WHY THE LAW DOESN'T PREVENT BUSHFIRES

TAKE NSW AS AN EXAMPLE - Why Recent Amendments to the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) Won’t Stop the Firestorm Crisis

Three failures cause the firestorm crisis:

1.    Failure to adequately hazard reduce large tracts of bush in mosaics, particularly national parks. As a result, fuel loads are higher than ever. (To read how red tape makes it almost impossible to adequately hazard reduce, please click https://sites.google.com/site/stopbushfires/like-a-story-record-the-story-in-rural-australia-is-the-same-read-about-port-stphen-home-once-to-large-numbers-of-koalas/this-bushfire-life-by-geoff-walker.) 

2.    Failure to keep national park size within manageable limits. Eastern Australia has about 1/4 of the world’s national parks. This is unmanageable in a struggling economy, so parks have become firestorm threats that incinerate wildlife and burn out neighbours.

3.    Failure to rapidly put out dangerous fires.

That the above are the main reasons for the bushfire crisis is proven by[i]:

1.    Research accumulated since the 1950s.

2.    Two Victorian Royal Commissions.

3.    The ACT Coronial Inquiry into (2003) bushfires escaping from NSW national parks into the ACT.

4.    Rural folks’ memories of cool burning when the weather was optimal.

5. Rural folks' memories of putting out small, potentially dangerous fires quickly. This was done with backburns, usually at night when fires were low to moderate intensity. People once also had the authority to directly attack with water, wet sacks etc as soon as fires started.

 

The 2013 amendments to the Rural Fires Act 1997 and the 10/50 Rule do not address the above factors, so there is no reason the firestorm crisis will improve.

 

The Rural Fires Amendment Act 2013 (NSW)

The amendments make hazard reduction certificates valid for three years instead of one. BUT, it is still almost impossible to adequately hazard reduce or quickly put out small fires that can grow into firestorms (Click This Bushfire Life, left menu bar for more details). The recent amendments:

1.    Change the definition of the aims of the RFS. Previously, the aims were stated as the protection of life and property. The amendments now include protecting environmental, economic, cultural, agricultural and social assets and infrastructure.

2.    Give more power to a Commissioner with a history of claiming fuel loads are not threats[ii] and whose operations predictably bring death, loss of livelihood and wildlife incineration.

3.    Authorise the Commissioner to hazard reduce after reasonable attempts to contact an owner fail.

4.    Give the Commissioner the power to amend a bushfire plan if he finds it inadequate.

5.    Define fire trails, which have proven to be death traps, as hazard reductions. Defining a fire trail as a hazard reduction will predictably cause more deaths. An adequate hazard reduction is done in mosaics throughout the bush. A 10m wide fire trail will do little to lower the intensity of a bad fire. Bad fires can travel travel for a few hundred metres over bare ground.

6.    Require public authorities to report hazard reductions with monthly updates to the Commissioner.

7.    Make hazard reduction certificates valid for three years (previously 1 year).

8.     Say hazard reduction is not harming the environment so is not an offence.

  

NSW's 10/50 Rule

The 10/50 Rule also keeps NSW on course for more firestorms. It allows homeowners to cut down trees 10m from the outermost point of a building. This is already standard with most councils because trees this close can fall on buildings and drop leaves in gutters. The 10/50 rule allows homeowners to clear scrub up to 50m from their homes. Fifty metres will not protect a home from a bad fire. CSIRO bushfire scientist Phil Cheney found that if a weather change did not halt Canberra's 2003 fire tornado, the flames could have travelled 300m out to sea.  After reducing Mt Stromlo to rubble and taking one life, the fire tornado flew over 400m of eaten down, drought-stricken paddocks, to devastate Duffy and Chapman and take three more lives. The 400m of eaten down paddock acted as a buffer that made flame height drop, but the fire tornado was still deadly. The best protection is adequate mosaic hazard reduction.

 

The main barriers to fixing firestorms are:

1.    The large amount of bushfire service hazard reduction paperwork and regulations. Strangely, an army of consultants must document how to reduce fuel in areas most in need of protection. Reports of 10 or more pages must document endangered species, ecological communities, Crown land, heritage areas, Aboriginal sacred sites etc etc. This takes time and the reports restrict operations. The end result is slower, more restricted hazard reduction. This makes these areas more dangerous than areas emergency managers consider less valuable. A classic example is the alpine grazing project in Victoria. A swathe of restrictions allegedly to protect ecological communities, put mountain cattlemen between a rock and a very hard place.

2.     National parks record high fuel loads.

3.     RFS operations that allow fires to build into firestorms and ignore proven opportunities to put fires out.

 


Dead mountain ash forest in Victoria with fuel loads of around 2,100 tonnes per hectare.

