Quotes on 2009 Victorian bushfires

Steels Creek house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex
Steels Creek house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex

These are quotes relating to the 2009 Victorian bushfires which occurred on Saturday 7 February 2009 and were the worst bushfires in Australia’s history, surpassing both the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 and the Black Friday fires in 1939.

Senator Bob Brown

Greens leader

8/02/2009 Higher temperatures, due to climate change, would fuel a greater number of bushfires in the future, Senator Brown told Sky News.

“Global warming is predicted to make this sort of event happen 25 per cent, 50 per cent more,” he said. “It’s a sobering reminder of the need for this nation and the whole world to act and put at a priority our need to tackle climate change.”

9/02/2009 “There does seem to be a human element to bushfire risk. In terms of human contribution it is clear that most of the global warming since about 1950 is likely due to increases in greenhouse gases. Higher temperatures clearly increase the risk of bushfires.”

Mr Brown said climate change was not necessarily the cause of bushfires but was “making them worse, making them more intense, more destructive and more extensive”.

“The predictions on climate change are for worse bushfires with greater intensity as we go down this century. That means that if we are looking to minimising these tragedies in the future we very much have to turn around this catastrophic potential of climate change and take action now in our own time.”


Professor Mark Adams

Program leader at the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.

9/02/2009 Professor Adam said higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had increased the risk of bushfires and added to the likelihood that their intensity would also increase.

“I think the immediate concerns outweigh the longer term issues such as an increased incidence of fire days and their severity,” said Professor Adams.

“Here in Australia fires are probably the thing that needs to be very high on our priorities list when we are concerned about possible effects of climate change. We are just facing a very dangerous decade or decades as our ecosystem recalibrates to the new climatic conditions.”


Blair Trewin

National Climate Centre

9/02/2009 Trewin said the most significant potential climate change influence on the fires was the long-term dry period in the region northeast of Melbourne.

“We have a fair degree of confidence that some of that long-term drying is consistent with climate change,” he said.

Freya Mathews

Research fellow in the philosophy department at La Trobe University

10/02/2009 “These fires are simply the result of the new conditions that climate change has introduced here: raised temperatures, giving us hotter days than we have ever experienced before combined with lower rainfall giving us a drier landscape. Let’s stop using the word “drought”, with its implication that dry weather is the exception. The desiccation of the landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate.”

“If the Government does not seize this opportunity, if it persists in its self-serving refusal to name the truths of climate change, then the terrifying world into which we were plunged, momentarily, on Saturday, will become the world that we will have to inhabit.”


Professor David Karoly

Melbourne University climatologist and head of the Victorian Government’s climate change advisory group

11/02/2009 Karoly said while Saturday’s disaster was due to a combination of factors, scientists had been talking about the growing risk of extreme fire conditions for more than a decade.

“The risk of increased intensity and increased frequency of fires is real, it is already occurring and it will get worse under climate change,” he said.

A joint CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology study of the impact of climate change in bushfires found parts of Victoria faced up to 65 per cent more days of extreme fire risk by 2020, and 230 per cent more by mid-century.


John Brumby

Premier of Victoria

11/02/2009 Tighter building standards are likely to emerge as recommendations from the royal commission into the weekend’s bushfires — and are needed in Victoria to combat climate change and more extreme weather conditions, Premier John Brumby said yesterday. Better fire-proofing of homes, particularly in popular, heavily treed areas like Marysville, the Otways and the Mornington Peninsula were needed, he said.

“I think inevitably — and I think this will come out of the royal commission — there will need to be tighter controls in place. I don’t think there is any doubt about that, so the standards are going to have to be higher.”


Kevin Love

DSE spokesman

11/02/2009 “We’ve got a program of burning each year. We do it on the basis of priority in terms of burns around towns to protect townships and also the priority areas in terms of reducing fuel load,” he said.

“It’s not a panacea and it won’t stop a fire like the fire last Saturday.”

“It might slow it down a bit but it’s not going to stop and the conditions on Saturday were such that nothing would have stopped those fires.”


Tim Flannery

Scientist at the University of Macquarie, Sydney, and author of The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change.

11/02/2009 “My country is still in shock at the loss of so many lives. But inevitably we will look for lessons from this natural tragedy. The first, I fear, is that we must anticipate more such terrible blazes, for the world’s addiction to burning fossil fuels goes on unabated. And there is now no doubt that emissions pollution is laying the preconditions necessary for more such blazes.”

When he ratified the Kyoto protocol, Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, described climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. Shaken, and clearly having seen things none of us should see, he has now had the eyewitness proof of his words. We can only hope Australia’s climate policy, which is weak, is now significantly strengthened.”


Bob Beeton

University of Queensland associate professor who chairs the Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee

12/02/2009 Beeton said there was “no way” it would stop prescribed burning.

“It’s not a greenie plot to shut down land management,” he said. “The impact I want is sensible fire regimes throughout Australia, and they can be everything from fire exclusion to frequent fires … if people are scared of that, they’re really jumping at shadows.”

The government-appointed Threatened Species Scientific Committee developed the new proposal, expanding on one submitted earlier by conservation group WWF-Australia that had focused on the impact of fire in tropical savannahs such as the Kimberley and Arnhem Land, Professor Beeton said.

“It means that we’ve done something that hasn’t been done before, that looks for the first time at the role of fire in the Australian landscape. That’s a good thing,” he said.

Professor Beeton said the proposal could, for example, produce guidelines on how to decide what type of fire management was suited to a particular ecosystem.

