Underwood on Australia’s Fires

Note from Mike: The following essay is a strident warning to Americans as well as Australians. Our forests and communities are under threat here just as in Victoria. Catastrophic fire is destructive and deadly (in the case of the Victoria fires of last month, over 200 men, women, and children were killed).

The lack of responsible forest management in the Western US is every bit as foolhardy and dire as the situation in Australia. Our forest fire crisis is untenable and unacceptable because the cure is evident and eminently achievable. Good stewardship will not prevent fires, but it will make them tame by comparison to the holocausts we have suffered seemingly every summer this century.

Roger Underwood is a renowned Australian forester with fifty years experience in bushfire management and bushfire science. He has worked as a firefighter, a district and regional manager, a research manager, and senior government administrator. He is Chairman of The Bush Fire Front, an independent professional group promoting best practices in bushfire management.

Bookmark this essay. It is classic and the message is vitally important to the survival of our forests and our communities.


Australian Bushfire Management: a case study in wisdom versus folly

By Roger Underwood

One man’s wisdom is another’s folly - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many years ago, still a young man, I watched for the first time the grainy, flickering black and white film of the British infantry making their attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. The stark and terrible footage shows the disciplined soldiers climbing from their trenches and, in line abreast, walking slowly across no-man’s land towards the enemy lines. They scarcely travel a few paces before the German machine gunners open up. They are mown down in their thousands. They are chaff before a wind of fire.

I can still remember being struck nerveless by these images, and later my anger when I realised what that calamitous carnage represented. It spoke of the deep incompetence of the Generals who devised this strategy of doom and then insisted upon its implementation. It spoke of front-line men led by people without front-line experience. It spoke of battle planners unable to think through the consequences of their plans, and who devalued human lives. It spoke of a devastating failure of the human imagination.

Worst of all, the strategies of the World War I Generals demonstrated that they had not studied, or that they had forgotten, the lessons of history. In the final year of the American Civil war, 50 years earlier, the Union army had been equipped for the first time with Springfield repeating rifles, replacing the single shot muskets they had previously used and still were being used by the Confederate army. The impact on Confederate soldiers attacking defenders armed with repeating rifles was identical to that later inflicted by machine guns on the Western Front. But it was a lesson unlearnt, of collective wisdom unregarded.

None of you will have any difficulty in seeing where this analogy is taking me.

The catastrophic bushfires in Victoria this year, and the other great fires of recent years in Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia are dramatic expressions not just of killing forces unleashed, but of human folly. No less than the foolish strategies of the World War I Generals, these bushfires and their outcomes speak of incompetent leadership and of failed imaginations. Most unforgivable of all, they demonstrate the inability of people in powerful and influential positions to profit from the lessons of history and to heed the wisdom of experience.

But just a minute, I can hear some of you thinking. Is this fellow going too far here? What about the malignant influence of global warming on bushfire conditions, making things impossible for firefighters? What about the unprecedented weather conditions on the day, making the fires of February 2009 “unstoppable”. What about the years of drought making the bush super-ready to burn? Does he not realise that conditions beyond human understanding have now arisen in Victoria, making killer bushfires inevitable? And what about the promises of technology, the super-aerial tankers and so forth, that will give the initiative to our firefighters for once and for all?

I have thought long and hard about all these issues. I am well aware of the drought, of the terrible conditions on the days of the fires, and of the view from some quarters that all of this is a result of global warming. I accept that drought and bad fire weather increase the risk of serious bushfires. What I do not accept is that “unstoppable” bushfires are the inevitable consequence. And while I will always welcome improved firefighting technology, I know from experience and from an understanding of the simple physics of bushfire behaviour, that technology can never be a substitute for good land management. The serious bushfire is like a disease that is incubated over many years; good land management is the preventative medicine that ensures the disease does not become a killer epidemic.

To me, the epidemic of recent killer bushfires in Victoria are not an indicator of what is inevitable in the future. To me, they are an indicator of the inevitable consequences of what has happened in the past. To me, these fires toll like bells: they toll for failed leadership, failed governance and failed land management.

The issues of leadership and of good governance are central to my position. What these terrible fires point to is that the leaders of our society, Victoria’s politicians and senior bureaucrats, have palpably failed to do the most fundamental thing expected of them: to safeguard Victorian lives and the Victorian environment in the face of an obvious threat. They have failed to discharge their duty of care. Just as we now look back with incredulity at the amateurish strategies of the Generals in The Great War of 1914-1918, so will future Australians look back on the work of those responsible for land and bushfire management in this country (our bushfire Generals) in the years leading up to The Great Fires of 2003-2009.

The toll of the 2009 Victorian fires is shocking. Over 200 lives — lost. Thousands of homes — destroyed. Millions of dollars worth of social and economic infrastructure — reduced to ashes. The work of generations, the farmlands, stock, fences, woolsheds, yards and pastures -– dead and gone. Native animals and birds — killed in their millions. Beautiful forests – cooked, in some cases stone dead. Catchments -– eroding. The costs –- multi-millions of dollars. Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere –- the equivalent of a year’s supply for the whole of Australia. Psychological damage to children and families –- uncountable.

Our bushfire Generals… those Premiers, Ministers and senior bushfire bureaucrats in whom the people of Victoria put their trust… can have no excuses.

