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Police, Fire and Emergency Management – Climate Change

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 9 June 2022

Tags: Climate Change, Bushfires, Floods

Dr WOODRUFF - Everyone is concerned about the impact of climate heating on the increase of natural disasters. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the federal Liberal government lost office. The first act of the federal Liberal government nine years ago was to cancel the Climate Commission and the first act of the incoming Labor Government now, has been to meet with the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action - including 32 ex-fire chiefs, who have been advocating for years, before the Black Summer fires, about the dangers of changed conditions.

Can you please tell me whether you have reached out to the minister, Mr Bowen, and whether you or the commissioner are in conversations about a change to natural disaster management that the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change have been advocating for.

Mrs PETRUSMA - For a start, this Government recognised the impact of climate change, which can mean earlier and longer fire seasons. We are having a meeting tomorrow with the Minister for Emergency Management, Mr Watt.

In order to prevent, mitigate and prepare for the impacts of fire in the community, the Bushfire Risk Unit in the TFS undertakes ongoing risk assessments of local environments and undertakes a lot of risk modelling and analysis. When you go to the TFS and see the work that the Bushfire Risk Unit is doing, whether it is in regards to mapping or understanding of the landscape, cultural values, natural values and heritage values, you can see where the bushfire risk has been reduced due to fuel reduction burns.

For example, I can table these fire spread simulations show the simulated spread of a theoretical fire that could start on the hills behind Orford on a bad weather day with strong, dry and hot northerly winds. These were the conditions that were observed on 4 January 2013. However, because of the fuel reduction, the image on the left shows it spreads a distance of 26 kilometres and there is intense fire behaviour. The image on the right shows the locations of a number of fuel reduction burns. When the simulation is run again, the reduced fuel load in the green area shows how the overall size of the fire is greatly reduced. In regards to climate change, the unit is very much aware of the effects of climate change and that is why fire behavioural analysis within the TFS Bushfire Risk Unit is measuring the effects of the Fuel Reduction Program and running these simulations from 68 000 different ignition points, and from each ignition point they run these through fires under real bad fire weather days.

I am happy to table those maps, but this shows the effect of how in this area of Orford and Triabunna, Cape Bernier Nature Reserve, the Three Thumbs State Reserve and Wielangta Forest Reserve just how much the impact in these areas has been reduced through what has happened through the Bushfire Risk Unit. I am happy to table that.

Dr WOODRUFF - The NSW royal commission that was held after the Black Summer found that we are already experiencing longer fire seasons, there are smaller windows in which to conduct fuel reduction activities, there are more days each year of serious fire weather, there is a reduction in the number of mild fire seasons, and there are major increases in the frequency and severity of severe fire seasons. The South Australian bushfire inquiry also stressed that fires are so intense that they are exceeding the limits of firefighting capacity with new pyroconvective storms. Fire conditions are changing so fast. Can you please assist can you please tell me how our volunteers are being trained and supported to respond to the rapidly changing fire conditions that are highly dangerous for the people who put their lives on the line defending us?

Mrs PETRUSMA - Tasmania participates and implements findings of national and local reviews which acknowledge and addresses climate change, such as the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and recommendations from this royal commission are being overseen by DPAC, which has recently invested $5 million in funding in the 2022 23 budget to be spread across the agencies. We are also leading implementation of the Australian fire danger rating system, with funding of $1.39 million. We have already invested $112.3 million since 2014 for the fuel reduction burn program, as well as $3.9 million towards Red Hot Tips and extra equipment and safety for our volunteers. We have our remote area teams we are investing in. There is a whole raft of work, but I will ask the chief officer to provide further information.

Mr BARRY - To your point and you are right, I have seen even in my career the change in fire behaviour. I was unfortunate enough to be on Kangaroo Island when we had the large fires there. For the first time in my career, I actually saw fire burning worse at night than it did during the day. Traditionally, bushfires run in the day and you have a quieter evening. It is a chance to regroup, reposition and they will run the next day. We were time and time again having to withdraw from what we thought were safe places overnight because the fire was running.