Professor Brendan Mackey

Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society

12/02/2009 Claims that greater fuel-reduction burning could have limited Saturday’s devastation have no scientific basis and understate the role played by extraordinary heat and wind, a senior environmental scientist says.

“There was no data to suggest that burn-offs minimised fire risk in extreme conditions.”

Professor Mackey said it was well-established that the amount of forest litter was not a major factor in fire intensity during exceptional dry, heat and wind.

“If our concern is about events like Saturday or the Canberra fires in 2003, fuel-reduction burning is irrelevant,” he said.

“At some point we have to accept there are natural processes we can’t control, and extreme weather conditions are one of those.”

He said fuel reduction could play a role in fighting less intense fires, but the worst raging infernos could be limited only through improved planning and infrastructure.

Peter Marshall

National secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.


“Consider the devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a “low global warming scenario” will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days.”

“However, under a “high global warming scenario”, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for a massive increase of up to 221 per cent in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted as often as every eight years. Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.”

“Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the “low global warming” scenario of a 25 per cent increase in extreme fire days — and catastrophic fire events every five years — in major Victorian country locations in just under 12 years’ time. Likewise, when the scientists tell us that under a “low warming” scenario in 2020, Wagga Wagga faces “very extreme” events every two years, warning bells must surely be ringing.”


Gavin Jennings

State Environment Minister, Victoria

13/02/2009 Jennings sprang to the defence of the environment movement, rejecting claims that green lobbying against fuel reduction was responsible for the scale of devastation.

Describing himself as an “active and strident proponent of fuel reduction”, Mr Jennings said Victoria had burnt more than 400,000 hectares since adopting an accelerated burn-off program three years ago.

“I think it is pretty extraordinary that people are using opportunities like this to fight debates that, by and large, haven’t been relevant for years,” he told The Age.

“I’ll be very surprised if there is anything that comes out of the royal commission that goes beyond the scope and intention of (the Government’s) policy.”


Professor Ross Garnaut

14/02/2009 “The risk of bushfire as Australia gets hotter and drier will prove a challenge,” he said.

Prof Garnaut yesterday warned of dire consequences for the region and the world at large if the carbon emissions from industry were allowed to continue unchallenged.

“We would be reckless if we didn’t respond seriously,”


Melissa Fyfe and Michael Bachelard

Age journalists.

15/02/2009 Despite claims last week that green groups were “ecoterrorists waging a jihad” on prescribed burning, many environmentalists have no problem with it. Many of the state’s grasslands, woodlands and forest systems have evolved with fire and need it to regenerate.

The problem for conservationists is the frequency of prescribed burning. And this is a complex matter. As Esplin’s inquiry pointed out, some forest types need five-year cycles of burning, others 12, others 30.


Professor Neville Nicholls

Monash University

15/02/2009 “The really crucial thing linking this to climate change is the three-day heatwave rather than the really hot temperatures on the day of the fires. By then, the situation was already primed . . .

“I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that global warming and the enhanced greenhouse effect has exacerbated the severity of this tragedy,” said Nicholls, who for decades worked at the Bureau of Meteorology as a senior principal research scientist.


Chris Field

Co-chairman of the IPCC

17/02/2009 Field told a science conference in Chicago at the weekend that tropical forests could dry out and become vulnerable to devastating wildfires as global warming accelerated.

He said soaring greenhouse gas emissions were driven by a surge in coal use in countries such as China and India. Higher temperatures could see wildfires raging through the tropics and a large-scale melting of the Arctic tundra, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere that would accelerate warming even further, he said.

Dr Field said the IPCC’s last report on climate change, in 2007, had substantially underestimated the severity of global warming.


Professor Ross Bradstock

Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong.


“Was the Victorian disaster preventable through fuel reduction? Yes – the wholesale removal of forests and replacement with concrete would have prevented it. This (fortunately) is unlikely in practice. Fuel reduction measures therefore can only mitigate the risk posed by fires to people and property. They cannot eliminate it.

“Fuel, weather and terrain affect the way fires behave (their speed and intensity). This is axiomatic. However, the scope of knowledge about each of these influences is limited.

On a scale of zero to 10, where 10 equates to the level of risk achieved by doing nothing and zero equates to concrete, our efforts result in a ranking of 9½. If we were to double our effort, the rating might be reduced to nine. Doubling our effort would require doubling expenditure. Halving risk to a rating of five or less would require an increase of an order of magnitude or more in treatment, at a commensurate cost. Our ability to maintain such a level of spending in the long-term is questionable.

Will fuel reduction form part of the solution in the future? Undoubtedly, and there is a clear case for doing more in a carefully targeted manner. We cannot expect miracles. The creation of unrealistic expectations fosters complacency, angst and unwarranted pressure on emergency services and land managers. A sober assessment of what can be practically achieved is required.


Dr Phillip Gibbons

Senior Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University and a former firefighter for the Victorian Government.

Feb 23, 2009

Mapping available online from the Victorian Government illustrates a different reality. These maps show the Victorian fires moved across a mosaic of forest that has been prescribed burnt and logged, converted to plantations and cleared. Marysville had a large area around it that was prescribe-burnt last year over which the fire advanced. Callignee is surrounded by a mosaic of cleared land and forest.

Fires burnt destructively in these places in spite of areas of reduced fuel loads.

Forest fires spread due to a combination of wind, humidity, temperature, fuel load and slope. Research indicates that when weather conditions are extreme, as was the case on February 7, the spread of fire becomes more responsive to wind than to fuel loads.

See also