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  • Ben Jones

Bushfire Prevention in Australia

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Introduction


Australia's remarkable natural beauty is accompanied by a diverse climate that can give rise to devastating bushfires, making the question of how to stop bushfires from wreaking havoc a crucial topic for the nation. These fires occur throughout the year, engulfing millions of acres of land every season. During the notorious 2019-2020 bushfire season, an estimated 24.3 million hectares were ravaged, highlighting the need for effective prevention methods. Australia plays a pivotal role in addressing the global challenge of bushfires.


Australia's vast landmass, characterized by its hot and dry climate, provides the perfect conditions for bushfires to thrive. The country has experienced increasingly severe bushfires in recent years, with the catastrophic 2019-2020 fire season, also known as the "Black Summer," serving as a stark example. Climate change exacerbates this issue, with rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns fueling more severe fire seasons.


The average bushfire season now lasts 130 days — almost a month longer than 40 years ago.

devastating wildfire

Delving into the causes of bushfires in Australia

The causes of bushfires are not dissimilar to causes of wildfires around the world. Humans are predominantly to blame, whether intentionally or otherwise.


Bushfires can be ignited by various natural and human factors. Lightning strikes and extreme heat are common natural causes, while human-induced factors such as arson and accidental ignitions (such as from burning debris) contribute significantly to these disasters. With the population growth and increasing development, the risk of human-caused fires rises, emphasizing the need for responsible actions to prevent such incidents.


The devastating impact of bushfires on local communities

The scale and severity of recent bushfires have left many individuals financially and physically affected, with 57% of Australians exposed to the resulting smoke from the 2019/2020 bushfires. Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected.


In addition to the impact on human life and damage to properties, the bushfires can also have long-term repercussions on local economies, as businesses – particularly those dependent on agriculture and tourism – suffer from the aftermath, with 17% of companies closing their doors as a result of bushfires in 2019/2020 bushfires.


Infrastructure such as transport, telecommunications, and power supply systems also get severely affected, hindering recovery efforts and causing further distress to the already vulnerable communities.


The toll on Australian wildlife and ecosystems

Australia's unique and diverse wildlife has been one of the worst-affected aspects of these catastrophic bushfires. As per recent estimates, the 2019-2020 bushfires alone resulted in the death or displacement of almost three billion animals, many of which were native species like koalas and kangaroos.


These disastrous events have led to either significant loss of habitat or even local extinctions, threatening the balance of ecosystems and the survival of some species. Moreover, bushfires often have cascading effects on the environment. They can lead to further environmental disasters such as erosion, soil degradation, and water pollution, posing grave threats to the health of ecosystems and humans alike.

wildfire suffering from bushfire

The Importance of Bushfire Prevention


While eliminating the risk of bushfires entirely is impossible, investing in bushfire prevention is crucial to minimize their occurrence and severity.


The role of prevention in reducing the impact of bushfires

Bushfire prevention efforts primarily focus on reducing the likelihood of fires starting and limiting their spread. Controlled burning, vegetation clearing, and public education campaigns are among the key prevention measures. These efforts significantly reduce the number and impact of fires when they do occur.


Prescribed burning is a crucial element of bushfire prevention and is a large part of the NPWS fire management program to protect biodiversity and manage vegetation. It involves intentionally igniting small, low-intensity fires in a controlled manner to remove undergrowth, dried grass and excess vegetation that otherwise could fuel more significant bushfires. This lowers the intensity of future fires and makes them easier to manage and extinguish.


Clearing vegetation near buildings and roads is another essential preventive measure. This creates a buffer zone, reducing the likelihood of a bushfire spreading to populated areas. It also ensures that emergency services can access the affected areas more easily.


Cost-effectiveness of bushfire prevention

Though bushfire prevention requires investments, the costs are considerably lower than those associated with managing and recovering from major bushfires. The economic and social costs of bushfire disasters are enormous, making prevention a practical and financially responsible choice. Analysts put the total cost of the 2019-2020 bushfires at around 100 billion Australian Dollars.