They cannot say they didn’t know we have serious bushfires in Australia. This is no soft, green island where no bushfire ever burns. Australians have not arrived only recently in this hot, dry sclerophyllous land. Even if we overlook for a moment the fire management experience of Aboriginal people, accumulated over 40,000 years or so, non-Aboriginal Australians have been here for over 200 years, with 200 fire seasons, thousands of hot, dry and windy days, dozens of prolonged droughts, tens of thousands of thunderstorms, millions of lightning strikes, and hundreds of thousands of bushfires. This is no new or unique phenomenon. [Note 1]

They cannot say the impacts of intense bushfires on human communities were unimaginable. We have known for 200 years that European settlement represented the insertion of a fire-vulnerable society into a fire-prone environment. We have seen the consequences of mixing hot fires and settlements on many… too many… occasions, to doubt the result. [2]

They cannot say that Australians are powerless in the face of the bushfire threat, that bushfires are “unstoppable”. From the earliest days of settlement, through to the evolution of the fire management systems developed by experienced land and forest managers in the 1950s and 1960s, we have known what is needed to minimise bushfire intensity and bushfire damage [3], even under extreme conditions. From at least the 1960s we have known how to build and maintain houses in fire-prone environments so as to optimise their survival.

They cannot say that the relationships between fire and the Australian bush are still unknown. There have been 200 years of observation and records and over 50 years of scientific research on this very subject. This experience and this research has confirmed that fire is not an alien visitor, but a natural part of Australian bushland ecosystems. The right sort of fire is an agent for rejuvenation, regeneration, recycling and bushland health, a stimulus for biodiversity. Fire is to the Australian bush as are the waves and tides to Australian seaweeds and marine life. It is the absence of fire, especially of mild fire, that is the real threat to the Australian bush, because the inevitable result is a landscape-level holocaust, from which it might take a century or more for recovery.

And they cannot say that they were not warned. Warnings have emerged from the aftermath of every damaging bushfire for the last 70 years or more… from inquiries, commissions and reports, from independent auditors and from land managers, bushfire scientists, foresters, farmers and firefighters. In recent years the warnings have come thick and fast. Magnificent books have been written on the subject [4]; there have been dozens of scientific papers and popular articles written by our very own world-respected bushfire experts like Phil Cheney. There have been detailed submissions by professional groups such as Forest Fire Victoria, the Bushfire Front and the Institute of Foresters of Australia. As recently as 2008 the Victorian Parliament undertook its own review and produced one of the best reports I have ever seen. Its key recommendations were simply… “noted” in passing.

Can anyone say that no clear lessons have emerged from the bushfire calamities of the past? Can anyone say they are unaware of the previous fires that have burned Australian farms, settlements and suburbs, incinerated our national parks, nature reserves, rangelands and forests, or scorched our northern savannahs? Did no-one notice all those bushfires over the years that cut power supplies, burned out bridges and roads, destroyed schools, churches and hospitals, interrupted or fouled water supplies, destroyed observatories and threatened species, plantations, orchards and vineyards?

No, there is no shortage of lessons. They have even flowed in, for those who should have listened and learned, from Greece, from Portugal, and from the western United States and Canada during the last few years.

Over and over again, the same words have rung out, the same message has been sent:

1. In our climatic zone with hot dry summers and periodic drought, and with our flammable vegetation and frequent lightning strikes, bushfires are inevitable.

2. If fuels are allowed to accumulate, bushfires in eucalypt forests rapidly attain an intensity that exceeds the human capacity to extinguish them, notwithstanding the most modern and massive suppression forces.

3. Communities and economic assets in the path of high intensity fires will suffer horrible damage.

4. But! Potential damage can be minimised by application of a fire management system that incorporates responsible planning, and high standards of preparedness and damage mitigation, especially fuel reduction.

5. And! We have a choice: fires are inevitable, but we can chose to have mild controlled fires, or ungovernable infernos.

No, our politicians and bushfire generals cannot say they have not been warned. They cannot say there were no lessons to learn. They cannot say the message had not been sent.

They can only say that it was not received, or that it was received but ignored. Neither excuse is acceptable.

So what are the explanations? Why were sound messages not received, or received but not acted upon? Why, after 200 years of experience and 50 years of world-leading research, after working examples of how to set up an effective system of bushfire management have been established… how was it possible that our political and bureaucratic leaders opted to adopt a bushfire system that does not work, that fails to protect Victorians from death, disaster and environmental calamity?

There are two answers.

1. The first is political. Put simply, in the last 25 years and when it comes to bushfire management, Australia governments have failed to govern. The focus of politicians has been on getting elected or staying in power, not in providing intelligent, tough and effective governance. This has led to political parties courting the preference votes of pressure groups and of city-based electors who are in the thrall of pressure group philosophies.

Despite the protestations of environmentalists over the last few weeks, there is no question that the influence of green activists at Federal, State and Local government levels has resulted in a steep decline in the standard of bushfire management in this country. Their influence is exemplified by two things: (i) opposition to prescribed burning for fuel reduction, resulting in unprecedented fuel build-ups in parks, forests and reserves close to population centres; and (ii) rural residential developments, in which developers and residents have been prevented or discouraged by environmentalist-dominated local councils from taking reasonable measures to ensure houses are bushfire-safe; and where people are living in houses in the bush where there is no effective enforcement by councils of building codes or hazard reduction. [5]

The situation where a Government fails to govern is, of course, made worse when communities and individuals fail to self-govern. People building houses and choosing to live in the bush also have a personal responsibility – to look after themselves and their neighbours. This responsibility, it seems to me, has also been discouraged by modern governments.

2. The second explanation is technical. In recent years many Australian bushfire authorities have been seduced by the siren call of technology. This has lured them into a fatal trap. Their assumption is that any fire can be contained so long as they get it early and then have enough hardware to throw at it. This approach arose in the United States in the years after World War II, and is thus known to Australian land managers as “the American Approach”.

The American Approach is fundamentally flawed. Fifty years of its application in the United States and ten years in Australia has demonstrated that no force of firefighters in the world, indeed the fire-fighting resources of the world could they be marshalled into one place, can stop a crown fire in heavy forest which is generating a jet-stream of spotfires downwind, each spot fire also landing in heavy fuels, and starting new crown fires. The best and the bravest men and women, armed with the most munificent, the most magnificent and the most expensive equipment, are totally overwhelmed [6].

