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Chapter 17: Public and private land management


17.1 Land management encompasses the ways in which farmers, foresters, Indigenous Australians, emergency services, park rangers, local governments, rural and regional landholders and others manage their land.

17.2 In the context of hazard reduction measures, land management is limited to those hazards which can be influenced by management, notably bushfire and floods. This chapter focuses on bushfire hazard reduction as an exemplar.

17.3 Bushfire hazard reduction can be carried out through fuel management activities such as prescribed burning, and mechanical thinning and slashing. These activities, if carried out prior to the arrival of an unplanned fire, have the potential to reduce the intensity and rate of spread of a bushfire.

17.4 Land managers consider a range of factors when determining the type and extent of bushfire fuel management activities to use. Due to the varying circumstances and geography in which fuel management is applied, no single fuel management strategy or technique is nationally applicable.

17.5 There is strong public interest in, and there are polarising views on, fuel management activities, particularly prescribed burning. There is clear benefit in public land managers improving the public’s knowledge and understanding of the fuel management.

17.6 Understanding fuel management is of shared interest across Australia, as all jurisdictions are looking to improve how land management and hazard reduction approaches can adapt and respond to climate change.

17.7 Considerable research has been undertaken into fuel management, particularly prescribed burning and how it influences fire behaviour. However, gaps remain in the science, including in relation to the influence of fuels in extreme fires and the effectiveness and efficiency of fuel management strategies and techniques.

17.8 There is considerable variability in the level of detail provided by different fire and land management authorities and local councils on their fuel management strategies, and in the ease of accessibility of the information to the general public. Increased and more accessible community information is needed.

17.9 There is an opportunity for Australian, state and territory governments to review their legislation and processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction, to ensure that there is clarity about the requirement and scope for landholders and land managers to undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities; and minimise the time that is necessary to obtain approvals.

17.10 There is widespread support for further investigation, improvement and more cost effective collection of fuel data using remote sensing and satellite technology. In addition to improving the way in which data are collected, there is also support for a continuation of effort to improve national consistency in the way fuel data are classified, recorded and shared across jurisdictions.

Land management in Australia

17.11 Australia’s landscapes are vast and varied. As the sixth largest country in the world, Australia’s landmass covers 7.7 million square kilometres, with almost 60,000 kilometres of coastline. [1856] Forests cover 17% of our land, [1857] and as the driest inhabited continent in the world, 70% of Australia is classed as arid or semi-arid. [1858] Bushfires, floods, drought, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, heatwaves and storms are experienced across the Australian landmass, and impact those who manage the land, and how they manage it.

17.12 Although climate and weather have shaped Australia’s landscapes, so too have humans. Almost two-thirds of land in Australia has been modified for human use. [1859] What land is used for, and how it is managed, are important factors in understanding how land management influences natural hazards and disaster resilience.

Land use in Australia

Figure 65: Land use in Australia [1860]

Australia’s land managers

17.13 The vast majority of Australians live in residential and urban areas where landscapes have been transformed extensively, however cities make up less than 0.2% of our land area. [1861] Most land is used for agricultural purposes, with farmers managing around half of Australia’s landmass. [1862]

17.14 Agricultural land use, as shown in Figure 65, is predominantly grazing (native vegetation and modified pastures). Cropland, horticulture and forestry make up a much smaller proportion of agricultural activity. Some agricultural land has also been set aside for conservation/protection purposes. [1863]

17.15 Farmers and local communities across rural and regional Australia are on the frontline for many disasters. As well as managing agricultural businesses and landscapes, rural and regional communities contribute extensively to disaster response and recovery efforts. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, for example, firefighting efforts relied heavily on volunteer rural and regional land managers, often using their own equipment and expert knowledge of the landscape. [1864]

17.16 Indigenous Australians also manage a large proportion of Australia’s land, with native title and other Indigenous land rights and interests recognised across approximately half of Australia. [1865] Indigenous land and sea management includes a wide range of environmental, natural resource and cultural heritage management activities, undertaken by individuals, groups and organisations across Australia for customary, community, conservation and commercial reasons. [1866] We heard of the valuable contribution of Indigenous land management in improving natural hazard resilience and risk reduction in some areas, in particular across the north of Australia. See Chapter 18: Indigenous land and fire management.

17.17 The Australian, state and territory governments are responsible for managing around a quarter of Australia’s land area. This includes national parks, state forests and other types of conservation reserves across Australia. [1867] Despite common misconceptions, primarily due to use of the term ‘national’, only six of Australia’s national parks are managed by the Australian Government. [1868] The remaining over 700 terrestrial national parks are state and territory responsibilities.

