IN June, 2019 the CSIRO published a report on prescribed or hazard reduction burning, looking specifically at prescribed burning to protect Australian properties from bushfires.
The report cited nearly 80 other studies, the majority Australian, showing that we actually have a lot of scientific evidence to support how and where hazard reduction burning should occur to protect properties, the environment, and to be the most economically effective.
You wouldn't know that wealth of information exists if your only source of information about hazard reduction burning was some politicians at federal and state level in the wake of catastrophic bushfires in the past few weeks.
Barnaby Joyce, predictably, blamed "greens" for impeding "people's capacities to fight fires". It was a proposition hosed down immediately by NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who said hazard reduction was part of a "really complex argument" but "environmental clearances are invariably not our problem with hazard reduction burning".
Scott Morrison, Craig Kelly, David Littleproud, John Barilaro and others have also pointed the finger at "fuel loads" and the lack of hazard reduction burning as one of the explanations for the catastrophic nature of recent events, saying it has been the main issue raised with them by people.
But Mr Fitzsimmons' counterpart in Victoria, Stuart Warrington, called some of the commentary about hazard reduction "quite an emotional load of rubbish" and "hysteria".
"The emotive argument is not supported that fuel reduction burning will fix all our problems," Mr Warrington said.
The CSIRO report looked specifically at the costs and benefits of different arrangements for hazard reduction burns. It found that intensifying prescribed burning in public land where it meets urban land reduced property damage when compared with simply burning bush in rural areas.
But wildland-urban interface prescribed burning is "significantly more expensive" but "in most cases is not the most economically efficient strategy". Hazard burns in bush areas can cost $100 per hectare, compared with up to $10,000 for burns close to urban properties.
Experts including University of Melbourne bushfire behaviour specialist Trent Penman have found that in catastrophic fire conditions the surface fuel available for burning makes next to no difference to the level of a fire's intensity. At that level "you switch from fuel-dominated to a weather-dominated fire", Associate Professor Penman said.
Studies of Victoria's 2009 Black Saturday bushfires found planned burns in the area had no measurable effect on their intensity.
An inquiry into this fire season should settle the issue and remove the politics from an over-heated debate.
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