Experts look at burning to reduce the fuel

The controversial issue of prescribed burning was examined at a special session of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Fire Australia (Winter 2010) reported on a rare meeting of minds and what it means for fire research.

The practice of fuel reduction (or prescribed) burning in Australian forests has polarised emotions and opinions within sections of the community for decades. While widely acknowledged to be beneficial in reducing wildfire severity and improving suppression success, enduring concern about its environmental and human impacts have long dogged the question of how much burning should be done.

With almost half of Victoria’s seven million hectares of public native forests having been burnt in a series of megafires since 2003, and in the wake of Black Saturday, ‘fuel management’ was identified as a key issue when the Royal Commission was established in March 2009.

TheFebruary 2009 VictorianBlack Saturday fires were a catastrophic natural disaster with an unprecedented 173 deaths. The depth of community feeling about the question of prescribed burning is reflected in the fact that it has been one of the most discussed topics in public submissions made to the Royal Commission.

In January 2010, the Royal Commission signalled that its consideration of land and fuel management would be shaped by consultation with a panel of scientific specialists that would help it to formulate a position on fuel reduction burning based on its merits and shortcomings.

The specialist panel appointed to advise the Royal Commission included five scientists with strong links to the Bushfire CRC:

  • Professor Mark Adams, forest ecologist, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Sydney, and former Program Leader and now a Board member of the Bushfire CRC
  • Dr Ross Bradstock, fire ecologist, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, and Bushfire CRC Project Leader.
  • Mr Phil Cheney, bushfire research scientist, Honorary Research Fellow with CSIRO and formerly Head of the Fire Research Group within the CSIRO Division of Forestry and Forest Products.
  • Dr Michael Clarke, conservation biologist, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology at La Trobe University.
  • Dr Malcolm Gill, ecologist, visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Society and Environment, Australian National University, and formerly a scientist with the CSIRO Centre of Plant Diversity and Research, and Bushfire CRC researcher.
  • Dr Kevin Tolhurst, forest scientist and fire researcher, Senior Lecturer, Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne, and Bushfire CRC Project Leader.
  • Mr Jerry Williams, fire scientist, former director of the USDA Forest Service, Fire and Aviation Management. Mr Williams has a range of collaborative links with the Bushfire CRC and was a key speaker at a national symposium on the ‘mega fire’ phenomena the Bushfire CRC held in Canberra in 2007.

Prior to assembling, each member of the panel was asked to submit a report to Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission providing responses to a range of questions regarding bushfires and fuel reduction burning. The panel then met with Commission lawyers to discuss the issues surrounding fuel reduction burning.

These individual reports and the private deliberations of the panel would subsequently form the basis of discussion when the Royal Commission eventually met with the panel in hearings conducted over two-days in late February 2010.  These hearings were central to the Royal Commission’s six-day consideration of land and fuel management issues.  

A consensus on research

The assembling of this panel and its subsequent agreed written advice to the Royal Commission is particularly significant given that its members have over time shown themselves to individually possess a range of views about fuel reduction burning.

The panel was able to reach a consensus on the need for more prescribed burning based on agreeing that there is already sufficient scientific knowledge to show that this can be done without significantly compromising values in some ecosystems.

The panel also agreed that more burning was urgently required in some areas. As Prof Bradstock explained:  “We push ahead, in particular in those high priority areas such as the foothill forests. I think that was our consensus...because we probably know more about those systems...We go ahead, we can't keep waiting. But some of these other systems, obviously, we may need to find out more before we decide upon future levels of treatment.”

Prof Bradstock called for more research on fire history.  “Probably the most fundamental requirement in monitoring for fire management and fire research is to record all fires. It is basic accounting that needs to be done. There are probably two dimensions to the problem. There is a lot of stuff already recorded but on paper maps and other things like that which need to be consolidated into a proper fire history. We can do that electronically because we have the technology and geographic information systems. But then we have to look to the future and find ways to make sure that all fires are recorded, spatially mapped, and we start routinely measuring things like fire severity and adding that into the record.”

Prof Adams warned on the dangers of being too cautious. “I believe there is plenty of evidence of the negative impacts of bushfires for water, water quality, water yield; no evidence that I'm aware of that a properly planned program of prescribed burning has any negative impacts on the water yield or water quality. I believe this is a straightforward win/win for a properly planned program of prescribed burning.”

Prof Adams argued that a diversity of research was important to ensure knowledge was kept at the leading edge. “I think it is fair to say that Australia once had some eminence, even pre-eminence, in fire research that is not as apparent today.”

