Reporter: Quentin McDermott
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Around the world, the earth is catching fire.
FIREFIGHTER: Let's move out of the road, OK? We're not gonna stop that. It's burning everything. We can't contain it, but we're just doing our best. Make sure you just get down the road, and keep moving that way.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Bigger and bigger wildfires are breaking out and they are becoming harder and harder to control.
JERRY WILLIAMS, MEGAFIRE SPECIALIST: Our fire seasons are starting earlier, they're lasting longer, they're burning hotter.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Fears are growing that climate change will bring with it not only more extreme weather events. It will also herald a new age of megafires.
DR KEVIN HENNESSY, CLIMATE IMPACT AND RISK GROUP, CSIRO: What we're talking about with climate change is whether such events may occur more frequently in future. Our results suggest that that may be the case.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But the truth is we're already struggling to control our worst bushfires.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: The loss of our house, we... we can accept that, but once we got into Canberra and found out the devastation, and... and the four lives that had been lost, I mean... that was hard to take.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tonight on Four Corners - Will Australia burn uncontrollably in years to come? How will we minimise the risk? And how will we put out the flames? 2003 was a terrible year for fires.
REPORTER AT CALIFORNIA FIRE: This fire, you can't stop it. You can't get in front of it. Trees are just blown apart - it's what's happening.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In California, Canada, France, Portugal and Australia, huge blazes swept across vast areas, destroyed thousands of properties, and took dozens of lives.
REPORTER AT CALIFORNIA FIRE: We've lost at least a thousand structures. 16 people are confirmed dead.
JERRY WILLIAMS, MEGAFIRE SPECIALIST: California, which represents probably the largest firefighting capacity in the United States - maybe in the world - was overwhelmed. The Cedar fire in southern California, outside of San Diego, burned over 3,000 homes, and claimed 22 lives. Some 50,000 people were evacuated, starting at 2:00 in the morning.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Australia alone, nearly four million hectares were burned. In Canberra, four lives were lost.
KEVIN O'LOUGHLIN, CEO, BUSHFIRE COOPERATIVE RESEARCH CENTRE: In one year, on three continents, we had, in effect, record-breaking fires, and that, I think, made some people sit up and think, "Hey, what's going on here? Is there an international pattern? Is something happening in relation to climate change?"
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Australia has had its share of catastrophic fires. In 1939, the Black Friday inferno resulted in the loss of 71 lives.
RADIO BROADCAST: Bush fire brigades attack the planks of the fire below on the foothills, and lower slopes of the mountain ranges.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Fewer lives are lost nowadays, but the fear is that fires are becoming harder to put out.
BRUCE ESPLIN, EMERGENCY SERVICES COMMISSIONER, VIC: I spend a lot of time out in the bush in Victoria, and in regional Victoria talking to farmers, talking to firefighters, talking to foresters. And there's a huge number of them are telling me about bushfire behaviour that they would describe as unprecedented.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Are we in for an era of larger than normal bushfires? Probably. Are fires becoming more difficult to contain and suppress? Definitely. That's evidenced by the fact that fires are both unseasonal. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia - all had fires, of consequence, of significance, months before they would normally experience them.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Many experts dislike the term mega-fire, but whatever you call them, huge and uncontrollable fires are here to stay. These fires devour the vegetation on forest floors, which acts as fuel for the flames. And they have the potential to threaten our towns and cities.
JERRY WILLIAMS, MEGAFIRE SPECIALIST: We're looking at three factors converging. One is climate change, one is over-accumulated fuels, particularly in fire-dependent forests, and the last is the rapid growth and development of human populations at what we call the 'wildland/urban interface.'
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: Megafires, I think, are going to become much more common. I don't think it's necessarily inevitable. I think we can probably do a lot to reduce the frequency and occurrence of those megafires with better land management. But certainly that's where the pressure is heading.
