Living in a land of fire

Intergrative commentary
Professor Rob Whelan, University of Wollongong
Professor Peter Kanowski, Australian National University
Dr Malcolm Gill, Australian National University
Dr Alan Andersen, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

Policies and institutional arrangements

There are two key elements of improving the policies and institutional arrangements that are related to fire. The first is better coordination between the Australian, state and territory governments, and between agencies in each jurisdiction (Ellis et al. 2004), about all aspects of fire mitigation and management. The second is the adoption of a structured risk-management process to provide the most appropriate framework for effective planning in relation to fires, and for preparedness and response to them. A risk management approach focuses attention on the context in which fires occur—the local community and its assets, the environment, and the available resources for mitigation and response—as well as on the threats bushfires can pose.

The starting point for a risk management approach to the complex challenges of fire management is to establish the context; this necessitates the identification of all the assets that might be threatened by, or might require, particular fire regimes. These assets include life and property, biodiversity, cultural heritage, ecosystem components such as air and water quality, infrastructure, and production systems such as agriculture and planted forests. As Kanowski et al. (2005) commented:

One of the greatest challenges to bushfire mitigation and management is the development of a broad-based agreement within the community about the nature and relative importance of assets that are potentially threatened by fire, and about the appropriate forms and processes of risk modification. For example, significant tensions may exist between development interests and bushfire risk avoidance strategies that focus on limiting new development in high-risk areas. Similarly, the debate between proponents and opponents of broad-scale fuel-reduction burning strategies has as one of its bases the different relative values ascribed to the protection of property and other human assets, on the one hand, and environmental assets such as biodiversity or air quality, on the other.

Reaching general agreement about priorities in fire risk reduction, and management practices to deliver them, will often demand community and scientific debate, such as that about prescribed burning for property protection and biodiversity conservation, or about land management practices such as cattle grazing in alpine areas.