Plate 1 There are 1,000s of square kilometres of dead ash forest like this in alpine SE Australia. A conservative estimate of the fuel load of dead ash forest like this is around 220,000 tonnes per square kilometre. Fuel loads over 500 tonnes per square kilometre  produce uncontrollably intense fires in extreme conditions. Once forest like these die, and another hot fire comes through, the timber is dry (ideal firewood), & the forest burns to the ground. About 45% of the timber in the picture above is carbon, so a 

square kilometre of forest burnt to the ground emits about 99, 000 tonnes of carbon particles into the atmosphere causing:

 1. Wilder weather - Overly carbon particle laden clouds need to go high into the atmosphere before water vapour can condense to form precipitation. This creates ice and negative charges driving forked lightning and wilder weather.

2. More cloud cover to cool the planet because it is harder for clouds with too many carbon particles to rain, so cloud cover remains for longer after bad fires 

3. Drought, because it is hard for clouds with too many carbon particles to rain.

4. Cooling, because increased cloud cover blocks sunlight.

On Course for Disaster… The RFS Commissioner Conceals the Bushfire Risk from Parliament - Extract from a 2010 NSW Parliamentary Paper[iii]

 

Mr FITZSIMMONS: The other thing I would add is in relation to the notion of around 50 tonnes per hectare. It is just a falsity. There is no truth to 50 tonnes per hectare.

The Hon. ROBERT BROWN: I would not know.

Mr FITZSIMMONS: I know that it is said anecdotally from time to time, unless someone is picking up a bag of wet fuel and weighing it, which is how you reach a score of 50 tonnes per hectare. It is fair to say that there would be areas of the Blue Mountains, as there would be elsewhere across the State, where there would be parts of the bush that have very high fuel loads. But in the typical forested environment like the Blue Mountains, you reach a state of equilibrium between decomposition and accumulation rates.

The Hon. ROBERT BROWN: Okay.

Mr FITZSIMMONS: They typically peter out at around about 15 to 25 tonnes per hectare, depending upon the conditions and bark types and that sort of thing around the forest. Having said that, coincidentally, as soon as I can knock off here, I am heading to the Blue Mountains tonight to meet with all the senior volunteers from the Blue Mountains because there is some misinformation running around. The statistics I have looked at only this week show that they have at least 30 burns already planned ready to go. All the environmental checks are clear. It is fundamentally about whether there is opportunity in the Blue Mountains, with the altitude, the moisture retention, in particular the rainfall we have had in the past 12 months—that is the biggest impediment—and that topography and access issue that you spoke about as well, which can be challenging.

I will be meeting with them this afternoon to find out what we can do. The Minister mentioned that the Blue Mountains is one of the trial areas where we have put into effect mitigation crews. It has demonstrated that where we put in mitigation crews and where we have deployed them over the last few years, we actually see up to a 25 per cent increase in the effective delivery of hazard reduction because they are doing a lot of the mechanical preparation work that we would otherwise be relying on volunteers to do.


DOES S.128 OF THE RURAL FIRES ACT 1997 (NSW) MAKE THE COMMISSIONER EXEMPT FROM LIABILITY FOR THIS OMISSION OF FACTS THAT LED TO EPIC FIRESTORMS IN LATER BUSHFIRE SEASONS?


Plate 2 Kosciuszko National Park - The leaf litter load is so high, you can't ride a horse through this subalpine country around the Snowy Mountains and south of the Brindabella Ranges, near Canberra. Leaf litter layers alone have fuel loads over 100 tonnes per hectare and about 1 metre deep. 5 centimetres of leaf litter is an extreme bushfire risk[xiii], so 100cm of leaf litter is off current scales of flame intensity estimates. As the photos shows the bark is also highly flammable. These are highly flammable candle bark forests and elevated fuel loads like bark must to be added in to reach a total fuel load figure.  Also to be added in is undergrowth and fallen logs and branches, putting fuel loads even higher than 100 tonnes per hectare. 

 

 



[i] See McArthy, GJ; Tolhurst, KG & Chatto, K (1999) Overall Hazard Guide 3rd edn Natural Resources and Environment page 13; Gould, JS, McCaw, WL, Cheney, NP, Ellis, PF & Matthews, S (2007) Field Guide Fuel Assessment and Fire Behaviour Prediction in Dry Eucalypt Forest Australia: Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Department of Environment & Conservation, Western Australia; CSIRO (2003) submission to A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires Canberra: Parliament of Australia; Cheney, Phil & Sullivan, Andrew (2008) GRASSFIRES Fuel, weather and fire behaviour 2n edn. China; CSIRO Publishing & Gould, JS; McCaw, Wl; Cheney, N, Peter; Ellis, PF; Knight, IK & Sullivan, Andrew, L  (2008) Project Vesta Fire in Dry Forest Fuel Structure Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour CSIRO Publishing Retrieved January 31 2014 from http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5993.htm

[ii] See Parliament of New South Wales (2010) Corrected Proof GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING COMMITTEE No. 5 Friday 17 September 2010 Examination of proposed expenditure for the portfolio areas PRIMARY INDUSTRIES, EMERGENCY SERVICES, RURAL AFFAIRS The Committee met at 2.00 p.m. MEMBERS The Hon. I. Cohen (Chair) The Hon. R. L. Brown The Hon. R. H. Colless The Hon. S. Cotsis The Hon. D. J. Gay The Hon. M. J. Pavey The Hon. M. Veitch The Hon. H. Westwood, page 32.

