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We’ve been fighting bushfires the wrong way for decades

Image credit: Eugene von Guerard - Bush fire between Mount Elephant and Timboon, 1857 (Public Domain)

Austrian artist Eugene von Guerard's impression of a bushfire burning in Victoria in 1857.

Australia has always been a land of ferocious bushfires. Climate change is making fires more intense and destructive throughout the world. But increasing evidence shows that we’ve been fighting fires the wrong way for decades. Now more than ever, we need to pay attention to that evidence and remake our policies, institutions and understanding of bushfires.

In Tasmania this week some 500 firefighters have been battling more than 50 fires burning across the state which have destroyed more than 63,000 hectares of some of the most ancient and pristine wilderness in Australia. In November last year wildfires in California killed 86 people, destroyed over 18,000 buildings and burnt through 62,053 hectares.

An increasing number of studies have demonstrated the link between climate change and an increase in the frequency and intensity of bushfires. The way we have been fighting fires for the last century has also contributed to the increase in the intensity of bushfires.

The world-heritage listed wilderness at Mt Anne in Tasmania currently

threatened by bushfires.

It’s not just climate change at play

In many areas where bushfires are common, it is well known that aggressive fire suppression – fighting every fire that occurs – can lead to uncommonly intense fires when they do escape. This is due to the build-up of fuel load on the forest floor, including leaf litter, fallen branches and dry low-lying brush cover.

This can be catastrophic in ecosystems where fire is common and essential to the healthy turnover of vegetation. Not only are the resulting out-of-control fires more intense and destructive than they would otherwise be, but many native plants may be unable to survive because they have evolved hard seeds that require exposure to fire in order to germinate. This can lead to less diversity in the forest ecology and runaway invasive species.

To deal with this issue, some forestry departments in the United States and Australia have undertaken massive fuel load treatment programs in fire-prone bushland but with mixed results. These programs may involve any combination of controlled burns, logging or manual material removal.

In some cases fuel load treatment can be highly effective at reducing the average intensity of out-of-control fires, such as in the Redwoods and Sequoia National Parks in California.

But it doesn’t work everywhere. A 2012 study of forestry management in Southern California found that three decades of controlled burning for fuel load reduction has been effectively useless. There, a different mix of vegetation means that the material removed in the programs either grows back too quickly or is only replaced by even more flammable invasive species.

A similar study of the devastating 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ fires in Victoria found that under extreme weather conditions – which is when loss of property and life are most likely – fuel load treatment had little effect on those losses.

Both the Australian and American studies found that in those landscapes, interventions that target defensible space around individual homes would likely be more effective than largescale fuel load treatment.

A good defence is the best offence

Even where fuel load treatment can be effective, climate change is leading to dramatically longer fire seasons around the world, which limits the amount of time available to undertake controlled burns and logging.

There’s another alternative to fighting fires besides fuel load treatment. In many cases, it would likely be cheaper, more effective at saving properties and lives, and better for the environment.

Every year in Australia and the US, more and more people move into beautiful but dangerous areas at the edge of fire-prone undeveloped bushland. Even in these high-risk areas, however, there is strong evidence that maintenance of properly defensible space around homes can be a far greater determinant of whether a home burns than the severity of a fire.

In 1980, Jack Cohen, a fire behaviour researcher at the California Forest Service, combed through the data after a particularly devastating fire season. He noticed a peculiar pattern – that in many cases, people were making calls to emergency services about houses on fire long before the fire front actually reached their neighbourhood.

What he found was that the houses that burned had ignited from embers carried on the wind because there was a huge amount of flammable material on and around the houses, even though the fire front sometimes never reached them.

This study has enormous implications for the way we fight fires. In contrast to hundreds of years of conventional wisdom about fire suppression, it suggests that, for the most part, we should just let fires burn.

While some elements of home protection and defensible space have certainly been promoted in both the US and Australia in recent years, a huge amount could be done to comprehensively ensure that homes are better protected to withstand fires.

Institutional change needed to meet the ‘new normal’

There’s a reason why prevention is infamously underfunded in all areas of public administration, despite the overwhelming evidence of its superior cost effectiveness. It is easier for politicians to justify spending on disaster response under the urgency and emotional tumult of a crisis. Before the crisis hits – the time for preventative spending – there are many other good causes that funding must compete with.

But there are ways to regulate and promote defensible space that do not require significant government spending. Land use planning and building codes should put the onus on homeowners – and new homebuilders in particular – to ensure that properties in fire-prone areas are effectively protected and maintained.

Finally, fire services should become an ally in this shift, rather than feeling threatened like the American state fire agencies were by Cohen’s findings in the 80s. In Australia, extreme weather conditions and the increasing effects of climate change mean that even with proper defensible space and fuel load treatment where appropriate, there will always be a critical need for firefighting when out-of-control fires do threaten homes.

By proactively combining these three strategies with more appropriate budgeting, however, we might yet be able to avoid the catastrophic loss of life and property that is starting to become part of the frightening ‘new normal’ under climate change.

Tess Van Geelen is the Climate and Energy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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