A surprising answer to a hot question: controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire



Firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire approaches homes at Woodford NSW, Friday, November 8, 2019. Calls for more controlled burning are common after a major bushfire.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

Trent Penman, University of Melbourne; Kate Parkins, University of Melbourne, and Sarah McColl-Gausden, University of Melbourne

As sure as night follows day, this week’s bushfires prompted inevitable debate about whether fire authorities should have carried out more hazard reduction burning, and whether opposition from conservationists prevented this.

There are two key points to remember when we consider these questions. First, the impact on human life and property – not the impact on the environment – is the number one concern in the minds of fire officials when deciding whether to conduct a controlled burn. Second, and perhaps more importantly, evidence shows increasing the frequency or area of controlled burns does not necessarily reduce the bushfire risk.

In fact, during extreme fire danger conditions, reduced fuel loads – such as those achieved through hazard reduction burning – do little to moderate bushfire behaviour.

Firefighters protecting homes near Woodford, NSW as a bushfire approaches.
AAP

Officals under heat to cut fuel loads

Hazard reduction burning, also known as prescribed or controlled burning, is primarily used to prevent the spread of bushfires by reducing the build-up of flammable fuel loads such as leaf litter, grasses and shrubs.

Authorities routinely come under pressure to reduce bushfire fuel loads – especially in the wake of a bushfire crisis like the one seen on the east coast in recent days.

Media and mining magnate Kerry Stokes this week called for more controlled burning, saying this was a more pressing concern than climate change in dealing with bushfires.

And Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce reportedly lashed out at the Greens and others for purportedly opposing controlled burning and land clearing, claiming “there is all this bureaucracy that stands in the way of people keeping their place safe”.

The hazards of hazard reduction

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce this week said ‘bureaucracy’ was getting in the way of rural landowners conducting hazard reduction on their properties.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Bushfire hazard reduction is not as simple as dropping a match indiscriminately and standing back to watch the landscape burn. Fire agencies must assess the risks and manage the potential impacts. These assessments are made in the years and months prior to the burn, as well as on the day.

Fire authorities invest significant time preparing for a controlled burn program. They work with communities to develop a plan and a rigorous process guides how, where and when the burns will be undertaken.

Protecting human life and property from the effects of a burn is the first priority, and by far represents the greatest challenge. Other impacts are also assessed in the process. These include effects on the environment, Indigenous and European cultural assets and sporting events.




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Despite extensive planning, over the past decade prescribed burns have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses, such as at Margaret River in Western Australia in 2013 and Lancefield, Victoria in 2015. To prevent a repeat of this, policies require burns only proceed when the weather is suitable not just on the day, but for three to five days afterwards. This has meant many burns do not go ahead or are delayed for years.

Smoke from fires can increase mortality and hospitalisation rates, and so the effect on human health is playing an increasing role in whether to burn or not. Viticulture concerns have also delayed burns because smoke can also destroy grapes used in wine production.

Thick smoke blankets Sydney Harbour in May 2019 after hazard reduction burns.
AAP

Controlled burns may not slow bushfires

Even if we were to carry out more controlled burns, it does not necessarily follow that bushfire risk would be reduced.

Controlled burns do not remove all fuels from an area. And forests accumulate fuel at different rates – some return to their pre-burn fuel loads in as few as three years.




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Our research has shown controlled burning was likely to have reduced the area later burnt by bushfires in only four of 30 regions examined in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT.

Evidence from a range of studies demonstrates fuel loads can significantly modify fire behaviour under benign weather conditions. But reduced fuel loads do little for bushfire mitigation under extreme fire weather and in times of drought.

A burnt-out structure on a property devastated by bushfires at Coutts Crossing in Northern NSW, November 2019.
Jason O’Brien/AAP

Looking to the future

Evidence is mounting of increased bushfire frequency and extent in both Australia and the US – a situation predicted to worsen under climate change. Changing weather patterns mean opportunities for controlled burning will likely diminish further. Coupled with expanding populations in high fire-risk areas, Australia’s fire agencies – among the best in the world – have a challenging time ahead.




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In future, we must think beyond traditional approaches to fire management. Acknowledging the role of climate change in altering natural hazards and the impact they have on humans and the environment is the first step. Communities should also be at the centre of decisions, so they understand and act on the risks.The Conversation

Trent Penman, Associate professor, University of Melbourne; Kate Parkins, Bushfire Risk Analyst, University of Melbourne, and Sarah McColl-Gausden, PhD student, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires can make kids scared and anxious: here are 5 steps to help them cope


Toni Noble, Australian Catholic University

More than 600 schools have been closed, and some damaged, in recent days as bushfires rage across Queensland and New South Wales. Some students have been urgently evacuated while in school. People have lost homes and animals and are experiencing significant distress.

