazard reduction techniques are intended to reduce the risks of bushfire spreading under mild or moderate conditions.
Unfortunately, under extreme conditions, fires can burn across areas with very low fuel loads, including those previously treated through prescribed burns or mechanical clearing. During these extreme conditions embers and other burning materials can travel long distances and impact on unburnt areas at a significant distance from the fire front.
In national parks, research into fuel accumulation and decomposition rates of different plant communities is used to develop fuel accumulation models. Fuel accumulation models and biodiversity thresholds (inter-fire periods) are considered along with prevailing weather conditions to carefully plan hazard reduction burns.
8. Will more hazard reduction burning reduce the risk of future bushfires?
Hazard reduction burning only temporarily reduces fuel loads. It has a substantial effect in reducing the rate of spread and intensity of bushfires. Hazard reduction should be undertaken in a strategic way to protect life, property and sensitive environmental assets such as koala colonies or rainforest gullies.
The types, scale and intensity of hazard reduction should vary in response to the nature of vegetation, topography and climates. While fire can occur in all forest types, the natural frequency of fire is highly variable, with some forest types, notably rainforest, very poorly adapted to intense fire.
9. What are the risks involved in prescribed burning?
Whenever introducing fire into the landscape there is a significant risk that it will spread beyond containment lines, endangering property and lives. Prescribed burns must only be carried out under favourable conditions and with appropriate resources.
The ‘windows’ of suitable weather for prescribed hazard reduction burning are typically restricted to autumn to spring, and with climate change are becoming increasingly short.
Prescribed burns increase air pollution to such an extent that human health becomes a significant limiting factor on when burns can be carried out. Find out more about prescribed burning: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/CIB/cib0203/03Cib08
10. What does climate change have to do with bushfires?
The immediate cause and impact of any individual fire are a function of the extent of drought, weather conditions, available fuels and ignition sources that prevail a particular point in time. While the conditions on any specific day cannot be fully attributed to climate change, it is clear that long-term drying trends are altering as a result of climate change.
Bushfire patterns have been shifting since the 1970s, with longer fire seasons and more severe weather conditions than in the past, and the risk to people and property has increased.
Scientists expect that extreme fire weather conditions will become more frequent and severe. Find out more about climate change and bushfires: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/not-normal-climate-change-bushfire-web/
11. What else can be done to reduce the risk of bushfires in the future?
While the threat of catastrophic bushfires will remain into the future, the policies and management strategies that are decided now will determine the severity of the impact of future bushfires.
In order to reduce the risk of future bushfires on property and lives, a well thought out fire management system involving fire experts, planners and policy makers must be developed. Strategies must be developed cross-tenure and include strategic fire and climate change mitigation, improved building codes and land use planning. More funding and research is required to support investment decisions into the bushfire risk reduction activities that are best able to protect lives, livelihoods and the environment from the impacts of bushfires.
12. What can I do for injured wildlife?
WIRES is the primary animal rescue group in NSW with branches across the state. If you come across injured wildlife contact WIRES Wildlife Rescue 1300 094 737.
Leaving out bowls of water is a great way to help animals escaping fires, use shallow bowls with a few sticks or stones on one side to allow smaller animals to escape if they fall in. It is also important to keep cats indoors and dogs under control wherever possible so that wildlife can flee safely through your yard if needed.
For more advice for helping wildlife during bushfires visit: https://www.wires.org.au/wildlife-info/wildlife-factsheets/bushfire-factsheet
For a full list of wildlife rescue groups in NSW visit: https://www.nwc.org.au/resources/injured-wildlife-find-your-nearest-rescue-group/
13. Would permitting logging or grazing by cattle in bushland areas reduce the risk of fire?
There is no evidence that either logging or cattle grazing reduces the risk of fire in forest environments. In State Forests where grazing is allowed, it is difficult to monitor the effectiveness of grazing pressure as a hazard reduction technique and for this reason grazing is not recorded as part of the State’s annual accounting of hazard reduction activities.
Grazing in the Victorian High Country has not prevented fires from spreading or assisted in enhanced suppression opportunities. Fires will burn in the landscape when conditions are conducive to fire.
Grassland fires can move more rapidly than in forest environments (up to three times faster) and many stock are killed in grazing paddocks due to the intensity of grass fires.
Forestry operations and grazing would have an adverse impact on the biodiversity and cultural values of forests and could well have perverse impacts on the fire risks associated with those forests.
Resources and further reading
- Interview with former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner, Greg Mullins about the Federal government response to the bushfires.
- The bushfires are a national catastrophe for the city and country. How are we going to live like this? – Professor Ross Bradstock, director Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science, and the director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania
- What sort of inquiry should come after these fires? – Dr Michael Eburn and Emeritus Professor Steve Dovers, Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, Australian National University.
- Factcheck: are national parks ‘locked up’ and more vulnerable to bushfires? – The Guardian
- Hazard reduction burns not a silver bullet. Radio National Interview with Phil Zylstra, landscape flammability expert.
- RFS Commissioner says hazard-reduction burns made his organisation ‘public enemy number one’ – ABC
- Explainer: how effective is bushfire hazard reduction on Australia’s fires? – The Guardian
- Prescribed burning: what is it and will more reduce bushfire risks? – Sydney Morning Herald
- The limitations of hazard reduction burning – Brian Gilligan, former director general of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
- There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns – Rod Keenan, Institute of Foresters of Australia and the Ecological Society of Australia.
- More hazard-reduction burns not the answer, experts warn – Sydney Morning Herald
- A comparison of fuel hazard in recently burned and long-unburned forests and woodlands – CSIRO
- Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction? – The Guardian
- It’s climate change, not ‘greens’ standing in the way of fuel reduction burns – Former Victorian Environment Minister, John Thwaites
- The truth about Australia’s fires — arsonists aren’t responsible for many this season – ABC
- Climate change and bushfires – Climate Council
- Pyrocumulonimbus – When bushfires make their own weather – BOM
- How First Australians’ ancient knowledge can help us survive the bushfires of the future – Joe Morrison, managing director of Six Seasons
- Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers – Traditional Aboriginal fire practices – David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science
- As bushfire and holiday seasons converge, it may be time to say goodbye to the typical Australian summer holiday – David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science
- Impacts the fires had on wildlife – The Guardian