Expert slams report: ‘Don’t try to fight fires that can’t be fought’

THE Bushfires Royal Commission final report was timid and failed to sheet home responsibility to government and bureaucrats for deadly policy failures, a bushfire expert said yesterday.
“Stay-or-go was the cause of mass deaths on Black Saturday because people . . . were encouraged to stay and fight and they did so and they died,” said Frank Campbell, a farmer and former Australian editor of International Wildfire magazine.
“The royal commission’s timidity and lack of clarity ensure that the culpable authorities, including the government, can fudge their response.
“The root causes of the disaster are not considered. That is, essentially, that a firestorm cannot be fought, so the policy that encouraged people to fight the firestorm was totally wrong. In fact, it’s absurd, because the fire authorities themselves changed their policies more than 10 years ago,” he said.
“They no longer fight severe bushfires head on; they merely contain them. But they expect householders to do something which they can’t do.”
He said he was disappointed that the commission had found the stay-or-go policy to be basically sound, given that “in the last 16 months the commission produced an absolute avalanche of evidence, which was incontrovertible, that the policy was certainly not sound”.
He said the report also failed to differentiate strongly enough between normal bushfires and firestorms: “There’s only one solution when a firestorm is on its way and that’s evacuation.”
But firestorms were not freakish rarities: “It’s totally wrong for Bob Cameron, the Emergency Services Minister, to say, as others have said repeatedly, that this was an unprecedented event. Every 20 years or so, [fires of such intensity] are going to happen. It has every 20 years or so since 1851.”
He called for a permanent independent body to monitor the state’s bushfire response, and for Neighbourhood Watch-type programs on high-risk days to look out for suspicious characters who might be arsonists.
In other responses to the report yesterday, bushfire expert David Packham praised the commission’s target for planned burning of an average of 5 per cent of public land each year, saying this would ease almost all the other questions associated with bushfires, including evacuations and buybacks.
Mr Packham is an adjunct senior research fellow in the school of geography and environmental science at Monash University. He said in 1961, Western Australia found itself in a similar situation to Victoria today, with disastrous fires that led to a royal commission that recommended planned burning. “It solved the problem. WA no longer has a bushfire threat that is likely to kill . . . and the forests are healthy.”
He said if Victoria did not get its fuels under control, it could suffer a worse catastrophe than Black Saturday.