17.18 Local councils also have land management responsibilities for some areas of public land, including local reserves, parks and gardens and roadsides under their jurisdiction, although specific local council management arrangements vary considerably across the country.

17.19 We heard from members of the public sentiments to the effect that ‘if you own or control the land, you are responsible for managing it so that it doesn’t cause damage to other landholders, including your neighbours’. We heard this in relation to both private and public land.

Land management and natural hazards

17.20 Land management is the ‘how’ of land use. That is, the ways that farmers, foresters, Indigenous Australians, emergency services, park rangers, local governments, rural and regional landholders and others manage their land.

17.21 Land managers typically value their environment, assets and community. When natural hazards occur, many stay to protect their property, livestock and community at their own risk.

17.22 We heard of the importance of natural hazard and climate information on which land managers rely to inform their decisions, in particular:

  • the Bureau of Meteorology’s localised weather, climate and hazard warning information provides land managers with critical and timely intelligence, such as when to harvest and whether to move livestock
  • the North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information service provides information on hot spots and fire scar histories to help Indigenous and pastoralist land managers across northern Australia prepare for and manage fires, [1869] and
  • the Climate Change in Australia website provides access to national climate projections and data for eight regions of Australia, and was designed in consultation with natural resource management planners to address climate change information needs. [1870]

17.23 Accessible, up to date and locally relevant information is vital for land managers to manage disaster risk. This includes scalable, spatial data on varying hazards and environmental assets, as well as long term climate trends appropriate at a local level.

17.24 Although land management interacts with all natural hazards, by way of example, we explore how private and public land is managed in the context of bushfires. More specifically, we examine how fuel hazard is managed on public and private land.

Bushfires and land management

17.25 Although public commentary commonly associates land management and bushfires with hazard reduction, managing bushfire risk and resilience in the land extends further. Land managers mitigate bushfire risk and improve resilience by protecting assets such as fencing, crops, livestock, equipment, buildings, cultural sites, conservation areas and access routes. Further, we heard that some conservation reserves have fire resistant walking paths, many regional natural resource management plans have incorporated climate change projections, and expertise on ecological and cultural values has been incorporated into incident management teams.

17.26 Much of Australia’s managed land is bushfire prone, although the frequency and severity of fire varies greatly across the country. The 2019‑2020 bushfire season demonstrated the scale at which bushfires can impact southern parts of Australia, yet across the north of Australia, widespread bushfires are an annual occurrence, as shown in Figure 66.

National fire return frequency for Australia, January 1988 to September 2020

Figure 66: National fire return frequency for Australia, January 1988 to September 2020 [1871]

17.27 Over the past 20 years, the most damaging bushfires have predominantly occurred in Australia’s forests, particularly the temperate forests in southern Australia. Australia’s forests are largely managed by public and private interests, and sometimes jointly.

17.28 We refer to ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘other’ forests:

  • public forests - includes national parks, nature reserves, and state and territory conservation areas; as well as land where government agencies manage forests, including wood harvesting, water supply and conservation. [1872]
  • private forests – includes land with private ownership, crown land that is privately managed (for example, under pastoral leases for the purposes of stock grazing) and Indigenous managed land. [1873]
  • other – covers tenure categories where it is not clear whether they are managed by public or private interests. [1874]

17.29 Figure 67 below gives an appreciation of fire extent across Australia’s public and privately managed forests in the 2019-2020 bushfires.

Native forest fire extent during the 2019‑2020 summer fire season

Figure 67: Native forest fire extent during the 2019‑2020 summer fire season [1875]

17.30 Figure 67 illustrates that native forest fire for southern and eastern Australia mainly occurred in public forests, whereas across the north of Australia, native forest fires were predominantly in privately managed forests. These figures do not include commercial plantations.

17.31 It is important to note that forest types, density and crown cover, land tenure, climate and fire regimes vary greatly between northern Australia and southern and eastern Australia. This is why the areas are separated in Figure 67.

Bushfire hazard reduction measures

17.32 Bushfire hazard reduction measures refer to the ways in which bushfire risk is reduced prior to an unplanned fire event. Hazard reduction measures are directed to efforts where land managers are able to influence future fire behaviour - mainly by fuel management. Other factors also influence fire behaviour, such as weather and terrain, but these cannot be modified easily.

