Australia has a long and continuing history of burning in its forests to reduce fuels and maintain biodiversity. However, the debate over how much should be burnt has been ongoing for almost as long as the practice has been conducted, with parties on all sides of the debate quoting evidence both for more burning or less burning.
Whenever there are large and destructive bushfires, the topic always comes up. We experienced it again during the 2019/20 fire season, a season which saw large parts of Australia burn during bushfires, and potentially millions exposed to bushfire smoke – from capital cities, to regional centres, to those in rural communities and on the land. The debate was prominent; the media covered it in detail across TV, radio, print and online, and people discussed it while they went about their lives. The issue was once again contentious: too much prescribed burning, or not enough prescribed burning. Many simple solutions to an intrinsically complex issue were proposed.
As the last nine months or so have shown, the discussion is becoming louder and more polarised. Meanwhile, the complexity of the issue is growing. The number of people and businesses have grown in and around forested regions; the impact of smoke is an issue (both from prescribed fire and bushfire); the management of water catchments is important; there is now more scientific evidence on the benefits and downsides of various fire regimes; and the windows for undertaking prescribed burning have shrunk due to drought and climate change.
There is no universal ‘right’ level of prescribed fire because there are competing objectives to be considered, vastly differing ecosystems to be covered, and constantly shifting variables in demographics and land use – all reasons why simplistic generalisations will not work.
And even if you get all the objectives lined up, you are still at the mercy of a fickle Australian weather system – too dry can be too dangerous to burn, too wet and little will burn.
The simple fact remains that no amount of prescribed burning will reduce the risk to zero, a point made in the media last fire season by both the then New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, and Victorian Country Fire Authority Chief Officer Steve Warrington. Notwithstanding the amount of time since the burn was conducted, the weather conditions on the day are the strongest factor. On extreme high-temperature, low-humidity and high-wind days like what was experienced at times during the 2019/20 season, the effectiveness of most prescribed burning on stopping runs of large fires will be reduced because medium- and long-range spotting will see these areas overrun.
Having said all of this, it is important to recognise that Australia leads the world in fire management. An example of this is the recent release of a new book by the Centre of Excellence for Prescribed Burning, Prescribed burning in Australasia: the science, practice and politics of burning the bush. Capturing the knowledge of our leading scientists, practitioners and policy makers, the book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the complexities of fire. I co-edited the book, alongside Dr Adam Leavesley (ACT Parks and Conservation Service) and Mike Wouters (South Australia Department of Environment and Water).
Also worth following up on is the National Fire Fuels Science webinar series that the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC held in partnership with the Australian Academy of Science recently. Replays of the three-part series are available on the CRC website, with leading figures in bushfire science and knowledge explaining what is known, what is unknown and what is in contention when it comes to prescribed burning.
The prescribed burning debate still rages, but land-management authorities are just getting on with the job – and dealing with the equal mix of complaints and praise on a daily basis.
Prescribed burning in Australasia: the science, practice and politics of burning the bush is available via the AFAC Shop at www.afac.com.au/auxiliary/shop
For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au/2020/firefuels