This is a reality that still appears not to have penetrated the Australian bushfire Generals and our political leaders. Not only have we seen the American Approach increasingly supported in this country, and then watched as it invariably fails when pitted against multiple hot fires in heavy fuels… despite this!… it seems to have taken on a life of its own. Every year more money is poured into the purchase of super-expensive equipment, but the outcomes on the ground just get worse. As recently as last week, Australian emergency services experts were launching new and strident calls for more and more expensive technology, completely ignoring the need for preventative measures.

Adoption of the American Approach has been accompanied by an equally disastrous institutional re-arrangement: the progressive transfer of bushfire responsibilities on crown lands from land management agencies to the emergency services. In this scenario, beloved of politicians and bushfire Generals, the focus of funding is shifted from preparedness and damage mitigation to emergency response. What this means in practice is less emphasis on fuel reduction and more on building up fleets of water-bombers, tankers, and other high tech firefighting gizmos, an enormous paramilitary force (overseen by technocrats in Head Office) whose function is to put out fires after they start… but which is doomed to failure whenever they are faced with multiple fires burning in heavy fuels under hot windy conditions.

These new and deleterious institutional arrangements persist because they are supported by powerful vested interests. The emergency services have a vested interest in maintaining a huge fire suppression machine and in making every fire – even an inconsequential fire – an emergency. I have watched over recent years as they have created a state of dependence on their firefighting forces, which, when things go bad, they cannot deliver upon. And they have encouraged the belief in the public mind that all fire is bad and has to be suppressed or avoided.

Politicians also have a vested interest in the American Approach. It is easier and simpler to finance suppression systems than damage mitigation, and they can bask in the glow of measures which are highly visible to the public and the media, and give the impression that they are doing something useful, irrespective of the fact that it will not succeed under bad fire conditions. I ask you… how often have you seen a politician lighting the first match of a prescribed burn, compared with the occasions when you see them breaking the champagne over a newly purchased helicopter water bomber?

In saying this, I need to make an important point: I am not critical of the firefighters on the ground, professional and volunteer. I know these people, and I know them to be brave, resourceful and tough. I admire them unreservedly. But they are increasingly being asked by their own leadership to do the impossible.

But what of the assertions from groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society that because of global warming, big unstoppable bushfires are here to stay, and we might just as well get used to them. I totally reject this line of argument. It is an insult to human intelligence and to the human spirit. If the computer projections are correct and it does become hotter and dryer, this means we have to make even greater efforts at fire prevention, further improve our state of preparedness and take even more serious measures to minimise potential bushfire damage. The idea that there is nothing we can do in the face of global warming but retreat into the CFA shed and wait for the next fire to come at us over the horizon is defeatist and in the end, inhumane. And suggestions that everything will be OK if only Australians reduce their carbon dioxide emissions is surely an example of kindergarten-level thinking.

The need for mitigation of bushfire damage through fuel reduction by prescribed burning is absolutely central to effective bushfire management in dryland Australia [7]. I support the concept unequivocally, although I set some clear parameters: burning must be based on sound research into fuel characteristics, fire behaviour and fire effects; burns must be conducted professionally by trained personnel using the best-available burning guides; and every burn must be part of an overarching strategic approach, the carefully designed and constantly updated jigsaw known as the Strategic Burning Plan.

This is how it is done in Western Australia and could be done in Victoria. But even in WA the system slipped in recent years, as foresters battled to keep a fuels management program going in the face of cunning opposition from environmentalists and compliant politicians. WA has also seen an almost complete abandonment of effective bushfire management on private land over the last decade, with Local Government opting out and no-one else filling the vacuum. This is a situation people like me are trying to address as we speak. Would it not be better, we say to the WA government, to sort things out in advance, rather than after a disaster?

Nevertheless, 50 years of hard experience in Western Australia and world-class research [8] has demonstrated beyond argument that while fuel reduction by prescribed burning does not prevent bushfires, it ensures fires do less damage, and it makes them easier and safer to extinguish. In gambler’s terms, it shortens the odds in favour of the firefighter. In human terms, it means people living in bushland areas where fuels have been reduced, are less likely to be burnt to death than are people living amongst heavy fuels.

Victoria, New South Wales and to a lesser extent South Australia are years behind Western Australia when it comes to the critical business of fuels and fire management. There is no need for new research to demonstrate the value of prescribed burning, as some academics are suggesting [9]. The need is to apply existing knowledge in a vastly expanded prescribed burning program on the lands that burn. The need is to upgrade the fire skills of field staff in parks and forests so that they can handle burns confidently and efficiently. The need is to develop comprehensive planning and control systems to ensure burning is professionally carried out, and the results are properly monitored and recorded. Above and beyond all this is the need for governments to recognise these needs, to act on them and to support their staff in the field.

And here’s the rub. Based on history, you could be excused for asking will anything change, or will we see just another revolution of the bushfire cycle? [10]

My fear is that governments, however much they make the right noises, will in the end want to stay in office, and unless things change, this will mean pandering to those who (despite their current protestations) have consistently opposed responsible bushfire management.

My fear is that the forces who benefit from the status quo will already be marshalling their resources in its defence. These will include the bushfire Generals who will not want to lose their power and influence, or to see funding going to land management (which they do not control) instead of new helicopters, water bombers and tankers (which they do).

I fear that all-knowing academics from the Fenner School of Environmental Studies at ANU, and members of the Canberra and Melbourne intelligentsia will emerge from their leafy campuses to tell us that actually there is no problem at all… surely, everyone knows that killer bushfires are simply Mother Nature at work, or the planet’s revenge for our despicable environmentally-unfriendly behaviour. This line will be pushed over and again, helping to massage the consciences of politicians reluctant to make substantial changes to policies and practices which they think will be electorally unpopular [11].

