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

A risk management approach to bushfires

A risk-management process provides an appropriate framework for effective management of bushfires in a complex and changing landscape; especially because risk management focuses our attention both on threats and emergencies and also on the context in which these are set—the local community, the environment and available resources. The main elements of this framework are illustrated in this Figure 4.1 from the COAG Inquiry into Bushfire Mitigation and Management.

Figure 4.1 The risk management process

Figure 4.1 The risk management process

Source: Standards Association of Australia 1999, AS/NZS 4360:1999 Risk Management.

  • Establish the context. This requires the identification of all assets, the determining of their locations in the landscape, and the articulation of the particular objectives relating to each asset from the perspectives of those groups that value (or benefit from) from the asset. Assets encompass all ecological, social, cultural and economic values.
  • Identify the risks. In this stage, factors contributing to the likelihood of adverse effects in the event of fire are identified. Key characteristics of the environment (built, natural and social) within the landscape are investigated to determine the vulnerability of each asset.
  • Analyse the risks. The likelihood of a bushfire occurring is assessed, using historical information and past experience. The probable impacts of a fire are identified for the set of identified assets and values within the landscape or region.
  • Evaluate the risks. The levels of risks determined during the analysis phase are compared and priorities for further action are developed. This includes evaluating tradeoffs between different assets and values, especially ecological versus economic. As part of the comparison, some assessment is made of how particular treatment options will alter the levels of risk.
  • Treat the risks. This is the implementation phase. Treatments are applied to (i) avoid the risk (for example, land use regulations), (ii) reduce the risk (for example, building regulations, fuel-reduction), (iii) spread the risk (for example, sharing responsibility for readiness between fire agencies and residents), and (iv) manage the residual risk (for example, effective fire suppression plans, community and agency readiness, emergency response).
  • Monitor and review. Risks and risk-treatment strategies need to be monitored to ensure that they remain relevant and effective.
  • Communicate and consult. Communication and consultation are critically important at each stage of the process. Those responsible for implementing risk management and those with a vested interest must understand the basis on which decisions are made and why particular actions are required. Creating ownership of the plan is critical to successful implementation.