Download the full paper as PDF 148Kb
Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 05/2002 by Stewart Smith
This paper reviews the history of fire and bushfire in Australia, including the debate on bushfire hazard reduction burning. It outlines the provisions of the Rural Fire Service Act 1997, and provides a comprehensive summary of the fires which occurred in NSW during the 2001-2002 fire season. It is self evident that bushfires occur during periods of hot weather. 'Bushfire weather' in NSW tends to occur when a deep low pressure system is located south of Tasmania, which results in hot, dry, desert westerly winds blowing over the State.
The ecological impact of Aboriginal burning of forests, and ramifications for contemporary fire management, are still keenly debated in the scientific literature. Some of these arguments are canvassed. The experience of bushfire in south-eastern Australia since the late 1800s is traced, and dramatically shows that communities cannot be complacent in the face of the bushfire threat. Appendix One contains a chronological list of bushfires in NSW since the 1950s.
Severe bushfires occurred across eastern NSW in 1994, and in their aftermath several inquiries, led to the reform of the legal and institutional response to the bushfire threat. The Rural Fires Act was passed in 1997, and the Rural Fire Service was created. The Service is comprised of a small number of salaried staff, as well as a volunteer force of over 68,000 people. Under the auspices of the Rural Fires Act, the main function of the Service is: to provide services for the prevention, mitigation, and suppression of fires in rural fire districts; and the protection of people and property from those fires. The Act states that in carrying out these services the Service must take into account the principles of ecologically sustainable development. The Act also focuses on the development of bushfire risk management plans, which is a significant paradigm shift from the single issue of fuel management.
A recurring debate throughout both the scientific and general community is the effectiveness, required amount and location of hazard reduction burns to reduce the intensity of bushfires. The aim of these prescribed burns is not to prevent fires from occurring, but to reduce the intensity, rate of spread and crowning of those that do occur.
The NSW Bushfire Co-ordinating Committee supports fuel reduction by prescribed burning, and promotes a policy of mosaic fuel reduction burns, except where the main purpose is to provide a buffer zone between the bushland and high value assets. Land managers such as government agencies, local government and private landowners have the legislative responsibility for undertaking hazard reduction activities. Criticisms have arisen that the environmental requirements of the Rural Fires Act have made hazard reduction burning more difficult, and hence there has been less of it. These arguments are canvassed.
Tragically, over the last few decades scores of people have died from bushfires in eastern Australia. Building standards as well as urban planning can make a big contribution to bushfire safety. NSW experienced another severe bushfire season over 2001 - 2002, and a daily summary of these fires is presented.