Burning questions: Australia’s bushfire policy

Ian Brandes, Water Research Laboratory

Australia’s bushfire policies have been repeatedly scrutinised after devastating bushfire seasons. This year is no exception. Much recent media debate has focussed on the perceived lack of prescribed (or ‘hazard reduction’) burning carried out by natural resource managers. However, this criticism may be ideological. Criticism is also based on the misconception that prescription burning can halt bushfires in the very worst weather conditions. Solutions that protect Australian lives, property, and biodiversity are complex; but research and policy initiatives have made positive contributions.

A History of Bushfires and Responses

Payne (1991) notes that bushfires like those that raged over eastern Australia in the summer of 2002–03 have burnt for millions of years before human habitation. And for many thousands of years Aborigines have used fire as a resource management tool, to change the nature of their habitat. With fire, they were able to improve forest access, and increase the size of hunting grounds.

This history of fire changed the shape of Australia’s flora and fauna. Australia’s biodiversity is vast, so the changes wrought by fire are complex. They include the adaptation of bushfire landscapes towards more open vegetation, as sclerophyll eucalypt forest species survived bushfires where rainforest species died.

Australia’s recent history of bushfires is punctuated by intense and deadly events. Pyne’s (1991) account of our fire history includes the 1939 ‘Black Friday’ bushfires that raged across eastern Australia, killing 71 people. Fires scorched New South Wales in the 1951–52 and 1957–58 summer seasons, and in Tasmania, fires in 1967 killed 62 people. In the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires of 1983, flames spread across South Australia and Victoria, fanned by winds gusting at up to 110 kilometres per hour. The destruction concluded twelve hours after it began, with 71 deaths. Fires hit coastal New South Wales and Sydney suburbs in 1994, and again in 2001–02 where 753,000 hectares of bush and grassland were burnt. And in 2002–03 fires raged in New South Wales, followed by the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.

The long-term regularity of these extreme fire events is evident. They are driven by extreme weather conditions, and the destruction on the 18 January is no exception. After an extended drought, hot dry winds gusting at over 100 kilometres per hour fanned ferocious fire fronts into Canberra’s western suburbs. Four people lost their lives and over 500 homes were destroyed (Seccombe 2003).

Devastating fire seasons have prompted legislative reform aimed at addressing the bushfire threat. In New South Wales, The Bush Fire Act of 1949 provided the mechanisms for the formation of effective volunteer brigade forces. A surge in bushfire research lent scientific justification to the practice of prescription burning. Controlled fires were routinely lit, typically in the winter months, to reduce combustible vegetation loads and thus reduce the risk of summer bushfires. This practice increased throughout the 1960s, as did concern for environmental issues.

Australia's recent history of bushfires is punctuated by intense and deadly events.

An appreciation of Australia’s bushland environments led many Australians to build homes near bushfire-prone regions, such as on the bushland fringe of major cities and in coastal and mountain areas. Ecologists now competed with foresters as experts on fire, and questioned the environmental consequences of systematic prescription burning. Urban residents questioned the health effects of smoke from prescription burn fires.

An increasing polarisation of bushfire debate developed along ideological grounds. Those concerned about the environmental effects of too-frequent fires questioned the motives of those intent on widespread and frequent hazard reduction burning. This polarisation continues today, and is reflected in statements made in the aftermath of this season’s bushfire crisis. Rob Anderson from the New South Wales Farmers Federation recently claimed that there is an ‘extreme green element … saying “lock everything up, throw the key away and let it all go back to nature”’ (McKey 2002). Others, such as The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, attribute this perceived lack of hazard reduction burning to plain neglect: on her view, Premier Bob Carr ‘has presided over seven years of green-inspired neglect of proper fire management of bushland in New South Wales’ (McKey 2002). At a time when the total area of National Parks in New South Wales has increased, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS) has been strongly criticised for failing to embrace hazard reduction burning policies. Channel 9 commentator Alan Jones claimed that ‘Premier Carr has doubled the total area of national parks and reserves in New South Wales to almost six million hectares but at the same time fire hazard and reduction burn-offs by national parks and wildlife have halved’ (McKey 2002).

Prescription Burning Practices

Contrary to the perceptions of critics, organisations such as the NSW NPWS are committed to hazard reduction burning and other risk reduction activities. However, the NPWS has opted for a more precise and strategic burning strategy, as opposed to broadacre burning. This includes burning strategic ridge-tops, or land adjoining high value assets and properties — and for this they claim success. The NPWS point out that only nine per cent of fires that began in national parks or reserves escaped park boundaries, yet 22 per cent of fires that affected national parks started outside them (Seccombe 2003). However, such strategic hazard reduction practices don’t lead to high hectares-burnt-per-year statistics.

Polarisation of bushfire debate developed along ideological grounds.

Strategic prescription burning operations are developed to address concern about the environmental and economic sustainability of frequent broadacre fires. Prescription burns are resource intensive, and are more difficult in areas where there is complicated and steep topography. They must be carried out in ideal weather conditions, and they require detailed planning. The importance of these factors is most evident in the contrast between the successes of prescribed burning operations in Western Australia compared to Victoria. The completion rate of prescription burns in Western Australian forests is significantly greater than inVictoria, because Western Australian forests occur in areas of mainly gentle topography, experience much more predictable weather patterns, and are usually dry enough in winter for prescribed burning. In contrast, large portions of eastern Australian forests are too wet for prescribed burning.

When carried out in less than ideal conditions, prescription burning operations can end tragically. In June 2000, four people involved in a prescribed burning operation at Mt Kuring-gai in New South Wales were killed as fire overran their positions. A back-burning operation in 2001 at the Goobang National Park in New South Wales destroyed 16,000 hectares off farming property, and has led to legal action against the NSW NPWS (Brown and Crichton 2002).

The case against too-frequent broadacre burning is also made on environmental grounds. As land clearing and land degradation significantly impacts on Australia’s biodiversity, natural resource managers must consider the effects of prescribed burning on local ecology. Fire has extremely complex effects on biodiversity because of the number of interdependent species existing in various environments. More research is needed in this area. Ecologists such as Malcolm Gill (1994) have cautioned that environments which have been frequently burnt suffer considerable loss of biodiversity. And as our environment has changed since pre-European times, so should our fire management objectives. Ecologist Dianne Simmons (1994) cautions against trying to mimic the fire regimes of pre-European settlement times. As present-day fauna and flora populations are much reduced compared with pre-European times, it is now much more important to preserve the remaining biodiversity.

The final argument against frequent broadacre burning policies is their limited effectiveness. Pyne (1991) argues that, under the worst weather conditions, prescription burning fails to effectively control fire fronts. The NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, echoed similar sentiments when faced with criticism after the 2002 fires: ‘Unless you’re going to keep all of New South Wales hazard reduced to a point where there is no fuel on the ground…we’re going to have fires’ (McKey 2002).

The environment has changed since pre-European times, so should fire management.

Research at Morton National Park in New South Wales supports this view. The NSW NPWS developed and applied a computer model to a fire that burned throughout the Morton National Park. Using fire parameters derived from field and laboratory data, the model was able to predict the location of a fire front that raged across the park in 1983. At a subsequent coronial enquiry, the NPWS showed that if they had carried out a best-case-scenario prescription burning program, the change in speed of the fire front — from seventeen minutes to the projected four hours — would have had a negligible effect on the fire’s impact.

Similar conclusions can be reached in the wake of the Canberra bushfires. On 18 January temperatures exceeded 36 degrees, vegetation was extremely dry, and wind gusts were so strong they uprooted trees (Macey 2003). Embers flew up to twenty kilometres ahead of the fire, easily passing hazard reduced areas and grassy buffers. Blaming the NSW NPWS for failing to carry out prescribed burning in the nearby Brindabella National Park (Wainwright 2003) takes no account of the prevailing weather conditions.

Bushfire Risk Management Policies

Australian bushfire policy must recognise the risks inherent in living on such a dry continent, where extreme and unpredictable weather events regularly prevail. These risks are magnified when we continue to develop our urban/bushland interface. For many Australians, the benefits in living in such environments exceed the bushfire hazard risks. These risks can be significantly reduced by good planning and precautionary practices, and positive steps are already underway. The NSW Government has announced changes to the building codes of houses in bushfire-prone areas (Davies 2002). These changes are designed to ensure that — amongst other initiatives — new buildings contain fire resistant materials. Other positive initiatives may include an increased allocation of resources to fire management and research.

Refinement of strategic prescription burning operations may further reduce the risk of bushfires in many conditions. However, they will not always be capable of containing bushfires under the most extreme weather conditions. And the solution to this deficiency is not an increased use of indiscriminate broadacre prescription burning. Taking this path is an ineffective and simplistic solution. It has inordinate consequences, best summed up by Nature Conservation Council NSW Vice Chair, Dr Judy Messer (2002): ‘Vigilance and precaution on the part of homeowners and local communities, followed by commonsense planning about where homes and infrastructures are situated, are the most effective measures to protect life and property from bushfires. The rest of the options fall a long way behind and can carry a huge environmental and economic price tag’.


Brown, M & Crichton, S. 2002, ‘Irate farmers to consider suing over outbreak from national park’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January.

Davies, A. 2002, ‘The thin red line’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December.

Gill, M. 1994, ‘How fires affect biodiversity’, Proceedings of the Fire and Biodiversity: The Effects and Effectiveness of Fire Management Conference, Footscray, Melbourne, 8–9 October.

Macey, R. 2003. ‘Anatomy of a firestorm’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January.

McKey, M. 2002. ‘Fires spark hazard-reduction debate’, 7:30 Report, ABC Television, 9 December.

Meredith, C. 1994, ‘Is fire management effective?’, Proceedings of the Fire and Biodiversity: The Effects and Effectiveness of Fire Management Conference, Footscray, Melbourne, 8–9 October.

Messer, J. 2002, ‘Bushfire Inquiry: Hazard reduction burning obsession dangerous and misleading’, Media release, 10 May.

Pyne, S. 1991, Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

NSW Nation Parks and Wildlife Service. 2000, News and Events. [Online], Available: http://www.npws.nsw.gov.au/ [2003, Jan 28].

Seccombe, M. 2003, ‘Life on the edge’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January.

Simmons, D. 1994, Discussion, Papers 1–3, Proceedings of the Fire and Biodiversity: The Effects and Effectiveness of Fire Management Conference, Footscray, Melbourne, 8–9 October.

Stanton, A. 2003, ‘NCC bushfire position statement’, Nature Conservation Council Policy Statement, 31 January, [Online], Available: http://www.nccnsw.org.au/bushfire/projects/BushfireFactsheets/bfposstate.html [2003, February 6].

Wainwright, W. 2003, ‘Parks accused in burn-off row’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January.

Ian Brandes received his Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree from the University of Sydney. He is currently employed in a research position at the University of New South Wales in the Water Research Laboratory.