Williams linked research to improving skills in fire management.  “In the US it is disturbing to me, and I look at the fact that we are probably in the most complex, most demanding environment we have ever been in with respect to fire management, that we don't have the right people. We have a lot of fire fighters, but we are in desperate need of fire ecology skills, fire science skills to support fire research. I think finding those skills, mentoring those skills, keeping those skills is enormously important in today's world.”

Dr Tolhurst stressed the importance of research into coarser forest fuels that affect the spotting behaviour of the fire. “We have done very little research in that area and it is an area that we really need to address if we are going to be able to understand what these mega fires really are like and how they interact with the climatic conditions. But I think we have enough evidence, even from the research that we have, that they are important.”

Call for more burning

The panel expressed a preference for immediate increases in prescribed burning to be initially confined to ecosystems where research has already provided information on the likely environmental effects. This includes foothill forests, which, as Dr Tolhurst pointed out, comprised about 20 to 30% of the forests in Victoria and occur at “the majority of the interface between high population areas and the forest”, where the threat to human life and property is greatest.

Commenting on the US experience of building the knowledge on burning Mr Williams said: “I think it is true that we don't always know the long-term effects of prescribed burning, and certainly in the US we don't know the long-term cumulative impacts of wildfire impacts either. There are species decline and other concerns in our country as well and deal with the whole realm of fire weather, prescribed fire or wildfire. In our country it does need attention.”

The panel acknowledged that significantly increasing the level of prescribed burning will be costly, contentious, and not without residual risk, but agreed that it is a far better approach than further increasing the emphasis on fire suppression. An increasing focus on suppression has been the approach adopted in many fire-prone countries.

But as Mr Cheney pointed out, this approach had failed. “Our current system has failed; that expansion to bigger and better suppression systems is going to fail; that it has failed in the United States; .... and if the most powerful country in the world can’t devise a physical suppression system to suppress fire without prescribed burning, then we should really take some notice about that .”

Mr Williams agreed: “I can say that in the US Forest Service we are habituated to this doctrine of bringing in a larger force to bear with a greater threat and I think you see that manifest in the emergence now in our country of DC10 air tankers and 747 air tankers. We are not sure that’s the right path to take.”

In later evidence to the Royal Commission, Mr Williams would more strongly articulate his view that managing the land to reduce fuel levels is more important than increasing wildfire suppression capability. However, he emphasised to the Commission the linkages between prescribed burning and fire suppression capability and the importance of these functions continuing to reside together in land management agencies.

The panel noted that significantly increasing prescribed burning would necessitate a program approach backed by a long term government commitment. The program, would be costly, contentious, and not without risk, and would need to be managed to:

  • Incorporate monitoring and evaluation, particularly with respect to identifying potential long term environmental consequences;
  • Develop institutionalised prescribed burning guidelines;
  • Develop and retain skills, knowledge and capability amongst program administrators, managers, and field personnel; and
  • Incorporate in-house research to devise meaningful treatment scales within reasonable limits of social and environmental risk.

While the Royal Commission unearthed broad agreement on the need to do more prescribed burning, it found variable views about what this would actually mean on the ground in terms of a specific, appropriately increased annual prescribed burning target and some disagreement over whether a specific target was even needed.

The specialist panel advising the Royal Commission broadly agreed that a prescribed burning target was essential to put a measurable level of guidance and accountability on state government land managers to do more. Dr Clarke endorsed the concept of prescribed burning targets “.... if they are based on smart objectives. If there is not a measurable outcome at the end, then our objectives are vague and we are unlikely to achieve them.”

On the question of targets, the consensus amongst the panel was 5 percent in the foothill forests. This program could take 10 years to implement and required regular and long term review.

At the completion of the Royal Commission’s two-day hearing with the specialist panel on fuel and land management issues, Chairman, The Hon. Bernard Teague AO, lauded the process as having been “extraordinarily successful”. He added that after 50 years of being used to examination and cross examination of individual expert witnesses  “...I have seen the differencethat it makes in having the seven of you deal with it in aprocess that places a lot of strain ...... but I just want to thank you”.

However, it was Mr Williams, in drawing from two decades of looking at the situation both in Australia and US, who concluded “.....everything I have seen tells me this is as much or more a land management problem as it is a fire problem”.

The full transcript of the Land and Fuel Management hearings at the Royal Commission can be viewed at:





Release date

Wed, 20/10/2010