17.33 Fuel management is achieved through three main processes: by reducing the total mass of fuel, altering its structure, and/or by altering its composition. These activities can reduce the intensity and rate of spread of a bushfire, as well as total ‘spotting’ and the distance over which embers move across the landscape ahead of a fire. [1876]

17.34 Fuel management activities are generally not intended to stop or prevent bushfires on their own. They are designed to enhance and support the effectiveness of other complementary prevention, preparation and response measures; particularly fire suppression but also urban planning, building regulations and community preparedness. [1877]

17.35 The most common hazard reduction techniques in Australian forests include:

  • prescribed burning
  • mechanical clearing such as slashing, thinning and mowing
  • chemical control or spraying, through both on ground and aerial delivery, and
  • grazing or browsing by animals. [1878]

17.36 A range of factors inform which fuel management techniques land managers use, and when. These includes cost, practicalities, capabilities and risks. Sometimes a combination of these techniques may be most appropriate. [1879]

Effectiveness of fuel management

17.37 Considerable research has been undertaken on the effectiveness of fuel management, particularly prescribed burning. [1880] This research suggests that:

  • Fuel load management, including prescribed burning, can materially reduce the risk to settlements when undertaken in the wildland-urban interface.
  • Fuel load management in targeted areas in the broader landscape, away from the wildland-urban interface, can materially reduce the wildfire risk to settlements. The areas targeted for these purposes can include high ignition areas (eg high points in the landscape susceptible to lightning strikes), areas where the topography and forest types facilitate fire runs, ridges and other areas known to be associated with high intensity crown fires, and areas that are accessible for suppression and treatment activities.
  • Fuel management can reduce bushfire-related impacts on ecological assets and areas of high conservation value.
  • The amount of prescribed burning in the landscape (independent of the placement or arrangement of treatments) can materially affect the extent of bushfires. However, the evidence also suggests that the effectiveness of prescribed burning varies in different ecosystems and climates.
  • The effects of fuel load management in reducing bushfire impacts and enhancing the effectiveness of suppression and other mitigation measures is relatively short-lived. Generally, fuel loads re‑accumulate relatively quickly in Australian forests, meaning fuel load management activities must be done reasonably regularly to be effective in mitigating risk. Consistent with this, research suggests that prescribed burning is most effective in reducing the severity of bushfires in the first 1-4 years post-treatment. Depending on the severity of the weather and forest type, it can aid suppression for up to approximately 15 years.
  • Weather has the greatest influence on bushfire behaviour and that, as fire weather conditions deteriorate, the influence of fuels declines. This means that the benefits of fuel load management activities also decline as fire weather conditions deteriorate. Research suggests that most bushfire-related impacts on lives and property in Australia have occurred in severe, extreme or catastrophic fire weather conditions.

Extreme bushfires

17.38 Fire management authorities and researchers have highlighted that the 2019‑2020 bushfire season exposed gaps in the scientific understanding and ability to predict fuel behaviour under extreme weather conditions. [1881]

17.39 We received evidence that emphasised the influence that fire weather has on fire behaviour and the relevance of ‘extreme fires’ to the effectiveness of fuel management. [1882] The research on this issue differentiates between ordinary fires, which are largely a surface phenomenon, and extreme fires, where there is a coupling of the fire with the atmosphere.

17.40 In ordinary fires, there is generally a well-defined contagious fire front, with a relatively narrow band of flaming activity that delineates the unburnt fuel ahead of the fire from the burn fuel behind it. The research suggests that the behaviour of these fires, including their intensity and rate of spread, is a function of the prevailing environmental conditions, particularly weather, topography and fuels.

17.41 In extreme bushfires, the fire behaviour is no longer solely a function of the environmental conditions. These fires generate their own behaviour by interacting with the surrounding atmosphere. This results in fire behaviours that are difficult to predict.

The weight of research into the effects of fuel reduction on the propagation of extreme bushfires, indicates that as conditions deteriorate, fuel reduction is of diminishing effectiveness, and may have no appreciable effect under extreme conditions. [1883]

17.42 We heard that, in extreme bushfires, fuel loads do not appear to have a material impact on fire behaviour. [1884]

17.43 In discussing the efficacy of their fuel management arrangements, state and territory agencies emphasised that the fires they were dealing with during the 2019‑2020 season often occurred under severe, extreme and catastrophic conditions. [1885] For example, we heard that of the six major fire incidents that occurred in SA, ‘each of those occurred under catastrophic or extreme fire conditions. And… there are limitations on the success of hazard reduction preparation activities as the fire danger index increases’. [1886] Any assessment of fuel management efforts needs to be considered in this context.

17.44 Nonetheless, the fact that fuels have a diminished effect on fire behaviour in severe fire weather conditions, and may have limited effect in extreme fires, does not mean that fuel management cannot be used to reduce risks. Severe weather conditions do not persist continually. Where conditions are moderate, even for short periods, there are opportunities for suppression that can be assisted by managing fuel loads. Furthermore, even in severe weather conditions, substantially reducing fuel availability in the areas surrounding assets should reduce fire intensities and consequent risk. Reducing available fuels in the landscape can also slow the initial rate of fire spread and fire intensity, which can provide opportunities for fire suppression and thereby reduce the risk of fires escalating into extreme fire events.