PROFESSOR ROSS BRADSTOCK, DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RISK MANAGEMENT OF BUSHFIRES, WOLLONGONG UNIVERSITY: I don't think there's any doubt that we're probably headed for an increase in fire activity in, say, the next half century. And that would be based on what we understand about the projections of change in weather, and in particular, the variables that affect fire.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Fires are more likely to break out on high, very high or extreme fire danger days. The chances of a fire starting, its rate of spread, intensity, and difficulty of suppression are rated on a Forest Fire Danger Index according to temperature, humidity, wind speed, and drought.
DR KEVIN HENNESSY, CLIMATE IMPACT AND RISK GROUP, CSIRO: We looked at potential danger for the year 2020 and 2050, at 17 sites in south-eastern Australia. We concluded that there would be a 4 per cent to 25 per cent increase in the risk of very high and extreme fire danger days by the year 2020, and a 15 per cent to 70 per cent increase by the year 2050.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What does that mean, in practical terms?
DR KEVIN HENNESSY, CLIMATE IMPACT AND RISK GROUP, CSIRO: In practical terms, that means an increase in the frequency and intensity of bushfires in future, due to greenhouse warming, along with an extension of the bushfire season.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Climate modeller Professor Andy Pitman says that in the next 40 years, the risk of bushfires will increase by 25 per cent, whether greenhouse gas emissions are reduced or not. But the forecast for 2100 is much more bleak.
PROFESSOR ANDY PITMAN, ENVIRONMENTAL LIFE SCIENCES, MACQUARIE UNI: But if we allow the emissions to go to a high end, the population growths continue, there isn't some superb technological solution, we continue to burn fossil fuels in much the way that we have been doing, we're looking at at least 100 per cent increase in bushfire risk, and regionally - substantially more than that.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: These are forecasts of increased risk, but can we cope with the levels of risk we already have? Some now allege that even without global warming, fire management in Australia has been unable to prevent megafires. In 2003, one of the worst bushfire disasters of modern times occurred in and around our nation's capital. On January 18th, extreme weather conditions fanned the flames, as a firestorm engulfed the suburbs of Canberra.
MAN AT CANBERRA BUSHFIRE: I couldn't get any water bloody pressure, because it was mainly just in the carport. And now, it's just spreading to his... That's his lounge and dining room, so she's gone.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Four people lost their lives, and nearly 500 homes were destroyed. Mount Stromlo Observatory was gutted, and Canberra's water supply seriously polluted. Firefighting is not an exact science, and the Canberra story shows how bad judgment calls can have drastic consequences. In future, with climate change, these kinds of judgments will be even more critical. On the afternoon of January 8th, a lightning strike started a fire in New South Wales, in a remote part of the Brindabella National Park known as McIntyre's Hut. It was one of four fires which would end up hitting Canberra ten days later. Wayne West, who owns Wyora Station - an 860-acre property next to the National Park, remembers vividly how the fire developed. On that first night, he called New South Wales Fire Control to find out what was happening.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: They showed very little concern with the fire, and, um... I was under the impression that the fire was just a lightning strike of very little concern at the time.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Then he visited the site.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: I went to the fire that evening.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And what did you see?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: Well, the flame height of the fire was not at all high. It was a low flame height, and the fire was burning with very low intensity.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Would it have been dangerous for firefighters to go there and fight it?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: Well, at no time did I feel as though I was endangered, or, um... intimidated by the fire, at all, and that was right through 'til the 17th of, um... January.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The McIntyre's Hut fire was one of a number set off by lightning storms.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: There were multiple fires throughout the area. Every effort was made by a local incident management team to do what was necessary to contain those fires, bearing in mind that, around about the time those fires started, at in the succeeding days, the forecast was for predominantly easterly winds. So obviously their focus was to look at containment on the western side rather than the eastern side because of the forecast conditions.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The New South Wales Rural Fire Service didn't tackle the McIntyre's Hut fire head on, that afternoon or evening. The decision not to hit the fire fast at its source would prove to be fatal. Later, fire chiefs would claim that firefighters were being protected from potential grave danger. Phil Koperberg, a Labor candidate in the New South Wales elections, is also the state's Rural Fire Service Commissioner.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: The incident controller told me on more than one occasion, and my conversations with him and his deputy were not infrequent, that to have commenced a direct attack on the fire would have endangered firefighters and that has to be his call.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But this film - never before seen on television - shows a team of CSIRO observers monitoring the fire on that first afternoon and evening. The film was shot by the son of one of Australia's foremost bushfire experts, the CSIRO's Phil Cheney.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Now, your son was filming this part of the landscape. Was he in any danger?
