RESEARCH LETTER No. 2.8

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

A universal problem for fire authorities is how to communicate to citizens and their representatives that they cannot be guaranteed to have immunity from unplanned (‘wild’) fires. Injury, damage and death are ever-present possibilities under extreme weather conditions, heavy fuels and unfavourable terrain in southeastern Australia particularly. The message does not seem to get through. Indeed, people may even refuse to believe that they, or their assets, are vulnerable.

In one sense the question of potential vulnerability is easily answered. It has happened before and it can happen again. However, there is always a question mark over precedent; have we learned from it? It is unfortunate if we seek only to lay blame after a major event rather than to focus on learning from it and acting in an appropriate way. Was there more we could have done as a society before that fire got away? Perhaps we hadn’t kept fuel at low enough levels everywhere all the time. Perhaps our techniques of fire fighting were inadequate. If we had had more equipment we could have done a better job. If arsonists had not been so active, if houses hadn’t been distributed along ridge roads, if people had only kept their yards ‘clean and green’, if people had not abandoned their homes, if roads had not been so dangerous with people fleeing the fire, if only householders wore appropriate clothing when trying to fight the fire.......... The catalogue of possibilities is enough to indicate that this a whole of society issue, not one confined to any one agency or any one category of people (urban interface residents); it involves all taxpayers and citizens generally through societal values (e.g. water, food, wood, biodiversity, houses, human life and wealth), through the extent of resources allocated to resolving problems and through laws and regulations. That the issue is one for the whole of society is quickly forgotten after the events which spawned all the questions, the rhetoric and the laying of blame in the first instance. The cycle repeats. What can be done about it?

If rural fires were not so frustratingly irregular then routine procedures and constant yearly expenditure on resources for fire-fighting would surely eliminate losses, wouldn’t they? Unfortunately, by analogy with urban fires, the answer is “not likely”. In the urban situation there is a highly trained 24-hour workforce with good equipment arriving at the scene of the fire in minutes and able to apply large quantities of water from reticulated supplies over long periods but there are still arsonists, large fires, and substantial injuries, deaths and economic losses in the built environment. It is an unfortunate fact that rural fires are frustratingly irregular in occurrence, size and intensity. We can hope to minimise injury and damage in the landscape but perhaps not eliminate it.

More fuel reduction?

If only there was more fuel reduction in rural areas, the problem would disappear, wouldn’t it? The trouble is that the fuel for the fire is the feed for animals, the plantation for wood, the cash crop, the cover for water catchments, the park for recreation, the landscape for conservation, the rural retreat for city dwellers. Fires have various effects on these uses either aiding, or detracting from, successful outcomes as far as the manager is concerned. The key is to decide what level of control of fire regimes is possible and desirable for particular land uses and what alternative means there are for fuel modification, fuel breaks and fire suppression.

Fewer arsonists?

If only we had bigger penalties for arsonists, we would be okay wouldn’t we? Unfortunately, some arsonists at least apparently have no remorse, feel no guilt in relation to fires they set and the damage they cause (Faith 1999, p. 87) so assuming that bigger penalties will offset arson may be mistaken. However, intervention programs that address the actual behaviour of the fire setters can lead to appropriate outcomes (Muckley 1999). Identifying the sorts of people likely to cause fires and addressing their needs may be the best way to modify antisocial behaviour in the long term.

All-of-society responses

If the situation was straightforward it would have been solved decades ago. Therefore it seems as though the only successful way to address ‘the bushfire problem’ – loss of life and damage to economic assets - is to have an integrated multifaceted multilevel multiyear program. Recognition of local values, the levels of potential fire exposure and what are reasonable levels of expenditure within various management contexts need to be made. A suitable program may contain:methods to raise community awareness of bushfires; ways to expose myths, misunderstandings and misnomers; opportunities for education; field excursions; and a deliberate town-planning segment. It will involve integrated fire and fuel management, information management and effective use of well-equipped, well-trained trained people in government agencies. It will also involve skilled community communicators and educationalists. This is no one simple solution. We all have to work together on determining what that solution will look like.

References

Faith, N. (1999).Blaze. Channel Four Books (Macmillan), London.

Muckley, A. (1999). Deliberate fire-setting: an increasing danger. Fire, November 1999, pp. 33-34.

A. Malcolm Gill
22 August 2002