The Government has flagged a national review around bushfires, but experts believe Australia can do better than another inquiry — and actually deliver outcomes before the next bushfire season.
Stuart Ellis, chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, says there may be some value in a new inquiry, but not at the expense of action.
“One of the critical things we need to do is have a national commitment to implementing the recommendations already made, and I think that would make a tremendous difference to our resilience going forward,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfire disaster to Cabinet.
“I think that is what would be necessary, and I will be taking a proposal through Cabinet to that end,” he said.
Mr Ellis, who chaired the national inquiry run by the Council of Australian Governments following the 2003 bushfires, said if an inquiry was to occur, it should focus on issues such as national coordination which emerged this summer but had not been addressed before.
“Over the last 75 years there’s been about 140 reviews and inquiries during that time — in a range of areas there are some pretty consistent recommendations,” he said.
A 2017 review by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC into 55 major bushfire and disaster inquiries in Australia since 2009 collated 1,336 recommendations. It found many themes were revisited consistently.
The ABC surveyed six experts who worked on previous inquiries and who are involved in bushfire mitigation and response to find out what could be achieved before the next bushfire season.
Most preferred to remain anonymous, but some consensus was evident about the urgent need to reduce fuel, address planning and development issues and standardise bushfire warnings across states.
Gary Nairn, the former Liberal member for Eden-Monaro and chair of the federal parliamentary inquiry into the 2003 bushfires, said “it saddens me greatly to see how little we have learnt from past experiences”.
A man in fear gear places burning bark on the ground.
PHOTO: In the ACT’s Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, rangers work with the Ngunnawal community to use traditional methods to carry out planned burns. (ABC News: Greg Nelson, file photo)
“The overwhelming evidence in 2003 was that poor land management produced massive fuel loads, and local knowledge and experience was either ignored or given far too little weight when it came to decision making about fuel reduction burns and to fighting fires, particularly in the early stages of a fire.”
Mr Ellis said a greater appetite for fuel reduction, including Indigenous burning, should be pursued.
“When we’re putting out fires like firefighters are doing now, they are heroes and they absolutely should be considered so.
“When we light a [hazard reduction] fire and it gets out of control we’re a villain.
“But the reality is without reducing the fuels, the job of putting out those fires is more challenging.”
Planning and land use
Following the 2003 bushfires, a new building standard was created for building in bushfire-prone areas.
But building, development and infrastructure provide more short-term potential to mitigate the threat of fires.
That includes ensuring towns have multiple access roads, buildings have sufficient clearance from vegetation, an increase in the number of fire breaks — even blocking areas burned this summer from being rebuilt at all.
“If we just replace what we had, we’re going to experience the same again in the future … we need to do better than that for the individuals, for the property owners who have lost so much, indeed for those that have lost their lives,” Mr Ellis said.
“Now really is the time to have those — what are very difficult conversations — but if we don’t have them now the fear is we won’t improve and reduce the risk for the future.”
Warnings, alerts and maps
The language used to warn the community of bushfire risks is different across state boundaries.
Victoria uses “code red” for its most serious fire danger rating, while other states use “catastrophic”.
The disjointed approach has been felt most acutely by those in the Murray, Mallacoota and Eden areas along the New South Wales/Victoria border.
Some work to standardise these alerts, and the terminology, imagery and advice that goes with them, has been done under the National Warnings Project — but it has been underway for at least five years.
“It’s something that could be decided upon in the near future,” Mr Ellis said.
“The implementation will take time but I think we have everyone’s attention right now.”
Volunteers, smoke and more
The experts also raised several other reforms achievable in the short term. They include:
Address ageing of the firefighting force by attracting younger volunteers
Provide equipment and strategies to reduce the damage caused by prolonged exposure to smoke
Apply cross-jurisdictional planning and preparation for terrorism incidents to bushfire scenarios
Prohibit access to isolated regions during periods of high bushfire danger.