A need for further research

17.45 Considerable research and scientific attention has been dedicated to fuel management, particularly prescribed burning. There is a need for continuing research to address significant gaps in the science, including in relation to the role of fuels in extreme fires, and the effectiveness and efficiency of fuel management strategies and techniques. [1887]

The role of fuel load in the development of extreme bushfires is complex… More research is required to better understand the role of fuel loads in extreme bushfire development, or to confirm that no such role exists. [1888]

17.46 Further research is relevant to all jurisdictions as they determine how to adapt their land management approaches to respond to changing climatic conditions. Research outcomes also have flow-on implications for predictive modelling capabilities, and broader planning and resourcing of hazard reduction activities.

No single national fuel management strategy or technique

17.47 Decisions made by land managers on appropriate hazard reduction have to be tailored to local conditions and context. This includes consideration of geographic and landscape variables, and the nature of assets that are to be protected, including built, cultural and environmental assets. [1889] There is no single fuel management strategy or technique that is applicable across the nation.

17.48 All forms of fuel management also come with costs and risks. These include resourcing associated with implementation (eg labour and equipment), training to maintain currency of skills and damage costs associated with fires escaping and accidents (eg, through loss of life, injury, or property loss). Indirect costs include respiratory-related health impacts associated with smoke exposure, for example when prescribed burning is undertaken in close proximity to urban settlements and potential adverse environmental and heritage impacts (for example, loss of amenity and loss of biodiversity). [1890]

17.49 Other constraints also influence fuel management activities, including community awareness and understanding, growth of urban settlements and other development adjacent to land requiring management, different views (some substantial) among fire practitioners and researchers, differing regulatory settings, the shortening of seasonal windows suitable for certain fuel management activities due to climate change, and the presence of invasive species which alter fire behaviour (such as gamba grass in the NT or buffel grass in Central Australia). [1891]

17.50 We heard from some agencies that staffing can also be a limitation. Smaller land management agencies highlight different scales of resourcing across the country. For example, Ms Sally Egan, Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT, identifies that ‘there are approximately 135 ranger personnel in the NT compared to 880 in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service’. [1892]

So it’s called the Sydney basin for a reason, and that is that it’s like a basin and the smoke goes in there and it gets trapped often by an inversion layer overnight and the next morning there’s a heavy layer of smoke over the city. [1893]

17.51 State and territory governments emphasise that they must continually change their practices to adapt to their constraints. For example, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service have undertaken burns before the traditionally recognised start to the prescribed burning season. This reflects a need to burn ‘when conditions are suitable rather than locking into seasons’. [1894] NSW Rural Fire Service outlined challenges for hazard reduction in areas like the Sydney basin, where landscape arrangements such as ridgetop developments mean that mechanical clearing tools are unable to get into some areas, necessitating the use of prescribed burning. This in turn creates issues of smoke hazard. [1895]

State and territory fuel management strategies

17.52 At state and territory government levels, a range of different government agencies have responsibility for fuel management. This includes national parks and wildlife agencies, which manage parts of Australia’s conservation estate, state forest agencies and fire and emergency services agencies.

17.53 All states and territories have fuel management strategies that guide the application of fuel management activities on public lands and, in some jurisdictions, across all land tenures (public and private).

17.54 Fuel management activities are only one of a number of strategies employed by state and territory fire and land management agencies to mitigate risk from bushfire. Other activities include, for example, community engagement, preparedness and education programs (for example targeting ignition prevention) and construction and maintenance of fire trails. [1896]

17.55 Fuel reduction undertaken by fire and land management agencies in a disaster context is intended to reduce the risk and impacts on lives, property, infrastructure and environmental and heritage values. [1897] A risk-based approach drives the objectives and priorities of all jurisdictions in relation to fuel management. [1898] However, there are significant differences in how these risk-based principles are applied and articulated. [1899] Box 17.1 provides a snapshot of varying risk-based approaches used by different states and territories.

Community concerns about fuel management on public land

17.56 There is strong interest in, and polarising views on, fuel management activity, particularly prescribed burning to manage fuel loads.

17.57 We heard many perspectives from public submissions that describe prescribed burning as, in effect, a panacea – a solution to bushfire risk. It is not.

17.58 Part of the explanation for the strength of views of fuel load management, and prescribed burning in particular, may be due to a lack of community understanding about its effectiveness and the factors that influence the choice of strategy.