Yes, I am fearful. But I am also hopeful (in a pessimistic way!) My intense hope is that this time things might change. Notwithstanding the whining of the effete intelligentsia, and opposition to change from the green bureaucracy, the powerful environmental groups and the emergency service chiefs, I think that this time it is going to be hard for the Victorian government to find excuses for doing nothing. In turn, I think that it is also going to be hard for State governments in NSW, SA, Tas and WA to ignore the carnage in Victoria and the fact that fingers are being pointed very directly at the politicians and their bushfire Generals.

I also think that the Federal Government might finally decide that it is high time they reviewed their approach, which is basically one of rewarding State governments for failed land management. And I think that a great many Local Governments are going to realise that the planning buck stops with them…. if they knowingly put people into danger through their town planning and environmental policies, and the people are then killed, they cannot escape accountability.

Finally, I think that this time, it will finally dawn on governments and their advisers that in the Australian bush if you do not manage fire, you cannot manage for anything else.

Think about that for a moment. In the Australian bush if you do not manage fire, you cannot manage for anything else.

It is all very well to say that the management objective for our parks, forests and reserves is “protection of biodiversity”, as most national parks agencies say these days. The trouble is, this objective cannot be achieved without first having put in place an effective bushfire management system. Where is the biodiversity today in those thousands of hectares of bushland without a green leaf to be seen, those “bare ruined choirs where no bird sings”?

It is the same in areas where the stated management priority is to protect water catchments. But to say this, and then adopt a strategy that allows fuels to build up until the day comes when the catchments are reduced to dead trees and ash — is blatantly self-defeating. And it is the same for every other land management objective, whether this be protection of aesthetics and lovely forest landscapes, protection of recreational areas, protection of commercial values and residential areas or the conservation of soil, remnant bushland on farms or threatened species.

Therefore, the first rule of land management in Australia is this: get your bushfire management right, or be prepared to lose the lot.

I started this paper with a reference to World War I, and the futility of the strategies adopted by the Generals throughout the first three and half years of the war. It is significant that the breakthrough in 1918, the new strategy, was designed by an Australian, indeed a Victorian, General Sir John Monash. The Monash strategy was based on firstly establishing clear priorities and unambiguous objectives - he knew exactly what he wanted from amongst the options of what could be achieved. It was based on excellent planning, anticipation of difficulties and attention to detail [12]. It was based on the advice of experts, men who had been at Gallipoli and in the trenches in France and Belgium, and who spoke from experience on the ground, not from ideology. Above all, Monash was not prepared to sacrifice human lives needlessly. With all of this behind them, the troops on the ground did the rest. Monash’s new approach provided the blueprint for the end to the slaughter on the Western Front.

What Australian bushfire management is crying out for is a new General Monash, a leader who understands that the current approach has failed and is doomed to continuing failure, that the influential advisers have no front-line experience. An effective new leader will know that if we clarify and properly rank our objectives, listen to the voices of experience and the lessons of history, and act accordingly, the odds favouring success will be massively shortened.

But the great General Monash himself would not succeed without the support of Prime Ministers, Premiers and Ministers, prepared to stand firm behind him when the Wilderness Society, the Canberra intelligentsia and the ABC current affairs people gang up on him. A good response to this lot might be “Sorry, mates, we are doing what is best for Australia and Australians, based on good science, experience and the word from the people who have most to lose”. Politically incorrect, of course, but it is the approach adopted when it comes to defence of the country against external enemies and national security, and which most Australians accept in that context.

Nor will a new general succeed without legislative and policy backing to enable land management agencies to win back the ground they have lost to the emergency services. Our parks and forests agencies must be empowered and resourced to manage fuels, indeed they must be required to do so, if necessary by legislation. Australia must abandon the American Approach, replacing it with an Australian Approach, a system in which equal weight is given to prevention and suppression, rather than trying, helplessly, to pile all our eggs in the suppression basket.

For any of this to happen our political leaders need to hear from the people whose lives and assets have been sacrificed or recklessly put at risk by the failed policies of the past. It is essential that the people who have suffered demand systemic change, not just window dressing, more helicopters and overseas firefighters. Unless they speak up, there is no chance they will be heard. Politicians will take the political way out [13].

I think we can say that the environmentalist approach to bushfire management, including reliance on aerial firefighting, has been given a very fair go. It has had a good test. Regrettably, and predictably, the results reveal that it has been a failure [14]. The excuses put forward, especially that fires are unstoppable because of global warming, are simply that: excuses. They do not allow for the capacity of intelligent humans to foresee a threat and to forestall it.

To conclude. The choices before us are straight-forward: do Australians, and especially Victorians, want our bushfire and land management planning done by professionals with front-line experience, or by campus intellectuals and ideologists? Is it smarter to manage bushfire fuels by burning them at times of our own choosing when conditions are mild, or to stand back, do nothing and risk being engulfed by fire at the worst possible time? If fires are inevitable, which is preferable: a controlled or a feral fire? And do we see humans as part of the ecosystem and plan accordingly, or do we see them as interlopers, as illegal immigrants in the Australian bush?

Do we opt for Wisdom or for Folly?

March 2009


1. The question of Aboriginal burning is still debated. According to the accounts of early explorers and settlers and to present-day Aborigines, pre-European burning was widespread and frequent. This information is rejected by environmentalists as “hear-say”. Western Australian ecologist David Ward has found a unique way to unlock the history of pre-European burning, through his study of fire scars on grass trees. Ward’s work in the jarrah forests of Western Australia, indicate that fire occurred there at intervals of 2-4 years, and combined with his understanding of fuel dynamics and fire behaviour, he concludes that these fires would have been of mild intensity and patchy. Academics from Melbourne University, without ever having worked in the jarrah forest, have dismissed Ward’s findings, preferring the print-outs from a theoretical computer model.

