Biodiversity publications archive

Biodiversity and Fire: The effects and effectiveness of fire management

Proceedings of the conference held 8-9 October 1994, Footscray, Melbourne
Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 8

Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996

Discussion: Papers 20-23

Michael Wouters

Q: Currently there is no mechanism for the automatic integration of fire research into fire management plans. It only occurs on an ad hoc basis. You have heard some of the frustrations of ecologists about this issue. How can we facilitate incorporation of ecological burning into these plans?

Michael Wouters: At present there is a public comment phase in the planning process. Recently I sent out 100 copies of the Otway fire plan which was up for review, including to conservation groups [but not to the VNPA ; ed comment from JB]. I also advertised in The Age. I got one verbal and four written submissions. That contrasts with the really good response to this conference. That is answering a question with a question I guess.

Q: But once the fire management plan is in place, it may remain unchanged for several years. I was referring to how newly revealed requirements could be incorporated into management practice in the interim. How can we facilitate that process?

Michael Wouters: There is not an easy answer in the short term. Approaching the local fire manager is the obvious one. However, there are two main obstacles: Legal ... if it involves land under the National Parks Act, the local fire manager must get approval from the Director, which is a lengthy process; Funding ... most of the money is dedicated to protection, although I believe we have some flexibility there. To better address this imbalance we probably need specific funding for ecological management, as aside from protection.

Q: Fire management plans should specifically recognise species with specific ecological burning requirements, so that they become a clear management objective of the plan and appropriate action is taken.

Michael Wouters: Certainly on either a species or locality level, and the thrust of my planning talk was that this can be done ... but where you identify the needs, and how the process is started can be a bit ad hoc at the moment.

Q: Can I make a response to that. The fire management plan is a great way of getting things on to paper but it doesn't necessarily get it beyond that - how do we get new information into action when the plan has already been produced? As David Cheal pointed out, people seem to prefer the book in the hand. We need a flexible system to modify the plans to be responsive to new knowledge, rather than a rigid bureaucratic system of going to the Director.

Comment from the Chair: It seems to me that we have an important issue here that we need to deal with in a different forum. I suggest that we incorporate this issue into the workshop that follows this conference.

Michael Wouters: What we have come up against is the crux of the change from fire protection that we've traditionally been doing to fire management, which I think most people in this room would like to head towards, and I support the comments of the Chair.

Rod Incoll (CNR Chief Fire Officer): It is my view that the process for resolving this issue is as an outcome of the development of the Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Lands.

John Fisher

No Questions (No Time)

Jon Boura

Q: Part of the problem is that there are already people in the bush. But is the CFA prepared to get involved when there is a change of planning scheme or proposal for a subdivision in bush that hasn't got houses in it? Then once they are in, they want to chop down all the trees.

David Beckinsale – CFA Risk Management: In some municipalities CFA is a referral authority for subdivisions and when a subdivision plan comes in we can place conditions on that and they have to comply. In other areas it is a gentleperson's agreement with the Council town planner that they should ask what the CFA's needs are. From the 1st of July, a change in the Australian Standards will clearly designate what a bushfire prone area is. This is either to be defined by legislation or otherwise to be determined jointly by the municipality and the CFA chief officer. That is why Mark Garvey's work is so important because it enables us to get a handle on what areas we consider that people building homes have to, and I mean have to, do certain things under Australian Standards.

Jon Boura: I agree with what you are saying which is if we can avoid these problems and confrontations in the first place we are better off than trying to solve them. Mark spoke about the Plenty Gorge before, where the CFA was able to demonstrate that people building there would be at significant risk. Once people are in that sort of area, there is pressure to clear to reduce that risk to something we [and] they [can] live with. If we can avoid that in the first place, everyone will be a lot happier.

Q: But did that stop the Plenty Gorge development?

Jon Boura: We don't know yet – they haven't handed their decision down.

Q: Just before the Labor Government went out, there was going to be an amendment to the State section of the planning scheme to prevent rural residential development in high or very high bush-fire prone areas. When the present government came in that went out. That would have been one way of ensuring there was no development in those sorts of areas. Personally, I have some trouble with that because we can't really define those areas very well. But again Mark's work is getting there.