Box 17.1 State and territory approaches to managing fuel hazard risk

Residual risk assessments

The ACT, Tasmania and Victoria use a residual risk approach. Residual risk is the amount of risk that remains after controls are accounted for – it works to determine a level of remaining acceptable risk. In fuel management it involves calculating bushfire risk using computer modelling by simulating fires and calculating the remaining risk ‘left over’. Victoria, for example, assesses risk by simulating 11,500 fires over the whole landscape and sets a percentage risk target of 70% against which to measure activities.

Area and fuel age based targets

WA, while maintaining a significant focus on the urban interface, highlights the role of a landscape-scale approach designed to create a mosaic of fuel loads across the landscape, driven by fuel age targets. In the state’s south-west forests, they seek to maintain 45% of the fuel in the broader landscape that they manage at less than six years old in order to ‘see a significant reduction in the extent of bushfires that occur across that landscape.’ [1900] This equates to a nominal 200,000 hectare target, broken across different land management zones.

NSW has a state-wide target to treat ‘135,000 hectares a year at a five year rolling average’. [1901] Queensland has a planned burn target of greater than 5% of the total protected area and forest estate. [1902] Prior to 2016, Victoria had an annual hectare target of 5% of land, but moved away from this in favour of a residual risk approach.

Historical extrapolation and qualitative assessment

NSW, SA and Queensland base their approach on historical data on ignitions and fire spread, and judgments on identification and prioritisation of fuel reduction and fire management activities. This does not involve a quantitative calculation of residual risk after mitigation activities. SA notes that its assessed risk level remains at the ‘same level to acknowledge there is always going to be a level of bushfire risk to assets that have been identified as being at risk’. [1903]

Zoning arrangements

States and territories also assign management zones based on risk levels and assets to be protected to assist in the implementation of their hazard reduction programs. [1904] These zones define the primary purpose for fire management in a given area of land, with each zone categorised based on their management objective. They may govern, for example, how fuel is managed directly at the urban interface compared with the broader landscape.

Medium to long term outlooks

Jurisdictions emphasised the importance of medium to long term planning for fuel load management programs, noting that these programs cannot easily respond to seasonal change. [1905] They acknowledge that fuel management is more than one year’s worth of work – that it is ‘an amalgam of each year’s subsequent workload’. [1906] Seasonal outlooks and indicators do, however, help to focus short term implementation and trigger other forms of preparedness and response activity.

17.59 Another potentially contributing factor to community tensions about fuel management on public lands may be misunderstandings about the strategies that have been adopted, their rationale, and the extent of implementation.

17.60 There are polarised opinions, and political and public debate, on the extent of hazard reduction occurring within Australia. One state agency expressed this tension as follows:

[W]e believe there is a general community intolerance of government land managers being pro-active in hazard reduction… However, following a bushfire, the government land managers are often the first to be blamed for the extent and magnitude of the fire, because we may or may not have undertaken ‘enough’ fuel reduction. [1907]

17.61 Information provided to us on fuel load management undertaken by public land managers demonstrated that it is captured, recorded and evaluated in different ways and to different degrees of granularity. We heard of increased fuel load management in some jurisdictions. For example, the NSW Government told us that ‘in the last 7 years, National Parks and Wildlife Service has more than doubled its average annual level of hazard reduction burning’. [1908]

We believe there could be less community angst through improved community education on the value of hazard reduction and the different mechanisms to achieve this. [1909]

17.62 Disclosure of clear information about fuel management strategies on public land, including the rationale, intended objectives, degree of implementation, and impact of different strategies and techniques, enables communities living in bushfire-prone areas to be fully informed about the fuel hazard aspect of the risk profile of their surrounding landscape. There was a high degree of support from state and territory governments that they should articulate and make available to the public their respective fuel management strategies, as well as the implementation and outcomes of those strategies.

17.63 Jurisdictions and local councils outlined various ways in which they are supporting and enhancing this community understanding. This includes publishing available information as to when planned burns will be undertaken, activities actually undertaken and their outcomes. For example, information about the geographical extent of fuel treatment (planned burning and other treatment methods) undertaken on public land in Victoria each financial year is publicly reported in the Forest Fire Management Victoria Fuel Management Report. The Fuel Management Reports also include information about additional cross-tenure fuel treatment undertaken, wholly or in part on private property within 1.5km of public land. [1910] Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services is developing a Bushfire Risk Management Framework, which is intended to provide ‘a transparent and evidence-based rationale for the management of bushfire risk on all lands that QPWS manages, in a manner that is consistent with government and community expectations, national standards and best practice’. [1911]

17.64 While recognising the work underway in this area, there is considerable variability in the level of detail provided by different fire and land management authorities and local councils, and how easily accessible this information is to the general public. Increased and more accessible community education is needed to ensure that the role, and limitations, of hazard reduction activities are better understood, including its efficacy and practical constraints. [1912]

17.65 State and territory governments should take steps to improve public understanding of fuel management.

17.66 Some state and territory agencies have highlighted that increased urban settlement and the expansion of agricultural developments in close proximity to boundaries of parks and reserves has increased the risk to life and property associated with hazard reduction activities and, by extension, that has elevated the need for higher levels of community and stakeholder engagement and awareness. [1913]

Recommendation 17.1 Public availability of fuel load management strategies

Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, including the rationale behind them, as well as report annually on the implementation and outcomes of those strategies.

