Time for a national approach to bushfire policy?

Created date

Saturday, October 23, 2010 - 1:57am

The release of the Final Report from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission in the middle of the 2010 Federal election campaign highlighted a significant policy gap for any Australian Government. There is no national bushfire policy and little federal agency coordination to provide effective support for bushfire preparation and prevention. Putting in place a comprehensive national approach could significantly improve the future management of bushfires.

There are three broad aspects to bushfire management: preparation, response and recovery. Preparation involves effective land management, while response involves deployment of aircraft, fire trucks and fire fighters. At the national level, bushfires are the responsibility of the Attorney General’s Department under the general umbrella of emergency response. Federal agencies with most interest in land management and preparation, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), have some policy responsibility and engagement on bushfires, but the responsibility for forest fire preparedness and prevention lies largely with state authorities.

Senior federal bureaucrats are quite comfortable with this. Many are bruised and weary from long battles over forests during the 80s and 90s and are content to stay well away from contentious issues like fuel reduction in forests. Only after major events has the Australian Government committed significant resources to bushfires, largely provision of high cost response options such as planes and helicopters. There was a significant, and very welcome, Federal commitment for recovery after last year’s fires, but perhaps this money would have been better spent in the years beforehand, preparing and preventing loss of life and natural values.

A number of the Royal Commission’s recommendations were directed at the Federal Government: a national awareness campaign, a national arson action plan and national bushfire research centre, deployment of aerial fire-fighting resources and guidance to local government. It also recommended for the State Government land buy-backs, powerline burial or refitting and a significant increase in controlled burning. The Victorian Government has rejected the first two, but agreed to increase controlled burning. All these recommendations require significant ongoing expenditure. Money that, under our current taxation arrangements, state governments do not have.

As US fire expert Jerry Williams said to the Royal Commission, fire in Australia is a land management problem. The Australian Government invests in land management through programs on weeds, feral animals, threatened species, biodiversity, water quality or landcare. A national approach could involve more comprehensive analysis and coordinated land management investment to ensure that activities like controlled burning are integrated with other land management objectives and designed to meet community safety, property protection, biodiversity conservation, water, carbon storage and other needs.

National coordination could be delivered through a new federal agency: a Bureau of Bushfire and Land Management. This agency could also facilitate national monitoring and reporting on forest and land condition and investments in education, research and community awareness.

The Commission’s recommendation for a national education campaign is very important. Widespread community education, in cities and rural areas, is critical for better bushfire preparation.

Education is also required at another level. To respond to future forest management challenges, we need well-trained professionals with practical field experience, supported by ongoing research to provide the knowledge base for intelligent, adaptive management. Professional foresters have been trained in Australia for 100 years but there has been a recently been a declining number of graduates, at a time when the challenges of forest and bushfire management in a changing climate have never been greater.

National coordination is required to provide future professional forest and land managers. The proposed national bushfire research centre needs to be closely linked to this field-based professional training. Issues in forest education and research were discussed at a national conference in Melbourne in September this year. See:


The challenge in implementing a national approach is a political one. As one of the most urbanised countries on earth, there are few federal votes to be gained in increasing spending on rural land management. However, bushfires can affect air quality, water and energy supplies of urban residents and, as we saw with the Canberra fires of 2003 and Black Saturday, can have devastating direct impacts on those in the suburbs.

As a country, we have a poor response record to bushfires. After the outpourings of grief, subsequent anger and recriminations pass, as the law suits are settled and houses and lives are rebuilt, it has proven difficult to sustain commitment to the changes needed to avoid future disasters. The Royal Commission recommendations provide a valuable platform for an enduring response. A national approach is required to ensure that they can be fully implemented. 

About the author

Professor Rod Keenan is from the Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne and is a Principal Scientific Advisor to the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Bushfire CRC.

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Principal Scientific Adviser