Volume 28 Issue 1, 2013

Letters to the editor

Roger Underwood

The AJEM welcomes letters to the editor. Letters should refer to content published in the previous AJEM, focus on issues of emergency management and disaster resilience, and include contact details. Letters should be around 200 words. Longer letters may be published or edited at the editor's discretion.


I was dismayed to read in your October volume that Stuart Ellis, incoming CEO of AFAC, failed to offer unequivocal support for fuel reduction burning as a measure to mitigate bushfire damage.

Mr. Ellis says: “Prescribed burning is likely to reduce the intensity of bushfires” [my emphasis], and adds that [fuel reduction burning] will “provide little, if any, substantive mitigation” on a Code Red day.

Neither of these statements is correct.

Simple physics means that less fuel will always reduce bushfire intensity. But this is not just a matter of physics. The value of prescribed burning has been demonstrated in fire behaviour and combustion research since the 1960s and is supported by case studies, statistics, simulation studies and thousands of observations over many years. There can hardly be a firefighter in Australia who has not observed the decline in intensity that occurs when a fire crosses from 20-year old to one-year old fuels.

True, headfires may be impossible to control on a Code Red day (especially in heavy fuels). However, the presence in the landscape of fuel reduced areas makes fires on the days preceding a Code Red day easier and safer to control, meaning that there are fewer fires still live when Disaster Day breaks, freeing up resources, and allowing time for fire leaders to regroup and for communities to prepare or evacuate. And even on a day when the headfire is unstoppable, useful work can be done on flank fires burning in light fuels, helping to secure the danger flank in the expectation of a wind change.

Fuel reduction cannot prevent bushfires. But it will mitigate (and in some cases prevent) bushfire damage. Under a properly designed fuel reduction burning program, 20% of the landscape will always be carrying fuels less than three-year old. Even under the conditions of Black Saturday, effective suppression is possible on tail and flank fires in 0, 1 and 2 year-old fuels.

The failure of Australian land and fire management authorities to deal responsibly with bushfire fuels in the expectation of a bushfire is a great national tragedy. Heavy, long-unburnt forest fuels mean that bushfires can become unstoppable even under relatively moderate fire dangers, let alone Code Red. This is an issue to which I would hope AFAC would assign their highest priority.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Underwood
The Bushfire Front Inc Perth, Western Australia