DR PHIL CHENEY, HONORARY RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: No, not at all. They came in looking for spot fires and trying to map the position of the fire, and how many spot fires there were, but he certainly wasn't in any danger. The biggest danger up here is falling trees, that some of these trees will catch alight and fall without warning.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So in your view, the fire could and should have been fought at that time?
DR PHIL CHENEY, HONORARY RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: Absolutely, I mean, that was the safest time of this fire ever. And if you don't take advantage of this first safe period, then you're immediately way, way, way behind the eight ball.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Phil Cheney is an eminent scientist, but Phil Cheney is not a firefighting entity and therefore has not had to deal with the possibility of committing human resources to a particular incident, and he forms and opinion and other people form different opinions, the decision was arrived at and has to be supported that firefighters may well have been endangered.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Over the next ten days, the McIntyre's Hut fire slowly spread.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: What I seen from the night of the 8th 'til the 17th, ah, the fire burnt very, very slowly. Very, very, very slowly.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So there was time to tackle it properly?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: I believe so, yes, from what I witnessed.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Peter Cathles was a senior officer in the Rural Fire Service working on the fire ground, and in the Yass fire control centre, while the Canberra fires progressed. On or around January 9th he went to a meeting of fire chiefs in Queanbeyan, at which the McIntyre's Hut fire was discussed. He was surprised by a comment made by a member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service - and is telling this story publicly for the first time.
PETER CATHLES, FORMER SENIOR GROUP CAPTAIN, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: One of the paid staff of the RFS said, "Oh, it's only shit country, it's burning pretty slow... why not let it burn?" And they all seized on that as a brilliant idea and that was the end of the meeting. They actually decided by consensus to do nothing and I sort of lived with this a year or two and I ultimately wrote to the coroner, Maria Doogan, and told her this.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: There may have been a range of individuals with separate opinions and there may well have been a nodding of heads, and we all know where the odd indiscreet comment will ultimately lead us, but the team itself, the people who were ultimately responsible for making the decisions never, never could be accused of any level of complacency in this and haven't been.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Many firefighters - including Peter Cathles' son Tim - were left on the sidelines, despite being eager to go in and tackle the blaze.
PETER CATHLES, SENIOR GROUP CAPTAIN, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: I think we could have controlled the McIntyre's Hut fire those first few days if we'd have had the OK to go ahead. I'm certain we could have.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Now Tim wanted to go and fight the fire on January the 8th didn't he?
PETER CATHLES, FORMER SENIOR GROUP CAPTAIN, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, he, he wanted to go and they were stopped from going by their local paid staff, one was in Yarralumla Shire and the other one is Yass Shire.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How did he react to that?
PETER CATHLES, FORMER SENIOR GROUP CAPTAIN, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Ah, he wasn't happy at all.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The judgement had been made not to go in fast and attack the fire directly - but instead to try and contain it by lighting back-burns - where sometimes vast tracts of land are lit in front of a fire, to burn off fuel and stop the fire spreading. Three days after the McIntyre's Hut lightning strike, one of these back-burns was lit.
HUGH PATERSON, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER: The idea was to have a back-burn along the Brindabella Range, then along this power line track out to the Goodradigbee River, and so that would, sort of, draw a line around the fire and keep it behind those lines.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: I made a phone call to the fire controller saying to him at that particular time that the weather conditions up here were hot, the wind was blowing from the northerly direction, blowing to the south, and the back-burn was to be burnt to the north and I said the conditions would not suit back-burning. He told me, "Wayne, you don't see the big picture."
