Scientists have raised new concerns about the frontline strategy to reduce the impact of bushfires in Australia.
As Victorian authorities strive to triple the amount of prescribed burning they do in response to the Royal Commission recommendations after the Black Saturday fires, other states are also adopting the policy.
But several scientists have told Radio National’s Background Briefing program they may be adopting a deeply flawed policy.
Michael Clarke, who heads Zoology at LaTrobe University, was on the Royal Commission’s expert panel on fuel reduction.
He says the push to burn so much more bush means big areas of bush away from human populations are being targeted ahead of the forest surrounding human populations.
“My observation is there is strong pressure on the Department of Sustainability and Environment to meet the 5 per cent target, which equates to something like 390,000 hectares,” he said.
It’s bad enough for [the bushfire strategy] to be applied at a state-wide level and to say ‘well, here’s a rule of thumb’. To then say this is applicable to south-west Tasmania and also to tropical Queensland is ecological madness.Michael Clarke, LaTrobe University
“That’s incredibly hard for them. I don’t think they’re adequately resourced to do that.
“I think it creates a false impression of security in the public’s mind if we meet this target, are the people in the Dandenongs and Mt Macedon that much safer?
“I think that’ll be the big question at the next Royal Commission, heaven forbid that we have one.”
Dr Clarke says not only are the people most at risk from bushfires being potentially short-changed, but there could be serious ecological consequences of burning so much more forest.
“We have real concern based on our data that this could have negative consequences for a range of wildlife. I mean that there is a risk that some species, may go locally extinct and that certainly isn’t the intention of the Royal Commission’s recommendation.”
Western Australia already had a higher prescribed burn target than Victoria and evidence on prescribed burning in WA strongly informed Victoria’s new policy.
But since the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Victoria’s plan to burn 5 per cent of public lands has gained popularity nationally.
Dr Clarke says it would be foolhardy for other areas of Australia to adopt a hectare-based target.
“I think that’s really disturbing, it’s bad enough for it to be applied at a state-wide level and to say ‘well, here’s a rule of thumb’. To then say this is applicable to south-west Tasmania and also to tropical Queensland is ecological madness,” he said.
Dr Clarke is not the only scientist to raise the alarm – a number of other ecologists and fire experts support his concerns.
Associate Professor Ian Lunt from Charles Sturt University says the top-down approach of the target does have the potential to skew the results.
He says large areas of bush must be burnt to make up the target and the danger is that fuel reduction burning is being done under the name of ecological burning.
“We’re looking at really large scales huge areas where there is a very clear conflict potentially between those two agendas and we are burning under the name of ecological burning for what is essentially a political response to the need to preserve to save assets,” he said.
But Dean of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, Professor Mark Adams, who was another of the Royal Commission’s experts on fuel reduction, says more prescribed burning is needed to manage ecosystems properly and the risk of bushfire to people.
“If we’re really about using prescribed fire to protect lives and property then we’re going to need to have a landscape-wide approach,” he said.
If we’re really about using prescribed fire to protect lives and property then we’re going to need to have a landscape-wide approach.Mark Adams, University of Sydney
“We can’t just have ‘well we’ll run a little fire around the back fences of the settlements and call that strategic and leave it at that’.
“If we take that approach those defences will be overcome by the next crown fire that heads towards us.”
The Victorian Minister for Bushfire Response, Peter Ryan, says the Royal Commission was one of a number of inquiries which have said Victoria must increase its prescribed burning.
“The commission went through this painstakingly. They called evidence from anybody and everybody. Before that we had a very protracted and extensive all-party consideration of this by our environment and natural resources committee who also reported on it,” he said.
He says the policy has been carefully designed to protect biodiversity.
“These [burns] are very, very carefully planned, they are very, very carefully conducted and they are modified to accord whatever might be the topography – what is the biodiversity, what is the fuel load, do we need a cool burn which can be just lit and and allowed to creep through [or] do we need something stronger,” he said.
“You have to just adjust all these things and … [along] with the prevailing weather conditions, all these things are taken into account by the experts we have engaged to undertake this task.”