Research shows somewhere between 7% and 45% of children suffer depression after experiencing a natural disaster. Children more at risk of depression include those who were trapped during the event; experienced injury, fear, or bereavement; witnessed injury or death; and had poor social support.

The Victorian Education Department commissioned us after the 2009 Black Saturday fires to train teachers in seven fire-affected regions in methods to foster resilience in children.




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Teachers told us their students had experienced distressing emotions including high anxiety, fear and even panic during the event. Comments from teachers included:

Their world had changed forever; they became more fearful.

Some children were very frightened and for a long time stayed close to their parents.

Many children became scared and anxious about worldwide issues.

Their anxiety was triggered by the smell of smoke, a fire engine’s siren or a foggy day.

The teachers we interviewed also noted children’s profound sense of loss (of their homes, pets and livestock). Many students knew someone who had lost a family member or friend.

One teacher said:

The fires opened students’ eyes to what a disaster is. Not just something you see on TV.

We trained teachers using our Bounce Back program – a research-based social and emotional learning program first published in 2003. Most children are resilient and will bounce back quickly. Only a small minority may be at risk of ongoing anxiety and there are ways to minimise that risk.

How to help kids cope now

Try to stay calm and reassuring. Children take cues from the adults in their lives. If adults show fear and nervousness, children tend to mirror these emotions.

Try to focus on the small positives such as “we are all safe”. You can list the things that haven’t changed, such as your children’s friends. Reassure them other people such as family, friends, teachers and their community will help and that life will return to normal.

Everyone feels sad, anxious or upset when a bushfire burns near their home. By helping your child name their feeling, you are helping them feel more in control. Here are five steps to encourage your children to do this:

  1. take notice when your child is feeling sad, frightened, angry or upset
  2. encourage your child to talk about what’s troubling them, and listen and show you understand how they are feeling
  3. name the emotion in words your child can understand – are they “worried”, “scared”, “a bit frightened” or “sad”?
  4. help your child understand it’s normal to feel that strong emotion and help them to sit with their feelings
  5. finish with a hopeful or optimistic statement they can do something to help make things feel better. This may include something physical (such as going for a walk or throwing a basketball through a hoop), something that creates positive feelings (like playing with a pet or friend, or drawing), or doing something kind or helpful for someone else.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after hardship.

To help your child bounce back, you can communicate that:

  • life is mainly good but now and then everyone has a difficult or unhappy time
  • although things aren’t good now and it might take a while to improve, it’s important to stay hopeful and expect things to get better
  • you will feel better and have more ideas about what to do if you talk to someone you trust about what’s worrying or upsetting you
  • unhelpful thinking (“our family will never get a nice home again”) isn’t necessarily true and makes you feel worse
  • helpful thinking (“it might take a while to get our home back again but it will happen”) makes you feel better because it is more accurate and helps you work out what to do.



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Coping after the event

Children with strong emotional support, such as from family and friends, are better able to cope with adversity.

Friendships may be disrupted after bushfires because of family relocations. Helping children connect via social media or phone with friends can reduce their sense of isolation.

Getting children back to school and regular routines can be one of the best ways to help their resilience.

Teachers are encouraged to allow time for children to talk about the bushfires and their feelings about them during class.

The teachers who participated in the Bounce Back program after Black Saturday explicitly taught children the skills for being optimistic and resilient – such as to challenge their unhelpful thinking and understand everybody, not just you, experiences setbacks sometimes.

They also taught kids skills for regulating their emotions and everyday courage to face their fears.

They used circle-time discussions of picture books and media stories to allow them to talk about their own experiences in a safe way.




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We held focus groups with children of different ages in five of the primary schools that used our Bounce Back program. The children told us they: “know now what to do when something goes wrong”; “focus on more positives”; “don’t think the worst now”; “know things change”; “have learnt that sometimes you just have to put up with it”; and “now feel it’s easier to get back up in bad times”.

While a disaster can be challenging for children, a supportive home and school environment, together with coping skills, can help children recover reasonably quickly and get back to normal life.The Conversation

Toni Noble, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Positive Psychology & Education, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: When the firies call him out on climate change, Scott Morrison should listen


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

When five former fire chiefs held a news conference on Thursday to urge the federal government to take more action on climate change, it was a challenging moment for Scott Morrison.

Those who fronted the cameras represented a group of 21 men and two women, who make up the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. These people have led fire and emergency services all around the nation.

They’re powerful voices, because they are advocates with compelling experience and expertise. The group’s messages are that we’re in “a new age of unprecedented bushfire danger”, climate change is the key reason why things are getting worse, and the government needs to respond with more resources and a better policy to reduce emissions and move to clean energy.