HUGH PATERSON, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER: It was not heavy fuel loads in my opinion, but lots of fine, flashy fuels which made the fire difficult to contain. Ah, it was very dry and any little sparks crossing the trail could easy lead the fire to escape.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So did they listen to you?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: No.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: They went ahead and did it?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: They went ahead with the back-burn and in doing that back-burn the fire jumped the containment line immediately to the south and they brought helicopters in then to try and contain that outbreak.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: For several days after this, helicopters travelled to and from Wayne West's property, collecting water from his dam to drop on the fire. One in particular - the 'Incredible Hulk' - was draining 9,000 litres every three minutes, so Wayne West and his family set up pumps to refill the dam from the nearby Goodradigbee river. Later, Wayne West asked an officer from the Rural Fire Service for a four-inch pump and 130 metres of hose. It would have allowed him and his family to protect his house - but it was never supplied. On January 16th, Wayne West and two of his neighbours crossed the river and put out a fire which they'd seen in the national park. They cut down burning trees, and monitored the fire throughout the night. Wayne West was feeling more and more anxious. The next day, he again called Fire Control in New South Wales.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: With this phone call, I was getting a little bit of aggressive on the phone and I had a response come back, "Should the fire cross the river, we'll put it out."
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How do you feel about that now?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: A very flippant statement made with no intent.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: By January the 17th, weather conditions were deteriorating. Four major fires were spreading and in a last ditch effort to stop the progress of the McIntyre's Hut fire, the New South Wales firefighters lit another back-burn at 11am, this time from the air. The gamble failed and the back-burn itself escaped, adding to the final run of fires into Canberra.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Was it right of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service to drop aerial incendiary devices to start a back-burn?
DR PHIL CHENEY, HONORARY RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: Yes, but not at the time that they did it. To light up on a very high fire danger, and especially when it's forecast 'Possible extreme' in the afternoon, we know we're going to lose that. That's our experience, we're going to lose that fire. So, no, it was the wrong time to do it. If they had done it skilfully the evening before, they could well have achieved a safe burnout of that area and not had any escapes over the fire line. But they really should've done it about three or four days before on a smaller area.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: In a perfect world you would only do a back-burn if you're able to do it with the wind, not against the wind. In a perfect world we would know that you can only do a back-burn at dusk and in a perfect world you would be able to put an aircraft up in the air at 7 o'clock at night when conditions may well have moderated and do a major aerial incendiary run, but in real life that doesn't happen.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That night, the fire crossed the Goodradigbee River, bringing it that much closer to Wayne West's property. Again, he called New South Wales Fire Control and on this occasion, he was told to call 000. It was his 24th phone call.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: You were ringing them to ask for help?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: Yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: You'd been in touch with them more than 20 times before, you'd helped them with water from your dam, you'd crossed the river, you'd fought the fire yourself and now they were telling you to ring 000.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: That's 100 per cent correct. Hard to believe but that's exactly what happened.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Around midday the next day, on January 18, the fire suddenly changed direction and overran Wayne West's home. He and his family were ordered to leave.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The danger was too great?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: I think it was better to save lives than save a house, yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That afternoon, the fires raced into Canberra on two major heads, covering the last 20 kilometres into Canberra's suburbs in an hour - with tragic results.
MAN AT CANBERRA FIRES: It was a hopeless cause because there was no warning, there was just total devastation within seconds, as you can see. Everything just went off like a bomb. You could hear the crackling and the rumbling and the flames coming toward us, and I just couldn't believe the speed at which they reached my place. That's how quickly it spread. It just came through here like it was being pushed by a cyclone.
WOMAN AT CANBERRA FIRES: Scary. Yep. Couldn't believe it. And it was already into the house. And the funny thing is, it sort of got into this house but it hasn't touched the trees. It's just that's how frightening it is, It must have come in from their back fence, yeah.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: Where we had a barbecue area... We had an outdoor sink outside that we used to do our dishes on. We had an outdoor table. We had river rocks underneath here for the pavement...
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The decision not to fight the McIntyre's Hut fire at the outset had proved catastrophic not just for Wayne West and his property, but for the city of Canberra as a whole. Wayne West's home was left a charred wreck.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: The loss of our house, we can accept that, but once we got into Canberra and found out the devastation and that four lives had been lost, I mean, that was hard to take.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Are you angry about what happened?