Q: For a long time there's been opportunity for conservation groups to be represented on the municipal fire prevention committees – which has input into the – and it seems to me that it's rarely taken up. Do you see that as a useful avenue for more interaction between the authorities and the community?

Jon Boura: Yes. There are several current examples where the community member has gone along – and often they are people with a strong conservation ethic that were a little bit concerned that their point of view wasn't being represented – and they have got beyond the token greenie stage and are having a meaningful input into the municipal fire plans. In the Shire of Packenham, there is actually a sub-committee that is looking at developing ways in which fire prevention can be made more environmentally friendly. And one of these is promoting Fire Guard as a viable strategy to allow people to make their own decisions.

Q: With roadside management, is it usual for fire prevention work to be the responsibility of the adjoining landholder?

Jon Boura: The answer is yes – and no. Everybody has different responsibilities for fire prevention. The municipal fire prevention officer can make the adjacent land owner do work – slashing, burning or what ever, but there's also a legislative responsibility on Councils that specifically says they must manage roadsides to minimise the occurrence and spread of fires along and on and off roadsides. So often it's the roadside that is treated, rather than the land next door. Also sometimes landowners don't want slashing in their own front yard or paddock. But if you look at the research work on the effectiveness of fire breaks, and what happens when there are trees present, you would often be better off placing it in the middle of a paddock, rather than in the treed road reserve. But that's some distance down the track, I would think.

Roger Good

Q: I wouldn't be quite as pessimistic about communications as perhaps you indicated. There is a lot of opportunity for learning and exchange of ideas through electronic means such as "Fire Net" which is a computer network set up for scientists, managers and students, and includes a fire course on buildings, and while limited, allows communication between people who don't know each other. For instance questions on fire management can be put up and perhaps answered by someone in another country. There's quite a bit of traffic between students and scientists in this country. It can also connect with biodiversity and meteorological networks, so there's a lot of opportunity there. We also have various international associations and the international forest fire research user lab that people can write to, and then we have conferences like this which are very valuable for communications. We also have the fax and the mobile phone.

Roger Good: Yes, these networks are available to us. But are they readily used? I still see a problem in seeing those technologies alone leading to greater integration of research and management. I think it needs to be wider than that. It does contribute, but we need to go further in my mind. I'm seeing that as someone put partly in research and partly trying to provide management guidelines as well.

Q: You spoke about the need for a federal focus for research and the fact that Phil Cheney's group might come on hard times, how do you see that federal focus re-establishing itself? Where do you see the federally based research group coming from?

Roger Good: Bring together Phil Cheney's group and Malcolm Gill's group – instead of it being piecemeal – separate parts of CSIRO – get them back together again as a core group co-ordinating the national fire research program. Not instead of their present work – they would still work in their chosen fields – but as a minor brief. Hopefully then, if that could get off ground again, the Commonwealth might provide the funding both for their research fields and for those groups that are working as part of that collaborative effort.

Q: Your vision and mine is to have the tertiary education question addressed. I was wondering if you could explain how the tertiary qualifications for fire managers etc. might be put together. I have approached the Fire Services in NSW and the answer they gave was so convoluted, that I wasn't sure whether they wanted tertiary based qualifications or not. However I was invited to be part of their scheme later this year. Perhaps you could explain where we should stand in relation to base qualifications and other ones that might relate to biodiversity and fire? [Note: Rough translation only – very indistinct]

Roger Good: In NSW, the Bushfire Council has modules of training in fire suppression, first aid, and so on. And then there's steps in that according to whether you are a crew member, crew leader, controller etc. which all volunteers go through. But really what I was getting at is that we should have tertiary courses available to managers in the land management agencies that they can elect to undertake, and if volunteers want to participate perhaps it can be offered as an external course; this is different to a fire management course. I wrote a submission about this in 1992 to the Higher Education Board and it was very well received. But where did it not get well received? – by the various agencies I have been talking about. And that was very disappointing. There's even competitiveness between States about who should be doing this if we ever get around to it with State agencies such as those NSW and Victoria claiming to already do parts, and some of the Universities competing between themselves. I don't care who does it, so long as it is available and is nationally recognised as being the appropriate course.