Compensation for damages

17.67 We heard concerns about compensation for damage incurred by property owners from fires that emerge from public land. This was raised by members of the public particularly in the context of damage to fencing occurring when fire moved from public to private land.

17.68 There are a range of legislative arrangements in place within some jurisdictions to address damages or to compensate landholders affected by unintended or unplanned fire activity associated with land that is publicly managed. [1914] Jurisdictions noted that these assessments require careful consideration of circumstances and liabilities. [1915] Many jurisdictions outlined the limits of their legal liabilities. For example we heard that, in the ACT, it is ‘not a legal requirement to compensate landholders who experience damage from unplanned fires’, however, Parks and Conservation Service will provide support for repairs of damages caused from escaped prescribed burns. [1916] Others referenced insurance arrangements and consideration of issues on a case by case basis. [1917]

17.69 We note that some jurisdictions have voluntary support provisions for adjoining landholders whose fences have been damaged or destroyed by bushfires. For example, the NSW Government stated that ‘although not legislatively required to do so, NPWS has had a long term policy that provides support to adjoining landholders whose fences have been damaged or destroyed in bushfires’. [1918] Private landholders may receive up to $5,000 per kilometre to contribute to the replacement of damaged boundary fences. [1919]

Fuel management on private land

17.70 Fuel load management on private land is of considerable importance to the protection of lives, property and other assets of value.

17.71 The approach to fuel management on private land can be driven by a broad range of priorities and considerations. Indigenous Australians manage fuel as part of a broader caring for Country approach. At an individual household level, fuel management can be undertaken to enhance personal safety and protect homes and property. Businesses, including farmers and plantation owners, can undertake hazard reduction to protect their commercial interests and livelihoods. We heard, for example, from Hancock Victorian Plantations, the largest non-government land manager and manager of forest resources in Victoria, that the principal hazard reduction technique to protect their plantations is prescribed burning. [1920]

Barriers to fuel management on private land

17.72 A range of barriers were outlined by land managers relating to fuel management on private land.

17.73 For example, we heard that ‘there is an inconsistent understanding of risk and a variable acceptance of responsibility across various communities and between community members’. [1921] We heard in public submissions that even in circumstances where land managers accept responsibility, there may be confusion as to the fuel load reduction activities they are required or permitted to undertake, and any associated penalties. This has been similarly reflected in the findings of jurisdiction-specific reviews into the 2019-2020 bushfire season. [1922]

17.74 A range of environmental regulatory instruments apply within states and territories to the clearing of vegetation related to hazard reduction. These come with considerable complexities and variation in regulation and approval processes.

17.75 We recognise there are multiple objectives relevant to vegetation management. Bushfire risk management sits alongside other objectives, such as the conservation of biodiversity, heritage management and maintenance of local amenity.

17.76 To conduct vegetation clearance activities around private residential properties, homeowners must be aware of, and successfully navigate, the complexities of any applicable planning laws, standards and other regulatory instruments. They must also comply with any applicable timeframes and absorb any associated costs. They must also have an understanding of the costs and the legal ramifications of non-compliance or mistakes. [1923] The ease with which individuals can navigate these complexities, and the support given to do so, also varies between jurisdictions. These challenges were demonstrated in a comparison exercises that we conducted to understand the different regulatory systems and processes. [1924]

17.77 Although states and territories have primary responsibility for matters of state and local environmental significance, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) applies to private land when an activity is likely to result in a ‘significant impact’ on a matter of national environmental significance. [1925]

Box 17.2 An example of reducing bushfire risk through fuel management on private land [1926]

Photograph of Willinga Park at the boundary with the National Park, showing one of the bushfire risk mitigation measures
Figure 68: Photograph of Willinga Park at the boundary with the National Park, showing one of the bushfire risk mitigation measures

Willinga Park is an equestrian and pastoral property west of Bawley Point, located in the Shoalhaven region of NSW. The breeding and rearing of livestock is the principal land management objective across the less developed, rural-zoned parks of the property. The property covers more than 800 hectares, with around 120 horses and 650 cattle.

A number of fuel management activities were carried out on the property. Regrowth clearing and stand thinning treatments restored an open grassy condition of forest stand structure and facilitated the resumption of grazing, which prevented shrub re-encroachment.