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: Probably very, very disappointed. To be at the fire on 8 January... and witness what happened and see what happened in Canberra, yes. Very, very. It's a hard pill to swallow that you do see something and see what happened at the end that was preventative as far as I could see.
HUGH PATERSON, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER: I felt like, well, I lit the fire that burnt down Canberra. I was there with hundreds of other firefighters lighting back-burns and, you know, somewhere or other those fires grew to become the fires that swept into Canberra. And that's a gut feeling, I suppose. It's not a rational analysis of the history of the fire, but it is dramatic for me and it still weighs on my mind, as, I guess, a personal failure.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Wayne West is now suing the State of New South Wales, and the head of the Rural Fire Service, Phil Koperberg, for the loss of his property.
WAYNE WEST, WYORA STATION: And the only way we believe that the truth will be told is through legal action.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: We regret deeply that Wayne West lost property, as we regret profoundly that 500 families lost their property as a consequence of what happened once the fire got into the ACT under appalling conditions. In exactly the same way we regret profoundly when a rescue team is unsuccessful in extricating a patient before he or she dies, but that does not go to issues of competency or commitment or dedication.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In the aftermath of the Canberra fires, a number of inquiries criticised the way the fires in the ACT were managed there. ACT Coroner Maria Doogan, who had no jurisdiction over New South Wales, said, "The failure to aggressively attack the fires in the first few days after they ignited was one factor that led to the firestorm".
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do you accept now that it was a mistake not to tackle the McIntyre's Hut fire at the outset more aggressively?
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: If we had known on that day that notwithstanding the forecast of easterly winds thus presenting us with a problem to the west of the fire, it was all going to, in subsequent days, reverse, then would we have done things differently, most certainly.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: There are no winners in this debate about firefighting tactics the families whose relatives lost their lives, the homeowners who lost their homes, the firefighters who wish they'd been able to contain the fires - all are victims of what occurred in Canberra.
HUGH PATERSON, VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTER: We need to put aside blame and anger and just look at the facts, look at the timeline, what happened, where and when, what were the weather conditions, what were the options, what options were considered, what options weren't, what could have been done different. Try and learn from it. I don't think anger and blame's going to get us anywhere.
MAN AT REVIEW: This fire was one of the biggest we've had in a number of years. The Rural Fire Service did a marvellous job, an excellent job. So why have we been standing here asking for an independent inquiry...
WOMAN AT REVIEW: It's not an inquiry, it's a review.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But blame is still the chief currency in much of the debate surrounding fire management and land management.
WOMAN AT REVIEW: I have to say, that people are profoundly distressed at what has happened to the Blue Gum Forest.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Blue Mountains outside Sydney, home to the Three Sisters and a magnificent Blue Gum Forest, is a World Heritage site of outstanding natural beauty. Fire can help a forest regenerate, but fires which are too frequent and intense can cause lasting damage. This year, tensions erupted between conservationists and firefighters over how fires in the iconic Grose Valley were managed. The fires in November were started by lightning strikes. It was the fourth time in 25 years that parts of the valley had been swept by fire. Wayne Brennan was part of a remote area firefighting team, or RAFT, which was sent in quickly to fight one of the two major fires. But he wasn't able to finish the job.
WAYNE BRENNAN, REMOTE AREA FIREFIGHTER, BLUE MOUNTAINS: We believed that we could've contained that fire. The RAFT team was actually taken off, or stood down, as the term is, simply because resources were needed for the new fire which really presented more danger to property and life. And that's the fact of the matter, property and life is important, I fully support that. But basically it meant that we lost our aircraft, the RAFT team, and we had to pull out and we weren't deployed the next day, which we thought was a little strange, and our fire was basically left to burn.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Back-burns were lit as part of a strategy to contain the fires.