I have never seen that behaviour before, and they are still studying it now to understand what happened - it has become a case study in and of itself. It is driven by climate change and all the other impacts, not only to the weather but to the environment as well, that makes it more sustainable, with more fuel and all the other bits of pieces.

Part of what we are doing is continue to train our volunteers as well. One of the things that we have seen and a change in our tactics now is about the rapid weight of attack, the intent being to keep a fire small and keep it as contained as you can to its point of origin. Traditionally, what has happened is that there is a fire, someone rings 000, the trucks roll out; by the time they get there and assess it we call more trucks and by then the fire is running. What we do now is get aircraft up straight away, they get on the scene, one; that they can give us a quick appreciation of what is going on there, but two; we hit it with bombers and we also get the ground forces coming in. We really throw a tonne of resources early at fires, for that very reason, to try and contain them and keep them smallerl.

We have definitely changed tactics and we are going to need to continue to observe the research, work with the Australasian Fire Commission and other people to look at what is best practice. California is leading the world at the moment because they have had some terrible impacts, not only from fire but flooding and our response to those. Then part of it is increasing, I would like to increase our volunteers, not only to sustain the existing volunteers we have. The Government have invested in supporting us in our recruitment and retention of new volunteers, because that is an important part of it.

We have an aging volunteer cohort and we need to support them, ideally, with new blood, but also to have a bigger standing army. At the moment, if you include SES, we are about 6 000 strong, an agency of 6 000 first responders, and I would like to get that to 8 000 or more. That would also help when we have those major incidents to support us and to provide the services the community are expecting.

Dr WOODRUFF - My question was about specific training about pyroconvective conditions and the new types of fire conditions we are seeing, is that being rolled out yet to volunteers?

Mr BARRY - Not specific to pyroconvective and those kinds of things, but we train them all the time. There is a lot of local knowledge on the fire ground, a lot of these volunteers have lived in those areas their entire life, 30- to 40-year veterans who understand the fire ground and understand the changes and they are smart enough. We work on what we call a dynamic risk assessment, when our crews arrive on any scene, there is not a certain standard pattern where you rinse and repeat, you are always reassessing what is going on around you, observing the fire behaviour, observing the weather and from the incident management team we are constantly feeding them weather reports, updates on what to expect, all those kinds of things.

It is not just a single person just trying to work in isolation, but in response to those changes, we just need to be more dynamic and it will just continue to change and on any given day, no two fires are the same and I am sure you appreciate that.

Dr WOODRUFF - Can I ask a question about our response to the changing fire conditions? I mentioned pyroconvective events earlier, fire-generated storms. They create a significant increase in intensity and heat. They can also create explosive thunderstorms, tornadoes and strong wind gusts that spot for tens or further kilometres in advance of the fire.

I am reading here from Greg Mullins, who you would probably be familiar with. Greg Mullins is the leader of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, and was for many years the former commissioner of fire and rescue in New South Wales. He says:

Veteran firefighters have limited experience of such conditions, and current firefighting doctrine is unable to adequately deal with the dangers and variables associated with pyroconvective activity. Therefore, we have to radically rethink how we tackle the symptoms of Australian bush fires.

I am just reflecting on Commissioner Barry's comment earlier about staff local knowledge and understanding the fire-grounded knowledge of a local area. Do you think, minister, that we really are having the conversations we need to have about the fact that local knowledge often no longer applies, because the conditions Greg Mullens has written very clearly about are not there. They are not the same. They seeing completely new seasons, new places, where outbreaks are happening where they never ever burned before - totally different dynamics with fire activity.

Are we looking ahead, not to the past? I just want to clarify that I am not saying there is no value or expertise. I would not want to be standing and doing what firefighters who have had 50-70 years experience are. However, we have this completely different dynamic that is happening, and I am wondering how we are updating people to make sure they understand that the conditions are changing, and that we have the resources to help them.

