Government backs all 76 fire inquiry findings

By Emily Wind and Katie Quinn.

Flames towered high above pine plantation trees at the Ellerslie fire in late December during the Dunns Road fire.

Improving local preparedness and resilience towards bushfires is central to the way forward, the NSW inquiry into last summer’s bushfire crisis has found.

A report based on the six-month inquiry was handed down on Tuesday, including 76 recommendations of which the government has adopted all.

The inquiry, which received 1967 public submissions, was led by former deputy police commissioner Dave Owens and former chief scientist Professor Mary O’Kane. In their Executive Summary, the pair wrote that the focus of the report is to “provide analysis and recommendations for change to ensure that when bush fires like this happen again, there is less damage to property and our environment and, as much as possible, there are no lives lost.”

Snowy Valleys Mayor James Hayes said he was encouraged to hear the state government would adopt the inquiry’s recommendations in their entirety. He was particularly pleased to see attention given to the issue of roadside grazing.

“It’s something that we were trying to get happening last year before the fires, in consultation with the ranger in Tumbarumba and the LLS,” he said, adding he was hopeful that the LLS in the Murray Region would have “more of an appetite” for roadside grazing, since the inquiry recommended an increased effort to reduce fuel loads.

While there was discussion about partnerships with landowners and insurance incentives for fire planning, Cr Hayes said he “would have liked to have seen something in there where farmers or people with slip-on units are subsidised to upgrade.”

Cr Hayes said it would benefit the region for “every farmer, if he wants to, to have the capability of a newer slip-on unit for their vehicles,” saying that locals with slip-on units “proved particularly effective” during the recent fire season.

“I also would like to see something about reducing the biomass in crown lands that abut residential areas. We as a council have been hamstrung up till now in that in some cases, we’re the trustees for this land, but we can’t do anything with it,” said Cr Hayes.

“Certainly, Batlow’s a perfect case of that. There’s land that’s not managed well and it comes right up to residential areas. The fuel needs to be reduced or it needs to be grazed. 

“It just needs to be less of a risk for the community.”

The inquiry found that the 2019-20 bushfire season was “extreme, and extremely unusual,” with Australia facing bushfires on a scale not seen in the country’s recorded history, with 5.3 million hectares burnt.

It also found that the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires challenged conventional assumptions, with the authors acknowledging the uncertainty of the effectiveness of hazard reduction and back burning as methods of fire control.

“Previous prescribed burning and hazard reduction activity appears to have reduced fire severity in some instances, but in others it appears to have had no effect on the severity and spread of the fires,” the report reads.

The authors write that much more needs to be understood about bushfire suppression methods and how effective they are, especially in the face of megafires.

“Techniques and strategies that worked in previous seasons often did not work as well in the 2019-20 season,” the report reads. 

“There is a need for much more research into fire fighting strategies including improving capabilities for immediate detection of new ignitions, especially in remote areas, and fast responses to keep new fires small. 

“There is a need for more research into conventional fire fighting techniques like backburning, and we need to understand and predict better when fires might escalate into dangerous, extreme fires that require firefighters to leave the fireground.”

A photo taken by James Zimmerman as the Dunns Road fire approached Batlow earlier this year.

The inquiry found that climate change and rising greenhouse gas emissions played a role in the “conditions that led up to the fires and in the unrelenting conditions that supported the fires to spread,” but cannot alone explain everything that happened.

Despite the various areas for improvement noted in the report, the authors said that many lessons were learnt from the Black Saturday bushfires, including blunter messaging about leaving early which “seemed to be very effective in getting people out of harm’s way.”

The 76 recommendations cover a wide range of issues, including hazard reduction, protection for native fauna and the mental health of firefighters. 

The power for firefighters to enter private properties and start hazard reduction burns, and the legal requirement for some landowners to clear land and conduct hazard reduction burns, are also included in the recommendations.

NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said that while the recommendations are wide ranging, they also show that there’s “no silver bullet.”

“The last summer was caused by a crippling drought [and] seeing an increase in fuel loads, that’s a matter of public record,” Minister Elliott said when the report was released earlier this week.