HUGH PATERSON, BLUE MOUNTAINS CONSERVATION SOCIETY: Back-burning was carried out along the Darling Causeway from the area where the fire was burning, well to the north and well to the south, so that within 24 hours the back-burning extended nearly to Mount Victoria and nearly to Bell. The fire had already spotted into the Grose Valley quite early on.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Now, was there spotting from the back-burn itself?
HUGH PATERSON, BLUE MOUNTAINS CONSERVATION SOCIETY: There was later, yes.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Invariably there will be spot fires on the wrong side of you, and that may well have occurred, but what we do know with relative certainty is that no back-burn failed to the point where it was the result of fire being in the Grose.
MAN AT REVIEW: The community would like an opportunity to comment, to be involved in that.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The allegation that the back-burn caused the fire to spread and the suggestion that the Blue Gum Forest was extensively damaged have been hotly debated locally, with councillors calling for a review of how the fire was managed.
WOMAN AT REVIEW: Well, it would be easy to remain silent and let others manage fire without a real scientific base. But our children and our conscience will never forgive us if they have to look out on the remains of the bush we couldn't stop burning.
FIREFIGHTER AT REVIEW: Shame! Shame on you!
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The damage in the Blue Gum Forest may not now be as bad as at first feared, but deep concern remains. Last month, this forum, convened by the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute, brought conservationists, fire chiefs and members of the community together to talk about fire management and land management. But the arguments about whether the environment is being sufficiently protected, will continue.
WAYNE BRENNAN, REMOTE AREA FIREFIGHTER, BLUE MOUNTAINS: The natural and ecological systems of the Grose have been hammered over the past few decades. And I think that this comes down to fire intensity and frequency. Now, broad-scale burning might make you feel safe, but what effects does it have on biodiversity? What effects does it have on cultural heritage?
NIC GELLIE, FIRE MANAGEMENT OFFICER 1983-95, BLUE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARKS & WILDLIFE SERVICE: If you have a look at what happened, this fire here in the Blue Mountains, We didn't hear very much about World Heritage values, wilderness values, biodiversity and conservation values - it was all about life and property. And if you really cared about this landscape, we would've put out that fire much smaller and we would've also done our back-burning with far more care.
PHIL KOPERBERG, COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: I would suggest to you that the vast majority of firefighters, volunteers and salaried, care equally about the environment as they do anything else. And they take no pleasure in setting back-burns. And those heritage values would have been uppermost in their minds, but they would have been overridden by their concern for life and property. and as one correspondent from Blackheath said to us, "This morning I looked out of my window and saw devastation, but then again I had a window to look out of."
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: A worrying glimpse of the future has been revealed this year in Victoria. Over one million hectares has gone up in flames. More than 50 properties have been lost, and the fires this season have taken 69 days to contain.
BRUCE ESPLIN, EMERGENCY SERVICES COMMISSIONER, VIC: There was one particular day with 273 fires in September, three days in October, over 600 fires, so the fire seasons now are starting earlier, they're lasting longer and they include a large number more extreme fire weather days.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Attacking and containing the fires is a huge operation which is run from the state's Emergency Coordination Centre in Melbourne.
EWAN WALLER, CHIEF FIRE OFFICER, VIC: This is the aircraft desk, which manages all the aircraft fighting fires through Victoria. The control of the centre is through the State Duty Officer. All functions come through there and he actually manages the floor. Talking to the CFA, talking to the police, whatever it may be, so the whole coordination comes through here, all through this one desk.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: This year, almost 20,000 career and volunteer firefighters and support staff have taken part in the effort to contain the fires. But despite the numbers, information updates in early December were reporting that resources were limited. A strategic overview warned: "planning being developed for a month long campaign to do so may stretch resources to the limit". The next day, an information update warned of "limited resources" for fighting fires in North-East Victoria's Ovens region.
BRUCE ESPLIN, EMERGENCY SERVICES COMMISSIONER, VIC: I think the resources were in place. That has to be seen in context that the fire chiefs were protecting the whole of Victoria. All of Victoria was judged to be an extreme bushfire risk and the planning that was undertaken was to make sure that the whole of the state had fire cover and that that fire cover could be maintained, not just for December, January, February but for September through to possibly even April.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One of your own information updates from Monday December 4 said that 79 firefighters were on the fire ground that day to fight 14 fires under the control of the Ovens Control Centre, Was that enough? 79 firefighters to fight 14 fires. Was that enough, do you think?
