The year 2003 will go down in Australian bushfire history as a year in which “Big Ones” occurred. Severe drought gripped large parts of eastern Australia in the summer of 2002-2003 and multiple lightning strikes spawned massive fires. The cross-border fire complex in south-eastern New South Wales (NSW) and north-eastern Victoria covered 1.9 million hectares; the cross-border NSW-Australian Capital Territory (ACT) fire complex burned about 250,000 hectares. Economic and social damage was massive.

Inevitably arising from such events are official Inquiries - six this time: two national; two Territorial (ACT); one Victorian; and, one in NSW. Two continue (the Council of Australian Governments Inquiry and the ACT Coronial Inquiry). In such Inquiries comparisons of recent events are made with past events such as those of 1939 in southeastern mainland Australia, that of 1967 in Hobart, and that of 1983 in Victoria and South Australia. After such Inquiries there is often a period of legislative review and new arrangements and procedures introduced (see Esplinet al. pp 17-18 for examples).

Would substantive changes in legislation occur without the stimulus of a major event? Would Inquiries into the Bushfire Problem in Australia have given different outcomes if conducted in 2001, rather than following a Big One? If not, does this mean that we thought that the Problem had been solved? Or, does it mean that there is nothing that could have been done? Would such Inquiries be considered in 2013 even without a major fire in the interim?

That the Bushfire Problem has not been solved is evident from recent events. That it is not an easy to problem to solve is evident from 60 years of Inquiries into it. What can be done?

It may be obvious that the Bushfire Problem is not just a Problem for suppression agencies of various governments but has much wider scope within Territory, State and Federal circles and to people and organisations outside government. The Problem involves rural and city business people, land managers, householders and tax payers. To use an apt cliché, it is a ‘whole of society problem’.

While the Bushfire Problem can be examined in various ways, first consideration can be given to a ‘fire-dimension’ (or, the ‘biophysical dimension’) viz., ignition, fuel-arrays, terrain, regional drought condition and weather sequences. The ‘fire dimension’ applies to landscapes of any fire-prone type but typically, in southeastern Australia, a large fire involves: rural land (privately managed farm, orchard, plantation etc.) ‘wildland’ (government-managed native forest, water catchment, National Park, Nature Reserve etc); and, ‘suburbs’ (privately-owned small blocks with dwellings). A second dimension to the Problem is consideration of ‘suppression capacity’ and ‘suppression operations’ - the ‘response dimension’. Thirdly, there is an ‘impact dimension’ (social and environmental) consisting of: injury; death; damage; and, destruction. Fourthly, there is a ‘post-event dimension’ in which there are: social-recovery systems; infrastructure-recovery systems; economic-recovery systems; environmental systems (like water supply); and, policy systems.

The Problem can be seen as a relatively short-term (years rather than days) problem but the background to it is the way society is set up to deal with it when it arises. The background is set by the results of planning. Planning may be for: land-use allocation (including towns); fire-prone urban-edges; fuel-management appropriate to each land use; unexpected economic costs; accounting systems that track benefits of preparedness as well as costs of suppression etc; and, ‘education’ of those likely to be in the path of a fire as well as land managers (rural, Park, roadside etc.), bureaucrats, politicians, emergency services personel, police and health professionals.

Already, above, we have identified a number of ‘dimensions’, variables and ‘systems’. Complexity abounds and is increased when all the flow-on variables are listed; this will not be attempted here! That there is complexity does not mean that we should resist consideration of the Problem; rather, it means that there needs to be systematic attention given to the various items of concern. Education is a case in point. Effective education may be seen as the delivery of information and concepts in a readily understandable way at the appropriate time to the appropriate people. We can include here ‘education’ as both a formal teaching process (with a syllabus) and as an informal process delivering pertinent information at appropriate times. Most information offered to the public will be through the informal process - on TV, in newspapers, on the Net, and on the radio. As well as the various target audiences - who require different approaches to content and means of delivery of material - there needs to be an understanding of the timing of the message for it to be effective. “Timing” here may be measured to years, months, days, hours or even minutes.

The Problem is complex and, based on past experience, is unlikely to go away soon. Preparations have a way of slipping into the background as the memory of the last Big One fades. As soon as the tumult and shouting dies, attention to fire matters at all levels of society from the affected householder to the politician begins to wane. The perception becomes: ‘The Big One has happened; it is a rare event and the chance of it happening again is small (or even nil?)’. Cost-cutting begins, maintenance receives less attention and attention to fire-safe planning wanes. People directly affected may want to push memory of the Big One into the background of their minds, even try to forget it.

Apathy increases with increasing times after fires, certainly at a personal level and probably at an institutional level. Thus, to avoid being poorly prepared in the future, constant vigilance is necessary. The issues need to be addressed continuously and not just in the aftermath of a Big One. To achieve public awareness a skilful program of media messages may be needed. Think of the success of the anti-skin-cancer and anti-road-toll campaigns. Could bushfires, historically creating a disaster in any one jurisdiction only rarely, be given similar attention to that of the cancer problem and the road-toll problem?

An important aspect to whole Problem may be the timely forecasting of the probabilities of the Big One. Can we accurately predict: depth of drought for landscapes and regions; fire-weather sequences; fuel-array conditions for landscapes and regions; multiple natural ignitions; suppression success; and, fire ingress into suburbs and damage? Can we adequately convey the uncertainty behind the chances with which each will occur?

Some of the questions raised above constitute a challenge to researchers, among others. For example, models of fire ingress into suburbs and the damage it may do are nonexistent (to the author’s knowledge) but are needed if we are to predict damage and the circumstances affecting it. Can we predict the development and behaviour destructive whirlwinds as occurred in the 2003 fires near, and in, Canberra? This problem is particularly difficult from a number of points of view, not the least being that current models need more time to run on the computer than it takes for the event to unfold; the models are always running behind time. Furthermore, these models need accurate upper-atmosphere meteorological data as inputs which are not always available. There are many challenges for climatologists, fire scientists, ecologists and economists embedded in the Problem.

Scientifically, administratively and operationally, the Bushfire Problem poses many sub-problems. Only with determined and integrated action, based on thorough understanding of the Problem will we make greater inroads into its partial resolution. An attempted ‘Blueprint’ or ‘Roadmap’ for future planning, forecasting, action and response with respect to all the dimensions of the Problem would provide a basis for discussion and integration and possible further steps towards living appropriately with bushfires, wouldn’t it?

Published Reports of Recent Bushfire Inquiries

Esplin, B., Gill, A.M. and Enright, N. (2003).Report of the Inquiry into the 2002-2003 Victorian Bushfires.State Government of Victoria, Melbourne. []

House of Representatives Select Committee on the Recent Australian Bushfires (Chair, G. Nairn) (2003). A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

McLeod, R. (2003). Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January 2003 Bushfires in the ACT. ACT Government, Canberra. []

A. Malcolm Gill
27th November 2003