Lessons to be learnt from summer bushfire disasters

This article, written by Cameron MacDonald, Executive General Manager Australia, appeared in the Border Watch on 15 April 2020.

The world is focused on COVID-19 and well it should – but in the midst of this crisis we cannot forget the ramifications of the 2019/2020 bush fire season. We need to remember what happened in Kangaroo Island, Cudlee Creek, Kentbruck, Rennick and Keilira, and use the lessons from those tragedies to be better prepared. The reality is that bush fires will occur next summer. Further losses from fire in the Green Triangle would decimate the sector.

The risk of fire never goes away, yet we risk forgetting what even one month ago seemed so urgent. Prior to the full impacts of COVID-19 being felt, governments across Australia were ready to act and really reconsider how we look at fire preparedness and management. We urge governments to keep fire response a priority at this time.

Fire readiness is always a priority for OneFortyOne and every forest grower. Every day we prepare and plan for fire, prioritising fire readiness as a fundamental part of managing our forests.

Before we plant seedlings, we design the forest area with strategic breaks and setbacks from boundaries and structures. We then manage those fire breaks by slashing, ploughing, grading or spraying to maintain their effectiveness.

We train our forestry personnel in fire management and suppression techniques throughout the year, including ongoing training throughout the fire season. Last week forest industry fire crews put out two deliberately lit fires on the edge of plantation forest.

Throughout our response to COVID-19 we must keep one eye on fire readiness. We applaud the commitment of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements to deliver its findings on time. The independent review of the South Australian 2019/20 bushfire season has extended its submission deadline to account for people needing additional time in the midst of COVID-19.

We believe that stronger restrictions on activities that might lead to ignitions are needed on high fire danger days. Greater collaboration across the forest industry and fire agencies is critical. Better coordination between fire agencies and other stakeholders is needed to identify excessive fuel loads on private property; and determine how the fuel loads are managed going forward. Early detection of ignition and response will also have a significant impact on reducing fire damage. Early intervention with aviation resources provides the greatest opportunity to limit the extent of bushfires.  We need sufficient aerial bombers at times of peak fire activity. Implementing new technologies can fundamentally change the way fire is managed in the Green Triangle and there is an opportunity for the Green Triangle Fire Alliance to lead this change.

We encourage forest, timber and agricultural industries to participate in these processes and be open to consider new approaches. If we learnt anything this year it was that the traditional approaches to fire suppression are becoming less effective – the only real option is to either stop the ignition in the first place and if we can’t do that then at least starve the fire of any fuel to stop it gaining momentum.  

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