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Submission to


Victorian Bushfire Inquiry

9 May 2003



David Packham



This submission does not encompass anything more than the mere essence of the relevant conclusions that I have reached during the last forty-five years of professional bushfire research. I was employed by CSIRO, The Department of Defence, Monash University and The Bureau of Meteorology during this time. My last position was as Supervising Meteorologist for Rural Fires at the Bureau of Meteorology. My bushfire research was recognized with an Order of Australia Medal.


My research has encompassed fire chemistry, fire physics, prescribed burning development, smoke, human and building survival, fire behaviour, disaster management, fire policy, and fire weather.


The result of this experience has forced upon me certain conclusions about the role of fire in the total Australian environment. The conclusions are mostly at odds with the prevailing policies currently in place in Victoria. These policies have failed in the past, are failing now and will fail in the future. Surely over a million hectares of burnt and damaged forests proves my assertion.


The current policy of fire exclusion (1.05% of prescribed burning is still fire exclusion), fire control through technology and the decrease in capacity for initial attack and the exploitation of volunteers is totally unsound.


Current policies do not actually recognise the facts of fire behaviour, fire meteorology, the scale of disaster fires, the community nature of volunteers and the essential requirement of burning for a healthy natural environment.


The bushfire “problem” is multifunctional and requires an understanding at the scientific, environmental, social, economic and political levels. Developing appropriate policies is not achievable by “Yes Minister” type inquiries such as this one. Only the most robust, honest and open debate can achieve a unified state and national approach to living with fire.


Government and bureaucratic response to the recent fires has been divisive, callous and dismissive. Pre-emptive statements from the Premier and Ministers and some Departments have destroyed any atmosphere for a unified fire policy development.


The 2003 fires are a result of the failure of Victorian Governments and Bureaucracies to ensure the safety and health of the land under their control and custody. The failure of the Government to acknowledge this fact in the fear of litigation will preclude a positive outcome to this major environmental  and social threat.


Possibly the most dangerous factor in the Victorian fire threat is the determination of the Victorian Government, Departments and Agencies to ensure that dissenting voices be not heard.


I do not imagine that this inquiry will achieve anything more than a politically acceptable conclusion and as a result the threat next year and thereafter will essentially remain the same. I however always live in hope.


The Fire Threat in Victoria


  • In Australia, in the last 100 years, 600 fire deaths have occurred, 400 in Victoria.
  • Victoria, because of the Southwest cold front has the world’s worst fire climate.
  • The fire exclusion policy has resulted in the highest and most dangerous fuel loads for 47,000 years.
  • A running disaster fire intensity exceeds the maximum capability for fire fighting by between 4 and 80 times.
  • The environmental, industrial and social costs will increase as the extreme fuels closer to Melbourne experience the inevitable mid summer disaster wildfire.
  • The ecological threat is extreme.
  • The threat to Melbourne’s and the States water supplies is certain to be realised in the next few decades – the water harvest will be decreased to half for 30-50 years within the next 50 years.
  • The hardwood timber industry will be obliterated.
  • The rural/urban interface will experience a major civil disaster greater than but similar to Hobart in 1967.
  • We remain very vulnerable to arson from disgruntled citizens and external forces.
  • The fires in Gippsland and the NE were predictable and have been expected.
  • If an objective, unfetted and independent analysis of the East Gippsland and NE fire disaster were made I would expect to find that the fire fighting ($2m per day) made little if any difference to the outcome. The predicted daily spread was usually achieved.
  • The dramatic demonstration of the predicted potential destruction of the Bass Link project by wildfire has been totally ignored, putting the State at considerable financial risk.


Fuel management

  • The fires in W.A. during cyclone Alby demonstrated beyond doubt the efficacy of prescribed burning.
  • Reducing the dry sclerophyll fuels to an average of one quarter will reduce the fire intensity (and the damage) to one sixteenth.
  • Reducing the fuels to one quarter will reduce the areas burnt to between one quarter and one sixteenth.
  • The application of frequent mild fire as was  practiced by the indigenous people is essential for a healthy Australian environment.
  • It will take two decades of effort to achieve healthy fuel levels. There is however no alternative except major fire disasters at the rate of one or two per hundred years.
  • An honest public education effort without propaganda and spin will be needed to achieve support for fuel management.
  • Sufficient and supported fire research to develop and refine burning techniques for Victorian fuels, topography and climate is needed. The dubious and constrained proposed CRC will not suffice.
  • There is a demonstrated capacity of fire fighters and individuals to protect buildings as in 1983.
  • The lessons of 1926, 1939, 1944, 1965, 1983 and now 2003 do not appear to have been learnt.
  • Skill levels in the agencies have been seriously reduced by economic irrationally driven staff reductions. (see Cheney ANU Fire Forum).
  • Legal processes, spin and personal attacks are used to obscure and hide facts and protect departments – note for example the use of massive legal forces by DSE and CFA to prevent the issues in my report to the Linton Inquest from being aired.
  • The bureaucracy has subverted the Westminster process by setting fire and fuel policy and then snowing the political arm of government. The agencies should instead provide honest alternative advice to the Government who acting in the State interest, will set the policy for the Agencies to carry out. An old fashioned view perhaps but better than the alternative.


Despite my better judgement I am prepared to support the above assertions, facts and opinions in person and no doubt yet again withstand the slings and arrows of official outrage. In the meantime if this inquiry is really interested in understanding the nature of the problem it should consider and take into account the Stretton Royal Commission, The Cheney ANU paper and my report to the Coroner in the Linton Deaths (how you get it is your problem as CFA and DSE continue to ensure that it is legally suppressed)


I do not have confidence in this Inquiry as it is clearly not open and independent. The lack of judicial powers to compel evidence and have it on oath will ensure that the unpalatable truths remain hidden.