[iii] See Parliament of New South Wales (2010) Corrected Proof GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING COMMITTEE No. 5 Friday 17 September 2010 Examination of proposed expenditure for the portfolio areas PRIMARY INDUSTRIES, EMERGENCY SERVICES, RURAL AFFAIRS The Committee met at 2.00 p.m. MEMBERS The Hon. I. Cohen (Chair) The Hon. R. L. Brown The Hon. R. H. Colless The Hon. S. Cotsis The Hon. D. J. Gay The Hon. M. J. Pavey The Hon. M. Veitch The Hon. H. Westwood, page 32.

[iv] See Cheney, Phil & Sullivan, Andrew (2008) GRASSFIRES Fuel, weather and fire behaviour 2n edn. China; CSIRO Publishing; McArthy, GJ; Tolhurst, KG & Chatto, K (1999) Overall Hazard Guide 3rd edn Natural Resources and Environment page iii; Sullivan, Andrew (2008) Grassfires fuel, weather and fire behaviour 2nd edn pages 2-4, 17-21 & 29; Gould, JS, McCaw, WL, Cheney, NP, Ellis, PF & Matthews, S (2007) Field Guide Fuel Assessment and Fire Behaviour Prediction in Dry Eucalypt Forest Australia: Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Department of Environment & Conservation, Western Australia; CSIRO (2003) submission to A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires Canberra: Parliament of Australia & Gould, JS; McCaw, Wl; Cheney, N, Peter; Ellis, PF; Knight, IK & Sullivan, Andrew, L  (2008) Project Vesta Fire in Dry Forest Fuel Structure Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour CSIRO Publishing Retrieved January 31 2014 from http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5993.htm.

[v] See Judicial College of Victoria (n.d.) Victorian Sentencing manual 26.3.3 Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/VSM/index.htm#17824.htm

[vi] See Parliament of New South Wales (2010) Corrected Proof GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING COMMITTEE No. 5 Friday 17 September 2010 Examination of proposed expenditure for the portfolio areas PRIMARY INDUSTRIES, EMERGENCY SERVICES, RURAL AFFAIRS The Committee met at 2.00 p.m. MEMBERS The Hon. I. Cohen (Chair) The Hon. R. L. Brown The Hon. R. H. Colless The Hon. S. Cotsis The Hon. D. J. Gay The Hon. M. J. Pavey The Hon. M. Veitch The Hon. H. Westwood, pages 31-32.

[vii] See Judicial College of Victoria (n.d.) Victorian Sentencing manual 26.3.3 Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/VSM/index.htm#17824.htm

[viii]  See ACT Government (2002) s.20 Criminal Code. Retrieved March 12 2014 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/act/consol_act/cc200294/

[ix] Judicial College of Victoria (n.d.) Victorian Sentencing manual 26.3.3 Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/VSM/index.htm#17824.htm

[x] Parliament of New South Wales (1997) Rural Fires Act Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/rfa1997138/ &Judicial College of Victoria (n.d.) Victorian Sentencing manual 26.3.3 Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/VSM/index.htm#17824.htm & Judicial College of Victoria (n.d.) Victorian Sentencing manual 26.3.3 Retrieved February 25 2014 from http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/eManuals/VSM/index.htm#17824.htm

[xi] See Parliament of Australia (1999) Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.  Retrieved March 12 2014 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/epabca1999588/

[xii] Parliament of Australia (1999) Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.  Retrieved March 12 2014 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/epabca1999588/

[xiii] See McArthy, GJ; Tolhurst, KG & Chatto, K (1999) Overall Fuel Hazard Guide 3rd edn Natural Resources and Environment pages 1-4; Gould, JS, McCaw, WL, Cheney, NP, Ellis, PF & Matthews, S (2007) Field Guide Fuel Assessment and Fire Behaviour Prediction in Dry Eucalypt Forest Australia: Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Department of Environment & Conservation, Western Australia; CSIRO (2003) submission to A Nation Charred: Inquiry into the Recent Australian Bushfires Canberra: Parliament of Australia;  Gould, JS; McCaw, Wl; Cheney, N, Peter; Ellis, PF; Knight, IK & Sullivan, Andrew, L  (2008) Project Vesta Fire in Dry Forest Fuel Structure Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour CSIRO Publishing Retrieved January 31 2014 from http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5993.htm