Royal Commission advocates creation of national bushfire research centre

The final report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended the establishment of anational centre for bushfire research. This reflects a proposal put to the Commission by Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre Chief Executive Officer Gary Morgan for the creation of an Australasian Fire Research Institute to build on the work of the Bushfire CRC.

Following the release of the Commission’s report, Bushfire CRC chairman Len Foster announced the transition of the CRC into the proposed institute when the CRC’s present three-year extension ends in 2013.

The Royal Commission was established immediately after the Black Saturday Bushfires of 7 February 2009, in which 173 people died. Commissioners, the Hon Bernard Teague AO (chair), Ron McLeod AO and Susan Pascoe AM heard 434 witnesses during 155 days of hearings over the following 18 months. They delivered their four-volume final report to the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC on 31 July.

The report made 67 recommendations, most of which have since been accepted in whole or in part by the Victorian State Government of Premier John Brumby.

The recommendations included improvements to the “prepare, stay-and-defend or leave early” policy, which was found to be essentially sound on “normal” high fire-danger days but not on extreme “Code Red” days such as Black Saturday, for which the Commission urged the adoption of policies for evacuation and emergency bushfire shelters.

Other recommendations included ways to improve the Incident Management Teams that take charge of major fires; the more efficient use of aircraft in fighting bushfires;  the safety of firefighters (one firefighter died in a mopping-up mission some days after February 7 but many firefighters had narrow escapes when the wind change arrived); upgrading Victoria’s ageing electricity lines (some of the main Black Saturday fires were caused by power line failures); improved building codes for homes in bushfire-prone areas;  increased use of “prescribed burning” of public forest land to reduce the amount of fuels (the worst Black Saturday fires burned in areas where no prescribed burns had occurred in many years); and the appointment of a Fire Commissioner who would be the senior operational firefighter in Victoria.

The Royal Commission drew significantly on the resources of the Bushfire CRC during its inquiries, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the CRC.

Bushfire CRC researchers looked at not only the circumstances of how the 173 died, but also the actions taken on the day by the many thousands of people living in the fire zone who survived. Some defended their homes successfully, others not. Some defended houses were destroyed, while some undefended houses survived.

The Bushfire CRC established a task force even as many of the fires still burned. Its members -- researchers from state fire agencies and research organisations -- assessed more than 1300 homes, interviewed more than 600 residents, took more than 21,000 photographs and analysed the fire behaviour. As well as providing evidence for the Royal Commission, the task force has produced a huge trove of data for future research

Some 10 witnesses at the Commission were Bushfire CRC researchers. Five of the seven scientists who took part on a panel discussion for the Commission on prescribed burning were CRC researchers. CRC researcher, Professor John Handmer of RMIT University, Melbourne, produced a comprehensive analysis of the circumstances of the 173 deaths.

The commissioners commended the organisation, saying they had “.benefited from extensive research conducted by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.”

When the CRC’s Mr Morgan appeared before the Commission last April, he said there was an absence of long-term bushfire research and no nationally coordinated program before the CRC was set up in 2003. Consequently, the number of fire researchers at the CSIRO and universities had dwindled to an aging handful.

Thanks to the CRC, there were now 130 researchers, part-time and full-time, he told the Commission. But it was highly unlikely the Bushfire CRC would get further CRC Program funding past 2013 due to recent changes to how these research funds are allocated. A failure to support a national approach past 2013 would see the benefits of the last seven years decline, with an immediate shift to short-term, regionally based research and a consequent decline in community safety.

Mr Morgan urged the Commission to support the creation of an Australasian Fire Research Institute, to be funded by the Commonwealth, state governments and partner agencies. It would be similar to the CRC, with a core of people who would facilitate research to be done around Australia and New Zealand as well as collaborate research with the US and Europe.

Recommendation 65 of the Commission’s report called on the Commonwealth to “establisha national centre for bushfire research in collaboration with other Australian jurisdictions to support pure, applied and long-term research in the physical, biological and social sciences relevant to bushfires and to promote continuing research and scholarship in related disciplines.”

In an eight-page discussion of past, present and future bushfire research, the report refers to the Bushfire CRC’s submission and says:  “The Commission considers that a national research centre or institute is required for bushfire research. It is obvious that governments need to invest more in bushfire research and that there is a need for a ‘far more significant research effort than has been the case to date’.”

Reflecting Mr Morgan’s evidence, the report says Australia was once a leader in fire science research through institutions such as the CSIRO. But by the late 1980s, the country had only a handful of internationally recognised fire researchers and most of them were nearing retirement age.  Funding was ad hoc, often only increasing in response to major fire events. Most fire agencies had inadequate funding to employ researchers in-house. This led to relatively uncoordinated, short-term local research, rather than research with a coordinated, strategic or national focus.

Adopting the evidence of Bushfire CRC CEO Gary Morgan encouraging an increased effort into areas not covered by the CRC’s research program due to limited funds and tenure, the report noted: “Overall, the Bushfire CRC has been a welcome initiative that has made gains in re-establishing a community of researchers and a consolidated research agenda. It does not, however, meet all research needs and it is unlikely to continue in its current form.  Commonwealth funding for it is due to expire in 2013. A permanent national centre for bushfire research is needed with reasonable surety of long-term funding.”

In developing the model for such a body, the report says, governments should consider incorporating such features as pure and applied research as well as long-term research projects; strong governance arrangements—including research independence; the location of the research centre, preferably in Victoria; a balanced focus that includes physical, biological and social research; links with teaching and promotion of graduate scholarships; cross-institutional and jurisdictional collaboration; and international collaboration and sharing of knowledge.

In response to the recommendation, CRC chairman Mr Foster announced that the CRC would transition into anational bushfire research institute to build upon the gains of its work to date and the findings of the Royal Commission.

“While Australia has fire agencies amongst the best in the world we still have much to learn,” Mr Foster said. “The proposed Australasian Fire Research Institute will give us the new knowledge required for community safety.”

The research program of the Bushfire CRC is now focussing on issues arising from the Black Saturday fires that have been highlighted by the Royal Commission. These include communicating with bushfire-prone communities, understanding the risk of living and working in bushfire areas, managing major incidents, and understanding extreme fire behaviour and its impact on the landscape.

“It is essential that the issues raised by the Royal Commission and the many other reports and inquiries into fires in Australia, continue to be analysed over the longer term by the new institute,” Mr Foster said.

On 14 August,   the Australian Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Related Industries, which held an inquiry into the incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia, released a report which recommended that the Commonwealth establish a new permanent bushfire research institute at the conclusion of the current Bushfire CRC funding agreement in 2013.

On 27 August, Victorian Premier Mr Brumby announced his Government’s responses to the Royal Commission report. His response to Recommendation 65 was: “Advocate to the Commonwealth that Victoria to be home to a new national bushfire research centre. This would build on existing research partnerships and the expertise of Victorian-based higher education institutions.”


Release date

Fri, 22/10/2010