A report into the significance of bushfire mitigation measures carried out at Willinga Park found that on 2 December 2019, driven by strong dry westerly winds, the uncontained and out of control Currowan fire spread across the Clyde River, and across the Princes Highway, toward Willinga Park and Bawley Point.

The Currowan fire was prevented from making a high intensity and impact run into the township of Bawley Point by the presence of managed agricultural lands within the Willinga Park equestrian centre and property. Fire spread was able to be stopped when it ran into the western and southern boundaries of the Cockatoo Forest section of Willinga Park. The extent and depth of the actively maintained and grazed paddocks also absorbed spotting from the Currowan fire impact, preventing the fire from spotting over Willinga Park into dense vegetation to the east, and extending into Bawley Point.

Due to Willinga Park’s blocking effect on the fire run, in conjunction with the substantial efforts of local Rural Fire Service brigades, supported by other emergency services, the local community and Willinga Park’s staff, a major fire disaster in Bawley Point township was averted. In the absence of the regrowth clearance treatments and active land and grazing management implemented at Willinga Park, the Currowan fire would have continued its uncontrollable high intensity run into Bawley Point.

17.78 We heard in public submissions that land managers can have difficulty understanding when the EPBC Act applies to hazard reduction activities on their land. We also heard that the Australian Government makes information available to assist private landholders to determine whether their activities will have a ‘significant impact’ on a matter of national environmental significance, including guidance on government websites, guidelines to undertake self-assessment and search tools. [1927]

17.79 Information that informs decisions about how private landholders manage their fuel can be highly dependent on resourcing and expertise. Individual landholders are often reliant on information, guidance and, in some cases, the practical assistance of land and fire management agencies. [1928] In contrast, we also heard examples of how some substantial commercial plantation interests maintain their own well-resourced firefighting units with hazard reduction expertise, and have their own modelling capabilities, with use of simulations to target and evaluate hazard reduction efforts. [1929]

17.80 We heard that there is room for both increased clarity and greater flexibility. We also heard that ambiguities around approvals and assessments sometimes caused unreasonable delays, or did not align with ideal time intervals for fuel management activities. Some public submissions expressed frustration at the tension between their shared responsibility to manage risk and the limitations on their ability to do so due to approvals required.

17.81 We also heard that criticism of delays can sometimes be attributed to a lack of community understanding of the processes. In some cases, there appears to be a need for clearer practical guidance for land managers and the broader community. There was support for governments to review their legislation and processes to ensure greater clarity and minimise times for assessment and approvals.

17.82 In considering the appropriateness of different regulatory systems to govern hazard reduction activities, some jurisdictions have highlighted the value of streamlining assessment and approval processes and improving community awareness. [1930] We were told about the NSW ‘10/50 model’ as an example of where such streamlining has occurred (see Box 17.3). [1931] The South Australian Independent Review into South Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfire Season ‘supports an approach to hazard reduction like the NSW Rural Fire Service 10/50 vegetation clearance framework, supported by a more comprehensive community awareness programme’. [1932] We see such efforts as commendable to simplify the process for landholders.

Recommendation 17.2 Assessment and approval processes for vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction

Australian, state and territory governments should review the assessment and approval processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to:

  1. ensure that there is clarity about the requirements and scope for landholders and land managers to undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities, and
  2. minimise the time taken to undertake assessments and obtain approvals.

Box 17.3 NSW 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice

In NSW, the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme was introduced to give people living near the bush an additional way of preparing their property for a bushfire. The 10/50 scheme is underpinned by the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice (Code).

Figure from guidance on the 10/50 vegetation clearing rule in NSW

Figure 69: Figure from guidance on the 10/50 vegetation clearing rule in NSW [1933]

A homeowner can use an online assessment tool available on the NSW Rural Fire Service’s website to help them assess whether then 10/50 Code will allow them to clear vegetation on their property.

If eligible, the homeowner could clear trees on their property within 10 metres of their home without seeking approval, and clear underlying vegetation such as shrubs (but not trees) on their property within 50 metres of their home without seeking approval.

A number of conditions are outlined in the Code, including consideration of factors such as slope, areas that cannot be cleared such as mangroves and saltmarshes, proximity to rivers, duties of care related to the avoidance of harm to protected fauna or deliberate cruelty to animals, appropriate management of soil erosion and landslip risks.

Homeowners outside 10/50 entitlement areas are encouraged to contact their local council or land services officer to discuss their options for legally clearing vegetation.

Improving fuel data and information

17.83 Fuel data underpin the bushfire hazard reduction activities undertaken by state and territory agencies. The quality, quantity and currency of such data may directly determine the efficacy of the activities undertaken. New and emerging technologies and techniques also provide opportunities for land managers to have a better understanding of fuels and fuel management.

