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Bushfires, Wildfires and Damaging fires – Rinse and Repeat or Risk Reduction and Resilience?

Dr. Peter F. Moore, Forestry Officer, Forest Fire Management & Disaster Risk Reduction, in the FAO-Forestry Department originates from Australia and posted the following statement in response to the ongoing wildfire crisis:

“In January 1994 there were four fire related deaths, hundreds of thousands of hectares burnt and fingers of fire crept into the city of Sydney.

  • Parliament, the cabinet and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons, causes of death and the possible means of avoiding the same problems in the future.

On Christmas Day 2001, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales were realised – in full measure. The lead-up to summer conditions had been drier than normal. December 25, 2001 was hot with temperatures well over 30C; very low humidity of less than 15 per cent; and winds from the west. These bush fires burnt nearly 700,000ha, with 115 houses and many other buildings destroyed and scores of others damaged.

  • And Parliament and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes …

Then in January 2003, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT were realised – in full measure. Leading up to the summer, conditions had been drier than normal. Bushfires burned into Canberra the national capital …

  • And Parliament, the coroner and the Council of Australian Governments held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes …

In 2009 in Victoria with even more tragic results; over 170 deaths, hundreds of buildings, thousands of animals and tens of thousands of hectares.

  • There was a Royal Commission, court cases and reports …

With minor variations the above could also be repeated for the fire seasons of 1897, 1912, 1926, 1933, 1939, 1944, 1949, 1951, 1957, 1960, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1977, 1980 and 1983. These events are not “unprecedented”. They have been experienced before and are within living memory. This was pointed out in 2005, noting that there was every reason the fires would be with us again. They are.

Australia is a fire-formed continent in many ways and fire is part of our landscape. The place and role of the invaders – people, plants, buildings and animals – must be mediated with the needs of our fire-formed landscapes for this uneasy relationship to be better managed.

Fires are events that have taken place across landscapes for millennia. They will continue to do so. People have direct and indirect influence on the incidence, impacts and nature of fires and are affected by them. In order to have any success in “managing” fire there must be a strong understanding and knowledge of fire in the landscape being managed. The measures to be put in place are those of sound management, informed by local ecology, shaped by history and constrained by current reality including political, economic, ecological and social reality.

In this image, the fires burning near the coast are visible- even from space. Captured by

Efforts to deal with the “landscape-sized” requirements to address bushfires and management of natural and human assets, and at the same time the efforts to incorporate protection of a particular species or habitat are not trivial. In most fire seasons, the uneasy relationship between scale, scope, management ethos, funding and political processes goes unnoticed. Bushfire impacts, however, cannot be avoided and the disconnected links are exposed by them, as is the case in the Arctic, the Amazon, California, Indonesia and Australia.

Fire Management has five facets and only one of them is firefighting. Integrated approaches to fire management place greater emphasis on addressing underlying causes and seek long-term, sustainable solutions that incorporate five essential elements (the 5Rs) that are the same as the globally adopted characterisation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, used in describing disaster risk reduction and management, to which Australia is a signatory:

  1. REVIEW – Analysis of the fire issue and identification of options for positive change;
  2. RISK REDUCTION – Prevention – focusing resources on the underlying causes of fires;
  3. READINESS – Preparing to fight fires;
  4. RESPONSE – Ensuring appropriate responses to unwanted or damaging fires; and
  5. RECOVERY – Community welfare, repairing infrastructure and restoration of fire-damaged landscapes. 

Resources need to be directed to support fire data collection and analysis which improves the understanding of fire causes, identifies existing management practices that encourage harmful fires and promote management systems that take advantage of well-established fire use. Analysis in fire prone areas needs to start before a fire begins.

Data on wildfires/bushfires indicate that 90% of fires are readily contained and burn approximately 10% or less of the total area burnt. This suggests that for those fires the current planning, management and technologies are working reasonably well.

The other ~90% of the area burnt is by ~5-10% of fires. These events are the ones that we see reported and include loss of life, damage and loss to property, infrastructure and also have environmental impacts such as Greece and California in July 2018, again in 2019 and now Australia. These fires are uncontrollable as they exceed the limits of suppression until the weather conditions moderate (particularly wind strength) or the fire no longer has sufficient fuel and the fire burns out. There is nothing that fire fighters can do to stop or contain such fires until conditions change.

