Two-day national bushfire preparedness summit

Friday 15 Sep 2023

The National Emergency Management Agency will be convening a two-day National Preparedness Summit in Canberra from 25 to 26 September 2023. This meeting is a valuable opportunity, as there are many key concerns and opportunity areas in regards to fire management across south east Australia and it would be beneficial for the summit to consider these matters. A number of concern and opportunity areas are raised below.

There are key concern areas in regards to prescribed burning, adaptive management and resilient landscapes across south east Australia. There is inadequate prescribed burning and minimum standards (up to 8 % of forests per year as used in WA) and consequent high fuel loads will not protect SE Australia/ states (For example, NSW is currently sitting on 3.3 % of forested areas prescribed burnt over 5 years, of the order of 0.7 % per year).

There is limited low intensity burning across SE Australia, eucalypt decline in our forests is rapidly increasing, increasing bushfire risk greatly with dense forest understories (combined with dense regrowth resulting from intense bushfires). There are also extremely long fire intervals for prescribed burning, up to 30 years, delaying prescribed burning programs and increasing prescribed burning intensity and bushfire intensity.

Other concern areas relate to State agencies not using the time they have for prescribed burning well; are not using drone prescribed burning technology effectively, not utilising resources to increase prescribed burning; not adequately developing prescribed burning alliances; not using innovation that well; there are major bureaucracies and rules in place that restricts prescribed burning and in many cases are not working cooperatively with landholders. Hence what you get is miniscule prescribed burning of forested areas, inadequate for any sort of effective protection.

There are key concern areas in regards to bushfire management across south east Australia. There is a focus on bushfire suppression and big plane fleets at the expense of fire mitigation, there are large economic costs of this approach, this issue has been well identified by the Productivity Commission a number of times. There is inadequate fire mitigation funding and inadequate fire fighter safety, with most forests very dangerous for fire fighters, poor access, not maintained access, high fuel loads, ridges not prescribed burnt nor access tracks, breaks not burnt nor adequate water supplies available.

There are large ongoing risks and potential impact of bushfires on communities, critical infrastructure, properties and fire fighters across SE Australia. There is also inadequate understanding all the contributory factors to the 2019/ 20 bushfires. Bushfire risk management plans mostly cover very large areas and are often generic, not focussed on individual towns/ cities and often with low community participation.

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Opinion piece by John O’Donnell

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