AU Royal Commission Interim Report Released

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission presented their Interim Report to the Victorian Lieutenant Governor on 17 August 2009. A copy of the report can be viewed or downloaded [here].

Last February wildfires ravaged the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia. Close to 200 people were killed and more than 2,000 homes incinerated. Termed “Black Saturday”, it was the worst fire disaster in Australian history, a history replete with fire disasters, most notably in 1939, 1944, 1969, 1977, 1983, 2003, 2005, and 2006.

A Royal Commission was formed to inquire, consult, and report on the fires and the fire suppression efforts associated with “an unprecedented loss of life, extreme property damage, and major community trauma and displacement.”

The Commission held 26 community consultations in 14 fire locations. Some 1200 people attended. Public submissions were invited and over 1200 submissions were received from people in fire-affected and unaffected areas, and from around Australia and overseas.

Interim Report contains 51 recommendations focused predominantly on changes that can be implemented prior to the 2009–10 bushfire season. An Implementation Plan will be issued by September 30, 2009, and a Delivery Report by 31 March 2010.

The Interim Report is critical of the warning and fire information system in Victoria and of the “Leave Early Or Stay And Defend” policy. That policy, which led directly to mass death, was recommended and promoted for use in this country by the US Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the National Association of State Foresters in their Quadrennial Fire Review 2009 issued last January [here].

The QFR advances new core strategies for reinforcing fire management’s role in ecosystem sustainability by developing strategic management response capabilities that are more flexible and agile and further in line with the national response framework. While continuing to promote the concept of fire-adapted human communities, the QFR outlines new strategies to realign fire governance by rethinking federal, tribal, and state and local roles and responsibilities for wildland urban interface fire prevention and protection. Tied to this mission strategy of building a new national intergovernmental wildfire policy framework, are specific strategy elements for developing community fuels reduction zones in the interface, supporting leave-early or stay-and-defend alternatives for property owners while working with communities to assure that community fire prevention regulations are in place along with adequate local response capability.

The massive failure of “Leave Early Or Stay And Defend” in Australia one month later has not yet entered into the consciousness of our federal land management agencies. It is hoped that the Royal Commission report will sink in here where it is also desperately needed. Generating mass death disasters is not good government, and our federal agencies should not barge blindly down that road.

From the Interim Report Executive Summary [here]:

An analysis of this policy approach against the background of the recent fires has led the Commission to conclude that there has been insufficient emphasis on the risks of staying and defending. Unquestionably the safest course is always to leave early. To stay may still be an appropriate option for some, particularly in less dangerous bushfires, but a number of conditions need to be satisfied.

To stay requires considerable effort to prepare a property and make it defendable. But some properties, because of their nature and locality, will not be defendable in extremely dangerous bushfires.

To defend a property successfully requires considerable physical effort and emotional strain. Often more than one person needs to be involved. It is a task for those who are physically fit and mentally strong. It is not a place for children, older people or the infirm.

Properties also need to have a range of auxiliary equipment to bushfire standards, and an ample water supply that will not be affected by a loss of mains power.

In addition, the concept of defendable space needs to be given stronger recognition as an important element in the range of bushfire protection policies and processes.

These messages need greater acknowledgement in the written publications, training and advice provided by the CFA.

The Commission has recommended that the emphasis of CFA community education literature and advice be changed and improved to more realistically acknowledge the risks of extremely dangerous bushfires.

For those who choose to stay and defend, the risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death.

The Interim Report also found that communication and warning systems were so inadequate that they could not cope during the disaster as emergency phone lines collapsed and information hotlines providing outdated advice.

Warnings were often delayed which meant that many people were not warned at all or the amount of time they had to respond to the warnings was much less than it should have been. The warnings that were issued often did not give people a clear understanding of the location and severity of the fire and how they should respond.

The methods of delivery of the warnings were also inadequate. Some techniques for raising awareness such as the use of an emergency warning signal to capture people’s attention when warnings are broadcast were not used. Similarly, other avenues for issuing and raising awareness of warnings were not encouraged, such as the use of local sirens or the use of commercial radio and television.

