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Fire experts say hazard reduction burns help but not the solution

Mr Barilaro’s submission said hazard reduction and traditional ecological burns are “under-utilised” and burn activities should be “prioritised to a level appropriate for the risk”.

“Where there is great risk due to weather, fuel load, population etc the intensity of the burn activities should increase,” the submission stated.

RFS firefighters getting ready to defend properties in Bumbalong, NSW in February.

RFS firefighters getting ready to defend properties in Bumbalong, NSW in February.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It also says “inadequate access to public land, including wilderness areas of national parks, creates unnecessary barriers to bushfire prevention activities”.

However a separate, national inquiry into the recent bushfire season, the Royal Commission into National Natural Hazard Arrangements, heard on Tuesday from three top fire analysts who said that reducing fuel loads needed careful planning to ensure hazards did not actually increase if landscapes became more fire prone.

“One of the primary motivations for changing fire behaviour by manipulating fuel is to increase the potential for active suppression of the fire,” Ross Bradstock, head of the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, said.

“So by reducing fire intensity, for example, and reducing the rate of spread [and] reducing ember propagation, you are increasing the chance that people can get in there and work safely and suppress the fire.”

Professor Bradstock said there was clear evidence “the more you treat, the lower the risk” of house loss from fire, with the greatest benefit coming from burning near residential areas rather than in distant bushland. The practice, though, was more expensive given the resources needed to ensure fires remain controlled.

“If you want the most cost-effective strategy for protecting those assets or mitigating risk to those assets, then treatment in close proximity appears to be the best option at this stage based on the evidence,” he said.

The royal commission heard that while hazard reduction burning was an important approach to curbing fire risks, it also needed significant funding commitments.

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Kevin Tolhurst, an associate professor with the University of Melbourne’s Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, said “a lot of case studies [show] that areas that have been burnt one or two years previously, have a dramatic impact on the spread of fire.”

Over time, though, the bush grows back and “by the time you get to 10 or 11 years, the effect is largely gone”.

David Bowman, a professor with the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences, said some landscapes, particularly tall, wet forests, were not amenable to fuel-reduction efforts and yet, with the wrong weather conditions, “could burn terribly intensively”.

“So prescribed burning is generally, we’re talking about grassy systems, savannas, woodlands and dry sclerophyll forests, where we have this classical accumulation of fuel that can be burnt and maintained in different states and quite simple vegetation structures,” Professor Bowman said.

The researchers noted climate change, particularly if it results in the further drying out of Australia’s eucalypt forest, would increase the challenges for fuel modification efforts.

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