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Australia has seen 51 bushfire inquiries since its first – the 1939 Black Friday Royal Commission – but the current Black Summer inquiry, due to be published on Friday, arguably tackles greater challenges than any previous investigation.
Experts told the inquiry the bushfires of 2019-20, which torched 10 million hectares, claimed 33 lives and destroyed more than 3000 homes, was the first manifestation of climate change, with fires running hotter, for longer and across multiple state jurisdictions.
The Black Summer bushfires torched 10 million hectares, claimed 33 lives and destroyed more than 3000 homes.Credit:Nick Moir
Prime Minister Scott Morrison set a breakneck six month September deadline for the National Natural Disaster Arrangements Royal Commission, but commission chairman Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin was granted a two month extension in July. The final report was sent to the Governor General and state governments on Wednesday.
The commission published "interim observations" in August which said "further warming over the next 20 years appears to be inevitable" and warned of "cascading, concurrent and compounding" disasters.
It estimated Black Summer's health costs totalled $2 billion. A medical study estimated smoke caused 417 excess deaths.
The Commission's interim report invited consultation on a national natural disaster agency to co-ordinate state and federal preparation and response, and a national disaster declaration system.
Experts said the Royal Commission must address the nation's aerial water bombing capacity. Fires which start in remote bushland, often by lightning strike, are typically left to burn until they threaten lives or property.
Currently the federal government will cover 75 per cent of a states firefighting costs – but only in extraordinary circumstances when firefighting was targeted at imminent risks to lives and property, but not in wilderness areas.
Last summer lightning strikes created huge blazes in remote bushland in the Snowy Mountains, Blue Mountains and NSW South Coast, as well as a series of fires that burned across East Gippsland in Victoria.
Wilderness Society policy director Tim Beshara said rapid response aerial waterbombing offered the greatest potential to improve public safety and environmental protection. He urged the federal government to "step up" and to encourage fires to be extinguished in remote areas before they burn towards communities and destroy habitat in their wake.
"If the Commonwealth is going to increase its role anywhere in our bushfire preparation and response, this is the space they should step up," Mr Beshara said.
"So many of the mega-fires were started by lightning in remote areas where the Commonwealth have a stake. They could take a leadership role in planning and funding in this area that has the greatest potential to reduce environmental and community safety impacts."
Climatologists have found the specific weather pattern which fuelled the megablazes in NSW and Victoria in December 2019 will be up to four times more likely to occur under forecast levels of global warming.
Australian National University Climate Change Institute professor Mark Howden said the commission must "address all of the factors arising from climate change", which was increasing the duration and intensity of fire seasons on the east coast.
"As our high pressure systems strengthen, that will increase the dry westerly winds that are funnelled across the land ahead of cold front," Mr Howden said.
"Because our fire season is starting three months earlier and one month later people can be on call for six to seven months. That’s a real problem particularly if you have a job, or if you're an elderly volunteer."
Former Victorian Country Fire Authority chief Neil Bibby said recommendations to boost early aerial response at the first sign of smoke in remote areas should be a crucial element of the commission's recommendations.
"It's fundamental. When you put the little fire out it doesn't become a big one, it's really simple. The fire services understand it, but the public and politicians don't," Mr Bibby said.
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