In addition to the direct costs of fighting fires and providing immediate relief, there are long-term consequences such as losing tourism revenue, rebuilding infrastructure, mental health support, and ecosystem restoration efforts. These recovery efforts can take years and place a significant financial strain on communities and governments.


Investing in bushfire prevention measures can significantly reduce costs associated with bushfire management and recovery. The modest investment required for prevention can save billions of dollars in the long run, making it a practical choice as well as a financially responsible one.


Emerging technologies in the bushfire detection space, such as leveraging sensor technology, IoT and machine learning look certain to provide cost-effective bushfire prevention to governments, local authorities and organizations.


Bushfire Prevention Measures in Australia


While bushfires are not new, the increasing intensity and frequency have become a cause for concern, prompting the government and organizations to step up their prevention efforts.



Legislation and policy-making

One of the key strategies to prevent bushfires is the implementation and enforcement of legislation and policies.


The Australian Government established the National Bushfire Recovery Agency as a response to Black Summer and to work with communities and territory governments to rebuild local communities.


Australian state and local governments have designed various regulations and guidelines, such as land management, use of firefighting equipment, and clearance of fire hazards from properties to minimize the risk of bushfires. These policies include controlled burns, creating and maintaining firebreaks, and specified periods restricting outdoor fires.


Awareness and education

Raising awareness and educating communities is a significant part of bushfire prevention efforts in Australia. Fire agencies, such as the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Rural Fire Service (RFS), conduct public education campaigns that inform people about the bushfire risk, what to do during a fire, and how to prepare and implement bushfire survival plans, often working closely with schools to educate. These initiatives have led to safer behavior and compliance with fire prevention regulations.


Early detection and warning systems

Early detection of bushfires is crucial to prevent raging fires from causing extensive damage. Fire agencies employ various technologies to detect fires, such as satellites, weather-monitoring systems, aircraft and the National Bushfire Monitoring System.


Australia has developed a three-level bushfire alert system but has faced criticism that it’s not regionally consistent and has become outdated since its inception in 2004.


Many utility companies, insurance companies, and local governments have adopted additional software like Dryad Networks' network of solar-powered bushfire sensors to detect fires early in their smolder phase. Prevention is often better than cure and, in this case, could save public bodies millions or even billions in the process.

Dryad wildfire sensor on a tree

Controlled burns and fuel reduction

Controlled burns and fuel reduction activities are undertaken to reduce the amount of flammable materials that could fuel bushfires. By systematically burning small areas of land, the practice aims to reduce the speed and intensity of a bushfire when it occurs.


However, this practice requires careful planning and monitoring, and there are concerns about its effectiveness in reducing bushfire risks, especially in the context of climate change.


Cross-agency collaboration

Effective bushfire prevention efforts require close collaboration between sectors such as fire agencies, emergency services, land management authorities, and research organizations. For instance, the Australian Government collaborates with the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) to study bushfire behavior and develop innovative fire management techniques. This collaboration extends to the international level, as Australia shares its knowledge and expertise with other countries facing similar challenges.


Conclusion


Australia's diverse climate and vast landmass make it susceptible to devastating bushfires that pose a significant threat to lives, communities, and ecosystems. The increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires, exacerbated by climate change, call for robust bushfire prevention measures. While complete elimination of the risk is impossible, investing in prevention is crucial to mitigate the impact of these destructive events.


Legislation and policies play a crucial role in bushfire prevention, providing guidelines and regulations for land management, fire hazard clearance, and controlled burns. Raising awareness and educating communities about bushfire risks and preparedness is vital in promoting safer behavior and compliance with fire prevention regulations. Early detection and warning systems, including advanced technologies like sensor networks, enhance the ability to detect and respond to bushfires swiftly.


By making bushfire prevention a national priority, Australia can protect its people, infrastructure, and wildlife from the devastating impact of bushfires. It is through collective effort, proactive measures, and ongoing vigilance that we can prevent further destruction and ensure the safety and resilience of Australian communities.

graphic of Dryad's network in a forest

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