Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Opinions Under Fire

By Phil Gibbons

An analysis of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires has provided important evidence about which factors save houses. The study highlights the difference between opinion and evidence.

Dr Philip Gibbons is a Key Researcher with the National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions Hub, which forms part of the Environmental Decisions Group.

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When a big bushfire hits a community and brings about loss of life and property you can be sure emotions will be running high in the aftermath. A range of strongly held opinions will be expressed on what should have been done to prevent the disaster. What you rarely see, however, is a long hard examination of the evidence of what factors in the landscape are contributing to the loss of homes and lives. Do strongly argued opinions on appropriate land management fit with the available evidence? This was the question we sought to answer when we examined the evidence left in the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria.

Following a large, damaging fire, the general debate is usually about how to appropriately manage vegetation. There are always strident calls demanding more prescribed burning. There are also claims we should increase general levels of logging or clearing. Some, however, believe that during episodes of extreme fire weather, as was experienced on Black Saturday, it doesn’t matter what is done.

The behaviour of wildfires is primarily determined by weather, terrain and fuel. Of these, fuel load (in terms of the surrounding vegetation) is the easiest to manipulate. Common fuel-reduction treatments employed are clearing, prescribed burning, grazing and mechanical removal of biomass. These treatments are often undertaken at broad-scales...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.