6 Sep 2010, 2:43pm
The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Final Report Issued on Deadly 2009 Victoria AU Fires

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has presented their Final Report to the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC. A copy of the report can be viewed or downloaded [here].

In February 2009 wildfires ravaged the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia. 173 people were killed and 2,133 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.”

An Interim Report [here] was released a year ago containing 51 recommendations focused predominantly on changes to be implemented prior to the 2009–10 bushfire season.

The Final Report contains an additional 67 recommendations which will now be considered by the Victorian Government and others.

Some (not all) previous posts on the 2009 fires and related matters are [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here].

Some excerpts from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report:


The bushfires of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, caused the death of 173 people. Black Saturday wrote itself into Victoria’s history with record-breaking weather conditions and bushfires of a scale and ferocity that tested human endurance. The lives of many Victorians were changed forever, and many showed they are capable of deeds of great courage and compassion. Although some communities were physically destroyed, their members also displayed ingenuity, strength and resolve in the face of this calamity. There was also widespread devastation of considerable areas of the scenic forests and woodlands that form part of Victoria’s natural heritage.

Eighteen months later, the landscape is healing, flora and fauna are returning, and individuals and communities are getting on with rebuilding their homes and lives. We acknowledge the losses—of family, friends, fellow citizens, homes, gardens, animals, and the many other things that people hold dear. We have seen the pain people have endured and continue to bear, and we know it will be a long road to full recovery for many. Bushfire is an intrinsic part of Victoria’s landscape, and if time dims our memory we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to learn from the experiences of Black Saturday and improve the way we prepare for and respond to bushfires.

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was an important part of ensuring that those lessons are clearly defined and learnt. The Commission conducted an extensive investigation into the causes of, the preparation for, the response to and the impact of the fires that burned throughout Victoria in late January and February 2009. As Commissioners, we concentrated on gaining an understanding of precisely what took place and how the risks of such a tragedy recurring might be reduced.

In our deliberations we ensured that the voices of affected community members were heard. Our priority was to listen to people directly affected by the fires. We also ensured that the Commission’s processes were firmly based in the community through open hearings (including in regional towns), web streaming so that people could listen to the hearings over the internet, public submissions, the participation of lay witnesses, the creation of the Black Saturday Gallery, and the participation of family and friends in hearings about people who died as a result of the fires. This access will continue: the Commission’s website will remain active, and all the Commission’s documentation will be available at the Public Records Office of Victoria.

This report is an important part of securing the memory of the fires. The first volume describes the origins and course of the 15 fires that wrought the greatest harm on 7 February and the response to them. It also tells the stories of the 173 people who died. Volume II looks at what lessons can be learnt from these experiences—how we can reduce the risk and impacts of fire and minimise fire-related loss of life in future. Volume III reports on the Commission’s administration and processes. Volume IV reproduces the statements of the 100 lay witnesses who gave personal accounts of their experiences in the fires in late January and February and in their aftermath. The stories told by these people grounded our work. They continually reminded all at the Commission that bushfires deeply affect people and communities and that their needs and safety must be at the forefront of government policy.

The recommendations we make give priority to protecting human life, and they are designed to reflect the shared responsibility that governments, fire agencies, communities and individuals have for minimising the prospect of a tragedy of this scale ever happening again.

We offer this report to the Governor and the people of Victoria.

The Hon. Bernard Teague AO, Chairperson

Ronald McLeod AM, Commissioner

Susan Pascoe AM, Commissioner

Planning and building

In all, 2,133 houses were destroyed as a result of the January–February 2009 bushfires in Victoria. The Commission heard many accounts of people who tried to defend a well-prepared house and failed. Many of the 173 people who died as a result of the fires had been trying to defend their home, a number of which had been prepared in accordance with CFA advice. These results demonstrate that where people live, the standard of the buildings in which they live, how those standards are maintained and, therefore, planning and building controls are crucial factors affecting safety in a bushfire.