EWAN WALLER, CHIEF FIRE OFFICER, VIC: Probably not. Don't know that, er... In first attack that may well be sufficient. If it's, say, during an extended fire then obviously we'd need more support. If those fires were 10 or 20 or 30 hectares, then obviously that would not be enough resources.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The task ahead was huge, and resources were stretched. Reinforcements were requested, and Canadians, Americans and New Zealanders were flown in to provide specialised help. The Canadians sent a remote area firefighting team from British Columbia, who are trained to get into remote country fast, and extinguish fires early, before they get out of control - doing the kind of work that didn't happen at McIntyre's hut. Is that the way of the future, do you think? Do you think there'll be more and more rapid response crews who'll be going out to stop fires quickly, as soon as they start?
BRUCE YOUNG, BRITISH COLUMBIA FIRE SERVICE, CANADA: Yeah, it's certainly one of the philosophies that we have in the BC Forest Services - hit hard, hit fast - and so when we dispatch or get a fire report, our philosophy is to throw a quick response at it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Canadians also sent fire behaviour specialists - experts in predicting the behaviour of fire under different weather conditions. These are men who are used to being listened to.
BRUCE YOUNG, BRITISH COLUMBIA FIRE SERVICE, CANADA: In our way of doing business, there's no 'boss hog' in the system, it's just another level of information, but the Incident Management Team has to take time to hear that information before they develop the plan - otherwise they kind of look goofy, because once they do hear that they may have to change the whole plan.
MAN AT MEETING: We've had some issues I suppose in getting that level of expertise up, and having you guys here I think has helped demonstrate the value of having that level of expertise in-house, if you like.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Are you under-resourced in that area, do you think?
EWAN WALLER, CHIEF FIRE OFFICER, VIC: I think that when we analyse this season it will be one area where we will have to put more effort. Fire Behaviour Experts have proven their worth this year, particularly in predicting where fires will move to under weather conditions.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Kevin Tolhurst is a fire behaviour specialist and ecologist. This season he helped develop strategies to fight the fires and minimise their impact. Better than most, he knows why the battle to control bushfires has become so hard.
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: We're in our 11th year of drought, so it's really starting to be reflected now in the in the forest. And the amount of fuel that's available when a fire comes through is significantly greater than it would be in a normal year, because there's no moisture in the soil effectively to help moderate the moisture content in the litter. So we're in quite dire straits.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Kevin Tolhurst and many other fire managers and land managers believe that areas of forest have to be burned off, in a controlled, prescribed way, in order to reduce the fuel load. It brings into focus the dilemma faced by those who fight fires and those whose job it is to prevent them. To burn, or not to burn?
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: We need to be more serious about how we manage fire within those landscapes, and it's not by fire exclusion. We've been very successful in suppressing fires for the last 20 years or so, and that's been seen as a good thing, because fire is seen generally as a bad thing. But one of the consequences of that fire suppression is that we're building up the energy, the amount of fuels in the environments here, and the our forests and parks are becoming out of balance in a fire sense.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Victoria's firefighters have had some big victories this year, protecting lives and small communities. One significant success was protecting Melbourne's water catchment. On a high ridge overlooking the catchment, a long, wide fire break is in place to stop the flames encroaching on it. But fire breaks on their own won't stop big fires spreading.
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: I think the Thomson Catchment has been very lucky to date that so little of it got burnt. The amount of sediment and pollution in the Thomson I think will be relatively slight compared with what potentially could happen. But I think the catchments of Melbourne are still very much potentially vulnerable to the impact of fire that perhaps haven't occurred yet. I mean, there'll be lightning strikes in there yet that will cause fires to burn those.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One problem for land managers and fire managers is that the practice of burning off forest and grassland fuel is unpopular with some green groups, and with residents of suburbs and towns affected by the smoke. In some States, levels of this prescribed burning have fallen. Last year in Victoria, it was hot and dry well into March, so there were fewer autumn days when the weather was suitable for prescribed burning. Victoria fell well short of its target - managing to burn just 50,000 out of a targeted 130,000 hectares. And it's not a simple exercise - where to burn, when, and how much is a difficult, specialised area.