2. Not everyone agrees about the environmental impact of large intense wildfires. Dr Ross Bradstock who lectures to undergraduates at the Australian National University, has written in an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper that that there was no scientific evidence for the claims that millions of birds and mammals died, or that forest diversity was reduced in the Victorian Alpine fires in 2003.

3. Laura Meredith, writing of her home in Tasmania in 1840, records a time when her husband was away and bushfires were threatening her home. She discovered with relief that her husband had taken the wise precaution of burning the ferns over the whole of a wide span of the forest which surrounds us and thus the home was rendered safe.

4. The best book written on fire in Australia is Stephen Pyne’s Burning Bush (first published in 1991 and updated following the 2003/4 fires) but there are also numerous books on fire science and history, including the excellent Fire and Hearth by the anthropologist Sylvia Hallam. Hallam quotes Lort Stokes, a fellow traveller with Charles Darwin on the Beagle who watched as Aboriginal people near Albany carried out their routine burning of the bush, replacing (in Stokes’ words) fires of “ungovernable fury” with those of “complete docility”.

5. In the very week leading up to Victoria’s Black Saturday, Western Australian bushfire managers found themselves dealing with a Greens Member of Parliament who was threatening to organise a protesters’ camp in the bush to prevent a prescribed burn. The burn was planned to protect two local townships plus some very lovely forest from wildfire.

6. As Shakespeare pointed out: A little fire is quickly trodden out, but being suffered, rivers will not quench. Many of those who oppose prescribed burning believe that if we simply had enough firefighters, permanently waiting in the bush for fires to start, and able to tread on them at the instant of ignition, no large fires would ever occur. Firefighters regard this as impractical. In eucalypt forests carrying heavy dry fuels, a fire can become too fierce to allow direct attack by firefighters within minutes of ignition, indicating that the “treading out” approach would require several million firefighters on standby throughout Australian forests for several months of every year.

7. “Dryland Australia” is the bulk of the continent, outside the tropical rainforests of the north, some of the wet temperate rainforests of southern Tasmania, and coastal mangroves. It is the Australia that burns.

8. The Project Vesta research, a 10-year study completed in Australia in 2007, involved a collaboration of CSIRO, government agencies and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. It represents the most comprehensive and technically defensible bushfire research program ever carried out anywhere in the world. The results unequivocally support the value of prescribed burning as a means of reducing bushfire intensity, and puts forward new approaches to fuel measurement and characterisation.

9. “More research is needed” is the standard response of academics and scientists to any issue. This is because they depend on research grants to pay their salaries and expenses. In Australia the fundamental questions about fire behaviour and fuels management have already been answered, going back to the work by Alan MacArthur, Phil Cheney, George Peet and Rick Sneeuwjagt in the 1960s and 1970s, and on building design by the CSIRO going back to the Tasmanian fires of 1967 and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983. The pressing requirements today are for refining fire behaviour tables and developing prescribed burning guides for various forest types, in other words for applied or operational research which builds on current knowledge. This sort of work can only be carried out by bushfire experienced researchers in the field, not by theoretical analysts and computer experts in academia.

10. The Bushfire Cycle runs thus: first there is a disastrous bushfire. This is followed by inquiries, commissions and reviews and the system is greatly upgraded. Over subsequent years, the new system is so effective that there are no serious bushfires. Apathy and complacency set in, weirdo pressure groups arise, governments lose interest and funds and staff are reduced. The system degrades. Then there is another bushfire disaster and the wheel revolves once more.

11. According to the doyen of Canberra intellectuals Professor Clive Hamilton, speaking on ABC’s Radio National recently; “the most interesting thing about the recent Victorian bushfires has been the attacks on greenies.” Apparently he did not find the loss of over 200 lives as interesting as the ruffling of the feathers of a few environmental activists.

12. Les Carlyon in his magnificent book The Great War, notes that Monash’s final planning conference before the attack on Hamel in 1918 had an agenda of 133 items. Elsewhere it is recorded that the then-Colonel Monash, commanding Australian troops at Gallipoli in 1915, set up his command HQ thirty metres from the Turkish front trenches.

13. The fundamental issue, and the basis of the whole difficulty facing professional bushfire managers, is very well summed up by Jim Hacker, fictional Minister for Administrative Services in the television series ‘Yes Minister’: “There are times in a politician’s life when he is obliged to take the wrong decision. Wrong economically, wrong industrially, wrong by any standards – except one. It is a curious fact that something which is wrong from every other point of view can be right politically. And something which is right politically does not simply mean that it is the way to get the votes – which it is – but also if a policy gets the votes then it can be argued that that policy is what the people want. And, in a democracy, how can a thing be wrong if it is what the people will vote for?” The ultimate test for the Victorian government in the wake of the recent fires is whether or not it caves in to green demands on bushfire issues in order to win preference votes and stay in power at the next election. The ‘Yes Minister’ scenario, and past performances, suggests that they will fail this test, and will cave in, unless there is a dramatic outburst of political courage and responsible government.

14. It was notable that some of the worst of the recent fire damage in Victoria occurred in the dark, at night or under gale force winds when aerial waterbombers were grounded. This is consistent with my own experience. In 1978 I was the Officer in Charge in the karri forest in Western Australia during the Cyclone Alby bushfire crisis. The first thing we had to do as the cyclonic winds approached, was to ground all our aircraft and tie them down.

22 Mar 2009, 8:46pm
by Phil M.


I was there when Roger made the speech. In fact I ended up speaking at the meeting.

It was a great speech. Strangely enough we had been talking about a government’s duty of care before the meeting.

Managed to have a few words with Roger afterwards.



22 Mar 2009, 9:30pm
by Mike

Roger Underwood’s essay was delivered as a talk before the Stretton Group on March 9, 2009.

