Bushfire Royal Commission is pronounced an ‘utter failure’

Philip Hopkins

ONE of Australia’s most decorated and experienced bushfire experts has described the federal Royal Commission as an utter failure that could put back bushfire management by 30 years.

Roger Underwood, who has a more than 60 years’ experience in bushfire science, planning and operations in Western Australia, said the Royal Commission had allowed itself to be sucked into the climate-change-causes-bushfires position.

Mr Underwood, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2018, said the report had also failed to stress the need for fuel reduction by state jurisdictions, and had ridiculously demanded a fleet of water bombers to attack the flames with a strategy similar to that of the RAF’s Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’ in World War 2.

“It won’t work, but the media will love it,” he said. “Even in California, a focus on water bombing has even been condemned as a waste of money and effort.”

If implemented, Mr Underwood said, “the 2020 Royal Commission will have set back the clock on bushfire management by about 30 years”.

“It will ensure only one thing – if the PM and the states buy it, identical bushfire disasters are inevitable,” he said.

Mr Underwood said the make-up of the three-person commission was poor.

“A retired Air Force officer, a green academic and a lawyer,” he said.

“Not one of them had an iota of personal experience in bushfire science, history, prevention, control or administration.”

The commission ignored the wisdom or conclusions of past bushfire inquiries, including the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.

It also ignored the cream of Australia’s bushfire scientists with international reputations, such as the Latrobe Valley’s David Packham.

“Instead of speaking to bushfire experts, they talked to ‘fire chiefs’, environmentalists with bees in their bonnets about climate change, or to university ecologists with no stake in bushfire outcomes, no skin in the game, no responsibilities for land or bushfire hazard management,” Mr Underwood said.

Mr Underwood said the report tidied up some administrative matters, mostly concerning jurisdictions and the need for uniformity over warnings.

However, competent public servants could have sorted them out in a half-day meeting.

“The role of the ADF has now been clarified, but you would have thought the PM and the Minister for Defence might have come to this obvious conclusion after 10 minutes’ discussion,” he said.

Mr Underwood said bushfire history and science showed what the main “causes” of the 2020 bushfire disasters in New South Wales and Victoria were:

Mr Underwood said the disaster had nothing to do with climate change.

It was the inevitable consequence of foolish policies, incompetent governance and unprofessional land management, he said.

“Nobody really knows how the Australian climate can be ‘fixed’ so as to prevent bushfires,” he said.

The drought was not “unprecedented” and the report offered no solution to the current bushfire threat, Mr Underwood said.

“We still can make strategic use of aircraft”, but “no matter how many firefighters or water bombers you have, the fire will always win if it is allowed to expand sufficiently in size and intensity before being attacked”.

Mr Underwood said once the fires got going, other factors made things worse, such as the lack of coordination across state borders, the attempted evacuation of whole towns whose residents were totally unprepared, and the uncertain evacuation routes.

“Emergency services and national parks agencies these days will often ‘watch and wait’, rather than pounce aggressively on a fire when it is small,” he said.

“Reading about a fire in a national park that was left untended for three weeks before control was attempted left me speechless with disbelief.

“And there seems to be a reluctance to fight fires at night when, traditionally, control is easiest.”

Mr Underwood said New South Wales and Victorian fire and land management authorities lacked the expertise and experience to carry out strategic back-burning to create effective fire breaks in the face of running fires.

“Back-burning is often the only effective strategy, but in long-unburnt bushland it is dangerous and can easily go wrong if conducted by people who don’t have the necessary experience and know-how, or the right sort of resources, to ensure the flames do not get away,” he said.

“The control of high-intensity forest fires requires people with a unique set of qualities, including a sound understanding of bushfire science, extensive forest firefighting experience, intimate local knowledge and access to sufficient numbers of heavy machinery, especially bulldozers, capable of night-time operations.

“It also helps if access roads and fire trails have been properly maintained.

“Increasingly, in Victoria and NSW, these people, these policies and these resources are no longer available, so firefighting falls back on water bombers, and volunteer brigades who (however brave and dedicated) are asked to do the impossible.”

Mr Underwood rejected creating a national firefighting force that would head off to any part of Australia and take over fire suppression from the locals.

“The idea of firefighters in the karri forest of south-west Western Australia, flown in from Canberra and under the direction of ‘fire chiefs’ in Canberra, is terrifying, and would be laughable if it was not being seriously suggested,” he said.