The Tasmanian Bushfires Inquiry Report was released in early October and briefly enlivened the public debate about bushfire management and, in particular, fuel-reduction burning. Sadly, the debate has quickly died down and there is little pressure on the state government to show leadership to improve bushfire management.
With so much media attention focused on what was or was not done correctly with the Forcett/Dunalley fire, many other issues raised in the report went largely unnoticed. The media also failed to identify that the inquiry did not make recommendations on critical issues such as use of campfires – which were the cause the Lake Repulse and Dunalley fires.
The media was possibly blindsided by the state government supporting all of the inquiry’s recommendations (many only in principle). It failed to pressure the government on what ‘in-principle support’ for recommendations meant, whether it would provide adequate resources to implement the inquiry recommendations and how the inter-departmental committee and Cabinet sub-committee would report to the community on implementation of the inquiry recommendations.
The recommendations of the inquiry regarding fuel-reductions burns (FRBs) are quite sensible and should be helpful in progressing appropriate FRBs and we hope in levering the necessary government funding.
Recommendation 90 is that the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) or another suitable agency provides information to the community which shows, in simple form, the legislation applicable to lighting fires on private property and the various relationships between that legislation.
This seems to be a response to complaints from farmers that many rural landowners do not do fuel-reduction burning because they are uncertain of their rights and/or are confused about the relevant legislation. The inquiry sensibly recommended that the existing legislation be clearly communicated to the general public rather than making any rash suggestions for changes such as deregulation.
Recommendation 91 is that the TFS conducts a review of the fire-permit system in the Fire Service Act 1979, and implements changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system by:
· considering whether it is appropriate to authorise persons or organisations to conduct fuel-reduction burning during a permit period
· providing a better match between the period, the area and fire risk
· maintaining a timely and efficient process for issuing permits
· naming the period in a way that draws attention to bushfire risk
· establishing a reporting and accountability process.
Interestingly, the government did not see this recommendation as requiring an immediate response and only accepted it in principle. We do not know what, if anything, the government intends to do in response to these important matters relating to the fire-permit system, but we will be writing to the Premier and the Police and Emergency Management Minister David O’Bryne seeking greater clarity.
It seems appropriate, given the many concerns raised by private landowners about the existing legislation relating to fuel-reduction burning, that the TFS ought to conduct a ‘review of the fire permit system’ and, in the meantime, implement recommendation 90 to clarify the existing legislation as it applies to private landowners.
The inquiry’s cautious approach is justified, not just because it had little time and lacked the expertise to prepare recommendations for specific legislative changes, but also because there are valid and difficult conflicts of interest that need to be reconciled. The permit system must deal with the conflicts of interest between those landholders who might quite legitimately want a permit when conditions are right (when vegetation has dried out) and the permit officer who has an interest in avoiding escaped fires. As explained in the report, the fire-permit officer must take into account impacts of reduced air quality on human health and some land uses, e.g. viticulture, and the risk of fire escaping and damaging property or bushland on adjoining properties.
The report acknowledged the concern expressed in some submissions that some permit officers were unduly risk-adverse and that some landowners were unwilling to do FRBs, even where they were willing to and could obtain permits, because of the risk of litigation and the difficulty of obtaining insurance cover.
The report referred to several submissions which claimed that many landowners, primarily new landowners, e.g. sea- or tree-changers, who either opposed FRBs unjustifiably or did not have the skills or capacity to carry them out. While we acknowledge that there are some people who fit this category and this creates a problem in rolling out a statewide FRB plan, the inquiry failed to come to any conclusions regarding the true extent of the problem or what to do about it.
The inquiry sensibly avoided any support for submissions that recommended ‘that the permit system should not apply to farmers’. We note that this was not the position of the Tasmanina Farmers and Graziers Association.
The state government’s Strategic Fuel Management Plan has been in preparation for some years and is expected to be finalised in March 2014. It is a very good outcome that the inquiry supported the need for a Strategic Fuel Management Plan which includes measurable targets but left the setting of targets to others, in Recommendation 92: That the government actively support the timely development and implementation of an ongoing Strategic Fuel Management Plan; and Recommendation 93: That the Strategic Fuel Management Plan includes measurable targets and they are actively monitored and reported on to the community.
The TCT supports a planned approach to fuel reduction burns that includes targets. As the report states: ‘A problem with not having a measurable target is accountability, and the tendency for activities to discontinue if they are not monitored’. We disagree with setting a simple statewide area-based target, as was recommended by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission – especially if it is as high as the target of 5% of forest cover established in Victoria.
The inquiry seemed to take seriously the advice from the Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Tasmania and others that targets should be set in terms of burning those parts of the landscape that are most important for protection of towns and other settled areas. This may involve complicated and costly processes to burn very small areas of bushland which will protect large numbers of people and their properties. The converse of this is that it would be very easy for the PWS or FT to burn 5% of the state each year, in remote areas where it is much easier to do, but this would do little to reduce the risk of bushfires in settled areas.
The inquiry also acknowledged the advice of the Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) in relation to FRBs: ‘To determine a target, the concept of treatable vegetation needs to be recognised’ and that a low-intensity fire can be ecologically beneficial (and preferable to uncontrolled hot burns) as well as reducing risky fuel loads.
