Weather, dryness holding back early burns

Experts say there are many constraints on hazard reduction fire management that make it tricky.
Experts say there are many constraints on hazard reduction fire management that make it tricky.

The early fire season and extreme dryness have had more of an impact on the amount of hazard reduction burns than complaints by environmental activists.

Experts say there are many practical constraints on this kind of fire management that makes it very tricky.

The head of the University of Wollongong's Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, Ross Bradstock, says spring is always a risky time to do hazard reduction burns because of the unreliable weather.

The early start to this year's fire season on September 1 compounded that risk.

"There's been a bit of stuff done but generally speaking, it's been too dry and many of the parts of the landscape that are usually relied upon to provide boundaries for planned burning are not there because of the dryness," Professor Bradstock told reporters on Wednesday.

As bushfires rage across NSW and Queensland, scrutiny has fallen on management practices, with some including Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce blaming the Greens and environmental activists for stymieing hazard reduction burns.

Pyrogeography and fire science expert David Bowman says that argument is disingenuous.

"Frankly, those concerns are really very much to the side and haven't significantly impeded fuel management programs," the University of Tasmania professor told reporters.

"The debate we're having is really the society catching up with the internal tradeoffs that fire managers have been thinking through about how they can manage fuel."

Practical constraints include the weather, the style of landscape, dryness, how manageable the fire would be, and other considerations such as the serious health effects of smoke pollution.

"You can't just go into the landscape and start burning it in settled areas," Professor Bowman said.

"You can't do that in heavy bush fuels, you can't do that where you've got an intermix of suburbs, farms, enterprise."

ACT Rural Fire Service chief officer Joe Murphy backed this up, saying the weather had held them back.

"To conduct a prescribed burning in a way which is safe, manageable and controllable, the conditions must be just right," he told reporters in Canberra.

"Those conditions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter as the landscape and the weather is changing... We are seeing the windows change and close as time goes on."

Professor Bowman said communities needed to think up innovative ways to reduce fuel loads, pointing to a historic library that had brought in a herd of goats to graze its grounds.

Use of golf courses, parks, walking tracks, community gardens and irrigated creek lines could also help.

"Let's just get creative and do really genuine landscape management with an eye on the main game of reducing the fuel," he said.

"Don't just think we're going to have to pin our hopes on planned burning alone."

Australian Associated Press