The maximum fireline intensity for working directly on the flames is generally considered to be ~4000 kW/m. For indirect attack, where the tactic is to work at a distance from the wildfire, the limit of suppression is ~10 000 kW/m. Extreme wildfire events always exceed these limits. For example, the Pedrógão Grande wildfire that occurred in Portugal in June 2017, burned with fireline intensities from 20 000 to 60 000 kW/m and a rate of spread of 65 m/min (~4 km/h). There will always be some wildfires that exceed the capacity for suppression. The limit of suppression capacity needs to be understood and factored in by communities, agencies and governments.

The dominant approach to fires in the history of developed countries has been to suppress them and undertake prohibition of fire use. The assumption is that damaging fires are due to a lack of means to fight them. The accumulating experience makes clear that firefighting is not a solution to the problem.

Fires are a landscape problem. They are not a problem resulting from insufficient or inadequate means of suppression but from the situation of fuel continuity and accumulation of fuels from vegetation and the proximity to those things of human assets (buildings, communities, infrastructure) and ecological values (particular habitats, species, natural features). The altered landscape has made the population increasingly vulnerable. The solution is resilient landscapes that balance the hazards, reduce risk and can be established and sustained.

Key to successfully integrating ecology, society and fire management technologies is effective analysis of the situation. What is the ecological role and impact of fire in a given area? What is the social, cultural and economic context in which fires are occurring? Who is starting fires and why? What are the characteristics of the fuels in the area and how does fire behave in them under different burning conditions? What other factors or threats are exacerbating the fire problem, such as land tenure issues, illegal logging, invasive species or climate change?

The conference statement of the 7th International Wildland Fire Conference held in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, October 2019, identified that the paradigm of addressing the wildfire (bushfire) problem through individual and disconnected services and actions in fire prevention or suppression should be reframed. Unified and integral planning must ensure and strengthen societal, environmental and economic resilience to landscape fires by addressing:

  • Risk governance and ownership
  • Dialogue of knowledge, including traditional and indigenous knowledge
  • Gender, diversity and inclusion
  • Socio-economic innovation in rural landscapes, favouring nature-based solutions
  • Strengthening local action
  • Creation of resilient ecosystems and communities

During the process of considering the disastrous wildfires in Portugal and Europe of 2017 one fire manager stated “I don’t want more resources I want a better landscape.

This is one focus that is needed. There are two critical elements that will enable this to be done.

In 2020 there will be a conference held in Australia, Women in Firefighting Australasia (WAFA) Conference – Wednesday 26 – Thursday 27 August 2020. During the 7th International Wildland Fire Conference there was a plenary session on Women’s role on integrated fire management and a special session on Visibility, network, and leadership of Women in Fire, a session on Visions, voices and indigenous knowledge in traditional fire management and on Research, management and traditional communities’ knowledge on integrated fire management: the challenges of the dialogues of knowledge. In Europe the newly funded EU project PyroLife will be training a new generation of interdisciplinary experts in integrated fire management, with an emphasis on gender balance and breadth.

The input, influence, ideas and engagement of women and of traditional and indigenous knowledge in fire management is key both for now, post the bushfires in Australia, and for a risk reduced and resilient future for Australia the fire adapted continent and for wildfires in the world.” (Dr. Peter F. Moore)

Dr. Marcus Lindner, EFI Principal Natural Scientist stresses further the exceptional climatic conditions that fuelled the present wildfire season in Australia as average temperatures and drought were both at record levels in 2019 (see graph and New York Times). The relevance of these factors were described in this article on the impact of climate change on wildfire risk. Moreover, he comments: “Managing the wildfire problem must include not only the landscape level fuel management, it also needs to understand the climate crisis and forests can play a big role in climate change mitigation and shifting the mind sets from a fossil based to a renewable economy. Let us hope that 2020 will be a turning point so that decision makers understand the urgency and take action at all levels

A combination of record-breaking heat, drought and high wind conditions have dramatically amplified the recent fire season in Australia. (Graph taken from the New York Times).

In this context, EFI published a publication called “straight from the seminar”, presenting the key messages (see Download) of the international conference, “Resilient landscapes to face catastrophic forest fires: global insights towards a new paradigm,” held recently in Madrid. Bringing together fire experts, policymakers and key stakeholders, the conference discussed potentials of new approaches across scales, disciplines and experiences.

Photo credit: MomentsForZen @Flickr

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