George Punt, NPA Park Management Committee
NPA recently made submissions to the two major inquiries into the Black Summer bushfires. The inquiries are largely a thoughtful reflection on the ‘Black Summer’ fires and make sound suggestions about managing fires given the impacts of global warming. NPA will need to monitor how these suggestions are implemented. The inquiries note that the impulse to escalate controlled burning and other measures in national parks remains a strong theme in public discussions.
The 2019-20 bushfires (known as ‘Black Summer’) generated two major inquiries of interest to NPA.
The NSW Bushfire Inquiry made recommendations on preparation for, and management of, future bushfires in NSW.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements concerned mainly the responsibilities, coordination and legal arrangements between the various levels of government in Australia, the non-government sector and communities, families and individuals. While generated by the 2019-20 bushfires, the Royal Commission was concerned with all natural disasters including floods, cyclones, etc.
The changing climate
Both inquiries identified that the management of natural disasters would be more and more difficult with the changing climate induced by greenhouse warming. The frequency and severity of natural disasters would increase. They will be more difficult to manage both individually, and because they are likely to compound individual events happening in quick succession, eg in 2020 on the South Coast of NSW where fires were immediately followed by floods.
The NSW inquiry undertook detailed research on the ‘Black Summer’ fires – their causes and the preparation for and the fighting of those fires. It also looked at the recovery. It dealt with both process and government policy. The terms of reference for the Royal Commission led it to be much more interested in determining an effective process and cooperation between levels of government, the non-profit sector and the community.
The facts about the ‘Black Summer’ fires
The NSW inquiry undertook a detailed analysis of the ‘Black Summer’ fires. The key points were:
- Most fires were started by lightning (due to the extremely adverse weather conditions) although power lines and equipment started some fires (Table 2.1 p24, p28)
- Most major fires commenced in national parks, but many commenced on private land and on other public land (Table 2.1 p24)
- Weather drove the intensity of the fires, and fires generated further adverse local weather events making fire management even more difficult (p57)
- Fuel loads were dry due to the prolonged drought caused by several large scale climate events including global warming (pp35 & 36, 40-41, 45)
- The prolonged drought affected the program for fuel load reduction, however fuel loads were not higher than the average for the last 30 years (p47)
- Fuel load reduction assisted fire management in moderate conditions but the age or quantity of fuel did not have much influence on the spread of the fires in extreme weather conditions (pp50-53)
- Large areas of NSW are now vulnerable to ecological state change if burnt by subsequent fires in the near term (p32)
What NPA said to the Inquiries
Much of the debate about the causes of the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires during and immediately after the event focussed on fuel loads and fuel reduction in bushland areas, especially national parks.
The facts about the ‘Black Summer’ fires documented by the NSW Bushfire Inquiry largely aligned with the view that NPA put about the severity of the fires, the inadequacy of the initial post-fire public discussion on fuel load management and the likelihood that forestry and grazing of natural areas will increase fire risk.
The NPA submissions to the both Inquiries also focussed on:
- An intensification of government policy to ensure the reduction of national greenhouse gas output
- Adjustment of fire risk assessment scales to the new climate situation
- Improved mapping of bushfire risk profiles on land and assets
- Increased capability for early suppression of fires particularly in national parks
- The alignment of planning controls and building requirements to changed risks
- Increased resourcing and support for managing risks around critical infrastructure and on private land, including more environmentally aware reduction of vegetation and the maintenance of buffers around important natural areas
- Including natural (not just built) assets in bushfire management planning
Key Recommendations of the Inquiries
- In NSW re-commit to the current, regionally based approach to planning and coordinating hazard reduction activities across all tenures through Bush Fire Management Committees, but ensure that it is actually being implemented at a high-level of quality across NSW. The Inquiry found that a significant portion of management plans were not current or approved. (NSW Recommendation 19)
- That hazard reduction is targeted to (built) assets and managing areas where initial ignitions may escalate into large and difficult to control fires – having a clear purpose and rationale. (NSW Recommendation 20, Royal Commission Recommendation 17.2)
- Understand optimal hazard reduction techniques and policy. (NSW Recommendation 21)
- Adopt Aboriginal cultural burning as a component of hazard reduction, and with respect, collaboration and cooperation commit to pursuing greater application of Aboriginal burning practices. (NSW Recommendations 25 & 26, Royal Commission Recommendations 18.1 & 18.2)
- Ensure ‘outcomes based’ roadside vegetation management to reduce tree falls and grass ignitions. (NSW Recommendation 32, Royal Commission Recommendation 12.1)
- Accelerate and finalise a State-wide strategic fire trail network to assist in fighting fires in heavily vegetated areas. (NSW Recommendation 33)
- Prioritise early suppression and keep fires small by setting the appropriate KPI for containing fires that start within national parks, and deploy remote area fire fighting resources based on enhanced research and predictive modelling. (Recommendation 45)
- Greater provision of data on the distribution and conservation status of Australian flora and fauna. (Royal Commission Recommendation 16.1)
How will NPA respond?
The two inquiries have countered the immediate calls in the aftermath of the ‘Black Summer’ fires for more determined and widespread fuel load reduction in national parks. However, fuel load management remains an important component of managing bushfires and NPA will need to closely monitor how recommendations on fire trails, roadside vegetation and the appropriate regime of hazard reduction are implemented.
There are other recommendations that NPA welcomes including the emphasis on quick response and remote area firefighting in national parks to suppress fires before they become large and very difficult to control.
NPA will need to continue to push for some of the recommendations it made to the inquiries. For example including flora, fauna and landscapes as assets that are included in bushfire management planning and fire fighting responses.
NSW Bushfire Inquiry 2019-20
Royal Commission into Natural National Disaster Arrangements 2020