Widespread nature of bushfires show fuel reduction burns not the issue, UTAS researcher says

Bushfire smoke is generated by fires burning in NSW and Victoria, of a scale never seen before by wildfire researchers. Image: NASA
Bushfire smoke is generated by fires burning in NSW and Victoria, of a scale never seen before by wildfire researchers. Image: NASA

The long-term hot and dry trends throughout southeastern Australia have created conditions in which fuel reduction burns would have had a limited impact in preventing widespread bushfires, a University of Tasmania wildfire researcher says.

Devastating fires impacting regions from Kangaroo Island to southern Queensland and along the eastern seaboard are burning in almost any type of vegetation, including forests that burn "very rarely".

UTAS research fellow in environmental science Grant Williamson said the widespread nature of the fires and the varying vegetation sources made it an unprecedented event.

"The fires are so widespread - from wet eucalypt forests, drier open country, plantations, agricultural areas - the extent this year means that everything is getting hit more or less," he said.

"The truth is that no one is stopping prescribed burns. Authorities are trying to do better planning and burn smarter, but no one is stopping the burns going ahead.

Much of the vegetation that is burning in the current fire crisis needs "extreme dry weather" to burn extensively, including areas of Gippsland in Victoria. Picture: Victorian Government

Much of the vegetation that is burning in the current fire crisis needs "extreme dry weather" to burn extensively, including areas of Gippsland in Victoria. Picture: Victorian Government

"The main constraint is that in the past year the conditions have been so dry that it hasn't been safe to do prescribed burning where it hasn't been done. As things get drier and hotter, the amount of time you can do that burning is shrinking."

The amount of smoke generated by the fires is also a phenomena wildfire researchers have never observed before.

A comparison between the smoke from the Black Saturday bushfires and the current bushfires:

In the past, bushfire events have largely been constrained to specific regions - such as Black Saturday in Victoria - rather than impacting dozens of regions over a protracted period. The fire season also started far earlier than usual, in September.

Dr Williamson said warming temperature trends were a major factor.

"Certainly there are cycles of wet and dry. In terms of temperature, there's obviously a trend towards warmer temperatures everywhere and it means things dry out quicker, so there's a smaller window when you can do prescribed burns," he said.

"When you get this smaller window, it does turn into a resourcing issue. You'll need more people out there working for fire services, parks, to get this work done. There are limits on what can be achieved in a shortening period."

Natural Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud set up an inquiry into vegetation and land management practices on bushfires.

Media reports this week stated 180 people had been charged with bushfire-related offences in NSW, however only 24 of those related to deliberately lighting fires, while 53 were charged for failing to comply with a total fire ban and 47 for discarding a lit cigarette.

Media reports this week stated 180 people had been charged with bushfire-related offences in NSW, however only 24 of those related to deliberately lighting fires, while 53 were charged for failing to comply with a total fire ban and 47 for discarding a lit cigarette.

UTAS wildfire expert David Bowman addressed the effectiveness of fuel reduction burns in a 2014 article, stating that the burns were impractical in areas like dense eucalypt forests because of the risk of uncontrollable fires sustained by heavy fuel loads that only burn in dry conditions.

He wrote that the technique needed to be applied frequently to be effective and, given the amount of bush in the Australian landscape, that could create other ecological and resourcing implications.

"We are yet to achieve ecologically sustainable fire management of flammable landscapes," Professor Bowman wrote.

"Managing bushfires will become more complicated given the increased extreme fire weather driven by climate change and the need to reduce smoke pollution to minimise greenhouse gas emissions and protect human health."

In November, Professor Bowman told The Examiner that adapting to bushfires in a warming climate would require "investment, research, training and an open mind".

This story Widespread fires show fuel reduction burns not the issue first appeared on The Examiner.