The protection of human life should always be the overriding objective. Although it is not possible to guarantee that any building will survive a bushfire, particularly a ferocious one, the Commission considers that there are some areas where the bushfire risk is so high that development should be restricted. …

Further, building regulations do not adequately cover the construction of non-residential buildings used by vulnerable groups—for example, schools, hospitals, child care centres and aged care facilities—in bushfire-prone areas. The building regulations need to contain specific standards for the construction of such buildings. …

Applying land-use planning and building controls to minimise or reduce bushfire risk presents challenges. In particular, the planning and building systems operate prospectively and have little capacity to deal with past decisions and existing settlements or buildings in bushfire-prone areas, so they cannot account for people who are already living in areas of extremely high risk. The Commission therefore proposes that action be taken to help people move away from those areas where other bushfire risk-mitigation measures are not viable. In particular, the State should develop and implement a voluntary retreat and resettlement strategy—including non-compulsory land acquisition—for existing developments in areas at unacceptably high bushfire risk. …

Land and fuel management

Prescribed burning is one of the main tools for fire management on public land. It cannot prevent bushfire, but it decreases fuel loads and so reduces the spread and intensity of bushfires. By reducing the spread and intensity of bushfires, it also helps protect flora and fauna. Ironically, maintaining pristine forests untouched by fuel reduction can predispose those forests to greater destruction in the event of a bushfire.

About 7.7 million hectares of public land in Victoria is managed by DSE. This area includes national parks, state forests and reserves, of which a large portion is forested and prone to bushfire. DSE burns only 1.7 per cent (or 130,000 hectares) of this public land each year. This is well below the amount experts and previous inquiries have suggested is needed to reduce bushfire and environmental risks in the long term.

The Commission recognises that prescribed burning is risky, resource intensive, available only in limited time frames, and can temporarily have adverse effects on local communities (for example, reduced air quality). Nonetheless, it considers that the amount of prescribed burning occurring in Victoria is inadequate. It is concerned that the State has maintained a minimalist approach to prescribed burning despite recent official or independent reports and inquiries, all of which have recommended increasing the prescribed-burning program. The State has allowed the forests to continue accumulating excessive fuel loads, adding to the likelihood of more intense bushfires and thereby placing firefighters and communities at greater risk.

The Commission proposes that the State make a commitment to fund a long-term program of prescribed burning, with an annual rolling target of a minimum of 5 per cent of public land each year, and that the State be held accountable for meeting this target. DSE should modify its Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land so that it is clear that protecting human life is given highest priority, and should report annually on prescribed-burning outcomes.

To ensure continuing environmental protection, the State needs to improve its understanding of the effects of different fire regimes on flora and fauna. The Commission proposes that DSE expand its data collection on the effects of prescribed burning and bushfire on biodiversity. Maintenance and extension of data collection on Victoria’s flora and fauna assets has not been a high priority. It needs to be improved so that more informed and scientifically-based decision making can accompany the development of prescribed-burning regimes that meet conservation objectives as well as accommodating bushfire safety considerations.

Organisational structure

In the Commission’s view, a disaster of the scale of 7 February will always put pressure on organisational processes and structures. In this case it highlighted serious deficiencies in top-level leadership as a result of divided responsibilities, and the operational response was hindered by differences between agencies’ systems, processes and procedures. Individually, the problems identified might be resolved by changing working arrangements between the CFA and DSE, and work is already under way towards this. But, when considered collectively, the problems illustrate systemic failings that led the Commission to contemplate organisational change. The Commission does not consider that the shortcomings identified in connection with Black Saturday can be overcome simply by doing more of the same, even if it is done better.

In weighing the various opinions, the Commission was not convinced by the State’s view that structural change is not needed and that the focus should be on refinement of existing arrangements. For many of the operational problems the Commission identified, previous attempts to improve coordination have failed. Typically, progress has been slow or incomplete or has not achieved the level of interoperability required. Neither is the Commission persuaded that radical reform, such as moving to a single fire service, is necessary or desirable at this time. There might be an intuitive attraction to merging agencies, but there is a risk that the merger itself becomes the primary focus of effort, which could easily distract attention and focus from the operational improvements the Commission considers to be the priority. …

The Commission also looked at the funding of fire services. Fire services in Victoria are currently funded through a mix of contributions from insurance companies, the State and municipal councils. Insurance companies recoup the cost of their statutory contribution to the CFA and the MFB by imposing a Fire Services Levy on insurance premiums for building and contents insurance.

