Discussing wildfire protection and management following the 2020 black summer bushfires in eastern Australia
Submitted by Tetra Tech
Rod Rose is Senior Principal, Bushfire Management with Eco Logical Australia, A Tetra Tech Company, based in Huskisson, New South Wales, Australia. He has more than 45 years of experience in wildfire planning and management and is a recognized leader in Australia in this, as well as related fields.
Rod’s interest in the outdoors and conservation led to a career in the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. Early in his career, wildfire management was a big part of the job and required developing pioneering practices, including remote area firefighting, fire ecology, and prescribed burning. Subsequently, as the Fire Control Officer in one of the most wildfire-prone cities in Australia, he managed more than 1,600 wildfires, including many declared emergencies.
With this background, Rod founded a wildfire consulting business with services based on technical excellence, pragmatism, and innovation. It led to challenging engagements and pioneering a wide range of wildfire work. Rod specializes in wildfire protection design for high-value built assets, including critical infrastructure, new suburbs and townships, hospitals, education facilities, historic buildings, and highly vulnerable sites/buildings. He is also one of the most experienced and competent wildfire management planners for natural areas, including conservation reserves, water catchments, timber reserves, and complex multi-use outdoor recreation areas.
Rod won the Fire Protection Association of Australia 2019 National Award for Excellence in Bushfire Protection.
What kinds of wildfire protection and management activities do you specialize in?
I have specialized in the past, but now find solutions or improvements across a wide range of wildfire-related work. Over years of experience, wisdom and technical problem-solving skills accumulate, enabling the adaptation of solutions learned in one area to another.
I often analyze landscape-wide wildfire risk using spatial models to quantify and/or rank risk to life, property, and the environment. In a planning process, these analyses result in improvements to wildfire mitigation and achievement of site-/project-specific management objectives. My technical, problem-solving, and communication skills are often sought for critical infrastructure protection, expert witness testimony in court jurisdictions, and for unusual wildfire risks (e.g., hiking trails, Defense Department training grounds, or wildfire evacuation strategies).
What has the recent wildfire activity in Australia taught you about wildfire strategies on a global level?
Every location has biophysical features that influence wildfire behavior and attack differently. Most also have cultural and organizational differences; however, the foundational science and suite of management opportunities have much in common. Historically, experts in certain areas of the world may have excelled in specific approaches, but had little awareness or experience in others. This means, globally, there are big opportunities to enhance our effectiveness in wildfire protection and management. Strong local opinion and tradition have often hindered progress, but empathy and skilled communication improves the transfer of solutions.
Our changing climate is affecting wildfire patterns, their severity, and their impact around the world, along with the ability to implement prescribed burning. Wildfire “business as usual” won’t work, nor will a simple enhancement of traditional approaches; a paradigm shift is required. Wildfire management traditions and expert opinions will be challenged everywhere. Being adaptable and proactive, and planning for something beyond what is reasonably foreseeable requires courage and innovation.
Extreme wildfire behavior and widespread changes in fire regimes pose significant risks. Fires will be unstoppable at times, and their impacts on life, property, and the environment will be felt well beyond what has been experienced historically, and beyond what existing protection and management practices have achieved. As we better define the magnitude and extent of the increasing wildfire problem, we will see better responses emerge.
How have you seen the wildfire industry adapt over the years and what are the primary lessons learned?
Wildfires over the past decade or so have exceeded scientific and management expectations. Much bigger and more rapid change is, therefore, required. Recognition of this rate of change and the enormity of the consequences are beginning to drive change.
We have done well in enhancing what we have always done, but there is ample evidence that this is insufficient. Even where good wildfire management and protection designs exist, there is room for improvement in their implementation. In my own opinion, and with a few exceptions, we have generally not done enough. I feel change has been too slow, and, at times, factors such as parochialism and politics have stifled or confused progress. We may be on the cusp of a different approach, circumstances demand it, but time will tell if the industry can adapt sufficiently and quickly enough.
Are there fundamentally important approaches to wildfire management and protection that we must get right?
Yes, I think there are. Updated and more accurate definitions of “acceptable levels of risk” are essential for wildfire protection and management designers. The residual risk (after the application of protection measures) must be clear and understood. Threshold tolerances for extreme events must be part of the mix. Further, near-seamless coordination across landscapes and jurisdictions is required. Communities must identify and respond to failure thresholds for critical infrastructure, along with the critical components influencing the scale and severity of wildfire impact. Good policies and effective implementation are important, but robust applied science is essential for refining policy to achieve effective site- and issue-specific resilience.
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