ANALYSING the forest through more local natural fire catchment units is a key means to make the landmark federal-state national bushfire management strategy successful, according to one of the nation’s leading bushfire experts.

Dr Kevin Tolhurst AM, Associated Professor of Fire Ecology and Management at Melbourne University, said such fire landscape units were not administrative areas on a map, but smaller, natural units for planning, managing and reporting on the policy.

These fire catchments may have some naturally lower fire frequency due to a gully, ridgetop, or rocky outcrop. “Fire tends to stay within those catchments, although not always,” he said, citing specific areas in the Highlands, Glenmaggie and Avon in Central and West Gippsland within Victoria. Analysing these units would be a way to gauge the progress of the bushfire strategy.

Dr Tolhurst was presenting a paper ‘Turning the National Bushfire Management Policy Statement into Reality’ at a recent three-day conference in Melbourne, where he spoke on ‘Fire and Climate’.

The conference was presented by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) in partnership with Natural Hazards Research Australia, which is building on the work of its predecessor Cooperative Research Centres, the Bushfire CRC and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Dr Tolhurst said the statement for national bushfire management had been agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2014. It was comprehensive and included a vision, principles, four strategic objectives and 14 national goals – “a national consistent vision of what fire management should look like”.

However, fire management was dominated by alternate paths based on politics and science.

“Politics has dominated the fire world for several decades and is based on perceptions and beliefs,” he said. Being popular and understood was important, as was being accepted by the public through royal commissions, public inquiries, government reviews and the media. “But the political approach has major problems with long-term vision and solutions to long term issues.”

In contrast, Dr Tolhurst said the approach of science was based on evidence, known assumptions, with the process repeatable and objective. “You can have both, but policy needs to be science driven” and spelt out to politicians, the public and media.

“The science process shows what we know of the world. It is not based on thoughts and opinions, which does dominate some science,” he said. Some peer-reviewed papers in scientific literature did not “cut the mustard” and were “very poor from a scientific point of view”.

Dr Tolhurst said science-based management was needed to change beliefs – “to make sure we have a social licence so that we are trusted, and can justify to ourselves what we are doing, garner necessary support in terms of dollars and people to implement the management strategy”.

“We also need to progressively increase the skills and the knowledge of outcomes we are trying to achieve. We need clear direction.” This included key performance indicators (KPIs) measured on an annual basis and “that you can report on publicly”.

Dr Tolhurst said impediments to a successful policy included a social and political focus on response and recovery, not prevention, preparedness and fire regime management. “It’s like trying to improve public health by buying more ambulances,” he said.

Individuals, communities and agencies all had a specific role to play in fire management. “However, the role of professional groups, such as IAWF and Forestry Australia, is to set the professional standards and communicate them to governments and the public,” he said.

Dr Tolhurst said our scientific knowledge always exceeded the level of practice. “It is not more research that is needed, but greater efforts to use the knowledge we have,” he said. Research did not provide all knowledge but could deliver valuable insights and guides to future directions.

“Adaptive management, properly used, uses a scientific approach (evidence-based) to management in a way that we ‘learn by doing’ to continually improve management outcome.”

Dr Tolhurst said the implementation of policy needed to be done incrementally but comprehensively. “It needs to be based on good science and be defendable. Achieving the vision requires the national government, states and territories to work together. That’s a big task, but if to make any improvement, we need to work in one direction.”