“What we also know is the vast majority of these fires were started by lightning strikes and, of course, that’s not something that a government, no matter how hard we work, can prepare for. 

“But what we can do is prepare our communities and our combat agencies to ensure that if we do find that we face ourselves before another firefighting season that we’ve just seen, that we are in the best placed position.”

The Dunns Road Fire, which swept through the Snowy Valleys during the New Year’s period, was initially started by a lightning strike in a private plantation.

The inquiry found that the number of fire-generated thunderstorms in south-eastern Australia since the early 1980s increased from 60 at the end of 2018-90 to almost 90 at the end of the 2019-20 bushfire season; “an increase of almost 50% in one bushfire season.”

The Snowy Valleys is listed in the report as one of the five Local Government Areas in the state which lost the most houses to fire, at 193 houses destroyed.

The LGA was preceded by Eurobodalla Shire (510 houses lost), Bega Valley Shire (465) and Shoalhaven City Council (286), and followed by Clarence Valley Council (168).

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry has won praise from some corners of the Snowy Valleys community, as local leaders continue to digest the 76 recommendations made for future fire planning and prevention.

“This is a comprehensive report and its recommendations are wide-ranging. I commend the commissioners for their hard work,” said Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr.

Dr McGirr said he was especially concerned about farmers being equipped and supported to fight fires, and ensuring that they “do not feel abandoned, and we do not have a repeat of the ‘Batlow is undefendable’ situation.”

He said it is important the RFS work with landowners to improve the fire response.

“It is frightening to think that the number of fire-related thunderstorms increased from 60 between the 1980s and 2018-19 to 90 in just one year. We must be prepared for future severe fire seasons and this will mean not just greater resources, but a better and much more sophisticated approach to fire fighting.”

In principle, the NSW Government is going to adopt all 76 recommendations. Dr McGirr said he’d be watching for further developments.

“Words are not enough. We need to make sure we take the actions needed,” he said.

“I am keen to hear feedback from the community about the report’s recommendations and whether these adequately address the concerns raised in submissions to the inquiry.”

Christine Webb, Secretary of the Tumut Community Association expressed similar sentiments, grateful for the “comprehensive” report.

“We are pleased that a quick review shows that 21 recommendations in this report addressed all 14 recommendations and concerns raised in our submission to the commission,” she said, as the Association continued to review the report and weigh its findings.

Their submission’s 14 concerns included: for local planning and implementation of green zones or fire abatement areas around residential areas; to maintain access to fire prone areas to allow for fire‐fighting; to use local knowledge for planning for fire preparation; to implement safe and resilient communication strategies for early warnings and ongoing emergency transmissions for the community and for the fire‐fighting effort; to make available funding for the Snowy Valleys Council to work with other agencies to urgently reduce the fire hazards surrounding Tumut; for funding for National Parks and Wildlife Services, Forestry Corporation NSW and Rural Fire Service for land management to remove hazards and mitigate risks; for NSW Rural Fire Service to be provided with the power to consult on, advise and direct the above work; for Snowy Valleys Council to work with other agencies to fully brief the Tumut Community about fire planning including designated fire safety zones prior to fire seasons; for implementing a warning system such as sirens for Tumut residents to alert them of the need to take action when other communication systems fail; for advice for residents from Snowy Valleys Council about future tree plantings including species which are fire resistant or reduce fire risk; for appropriate written and verbal communication about evacuation; and finally for the community and others offering support, assistance and accommodation be provided with phone contact for evacuation centres and for registering their assistance.

“We are concerned about the danger of the looming fire season and we consider that there is an urgent need for work to commence to enact the recommendations from this report,” said Ms Webb. 

“We will make further representations if we are not happy with the progress of preparation for the fire season.”

Dr McGirr said he would also be watching how carefully the NSW Government responds to concerns about climate change and the need for fuel load reduction, “as well as a range of other issues, including better communication and preparation, not just by the community but also by government agencies.”

“There is also an acknowledgement of the need for improved accountability for fire preparation, early and co-ordinated response to fires, appropriate training and use of technology,” he said. 

“In particular, government agencies need to work together to plan and manage hazard reduction – not simply try to shift the job to someone else.

“There are important recommendations on better managing the recovery process and I welcome these.”