The problem is, as group founder Greg Mullins, former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner, put it succinctly, “this government fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change”.

The devastating fires are a dramatic additional element intensifying the pressure on a government already increasingly on the back foot over climate change, as it responds poorly to a complex set of policy problems.

It’s not that Morrison denies climate change. It’s that he refuses to acknowledge it as a central issue, either because he doesn’t see it as such or because he fears provoking his right wingers.




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Consider three factors now weighing on Morrison.

First, in Australia (as internationally) activism is rising. This should be broadly defined. Put aside the Extinction Rebellion, which may alienate more people than it persuades. Rather, include in the definition the many companies now factoring climate change into their planning, investment, and public statements.

Morrison might rail against activists hitting resource companies via secondary boycotts, and commentators might denounce so-called “woke” behaviour by business. But the long view indicates a tide is running here and its direction is clear.

Second, there is a general recognition the government’s climate policy is badly wanting. Emissions are rising. Its modest centrepiece – a fund paying for projects to reduce or capture emissions – isn’t doing the job. The fund’s limitations were tacitly acknowledged when recently the government set up a panel which sought submissions on how it could be enhanced.

More broadly, the government’s lack of a coherent energy policy means continued uncertainty for investors.

Third, Angus Taylor, minister for energy and emissions reduction, has frustrated those in the energy sector and the states. He’s too confrontational and short on people skills (in contrast to his predecessor Josh Frydenberg). His cheap shot accusing the Sydney City Council of ludicrous travel costs blew into a major embarrassment.

Next Friday Taylor will again be under scrutiny when he meets the states at the COAG energy council. The last meeting, nearly a year ago, turned into a nasty stoush between Taylor and the NSW minister.

If Taylor’s performance doesn’t improve in the next few months Morrison – who will be the one eventually carrying the can for policy failure – surely should move him. It would be interesting to see how (say) a Simon Birmingham or a Mathias Cormann would go in the portfolio. Better, you’d think.




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It was no wonder Morrison wanted to contain partisan argument while the fires rage. It’s a reasonable view for a prime minister to take, with a basis in past practice, but was also politically driven.

Morrison has been assisted in this by Labor, despite the ALP recently voting in parliament (without success) for a “climate emergency” to be declared. Anthony Albanese believed there was no gain in seeking to score points during a disaster, and danger in doing so.

But a moratorium, although mostly adhered to by Liberal and ALP federal politicians, was never going to happen more generally. Indeed some people, like the retired fire chiefs, judged this was precisely the moment to press their point.

It was predictable the Greens would strike hard; climate is core ground for them. But that Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack would take the bait, leaping in to condemn “the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies”, showed a lack of discipline, probably in part a reflection of the strain the Nationals leader is under as he tries to manage a difficult party room.

Some believed McCormack was playing to his base. If so, he’d only be talking to part of it, most notably those with an eye to the coal industry. Many farmers are very aware, first hand, of the impact of the changing climate.

After its election loss, there’s been much talk about how Labor is caught between its dual constituencies on climate – inner city progressives versus traditional suburban workers.

But the Liberals face their own dilemma, which could deepen as the issue amps up in the electorate. We have seen over many years the split within the Liberal party, and the very high costs it has extracted. As Morrison assesses how to pitch to voters in the future, he might have to be careful of straining internal unity.




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Over coming months, the fires’ impact on public opinion will presumably be measured in the focus groups through which the government hears its “quiet Australians”.

More immediately, Morrison won’t be able to escape a response when this crisis passes. His moratorium will make expectations greater.

John Connor was formerly CEO of the now defunct Climate Institute, which commissioned from the CSIRO a 2007 research paper – that turned out to be prescient – on the link between climate and bushfires, titled Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia: Recent Trends and Projected Climate Change Impacts.

Connor, who now heads the Carbon Market Institute (which describes itself as a peak industry body for climate action and business) suggests the current situation provides the opportunity for an “armistice” – a chance to build a platform on the middle ground for the climate debate.

One step, Connor says, would be for the government to establish a parliamentary inquiry to examine the growing risk climate change presents for the fire scene and the resources required for the future.

“It could be a stepping stone to a more mature debate about carbon policy for the broader economy,” Connor says, although he admits “I’m a professional optimist”.

The government’s former drought co-ordinator, Stephen Day, wrote in his report, finally released last week: “As a consequence of climate change drought is likely to be more regular, longer in duration, and broader in area”.

What’s striking about Day’s observation is how matter-of-fact it is. Climate change is stated as a reality from which other considerations flow. The same reality applies to bushfires. It also applies to the need to move the economy to a new energy mix and net zero emissions by 2050.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.