Mrs PETRUSMA - There is a lot of work at a national level, with both myself and the chief officer taking part in national ministerial councils but the Australasian Fire Emergency Services Council has acknowledged that the increasing severity of extreme weather events, prolonged heatwave storms, bushfires and floods, are ongoing concerns for emergency services, and it is changing in Australia.

Tasmania is a participant of the Australasian Fire & Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) Climate Change Group and is represented by the Chief Officer at that group. We acknowledge that there is a greater need for an emphasis on prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

We are undertaking a lot of proactive reforms. There is a lot of work nationally under the national disaster relations, there is a whole body of work in there, that we are responsible for enacting in Tasmania.

The Chief will be able to outline a lot more in that regard.

Mr BARRY - The premise of your question, I think, is right about how fire behaviour has changed and the impacts. One of the things we have done as a fire service, now, partly it is looking at our response models, but it is also changing our focus to preparing the community, building resilience within the community, fire danger warnings - our watch and acts and all those other things as well.

When we have a free-running bushfire now, our highest priority is warning the community, protecting vulnerable people, protecting valuable assets, and it is trying to stop fire spreading from property to property. Essentially, we do not fight the fire once it is out and running, until the weather switches to our advantage, or an opportunity comes.

We have changed tactics. We do not just stand in the way of it anymore, and have those consequences visited on us.

What is important now for us is making sure the community are prepared, and we build that resilience within the community, so we have got safer places. We have bushfire ready neighbourhoods, bushfire ready school programs, all those things, so that people know what they need to do. The five minute bushfire plan every year. We are out there hammering away at people, so when there is a fire, rather than think, 'gosh what do I do now?' They have a plan; they know what to do, and they are prepared. They can take whatever actions that we are recommending at the time.

That is a quantum shift from where, 20 or 30 years ago, we were only response focused. It is a much broader remit now and we are putting more resources into the planning and prevention side of the equation.

Dr WOODRUFF - The book Firestorm by Greg Mullins, the ex-chief fire commissioner from New South Wales, who is the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action spokesperson at the federal level makes very clear the sorts of prescribed burning activities, hazard reduction burns that have been conducted traditionally have complicated outcomes and are increasingly of limited effect in preventing fires in a range of conditions where they used to be effective. His experiences are backed up by the quite recent research, a paper by Dr Philip Zylstra from March this year, showing that the practice of prescribed burning in some situations makes forests more flammable. The period immediately after burning can evolve the regrowth of woody weeds and woody undergrowth and that makes the area more flammable. It also dries out the landscape which in some situations was moist.

There is also a recent paper by Prof David Lindermeyer, which makes a clear and empirical analysis of factors, including fire severity in South-Eastern Australia, the way we are managing forests for timber productions near settlement may be at an increased risk of high severity fire. Their analyses show it is because logging resets the stand age to zero, after which there is a subsequent period of increased probability of high severity fire. Particularly, under extreme fire weather conditions. Minister, are you in conversations with Sustainable Timbers Tasmania about the practice of clear filling near settlements in Tasmania? Have you had conversations about the increased risk to settlements, that the research is showing it is providing an increased risk to those settlements? I am thinking of Geeveston, for example, in 2018-19.

Mrs PETRUSMA - STT is on the Fuel Reduction Program Ccommittee. I am advised that each year burning is prioritised for areas assessed at high risk, in order to target efforts where it is most needed. High risk areas are identified throughout the state by each of Tasmania's 10 fire management area committees, working with the State Fire Management Council. Their assessments are informed by a combination of local knowledge and computer modelling, as I have tabled today. The type of vegetation informs planning for fuel reduction burns, about 42 per cent of the state has vegetation that is suitable for fuel reduction burning.

