Hazard reduction for big burns ‘not a panacea’
It is utterly un-ambiguous that the bushfires would not have happened without fuel to burn. The fuel consists of fallen branches and leaves and the easy way is eliminate it is to burn it off in a controlled way, mostly in winter. Foresters have been doing that for generations. Burn all the fuel and it absolutely IS a panacea for big burns. There can be no fire without fuel.
So why is the official below saying that it is not a panacea? It is because he has failed to do his job. He has failed to eliminate the fuel that is powering the current fires. The excuse he gives is that the weather is warmer these days so opportunities to do safe burns are fewer. But that is nonsense. Australian national average temperatures differ by only fractions of one degree from year to year. And since the fires are nationwide, national averages are what counts.
So why has he allowed the huge fuel buildup that we are presently suffering from? The two main reasons are bureaucratic and he gives every sign of being a very timid bureaucrat. It even influences him when people complain about the smoke from preventive burns.
The first limitation is that the preventive burns are "scheduled". Bureaucrats love schedules but the weather cannot be scheduled. So what happens when the weather would make a scheduled burn dangerous? The burn is of course called off and the fuel remains there ready to burn.
So forestry has to be opportunistic. Any window of suitable weather has to be grabbed when it arises and used there and then to do a burn. But can you imagine Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons pushing through that policy? It is to laugh. He is just a timid bureaucrat who above all avoids making waves, hoping that it will all work out somehow.
And the second reason is also bureaucratic. When landowners want to burn off areas near their properties that have a dangerous fuel buildup, the authorities mostly say No. You can't have people protecting themselves!
"That would show us up as not doing our Job! No Siree. We know what it is needed and we will do it, not anybody else".
And people who burn off without permission are often fined heavily. So what's the solution to that? A recognition that the people on the ground know best and a general deference to their wishes.
So the present fires were entirely preventible
Hazard reductions burns are being hampered by longer fire seasons and extreme weather, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says, warning the controversial technique is "not the panacea" some may be looking for to temper bushfires.
The Commissioner on Wednesday defended the RFS' record on hazard reduction burning, saying the agency was not comprised of "environmental bastards", indicating prescribed burns were done with the priorities of people, property and the environment in mind.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the agency had met its targets for hazard reduction in the lead-up to this bushfire season, but the "really awful" conditions across the drought-stricken state meant that fires had spread wildly regardless.
"Hazard reduction burning is really challenging and the single biggest impediment to completing hazard reduction burning is the weather," Commissioner Fitzsimmons told ABC Breakfast.
"It's only when the conditions back off a little bit that you actually have some prospect of slowing the fire spread.
"It's important, but not the panacea, and something we should have a very open and frank discussion about."
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the agency "worked through a sensible regime" to conduct hazard reduction burns, with weather on the day being the largest factor in determining if a burn could happen.
"Resourcing is challenging. Don't forget, as settled Australians, as Europeans, we are now living and working and occupying areas that used to burn freely," Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the smoke generated by the hazard reduction burns before the bushfire crisis began had made the RFS and other agencies "public enemy number one" at the time.
"There is a very significant health issue with smoke, but you can't have prescribed burning, hazard reduction burning without the by-product being smoke. Whilst we try to forecast, predict and hope it doesn't impact populated areas, you can't have it both ways," he said.
As Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke to the ABC, Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was on Sunrise and urged more hazard reduction burns.
"Have you seen a footpath on fire? No, because there is nothing there to burn. Have you seen a massive fire that kills people on grounds [where] there is no fuel load? People get terribly hurt but you can control it," he said.
"Once a fire breaks out onto an area... with minimal fuel load [you] can control it. In a national park, there are always fires but it is the intensity of the fire because of the fuel load catching on fire. I believe, and this is my view, there are too many caveats, green caveats, that impedes people's efforts."
The Prime Minister earlier this week also called for more prescribed burns.
"You've got to deal with hazard management in national parks ... this, of course, will be one of the things that we will consider when premiers come together after they've been dealing with the fires," the Prime Minister said.
On Tuesday, Victoria's Country Fire Authority's chief officer Steve Warrington said there was a "fair amount of emotion" around hazard reduction. "The emotive argument is not supported that fuel reduction burning will fix all our problems," he said.
"Some of the hysteria that this will be the solution to all our problems is really just quite an emotional load of rubbish, to be honest."