Fuel data collection

17.84 Jurisdictions employ a wide variety of approaches and technologies to capture and monitor information on fuel. Techniques include plot monitoring, visual assessments, use of drones, remote sensing, aerial photography and satellite technology. [1934] For example, as a relatively small jurisdiction, ACT has the benefit of 750 permanent fuel plots that they measure each year to provide data on how fuel is accumulating. [1935]

17.85 Remote sensing and other satellite capabilities have proven valuable for states and territories to capture nuanced fuel data and aid in fuel management planning and evaluation. Benefits include improving estimation of fuel loads, understanding the composition of fuel, and creating spatial fuel maps at an appropriate resolution. [1936]

17.86 There is some variability in capability across jurisdictions. For example, the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions advises that ‘the use of technology, satellite technology and remote sensing is quite critical to our post-burn or post-mitigation activity assessment’. [1937] On the other hand, Bushfires NT notes that they lack remote-sensing methods and ‘tend to rely on an estimate based on the time of year of the fire which isn’t always accurate’. [1938] There is support for further investigation, improvement and more cost effective collection of fuel data using remote sensing and satellite technology. [1939]

17.87 Researchers also told us of the benefits of spatial technology and data to be able to examine fuel, landscapes and weather systems in a holistic, accurate and dynamic way, to facilitate a more comprehensive picture of the effects of fuel treatments. [1940]

17.88 There is benefit in states and territories developing and utilising remote sensing and other technologies (for example LiDAR) to improve the capture of fuel load data.

Fuel data understanding and use

17.89 In addition to improving the way data is collected, there is support for a continuation of effort to improve national consistency in the way fuel data are classified, recorded and shared across jurisdictions. [1941] For example, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) identifies that it ‘support[s] the ongoing development of a national bushfire fuel classification to facilitate national interoperability and provide consistent data inputs into national processes such as the AFDRS and a National Bushfire Simulator such as Spark’. [1942] The Victorian Government highlighted the value of ‘national investment to improve the way in which fuel availability is monitored and modelled’ in order to ‘allow jurisdictions to make informed preparedness, readiness and response decisions’. [1943]

17.90 Jurisdictions argued that any national information system should not duplicate or undermine information systems currently used by each state and territory. [1944]

17.91 The Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry identified the need to:

  • monitor trends in bushfire activity and impacts, including timing, cause, extent, and intensity across all land tenures and vegetation types
  • track trends and identify patterns in associated weather and climate signals that contribute to severe bushfires, and
  • evaluate the cost and effectiveness of risk mitigation efforts, including hazard reduction, and fire suppression activities. [1945]

17.92 In 2011, work commenced to establish a nationally consistent framework for fuel classification, using existing vegetation data from a range of sources to categorise fuels into a set of nationally consistent fuel types. [1946]

17.93 This work sought to ‘move away from State-based vegetation descriptions classifying the vegetation based on its floristic components to a system that described how the fuel was structured (ie, how a fire would see it).’ [1947]

17.94 Mr Stuart Ellis, the Chief Executive Officer of AFAC, told us that state and territory fire and land management agencies considered that national alignment of their practices could:

  • enhance cost efficiency in systems and data development works by supporting shared funding models and supporting system rollouts across jurisdictions
  • enhance cost efficiency in research and research utilisation by supporting the sharing of project funding and allowing for the rollout of fuel and fire behaviour related findings across multiple jurisdictions
  • support nationally consistent fuel inputs for fire simulators and the new Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS)
  • enhance interagency and cross jurisdiction communication and information sharing
  • enhance interoperability in cross border operations and interstate deployments through shared terminology around bushfire fuel characteristics and fuel types and shared bushfire fuel datasets, and
  • enhance cross border operations through allowing for cross border fire simulations. [1948]

17.95 Despite good intentions, implementation of the Bushfire Fuel Classification project stalled during the trial implementation period. Mr Ellis attributed the stoppage to the ‘substantial effort involved [for trialling agencies] to remap their existing fuel layers and change their bespoke IT and mapping systems and procedures.’ Additionally, some existing vegetation types could not be translated into the Bushfire Fuel Classification system. [1949]

17.96 Focus then shifted to developing a system of mapping fuels nationally to support the development of the AFDRS. The AFDRS’s fuel classification also looks at how fuel structure influences fire behaviour. It uses existing agency data and fuel types based on the existing fire behaviour models used by the AFDRS. [1950]

Recommendation 17.3 Classification, recording and sharing of fuel load data

Australian, state and territory governments should develop consistent processes for the classification, recording and sharing of fuel load data.

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