Dry eucalyptus scrub, heath plant and button grass as they do burn well and the conditions forecast for the proposed burn influence the planning as burns will only be undertaken when it is safest and smartest to do so. This includes assessing the air quality conditions forecast for the planned burn day, the fuel type and the proximity of the burn to nearby assets. That is why they are generally conducted in Autumn and Spring and at the end of our tourism season. They are done when the vegetation fuels are usually at their driest, meaning they will produce less smoke than damp fuels. This is especially important for our wine growers who are very concerned about smoke taint. STT works in conjunction with the TFS and Parks and Wildlife Service in regards to these burns, where we do not want to see buildings, or lives or produce adversely impacted by fuel reduction burns. A lot of measures are put in place. There is a lot of work that is undertaken in planning these burns, especially in managing smoke as well. If we can't use burning we can use mechanical clearing. That's why we've invested $2.5 million into mechanical clearing that can happen on fire permit days or total fire ban days.

With regard to fuel reduction burns, consideration is also taken of the ecological benefits of fuel reduction because there are some types of vegetation in this state that do need fire so that they can regenerate. There's a lot of effort that goes on behind the scenes as to where, when and what is the best time.

Dr WOODRUFF - With the mechanical clearing, which a large component of the funding has gone into -

Mrs PETRUSMA - It's $2.5 million over four years.

Dr WOODRUFF - I thought you said $11.-something million.

Mrs PETRUSMA - I said $11.95 million is the amount of money that is for fuel reduction every year; that includes the fuel reduction teams and everything else.

Dr WOODRUFF - Mechanical clearing is very important obviously for firefighters functionally to clear a fire edge, but there are a lot of questions being raised about the value and the risks of doing that by the royal commission into the New South Wales bushfires. I'm wondering whether you have looked at the recent research about the drying impacts of mechanical clearing and the changing understanding about where and when it's appropriate to do that.

Mrs PETRUSMA - The department, with TFS, has undertaken a whole body of work with regard to the mechanical clearing. They had a test site where they have undertaken some work to understand the impacts and everything else. It is only used in very strategic locations where fuel reduction burns won't be suitable. I will let the chief officer say more.

Mr BARRY - You are right. With the mechanical clearing program, we're super conscious of the impact on the environment. It's a lot easier for us to conduct fuel reduction burns than it is to do mechanical clearing because of the local planning act and other bits and pieces. It's funny, it's more complex legislatively. We're also cognisant of the impacts it has on the ecological values and all those things as well. We never operate just in isolation or do something because we think it's a good idea. We always engage with the local communities, with the Indigenous community, whatever the relevant authorities are, prior to doing those things. The key outcome is, of course, to have a greater safety for communities and that's the focus of the Fire Service, but to deliver that, we want to make sure we minimise damage to ecological systems, to neighbourhoods and all those other things. It's a collaborative approach. We'd never just go off in isolation and do these things.

I have seen, and we saw it in Dynnyrne and other places, the value of our fuel reduction program. I have seen it where we have put out fires when, in the absence of those strategic burns, we would have had graver adverse outcomes - I am certain of it, so I'm convinced there is value in them. I respect Greg Mullins; I know him well and he is a clever bloke. He is talking about across the whole of Australia and the impacts are different - Tassie is different, as we know, the ecology to all different parts as well; so he is taking a global look but specifically we target the treatments to the local area and consider the environment and all the other bits and pieces as well.

Dr WOODRUFF - And the risk of increased flammability from regrowth - you would consider that too?

Mr BARRY - We do because part of what we always do at the end of the season and part of what the minister showed you before, with these models we run is that we look at what we call the risk reanalysis. After we have done our strategic burns, we use computer simulations on three different types of days - mild weather, hot weather and extreme weather. We then use that risk reanalysis to say what would have happened if we didn't the fuel reduction program and what would happen with it there. We are able to look at the impacts and then make statistical analysis - it's not just someone's opinion - that show the success or otherwise of those programs. We have seen consistently the risk to the community slide as we've conducted this program. As I say, it's strategic, it's planned, it's targeted and it has been effective.