The report commented:
Only certain types of vegetation are suitable for treatment by fuel reduction burning. This includes dry eucalypt forest, scrub, heathland and button grass. These are approximately 2.57 million treatable hectares of dry woodland, forest, heath and moorland in Tasmania in which fuel reduction burning could reasonably be undertaken. Of this 0.86 million ha are in reserves managed by the PWS, 0.5 million ha are in State Forest, 0.1 million ha on unallocated Crown land and the balance (1.1 million ha) are on privately owned lands and other lands. Treatable vegetation by land tenure is set out in Table 1.6.
The inquiry acknowledged the importance of ‘treatable vegetation’ but importantly failed to refer to it in recommendations 92 and 93. We will be writing to the Premier and the Emergency Management Minister to ask them to support the implementation of the plan but with the proviso that the plan should recommend appropriate targets which apply only to treatable vegetation.
The report found that:
Most fuel reduction burns occur on public land. Data is available from PWS and Forestry Tasmania, but the burning on private land is underreported because it occurs before a permit period, or without a permit, or the size of a permitted fire is not accurately recorded. As a percentage of treatable vegetation, the percentage subjected to fuel reduction burning over the last three years is estimated at:
- 1.56% in 2010–11
- 0.27% in 2011–12
- 0.63% in 2012–13
The amount of treatable vegetation burnt is likely to vary between years to some degree, depending on whether conditions are favourable or not.
Given the strong criticism that many farmers and other rural landowners direct at the public land managers in regard to FRBs practices, it is very important to note that the inquiry could not obtain data regarding the amount of FRBs done on private land but could for public land, even though a greater proportion of the total treatable vegetation is on private land. Until data is collected across all tenures it is very difficult to draq meaningful conclusions about which land managers are doing sufficient burning.
The inquiry failed to recommend collation of data across private land. This is an important action which the TCT will be recommending to the state government.
The PWS warned about the need to avoid burning being superficial, i.e. that burning needs to actually reduce the fuel levels substantially. This is probably a subtle warning about what could happen if unrealistically high targets are set without adequate resources.
The PWS submission stated that ‘To adequately mitigate bushfire risk, PWS believes that much more burning is required in Tasmania’.
It also states:
…fuel reduction burns must be conducted on private land as well as public land to genuinely mitigate the risk in the landscape. For this reason, fuel reduction burning is an issue for the entire community and all landowners must do more burning. There is however very limited expertise and equipment to do this, particularly amongst landowners of small private blocks, and the practical planning issues are significant.
The PWS submission importantly points out the good reasons why managing fuel reduction burning in reserved land should be carried out in collaboration with private landowners and, in particular, that the logical boundaries for fuel reduction burns are often on private properties that adjoin reserved land. The implication of this statement is that the Strategic Fuel Management Plan focuses only on public land but that the government should be considering applying it to all land tenures.
It is nice to be able to demonstrate that there is inter-agency support for targeting only treatable vegetation types. Commenting on FRBs, the TFGA submission states:
It has more limited application in wet eucalyptus forests, because it is difficult to carry out there and get fires of low enough intensity not to kill the trees themselves. On the other hand it is of inestimable value reducing fire hazard in the dry eucalyptus forests.
The PWS submission emphasised that the amount of FRB varied due to the amount of funding available, which tends to remain static for long periods while the costs tend to increase consistently. The report disappointingly remained silent on the critical issue of resourcing.
For further information about how treatable vegetation is determined in Tasmania we recommend the article ‘Fire-attribute categories, fire sensitivity, and flammability of Tasmanian vegetation communities’, by Adrian Pyrke and Jonathon Marsden-Smedley, published in TasForests, December 2005. We are advised that this paper was used to determine treatable vegetation on public land. It ranks all vegetation communities in order of fire sensitivity, with communities towards the top of the list generally being rainforest and alpine communities. The two top-ranked communities are alpine coniferous heathland and Athrotaxis cupressoides open woodland, which are unfortunately moderately flammable as well as being extremely fire sensitive. Towards the bottom of the list are communities that have low flammability and low sensitivity, e.g. saltmarsh, saline grassland and saline aquatic herbland.
The paper notes that it was too difficult to assign fire sensitivity classes to some communities: e.g. Eucalyptus perriniana and Eucalyptus morrisbyi forest and woodland were classified as having extreme fire sensitivity because the dominant trees are threatened species that are known from only five small stands. While these species are adapted to fire, a single high-intensity fire event could have a significant impact on these species’ survival. Their high ranking on the sensitivity list does not mean they are not subject to FRBs, just that they deserve special consideration.
The inquiry reported that the Lake Repulse and Copping/Dunalley fires originated from campfires that were not extinguished and escaped, but it made no specific recommendations regarding campfire use in times of higher bushfire risk.
We will be recommending to the state government that it ensure that TFS and all land managers investigate better management of campfires. Much can be achieved through better education about where to light fires (e.g. not in tree stumps, as was the case with the origin of the Dunalley fire) and ensuring fires are fully extinguished before leaving them. There is also a question over whether anyone should be having a campfire at the end of December, and whether this issue can be addressed through education alone or whether campfires should be subject to fire bans. We will be making these suggestions to the Premier and Minister for Emergency Management.