Talking Point: Big dollars and restructure critical to managing fire risk

DAVID BOWMAN: More funds are needed, for example to pay for a smartphone warning app

A CRITICAL warning was buried in a report on last summer’s Tasmanian bushfires.

The report released this month focused on the 2019 fires that burnt nearly 3 per cent of the state’s land area, concentrated in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and the southern forests.

It was prepared for the Tasmanian Government and written by three senior Australian bushfire managers on behalf of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC).

It provides a useful survey of most, but not all aspects, of the bushfires and makes nine recommendations, which are mostly generic and aspirational rather than specific and actionable.

In no way is this report to be considered a landmark in adapting to the emerging Tasmanian bushfire crisis.

Rather, it just adds some recommendation and observations to previous government reports that followed the 2013 and 2016 bushfires.

Despite this, I think the report contains at least three critical issues that must be meaningfully addressed if Tasmania is to be adequately adapted to the building threat of bushfires.

The first and most pressing unresolved issue in bushfire management relates to budgeting. Peppered throughout the AFAC report is the issue of the growing cost of bushfire management. Although the actual cost of the 2019 campaign remains unknown, based on a comparison to the 2016 fire campaign the report suggests the figure is somewhere between $40 to 60 million. This is equivalent to more than half the $96 million budget of the Tasmania Fire Service for 2017-2018.

A driver of the cost is aerial firefighting. No doubt this is why one recommendation of the AFAC report is to have a financial officer overviewing aerial firefighting expenditures.

Without care, Tasmanian bushfire firefighting budgets will spiral out of control and the available resources for fire prevention will correspondingly wither.

It is a vicious cycle that we have seen in the US.

Not only does lack of funding constrain fuel management programs, it directly affects the nature and quality of fire community preparedness. Without additional investment, for instance, Tasmania will not have a smartphone fire warning app, unlike other southeast Australian states also vulnerable to catastrophic bushfires.

The second unresolved issue relates to the responsibilities and interactions among government agencies. One reading of the report is that current administrative arrangements are no longer fit for purpose. Indeed, most of the AFAC report’s recommendations focus on trying to improve co-ordination among the Tasmania Fire Service, Parks and Wildlife Service and Sustainable Timbers Tasmania.

This is fraught with difficulties, because these agencies necessarily have different objectives, and different workforces and workplace practices.

In the context of the World Heritage Area this is of paramount important because of the biological and cultural values threatened by bushfire, and the need to rapidly deploy remote area firefighters.

Another vexed question concerns co-ordination and implementation of fuel management, which necessarily involves close collaboration with private land owners and local councils.

Creating effective administrative arrangements requires a major rethink of fire management legislation and administrative structures. The AFAC report provides only a few pointers for progressing this huge and complicated task.

Finally, the AFAC report leave little doubt the current labour force for management fire is insufficient to handle fire seasons like the ones we had in summer.

The recommendation of creating a “cadre of volunteer remote area firefighters” is one response to filling this need.

It is important to note that staff also need to be trained not only to fight bushfires but to undertake fuel management.

Professionals are also required to provide expert advice on ensuring that economic, biological, cultural assets are not needlessly destroyed by fire management actions.

Building the required professional and volunteer labour force requires increasing budgets.

It is unfortunate that the AFAC report explicitly avoided specifying the scale of the labour force required to effectively handle the bushfire crisis.

Without this information it is hard to appraise the sort of financial impacts bushfires are likely to have in the coming years.

While covering most aspects of the 2019 fires, the AFAC report missed several crucial ones.

The economic impacts of small business, especially those in the tourism sector were largely ignored.

More concerning, the health impact of the chronic smoke pollution was unacknowledged. This is a major oversight, because preliminary estimates produced by the Menzies Institute of Medical Research suggest the health costs of the smoke are likely to be somewhere between $10 and $40 million.

In summary, buried in the AFAC report is a critical fire warning — serious investment and administrative reforms are required to tackle the building Tasmanian bushfire crisis. I expect this will be also be the key message of the report in the next, inevitable, bushfire disaster.

David Bowman is Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science and Director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.

This opinion originally was published in Mercury on 28 August 2019.

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