Finally, the sources of information and warnings that were available during the fire did not cope well with the level of demand. People had difficulty getting onto the relevant websites and about 80 per cent of the calls to the Victorian Bushfire Information Line were unanswered. Often the information available through these sources was incomplete or out of date.

The Interim Report did not address fuels management or forest treatments to reduce fire severity. This omission was despite the fact that more comments and expert submissions were received on this topic than any other. The Royal Commission is expected to include some discussion of forest stewardship in their final report due next July (after the 2009-2010 fire season).

The failure of the Interim Report to address fuels has raised some hackles:

Gaping black hole in fire report

by Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, August 19, 2009 [here]

THIS week’s interim report by the bushfires royal commission ignores the one thing most people writing to it said would save lives.

Not one of its 51 recommendations mentions fuel reduction burns.

That means we go into our next fire season, in just 70 days, without a word from this inquiry on what is probably our best hope of saving bush people from another inferno.

This inquiry admits it received 485 submissions from fire experts, foresters, residents and the plain frightened asking it to consider whether we do enough burning to rob fires of fuel.

Nothing was mentioned more often in submissions - not better warnings, fire refuges, the stay-or-go policy or anything else the commission’s report discusses, often with too little effective change to recommend.

(The more trivial recommendations: let’s call evacuations “relocations”; let’s stress, as if it were new, that our first duty is to save lives; let’s have a new scale of fire warnings with a category worse than “extreme”.)

It’s astonishing that the commission should say its recommendations on fuel reduction burns, on the other hand, must wait until next year. In fact, it’s put them below the green favourite of “climate change” on its to-do list.

Three things make this odd.

First, fire reduction burns clearly save lives. A brutal question: which parts of our forests are at least risk of burning this season? Answer: the bits burned out last summer.

Second, fuel reduction burns have been repeatedly identified by past fire inquiries as not just a life-saving strategy, but one we too often neglect, especially in these green days.

Here’s just some of the inquiries that warned we just hadn’t done enough burns: the 1939 royal commission into Black Friday; the 1984 Ash Wednesday inquiry; the 1992 auditor-general’s report; the 1994 CSIRO report on fire management; the inquiry into our 2002-03 fires; the 2003 report for Nillumbik residents on Kinglake; and the 2008 report by State Parliament’s environment and natural resources committee, which called for a tripling of reduction burns.

In fact, this royal commission is unique in presenting a report - albeit an interim one - that does not mention fuel reduction burns.

And here’s the third reason it should: it was clear too few such burns were done by the Department of Sustainability and the Environment in particular, especially in the areas that were worst hit on Black Saturday. …

Bushfires Royal Commission interim report ignores fuel issue – expert

Sarah Wotherspoon, Herald Sun, August 17, 2009 [here]

CHANGES laid out in the Royal Commission interim report won’t remove one major risk in fire season, an expert says.

The 51 recommendations in the report, released today, focus on establishing early fire risk warnings, relocation plans to include fire refuges and a reorganisation of fire services command.

While those recommendations will considerably help, it is dangerous to assume they will eliminate a known risk that turns small bushfires into out-of-control infernos, said David Packham, a former CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology forecaster of fire conditions.

“The fire doesn’t know who’s in charge and it doesn’t care,” he said following the release of the report.

Mr Packham said the overwhelming problem is the high fuel loads of wood and brush laying on the ground of Victoria’s forests.

But the commission made no recommendations about fuel reduction, despite the overwhelming number of submissions focusing on the need for greater back-burning.

“The state of the fuels leads directly to the state of the threat,” he said. “It will not be all right as we go into next season. It will be just as dangerous.”

Fuel reductions will be discussed in the second part of the commission’s hearings.

A report on those findings won’t be released until July 2010 - after this fire season. …

Fires burn fuels. Without fuels management, fires will be severe. Asking home owners to stay and defend their own homes with no assistance from government fire suppression services is homicidal. That the most deadly fires arise on unkempt, unmaintained government land is also homicidal behavior on the part of the federal government.

No forest stewardship and no fire suppression leads to mass death. That’s the lesson. Let us hope and pray our own government learns it.



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