The Stretton Group is an apolitical, not-for-profit group established in December 2003 following the disastrous southeast Australian bushfire crisis in 2002/3. The Stretton Group comprises a disparate association of volunteers who support the protection of the natural environment through greater transparency of the public sector processes involved. Named after the respected Royal Commissioner into 1939 Victorian Bushfires, Justice Leonard Stretton, the group proposes that government managed national parks and forests should be provided with a balance sheet value which encapsulates the environmental, cultural and economic value of these assets.

The Stretton Group is committed to ensuring that our intergenerational responsibility is met by Governments committing appropriate funding to the maintenance of this public property – commensurate with its asset value. The Group advocates the preparation and publication of performance indicators which enable the public to assess the quality of the management being provided to the natural environment. This would bring publicly owned wilderness into line with reporting required for hospitals, schools and other public institutions. The Stretton Group is committed to ensuring that the public debate about conservation is conducted on a balanced and informed basis – which may often disturb political myths or common preconceptions about the present quality of environmental preservation.

For more about the Stretton Group, including some of the papers delivered at prior meetings, see [here, here, here]

23 Mar 2009, 10:14am
by Mike

Roger Underwood is Chairman of the Bush Fire Front [here]

The Bush Fire Front is a Western Australian voluntary organisation dedicated to protecting householders, farmers and forests from the ravages of bushfires. Our focus is the southwest corner of WA, where hundreds of thousands of people, valuable property, public assets and priceless forests are threatened by wildfire.

We are practical bushfire specialists, with hundreds of years’ accumulated experience in preventing bushfire damage to people, property and forests. We are a group of West Australians deeply concerned to prevent bushfire damage to people, lives and forests. Each of us has worked in bushfire prevention, bushfire science, fire planning, administration or operations for over 35 years.

We have one over-riding concern:

A catastrophic bushfire crisis is imminent in Western Australia unless decisive action is taken to avert it.By this we mean a Canberra-style disaster on the fringes of Perth or extensive damage to a major southwest town such as Bridgetown, Denmark or Margaret River. Alternatively, the disaster could be a major forest fire with large-scale loss of old growth karri forest, disastrous impacts on associated birds and animals, and pollution of water supplies.

Such a disaster is not just possible but highly probable.Our aim is to stimulate effective action to prevent bushfire disasters – to see that bushfire damage does not needlessly occur. We know that bushfire disasters can be prevented, and at much lower cost than the current approach to bushfire management.We are sounding this Fire Alarm because we do not want to have to give evidence to a Royal Commission or a Coronial Inquiry into loss of lives AFTER a bushfire disaster!

23 Mar 2009, 8:19pm
by Bob Z.


This is a wonderful essay and commentary. As you point out, it is (for the most part) as applicable for the western United States as it is for Australia. Underwood is to be commended and, hopefully, carefully listened to on both continents.

I was glad to see emergency wildfire management (rather than forest or fuel management) characterized as the “American Approach.” Such an approach works fine, by the way, when accompanied by massive clearcuts, as occurred here during the post-WW II housing boom. Massive clearcuts are basically an economical and efficient form of fuel management, however unsightly. When they were replaced by massive chunks of Wilderness, though, the bonfires began in earnest.

On the other hand, I’m afraid we have nothing to compare with Underwood’s “academics from the Fenner School of Environmental Studies.”

What do we call the nitwits who people our universities and federal agencies, declaring themselves “fire ecologists” or some-such, and blaming everything on “Global Warming” and “Natural Fire?” Couldn’t we begin calling them “academics from the Fenner School of Environmental Studies” as well? That would certainly be more civilized than tarring-and-feathering or other methods of social branding that come to mind.

Underwood has described these types and their motivations very well. Maybe their rationales and incompetencies aren’t technically “criminal,” but the unnecessary losses of lives and billions of dollars of resources needs to come to an end sometime, and certainly these people must be held morally responsible, if not legally, when that time comes.

At some point it becomes important that people be held responsible for their words and actions. Institutions and agencies, too.

23 Mar 2009, 10:09pm
by Larry H.

The academic types can no longer back up their opinions with sound science, and some of them are just realizing that these days. They now plug their ears and hope their epiphanies aren’t true. They continue to spout the anti-management mantras and known lies about catastrophic fires. Since they cannot accept the message, they attack the messenger.

There is also another class of people who only fight against “the man” to support their leftist agenda, at all costs. Even to the point of martyrdom of our forests. They believe that “global warming” is their ticket to the final defeat of “the man”. These people want to be told what to think and what to say because they do not have an original thought of their own.

25 Mar 2009, 3:56pm
by Richard Halsey

Mr. Underwood,

I appreciate your historical perspective, however, it might be helpful to use another episode in history to evaluate your current effort to use misconceptions to blame large wildfires on one variable or one group of people.

During the Crusades about 1,000 years ago a number of unfortunate misconceptions were also promoted in Medieval Europe to rally vast armies to rid the world of another perceived threat. The result was the destruction of thousands of lives and actions that still haunt us today, directly influencing the sadness that is occurring in the Middle East at this very moment.

Beware of pointing fingers at individuals or groups, such as environmentalists, and promoting overly-broad applications of an idea (the impact of past fire suppression practices) in pursuit of your goal. We all want the same thing - to protect lives, property, and natural resources from the ravages of wildfire. But to try an pin it on one issue is a serious mistake. And by proxy you are also blaming firefighters, because after all, aren’t they the ones who have been making the mistake of putting out all these fires while trying to save lives?

There are a multiple of reasons why Australia and the American West have suffered so many devastating wildfires over the past decade. Yes, past fire suppression has allowed SOME ecosystems to build up unnatural levels of fuel, but this is not the case for many others. The most devastating fires in America occur in southern California chaparral ecosystems where there is not an unnatural build up of fuel. In fact, if it had not been for fire suppression efforts, much of the chaparral still remaining in California would have been converted to weeds.

Please consider looking at the entire picture. While one certainly needs fuel for a fire to burn, it won’t burn unless local weather conditions and fuel moistures permit it. Having so many people on the landscape lighting fires, either on purpose or accidentally, is also a significant variable. They all work together.

Best of luck,


25 Mar 2009, 8:13pm
by Mike

Dear Rick,

How unpleasant it is to post your opinion on this or any other issue. I see that you still have that egregious ad hominem attack page where you excoriate a friend of mine and a great forest scientist, Dr Thomas M. Bonnicksen.

Now, I have refrained from payback in kind for many years, because I see no need to stoop to your ignorant and disreputable level. I trust that when people visit your site and see what kind of a clod you are, they will realize immediately that everything you know and say is wrong.

I suggest, and this is just a suggestion Richard, that you delete your vicious and unwarranted attack page and instead post an apology, and leave that apology up for at least as long as you have posted your venomous and frankly moronic aspersions against someone who is so completely above you and superior to you in every respect imaginable.

Until then, I see no need to entertain further stupidities from you or your ilk on my website.

Have a nice day.

25 Mar 2009, 9:04pm
by Larry H.

I’m sure that all of us will admit to mistakes made in the past. The now-distant past for overcutting, lack of slash disposal and the like. The Forest Service (and surely the Aussie equivalent) has had the tools of modern eco-system science and management for more than a decade. I’ve known what forests have needed for much longer than that.

The rise and fall of preservationism in the last 20 years has left our forests vulnerable to complete loss of all the benefits that are available for us humans. What we have left is precious and is at the highest risk of loss right now. Even higher risk than the rampant clearcutting that was once common in parts of the Pacific Northwest.

In the here and now, the shrinking preservationist base is willing to do nothing as our remaining forests die, rot and burn, except to go to court to ensure the destruction. They actually prefer that forests die in the public eye so they can continue to blame foresters in blanket attacks which are mostly unwarranted. They are fine with catastrophic fires, enhanced by people, so they can use dying forests to prove global warming/climate change. The simple act of returning forest densities back to historical levels is abhorrent to these preservationists.

Newly converted conservationists see the dangers stalking our forests but are afraid to back scientifically-sound forest management. They still choose to side with the extremists because they don’t have the scientific mindset to see the unhealthy overstocking at the heart of the problems. Warming temperatures alone don’t doom our forests.

Sadly, forests will continue to disappear unless scientific sanity reclaims the moral and legal high ground. Again, we need to put those in power on notice that this continued hands-off disaster is destroying forests and not “renewing” them.

27 Mar 2009, 3:30pm
by MikeB

Mr. Underwood-

I wish it were that easy. The solution will be a complex one that incorporates many different approaches in different places.

The forests will come back and we can call wildfires whatever we wish- disasters,human stupidity, etc. but unless people adapt to the landscape in which they live, wheither it’s through the use of fire or living underground like most of the critters that can’ t out run a fire in Australia, then there will be more dark days ahead for the land downunda.

It’s the people’s relationship to the land- social science if you will, not a new fire behavior calculation that will change the dynamic on the ground.

Combustion on planet Earth has reached a new and unknown frontier, in which the CO2 loading is no longer just a ballanced equation of photosynthesis minus natural fire occurance equals no problems. Burning stored carbon on the surface of the planet now combines with burning the carbon that has been stored for millenia in the lithosphere. The earth has finally reached the limits of it’s ability to absorb the CO2 that was never a part of the overall carbon equation.

While life above ground requires fire for it’s survival, we may have created the ultimate catch-22 by tapping the carbon from underground to power our societies.

Good luck in your battle with the forces of evil, may the fire force be with you, at least until wildfire becomes the least of your worries.

27 Mar 2009, 4:00pm
by Mike

But Mike, current atmospheric CO2 levels are not a new frontier. If anything, the current 380 ppm is one of the lowest levels in geologic history. In prior epochs CO2 concentrations were as much as 10 to 15 times what they are today.

CO2 does not burn, of course. It is a product of combustion, not a precurser.

Above ground life does not depend on fire for survival. That’s sophistry. In fact, it’s the other way around: above ground fire depends on life to generate fuels. Without life, specifically photosynthesis, there would be no wildfire because there would be no fuels. Furthermore, fire is a killer, not a bringer of life.

What Dr. Underwood suggests, and I wholeheardedly concur, is that we must manage the biota or wildfires will be catastrophic and deadly.

It is not satisfactory or tenable to ask humanity to to live underground. I am quite sure you don’t! That particular social solution is ridiculous.

Indeed, social solutions to what is essentially a biological problem must address biology if they are to be useful. It is biology that makes fuels. Rational solutions to the fire problem must incorporate biology.

Sadly, U.S. forests are no longer managed by biologists. The fire community has supplanted foresters. The latter are trained, practicing biologists; the former are not. Land management decisions are being made by people with no understanding of biology, and as a result, no understanding of the fire crisis, either.

27 Mar 2009, 5:53pm
by Bob Z.

MikeB makes a good point, among the others he has stated: “but unless people adapt to the landscape in which they live” etc.

That is the point, and one Underwood stresses — people HAVE adapted to the landscape, and have done so successfully for thousands of years. They have done so by managing the plants (”fuels”) and animals that define the landscape. Fire precedes, shapes, maintains, and follows. Why we have deviated from that path in recent times is a puzzle for politicians and social scientists, and a tragedy for our forests and rural communities.

Underwood is simply preaching common sense, common history, proven practices, and applied science. Why that is such a difficult thing to understand is a mystery. Why these practices are not being followed seems to totter between obstinacy, idiocy, and conspiracy. I, for one, can’t figure it out.

29 Mar 2009, 12:33am
by Phil

Rick, study the history of the Crusades and Islamic expansionism before you make silly analogies. If Europe had not responded to the Islamic threat you’d be making a pilgrimage to Mecca at some stage.

For myself, mate, I’d rather not. And I’d rather not find myself making pilgrimages to various sites where friends and countrymen perished in needless holocausts created by politically motivated green forest management.

The greens, Rick, the greens — you know, those fascist hippies — are just as expansionist as early Islam, and if you don’t believe me look how many national parks have been created in Australia in the past two decades. And when you’ve done that, have a look at how they’ve burned and reconsider your reaction to Roger Underwood’s speech.

29 Mar 2009, 10:34am
by Bob Z.


The same points can be made about our “Wilderness” areas in the western US.

1) See how many have been created in the past two (and four) decades -

2) And see how they’ve burned.

Why the American public so ardently supports this form of trashing and destroying our forests and heritage at such great cost seems a mystery. It must be pointed out, though, that the “greens” are invariably a product of multiple generations of urbanites, and rarely a product of (or resident) of rural areas.

Apparently, when greenies want some “alone” time in a park or wilderness, they don’t really care (or know the difference?) whether it’s in a “sustainable” or “healthy” condition, or not, or is in a state of serious decay, degradation, or damaged nearly beyond repair. Just so they can have an “experience” with some “solitude,” apparently.

These people need to be revealed, held accountable, and then stopped. But how?

The problem in the US is identical to the problem in Australia, but we have been fortunate to have avoided mass fatalities for the past century.

Please keep up the vigilance and good work!

29 Mar 2009, 11:15am
by Mike


Most of the “greens” I know have never set foot in a wilderness area, couldn’t tell the difference between a pine tree and a fir tree, and support their “cause” for political reasons, not ecological.

That is, they couldn’t care less what happens to the environment as long as their political party is in power. And their political bent is a dilettante form of Marxist-anarchism, a sort of Park Avenue Communist collectivism that is at odds with their actual lifestyle.

Just as delusions of Bambi rule their environmental thinking, so do delusions of Socialist Utopia cloud their political judgments. The great mass of Greenbeans live in dystopic unreality, blind and/or indifferent to the tragedies they inspire.

29 Mar 2009, 12:30pm
by Larry H.

I’ve seen over and over and over that eco’s haven’t (and don’t even plan to) visit wilderness areas. Just “knowing that they are there” is enough for them to feel like the natural world is doing just fine.

Using the greenies reasoning, applied to other parts of our society, we should ban all air conditioners because they are damaging to our environment. If it is too hot for an area’s citizens, they should move somewhere they won’t need air conditioning. Similarly, all people who live along major rivers shouldn’t have levees to protect them from floods. Let the heat, humidity and flooding rivers run wild because that is “natural” and people shouldn’t live there if they can’t live in harmony with nature. That is EXACTLY how they are treating people who choose to live in and near Federal forests.

29 Mar 2009, 12:48pm
by Mike

Yes, ban air conditioners.

Also ban: logging, boards, concrete, housing, roads, clothing, food (especially meat), books, TV and radio, guns, medicine, children, schools, and everything!

Ban civilization! Let’s all live like animals!

Bottom line: Ban the Human Race. That’s the be all and end all of the Extreme Luddite Anti-Human Movement.

31 Mar 2009, 2:52pm
by MikeB


While current atmospheric CO2 levels are not a new frontier in geologic terms- they are in human terms. Of course the fuels will need to be managed -especially around human settlements, but insurance companies also need to be part of this equation. Yes I was somewhat tongue in cheek when I mentioned living underground. I was simply speaking about adapting to where you live. You can cut from now till doomsday and still not change the flammability everywhere in Australia. For one thing- Eucalyptus loves fire and resprouts with blind abandon.

Actually here in the US everything is managed by Biologists. That’s why we can’t pass wind unless we have an environmental assessment. Many biologists are those Bloody Greenies. It’s the foresters who still know which side their bread is buttered on. Especially in the woodlots of the Southern US. However with the changing climate even the woodlots of the South are beginning to burn- and they are managed (by foresters-with driptorches). I don’t disagree with Mr. Underwood, I am simply pointing out that sociology and not particularly forestry is what will make our societies more resilient to fire as disturbance.

31 Mar 2009, 3:28pm
by Mike

Fuel management may not control flammability, but it can and does control fire intensity and rate of spread.

The essential tool or element in fire suppression is to control the fuels. Wildland firefighters cannot do anything about the oxygen in the air, nor can they do much about the heat (of ignition) during a fire. But they can manipulate fuels with pulaskis, dozers, water and retardant, and backburning.

Fuel breaks and reduced fuel zones can be lifesavers as well as forest savers. That is why we promote restoration forestry — because we at W.I.S.E.know that fires in prepared forests are so much easier to control and do so much less damage to the environment.

We also promote defensible space, both around homes and to the limits of the watersheds (or firesheds).

And we have pointed out numerously that fire management decisions, such as invoking wildland fire use (WFU or whoofoo), are made without the slightest nod toward NEPA or any other biological assessment. Yes, Congressionally mandated fuel management under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act has been subjected to a firestorm of lawsuits. Those lawsuits are not about biology per se; they are about sabotage of the environment via catastrophic fire. And when fires are burning, the decisions are made by fire personnel from far away and with no familiarity or expertise regarding the forests aflame.

There are eminently workable solutions to this crisis, as Roger Underwood points out. For a perspective closer to home, I suggest:

Missouri Compromise by Dr. Stephen J. Pyne [here]

For addition discussion regarding the competing fire paradigms of engineering, biology, and culture, I suggest:

The Wrath of Kuhn: Meditations on Fire Philosophy also by Dr. Stephen J. Pyne [here]

20 Apr 2009, 8:52pm
by YPmule

Excellent piece. Will be passing the link to this ‘essay’ to everyone in my address book!



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