Effective fire management requires handling both people and the environment

Fuel reduction - one of the most important keys to better fire management practices

As we have seen, there is much people can do for themselves and their environment to minimise the intensity and severity of a fire. Of particular interest to the authorities is the fuel reduction policy as being perhaps the most important first step to protecting people, property and the environment.

The idea behind current good fire management practices is this: the more fuel that is made available on the ground in a prescribed area, the more intense and hotter the fire, and the more damage the fire can do to life and property. By controlling the amount of fuel available on the ground, not only will the severity, size and temperature of the fire be reduced, but will also give people a greater chance of surviving and perhaps even stopping the fire from spreading further.

We should reemphasise again that fires are not all bad. For example, fires have now become part of the Australian landscape and as such the native plants have not only adapted to fire, but also requires fire to help germinate their seeds. On the other hand, fire can also have a devasting impact on the lives of people and property. To minimise the loss of life, property and the environment from severe bush fires, careful preventative measures must be taken by everyone concerned well before any fire approaches people and property.

Who is responsible for creating fires - people or the environment?

However, to deal with the threat of any fire in the most effective way and over the long-term, we have to deal with:

  1. The environment
    We must reduce the amount of fuel in the environment, and/or lower the flammability of the fuel
  2. The people
    Up to two-thirds of all bushfires are believed to be the work of people, either accidentally or deliberately. So naturally it would be wise for us to understand why people start fires and, most importantly, help them to avoid behaviours that would affect the environment in such adverse ways.

    As for people facing a fire through no fault of their own, it can be difficult to know what to do. It is therefore important for people to prepare a plan of action on what to do. Write down on a piece of paper the things that have to be down and ready in the event of a fire. Make this plan available and accessible to everyone. Planning before the fire will help people to think straight and calmly all the steps to take even in the event of a fire.

Understanding people and changing their behaviours

To begin with, people need to understand themselves and their actions because a majority of fires in the environment are either caused deliberately (by piling up fuel and igniting it out of anger or through attention-seeking methods) or by accident (i.e. allowing dead or dry vegetation to accumulate on the ground, throwing a cigarette butt out the car window, and/or using machinery with metal blades at the wrong times of the day). Only effective education, counselling and other forms of support will help people to understand how their actions can start a severe fire.

For example, psychologist Rebekah Doley said:

"You won't find it written anywhere, but in my experience the common theme among them [the deliberate firestarters] is power. Fire, inherently, is a powerful tool. Bushfire arsonists tend to be underachievers who are not getting what they want because they don't have the skills. Fire gives them that moment of power. It is a vicarious experience for them. Many stay to watch or they monitor the fire's progress through the media.

'They are extremely dangerous because they are unpredictable and their fires have no boundaries. They also tend to be serial offenders and, in my experience, most will not stop until caught. Like more arsonists they light fires without regard to the consequences. But while some uban arsonists light fires in, say vacant buildings where there is little damage, bushfires cause inevitable harm, often to many people, animals and properties." (Wainwright, Robert. Look at what I've done: The Sydney Morning Herald. 7-8 January 2006, p.13 (pp.13 & 16).)

When people feel less important and/or powerless to affect their environment and other people because of poverty, unemployment, low education and skills or other circumstances, they are likely to balance this situation by starting fires. So don't be surprised if arsonists become volunteer firefighters just to make themselves more important. They can also influence people by forcing citizens to protect homes or leave the area as well as inform authorities to act on fires seen in the area.

Anger is usually not the primary motivation for starting the fire, although it is a possibility. It can be as simple as lacking in self-love and love from others, in not having what they need like everyone else has, and in not knowing they are a worthy contributor to society which can make all the difference.

We must show our love to everyone, starting as young as possible. And we must show people are a value member of society.

Changing the environment

Secondly, there is also a large number of fires started naturally such as lightning strikes and there is much we can do to our immediate environment to minimise the spread of these fires and their effect on people's lives. For instance, we can clean up the excess fuel before it dries out and become a fire risk. And we can also start planting less flammable trees on a large scale and expand water supplies on the ground to help affect weather patterns in Australia and perhaps increase rainfall in areas susceptible to fire.

Long-term solutions require people and the environment to work together

While there are issues of human behaviour to be addressed in disadvantaged people through effective education and counselling and other forms of social support if a truly long-term solution is to be found for most accidental or deliberately lit bush fires, the most effective immediate solution to controlling bush fires for the moment is through fuel reduction management practices.

And over the long-term, supporting people properly and getting people to work with nature as well as helping nature to work with people will provide a much better fire management practice for the 21st century and beyond.

We hope this brief free information section will go some way towards helping people become aware of the dangers of fire and what to do when faced with the awesome power that is fire.