The current model’s claimed benefit is that the insurance premium is a good way of linking the charge for fire services to the fire risk of individual properties. Evidence suggests, however, that this link is at best tenuous. Fundamentally, the Commission considers that the current funding model lacks transparency and is inequitable since people who are not insured or are under-insured do not make a fair contribution to the funding of fire services.

The Commission takes the view that the lack of equity and transparency in the current arrangements constitutes a good reason for moving to another system. Several other Australian states and territories already require all property owners to contribute to fire services via a levy on property, as opposed to insurance, and the Commission proposes that Victoria also move to replace the Fire Services Levy with a property-based levy.

Research and evaluation

Governments need to invest more in bushfire research to enable Australia to rebuild the capacity it once had as a leader in this field. The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (initiated by Australian and New Zealand fire and land management agencies, their research partners and the Commonwealth Government) contributes to this effort. Overall, the Bushfire CRC has made gains in re-establishing a community of researchers and has consolidated the research agenda, but it does not meet all research needs. To a large extent its research program is determined by its stakeholders (which has resulted in a focus on applied research) and its funding cycle and thus its research projects have been relatively short term. Commonwealth Government funding for the Bushfire CRC is due to expire in 2013.

A permanent national centre for bushfire research is needed with reasonable surety of long-term funding. In developing the model for such a body, governments should consider incorporating the following features:

* pure and applied research as well as long-term research projects

* strong governance arrangements—including research independence

* the location of the research centre, preferably in Victoria

* a balanced focus that includes physical, biological and social research

* links with teaching and promotion of graduate scholarships

* cross-institutional and jurisdictional collaboration

* international collaboration and sharing of knowledge

* the research priorities highlighted in evidence before the Commission.

The Commission’s work revealed a number of research gaps and priorities. Some were raised by expert witnesses; others became apparent when the Commission was conducting its analysis. These gaps are a good starting point for considering short- and long-term priorities for bushfire research in Australia. They include the following areas:

* the effects of prescribed burning and bushfire on biodiversity and on reducing bushfire risk

* the establishment of databases to map Victoria’s flora and fauna, to register Victoria’s fire risk and to identify its bushfire-prone areas

* the extent of deliberately lit bushfires and the causes of fire-setting behaviour

* the long-term effect of trauma resulting from the experience of bushfire

* the effects of fire activity and smoke on radio communications

* the extent of road deaths in bushfires, including use of cars as shelters in bushfires

* house defendability in extreme conditions

* the circumstances of the thousands who survived the Black Saturday bushfires by leaving early or late or by defending their homes or sheltering

* the shelter options—including factors affecting the safety of different places of shelter and particularly motor vehicles in the open, dams, pools, creeks and water tanks.

In addition to this, the Commission invites the Commonwealth to take the initiative on two matters outside the proposed research framework. The first is to consider the development of nationally acceptable bushfire terminology. It became apparent during the Commission’s hearings that a number of bushfire-related terms are cumbersome, have obscure meanings or are potentially confusing to the general public. The second matter arises from there being no agreed methodology for estimating the cost of bushfires. The Commission experienced difficulty performing its analysis because of the lack of data and the absence of an agreed methodology for estimating various costs. This is a deficiency in the nationally available bushfire information and an area in which further collaborative work is warranted.

Finally, if fire agencies are to lift their capability and performance and improve the response capacity of individuals and communities, they need to become true evidence-based learning organisations. The Commission proposes that the fire agencies adopt and fund a culture of reflective practice that routinely pursues current research, searches for best practice, and habitually evaluates policies, programs and procedures with a view to improving internal practice and that of the communities they serve. Policy—especially in an area such as bushfire safety—needs to be reviewed and evaluated periodically, with the results of such review and evaluation being used in the development of policy and program improvements.



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta