Bushfire blame misses the point

Black SaturdayBlack Saturday was not a once-in-one-70-year event. While the main fire followed much the same trajectory as Black Friday 1939, it was not a repeat of that fire. Nor was it the result of 'green' policies that restricted hazard reduction burning, or of the incompetence of government or emergency authorities.

Black Saturday was a new phenomenon, a glimpse into the future. It was the first fire of the era of global warming and it was terrifying. No one had ever seen anything like its velocity and intensity. It resulted in a new category of fire assessment: 'catastrophic'.

So what were the new elements? As submissions to the Royal Commission by scientists like Professors Neville Nichols of Monash and Peter A. Gell of Ballarat University pointed out, the answer is that south-eastern Australia is drying out and the most plausible cause is global warming. Victoria has had a 20 per cent drop in rainfall over the last 12 years. Recent summers have been the hottest and driest on record, way outside the normal range.

As Nichols told the Commission: 'The gradual warming of Australian mean maximum temperature of about 0.75°C most likely ... contributed to the extreme heat observed on [Black Saturday] ... It seems unlikely that such new records, so far outside prior experience, would have occurred in the absence of gradual warming since about 1970.'

Nichols also emphasised 'the chronic Victorian rainfall decline over the past decade'. The weather systems that brought rain to the south-east are shifting further south so that much of the rain now falls either over the ocean or western Tasmania. It is misleading to talk about a 'drought', because that implies that things will eventually return to 'normal'. In fact, the present weather conditions are the new 'normal'.

This will lead to bushfires that are more frequent and intense, of greater velocity and more widespread. No longer are Black Friday and Ash Wednesday the norms by which fires are judged; the new measure is Black Saturday. Psychologically this has left many people gobsmacked. They are unable to comprehend what has happened, let alone think that Black Saturday might now be the norm for future bushfires.

Unfortunately the Royal Commission doesn't seem to recognise this. The whole feel of its recommendations is business as usual. There is a lack of historical context and a failure to recognise that we have entered a new fire context. This is not to say that many of its recommendations are not useful; they are, but they lack this long-term frame of reference.

The Commission also fell into the trap of the blame game. This happens after every major fire and it originates in the need to find scapegoats and deal with a sense of grief and loss. Badly led by counsel assisting, the victims of this were former Police Commissioner Christine Nixon, CFA chief Russell Rees, DSE fire officer Ewan Waller, and Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin. Sure, there were inadequacies in their performance, but they were unknowingly dealing with a whole new era of firestorm. No one could have predicted what was going to happen that Saturday.

Many of the Commission's recommendations make sense. People can't continue to live in the bush surrounded by trees, or along ridge lines, or at the top of escarpments. Governments either need to buy them out, or make it absolutely clear that fire fighters can't risk their lives saving them and their property if they refuse to take an offer to move.

However, Premier Brumby's response was not encouraging. Aware of the cost of buying back of properties in high-risk areas, he questioned what impact this would have on towns. 'What would that mean for the Dandenongs, for example?' he asked.

Designated community refuges are an excellent idea and one wonders why they were not implemented years ago. Another is dug-outs or basic fire shelters that can be used as a last resort for those caught in a firestorm. The Commission also makes many good suggestions for the re-organisation of fire and emergency responses.

One area of continued tension is what the Commission calls 'land and fuel management', in other words 'prescribed burning'. The Commission recommends that 'The State fund and commit to implementing a long-term policy of prescribed burning based on an annual target of 5 per cent minimum of public land' and that the DSE 'report annually on prescribed burning outcomes in a manner that meets public accountability objectives'.

For some prescribed burning has assumed the status of unchallengeable orthodox dogma. But in my view hazard reduction burning is becoming completely ineffective as global warming takes hold. Even when carried out with environmental sensitivity it still has inevitable impacts on native flora and fauna.

However, the Commission's response is quite conservative in comparison to the hysterical nonsense of columnists like Miranda Devine who told Sydney Morning Herald readers that it wasn't arsonists or climate change that killed Black Saturday's victims, but 'the power of green ideology over government to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts ... It is not arsonists who should be hanging from lampposts but greenies.'

Clearly challenging engrained public prejudice will never be easy.

Paul Collins

Paul Collins is the author of Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (new edition, Scribe, 2009).

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Bushfire Commissions, Black Saturday, Christine Nixon, Russell Rees, Ewan Waller



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Existing comments

"Darwin" 1974 showed us the need for a "Supreme Military Commander" in times of such catastrophes....not a split nor belated multi response...Anyway..as that Jesuit Protege' has stated..(Global warming is all Crap"....dont think so Tony Boy.
John M Costigan | 04 August 2010

I am pleased to see these remarks from Paul Collins. Too often we expect perfection from people when they are faced with new challenges outside their range of experience. Wise after the event, we blame them unfairly. Of course we can learn from this but the blame game is unhelpful unless there has been gross negligence
Bill Driscoll | 04 August 2010

While I agree with much of what Paul has said, I am not sure that the weather pattern changes he describes are permanent. We had similar changes in WA but they are closer to normal now - at least for a while.

I think it is a sad reflection on the Royal Commission that the Counsel Assisting the Commissioner approached his task with adversarial zeal rather than an inquisitorial tone. He really wanted someone to blame.

Similarly, the media, in their analysis of the report, will comb the material looking for the names of those they can blame.

And will the Government take any more action towards implementing recommendations that was the case after previous Bushfire Royal commissions? I would love to see it but I will wait and see.
John Clapton | 04 August 2010

The temperature reported by the BOM on Black Saturday was 45 degrees. It would certainly have been higher in some places. At 47 degrees the principal oil in eucalyptus leaves will evaporate into the surrounding air at sufficient concentration to make the air inflammable, and a fire unstoppable. We will have more super-hot days in future years and more uncontrollable firestorms. When the forecast is 44 or 45 degrees everybody living in forest country should put their most precious things in their car and drive into town.
Michael Grounds | 04 August 2010

Intelligent analysis of the real problems. Perhaps a greater focus for planners is not allowing developers to place people at risk in the first place by building suburbs in the bush. The is enforceable at government level and would result in decision makers taking a realistic look at a sustainable population for Australia.
Rose Adams | 04 August 2010

Thank you Paul, you have gone directly to the issue that the Commission cannot or will not factor into their findings. The problem for the Commission is knowing how to include the scientific verity of climate change in its considerations. But is it their fault that they don't? Every commonsense Australian knows there has not been enough rain. The speed and ferocity of the fires was unprecedented, no one was about to stop them. But the Commission treats the information as though we were back in 1939, when the Commission for that fire took to task the systemic failure of government and utilities, as well as widespread ignorance about the nature of the Australian bush. We know more now about the character of bushfire and the fragility of Australian ecosystems. I find it a relief that the Commission has been realistic about what government and utilities could do on the day. The media has whipped up blame during the Commission, but is interestingly quiet about blaming people now that the findings are out there. This is a civilised result. But it's is our politicians and media who are rendering the climate change debate ineffective in Australia, hence the Commission's caution.
PHILIP HARVEY | 04 August 2010

This is what lawyers do. Ask anyone to drill down to the minute detail of human behaviour and you will always find fault, error, imperfection. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Lawyers are paid to look at the past and find fault (I know, I am one!). The process of a Royal Commission pits the actors in the tragedy against the inexorable fact finding process.
GW | 04 August 2010

You make a most important point here; it is true that a number of submissions were made to the Commission regarding the significance of the Black Saturday fires in the context of climate change, but I see virtually no acknowledgment of this in the report summary. It appears inevitable to me that this would happen, given the backgrounds of the commissioners,as well as the adversarial culture endemic in the counsel "assisting" the Commission. Lawyers and judges have a real place in such proceedings, but governments persist in (apparently) believing that that kind of professional background is all that is needed. With respect, Ms Pascoe (not a lawyer, but a former teacher and education executive) has no background either to enable her along with the other Commissioners, to see the significance of the scientific submissions made, i.e., to join the scientific or technological dots to draw the right conclusions in proper context. The same applies (again with respect) to Mr McLeod, a career bureaucrat and Ombudsman. I do not doubt all their abilities to listen and sift what is credible from what is not in ordinary evidence,but grasping technical and scientific significance is another matter. If the diagnosis is limited to criteria of plausibility and consistency of evidence, they do well, but as to ability to drill down to root causes, that is another matter- it has never been the strength of law-based professionals. They willl(and do) understand "unprecedented" because that is a question of fact, but do they understand "creating a new norm"? I note that the terms of reference simply ask for "causes" to be sought. One might have expected them to seek whether planning etc was adequate in the light of evidence and warnings of climate change effects (which have in fact been around now - including in the fire context- for may years), but there is no sign of this perspective.
Dennis Green | 04 August 2010

I have been an admirer of Paul Collins for a long time, but I have to disagree with some of the conclusions in his article. My own background is in meteorolgy (forecasting, including fire weather forecasting, applied research and weather services policy and management, as well as developing and teaching a university course on climate change and response). Whilst agreeing with Neville Nicholls, the Bureau forecasts and numerical models indicated an extreme day (Temps well above 40, strong winds, extremely low humidity) several days ahead. The Victorian Regional Director of the Bureau appeared on television on on 4 Feb to warn of the extreme conditions. I was constantly monitoring the situation at home and interacting with my son who lives at Gruyere. As a result, we picked up our grandson to spend 7 and 8 Feb at our place. It is normal for people with monitoring and warning responsibilities to keep in constant contact with the evolving situation. This was done by Bureau severe weather forecasters and should havep been done by the most senior disaster managers in the CFA and Police. They deserve criticism.
Peter Noar | 04 August 2010

I have some sympathy with the comments by Peter Noar. While this disaster may have been unprecedented, it was nevertheless imaginable and therefor possible. Conditions in the weeks and days preceding Black Saturday were known to experts and their possible implications should have been driving the plans and actions of those at the top of the disaster management authorities. Once alight, those fires were highly likely to be un-controllable, and that message should have been got out to everybody plainly, loudly and clearly. If the relevant officers did not think they could do that effectively with the powers and resources available to them, then they should have called in their political masters.

It was also imaginable that in the event of such an disaster, communications would fail and chains of command would be disrupted so that critical decisions would have to be made locally with limited information. It is not clear to me that the implications of this were considered by the central disaster planning authorities.
Warwick | 05 August 2010

The information gathering and display functions used to monitor and assist control of fire-fighting during Black Saturday seems to be sadly neglected.
Given that no useful information was available from either DSE or CFA websites late on that afternoon, there appears to have been a complete breakdown of information flow that led to the almost unbelievable complacency displayed by the leadership at that HQ.

Given that in September 1940, some 50 years prior to Black Saturday, good real-time displays of the positions of defensive and attacking aircraft over southern England was achieved with telephones and a map table, surely we need and can readily achieve better than that today.
Surely fast and reliable communication to a single control centre, with accurate and up to date computerised mapping displays distributed via web technology is not beyond the wit of our technologists? Or is that too unrealistic and should we revert to telephones and a map table with manual adjustment of markers?

Unless accurate information is available, no good decisions can be made, at the command level, or in the threatened areas.
The Royal Commission seems to have neglected this topic entirely, but maybe it’s too technical an issue for the lawyers.

Jim Boyle | 06 August 2010

An excellent article. It is scarcely surprising that the Royal Commission produced such a conservative doctrine. Given the government's refusal to take climate change seriously, it is only to be expected that it will not be taken seriously in this report.

As one directly effected by the fire I remain convinced that if people like myself continue to live in a fire prone (what part of Victoria is no fire prone) area, then we take the risk of doing so. What must be improved, however, is the mode of communicating the progress of a fire to those likely to be affected by it.

Finally, the state government should not be consulting the general public, it should lead. That is what it elected to do.
Greg Bailey | 06 August 2010

i agree 100% with paul collins here. what is even more curious and worrying is that 'the age' was completely uninterested in pursuing the theme that the royal commission did not seem to recognise this was a climate change fire. a few weeks ago i pointed out to michael gordon, a senior editor at the age, that their own reporters michael bachelard and melissa fyfe had written a well-researched article on this on 15 february 2009, 'lessons from the ashes', based on interviews with neville nichols and others - see my book 'crunch time', pages 122-127. yet 16 months later 'the age' was not at all interested in returning to this public interest theme at all. like the commission, it is sticking its head in the sand, refusing to face inconvenient truths.

it seems climate change denialism has not just distorted the royal commission's analysis, but also that of victoria's leading newspaper! - a cause of concern to citizens.
tony kevin | 06 August 2010

These fires were predictable and cannot be blamed on global warming. The Governments have a responsibility to ensure that not a single life is lost in fires. The Government must undertake or allow proper fuel reduction burning and they must develop an effective evacuation or safety plans for all residents. CSIRO had undertaken extensive research into fuel reduction well over a decade ago. It seems that these recommendations were ignored to appease a few “Greenies”. The “Greenies” may have a great arsenal of political slogan but often lack any real understanding of the Australian Environment.
Beat Odermatt | 08 August 2010

The extremity of the conditions was new, but it was totally predictable and a major major failure of management, policy and communication. See Robert Manne's dissection in "why we weren't warned" in the Monthly.

However, I agree about the overblown prescribed burning mantra. It's no panacea when the conditions were such that these were huge eucalypt canopy fires. In these conditions thinning out the shrub layer is not going to do much. The fire that hit Marysville had already burned through areas that had been prescribed burned a year before.
Gavgams | 12 August 2010

How are you in Jesus Christ's name? Hope fully fine. We too are doing well despite the normal daily challenges. Be praying for our country as we are going to have elections this year. It has been a great challenge to our country Kenya since 2007 election which resulted into post election violence in 2008.We don't want to encounter such an incident any more. Much of the peoples properties were destroyed and others stolen,peoples lost life and many children were left without parents, people are living in camps with poor sanitation and nothing to eat, its really a terrible situation. We pray for the hand of God to cover our country.
God bless you

Pastor Geoffrey
Morara | 02 April 2012


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