Comments on the NSW and Victorian Fires at New Year, 2020

Comments on the NSW and Victorian Fires at New Year, 2020. By Roger Underwood, a former regional forester with over 60 years experience in bushfire science, planning and operations.

The claim by a group of “fire chiefs” and university academics that the cause of the bushfires is climate change … has been given extensive publicity in the media, is being trumpeted internationally, and has taken on a life of its own. Whether or not the climate is becoming hotter and drier, and irrespective of the cause of changes, the concept is flawed. It ignores the contribution of fuel to bushfire intensity. This is absolutely crucial, and is determined very largely by fuel, slope and wind. Even if we knew what to do to make the climate cooler and wetter, nothing can be done which will fix the current fire threat.

With all due respects to the water bomber crew who died yesterday, this needs pointing out:

The … thing that is so blindingly obvious has been the ineffectiveness of the aerial water and retardant bombing fleet in the control of high-intensity forest crown fires. The water bombing strategy being applied in NSW is difficult to understand.

Plane load after plane load of water or retardant powder is dropped onto raging fires, making not one iota of difference. Water bombers do have a tactical role to play in bushfire control: they can “hold” a small fire under relatively mild conditions until firefighters arrive on the ground, or they can saturate a burning house. But they do not and they cannot put out a fierce forest fire, or even hinder its progress.

Follow the money:

The astronomical cost of these aerial operations is simply money wasted. There is very little footage shown on TV of time-tested fire control techniques such as creating mineral earth breaks to contain the flank and tail-fires … yet this is the only way in which forest fires can be controlled, and stay controlled. …

Government failure:

It is hard to believe how poorly prepared many NSW communities were in the face of an incoming bushfire. To see whole towns having to resort to the Dunkirk Strategy, or being evacuated along clogged highways, reminds me of something out of Europe in the 1940s. You would think that every rural community adjoining bushland would have a bushfire risk management plan, and a well-rehearsed emergency strategy where people can move to prepared and defendable safe havens. You would think that every Local Government would have emergency generators that, at the very least, would keep the power up for mobile phones. You would think that people living in bushfire-prone areas would have self-defense plans in place, just as do those who live in cyclone-prone regions.

The most puzzling thing of all, is that this calamity has not just arrived out of the blue. NSW has been in the grip of a terrible drought for years. On top of this the amount of fuel reduction burning in national parks and forests in NSW and Victoria has significantly declined and the majority of their forests are long-unburnt and carrying massive fuel loads. The combination of drought and heavy fuels has been at the root of every major bushfire crisis in the history of Australia. This crisis should not have come as a surprise.

The carbon emissions of prescribed burns count against Australia’s carbon account (Kyoto etc), because they are man-made. But the carbon emissions of wildfires do not count as Australian emissions, because the fires are natural. Thus, the international carbon accounting rules incentivize our bureaucracy to avoid prescribed burns, and instead inflict the occasional catastrophic fire upon us instead. Now how do you feel?