Mr Bradstock, the director of Wollongong University’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, questioned whether governments were willing to radically increase bushfire management funding to address hotter, drier and more dangerous conditions.
Prescribed burning programs reduce fuel loads, creating buffers between residential areas and other assets.
Mr Bradstock said scientists had warned for decades that climate change would increase the scale and severity of bushfires but this summer the future “had come early”.
“We published research on what prescribed burning would be required to hold the bushfire risk at current levels in 2050. We found we’d need to spend five times the current amount to hold it. But are we prepared to find half a billion dollars a year to do that?” he said.
“What we’ve seen play out this season is what was predicted by our research for the middle of the century, by 2050.”
Mr Bradstock dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” claims that green-tinged state laws or agendas had prevented government agencies and private land holders from carrying out prescribed burns.
State government land management agencies, which carry out the majority of prescribed burns, are limited by funding, staff and safe periods in weather conditions to carry out burns before summer.
“Most jurisdictions find they have more burns approved than they have the capacity to carry out,” he said.
“Fire management is a bit of a Trojan Horse in rural communities – it’s used to bash up governments. But I know as a landholder who’s lived in bushland areas I was able to carry out burning and clearing on my property, and I found it relatively easy to do.”
Mike Clarke, a professor at La Trobe University’s Centre for Future Landscapes, agreed it was crucial that prescribed burns were targeted in the most advantageous areas, often close to residential areas, and the community’s “very high expectations” had to shift.
“Progress will be incremental and we will need to think creatively about how to reduce risks and not rely solely on one tool, which is controlled prescribed burning,” Professor Clarke said.
“One critical thing is where the burning is done; we need to be strategic to protect life and property.”
Professor Clarke said Australia had a “litigious society” and governments should educate the public about the risks and rewards of prescribed burning, which could prevent fires reaching homes and sensitive environments.
“We need to recognise that sometimes it will go wrong, it will escape and burn what we didn’t want it to and as a society we need to wear that. The grumpier we get with governments and agencies when that happens, the more risk-averse agencies and politicians become.”
‘We need to recognise that sometimes it will go wrong, it will escape and burn what we didn’t want it to and as a society we need to wear that.’
Mike Clarke, a professor at La Trobe University’s Centre for Future Landscapes
Mr Bradstock called on the government to hold a royal commission following the fires. He said the commission should be supported by an independent expert taskforce to “forensically analyse” the disaster, including the role of climate change, the cost-effectiveness of fire-prevention techniques, adequacy of the volunteer firefighting force, potential new funding models and a “whole raft of other questions”.
“Total clearance around at-risk houses may be a better long-term management measure than just more prescribed burns. This is an indication of challenge we’re facing now,” Mr Bradstock said.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.