PROFESSOR ROSS BRADSTOCK, DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL RISK MANAGEMENT OF BUSHFIRES, WOLLONGONG UNIVERSITY: It's about choosing the optimal mix of how often you treat landscapes, how much you treat landscapes, where you treat landscapes. It's about using or defining a prescribed burning scalpel, rather than sort of a...just some sort of generalised sledgehammer, or not doing anything at all.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Is enough prescribed burning carried out nowadays?
DR PHIL CHENEY, HONORARY RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: No, not in my opinion. Burning is simply the easiest and most effective way, and also the most ecologically desirable way to reduce that fuel load.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When so little fuel reduction takes place before the fire season starts, the management of fires becomes reactive, and big back-burns are needed.
EWAN WALLER, CHIEF FIRE OFFICER, VIC: The main back-burn we did to protect Gippsland was well over 100,000 hectares so we burnt out that amount of country to protect... stop the fire from going south. That's abnormally large, they are not normally that large. But that means the size of the fire and the dramatic action we had to do to make sure we did get containment.
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: Normally that would be a massive fire in its own right. And the ecological consequences of that are huge and it's quite undesirable. And the need for it needs to be seriously looked at.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Victoria this season, two back-burns got out of control, causing considerable damage and anxiety. The first was at the Cresta Ski Lodge on Mount Buffalo. Firefighters believed the back-burn was under control, but it escaped after they left the scene unattended in order to change shifts.
BRUCE ESPLIN, EMERGENCY SERVICES COMMISSIONER, VIC: I would hope they will be looking at their procedures there. When I have the opportunity to look at the review of the ski lodge loss, I'd like to see that there'll be further changes that mean that shift changes occur at the fire line and that situations like that might be managed slightly differently in future.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In January a second back-burn escaped. It spread tens of thousands of hectares further than it should have done - and at one point was threatening the town of Bruthen.
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: The area that escaped from the back burn, burnt down towards Bruthen and Tambo Crossing as well. It was a considerable area that was burnt or threatened beyond that, where that back burn was, yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When land is burned intensively by nature or by humans, a price is paid. Badly burnt and damaged topsoil, and the removal of nutrients, means both plant and wildlife populations suffer.
DR KEVIN TOLHURST, SENIOR LECTURER, FIRE ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, MELBOURNE UNI: What we've been seeing in some of the large fires that we've had in recent years, is that that sediment movement is massive. And we're talking about decades or even centuries for some of that to recover.
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER, CENTRE FOR RESOURCE & ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, ANU: Most natural fires are very patchy, they leave a very patchy environment and that's critical to the recovery of biodiversity and the environment after fire. The big difference with the way back-burning and human fires is that they tend to be very uniform and that creates a very homogeneous environment which is not so good for many species to recover, or recover very quickly from.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: New ways will be needed in future to prevent and fight megafires. Australia is already the most flammable continent on earth. In future, it may burn even hotter. Some experts now are saying that, even without climate change, we are mismanaging fire, increasing our fuel loads, and increasing the danger of fire. So are we entering an age of uncontrollable megafires?
DR PHIL CHENEY, HONORARY RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: If we keep going on the same paths as that we have been in the last five years, yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And bushfire is not just an Australian problem. With changing weather patterns, it's a global threat.
JERRY WILLIAMS, MEGAFIRE SPECIALIST: The message I guess that we're seeing in the United States is that our past strategies, our past prioritisation, protocols, our past ways that we deal with fire aren't working as well today as they used to work and again it kind of comes back to that - what are the limits of suppression capability? Here's a country, the US, spending close to $2 billion a year and I'm just talking about the Federal fire services, 99 per cent successful, but the 1 per cent that's getting away in our parlance, is eating our lunch.