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

Implementing strategic planning and management to minimise risks to assets

The size of Australia, its relatively small population and land management agencies, the fragmented landscape resulting from European settlement, the fire prone nature of most Australian ecosystems, and the inevitable occurrence of severe fire conditions, mean that it will never be feasible—even were it desirable—to maintain fuels at a sufficiently low level to prevent fires, nor to suppress all fires in Australia (Kanowski et al. 2005). Rather, land managers and fire agencies need to use their resources strategically to minimise the risk that fires pose to life and to assets of all forms.

In most Australian states and territories, this is now being achieved through the development of various forms of landscape and fuel management planning and zoning. Interface zones—between rural and urban land uses, and between primary production and conservation reserves—are usually the parts of the landscape in which fire poses the greatest risks to lives, property and economic values. Such interface zones are a high priority for fuel management as well as for other preparedness activities, especially where land uses and management objectives preclude wide-scale fuel reduction across the landscape.

Maximising the effectiveness of this strategic approach to fire risk minimisation depends also on much better evaluation by land managers and fire agencies of the effectiveness of fuel reduction and other risk minimisation measures. Drawing on the work of the COAG Report, Kanowski et al. (2005) suggested that this would require:

… implementation of systematic monitoring and evaluation processes [across all land tenures] that allow (i) accurate measurement and mapping of fuel-reduction activities and fuel loads, (ii) accurate mapping of unplanned fires across a landscape, (iii) detailed analysis of the behaviour of the unplanned fires against the ‘fuel-landscape’, and (iv) detailed analysis of the pattern of damage to the various assets in the landscape.

This approach to bushfire risk minimisation and to bushfire management offers the best prospects for resolving tensions between different land and fire management objectives, and for protecting life and property whilst also protecting environmental assets. It is embodied in the principles, which the COAG Report (Ellis et al. 2004) argued should guide how Australians live with fire in the future.