Inquiry into the 2019–20 Victorian fire season 

After the 2019–20 Victorian fire season, the Inspector-General for Emergency Management was charged with ‘investigating Victoria’s preparedness for the fire season, response to fires in large parts of Victoria’s North East, Gippsland, and Alpine regions, and will review relief and recovery efforts’.

On 31 July 2020, Inspector-General Tony Pearce delivered his report to government on Phase 1 of the independent Inquiry. It covered ‘Community and sector preparedness for and response to the 2019–20 fire season’.  The report made a series of Observations and recommendations.  It has now been made public. The government now needs to decide how to respond to the report and the recommendations.

The take home message from the report is:

‘Measured in terms of their geographic extent, the tragic loss of life, the damage to property and infrastructure, the devastation to flora and fauna, and their overall social and political impacts, the 2019– 20 fires mark a key turning point in Australia’s relationship with fire and the environment’. 

The report is available here.

The following are some of the key messages and findings included in the report. These are all direct quotes from the report, except where text is in italics.


During the 2019–20 fire season Victoria faced its most challenging bushfire emergency since the devastating 2009 bushfires, with a geographic scale not seen since 1939. 

The sector’s response to the 2019–20 Victorian bushfires again showed the state is well positioned in many regards. Agency collaboration, on the ground leadership, effective control strategies and volunteer involvement all featured prominently when contributors to this Inquiry reflected on positive outcomes and experiences. 

However, operational governance, consultation and clear accountability are considered areas where opportunities for improvement exist. 

The scale of the fires

1,507,895 ha (1,387,000 ha of public land)

5 fatalities

405 homes destroyed, 53 damaged (313 primary residences and 145 non-primary residences were destroyed or damaged)

Estimated impact on tourism (Jan – March) $330-350m

The huge environmental impact in terms of flora, fauna and waterways is still being assessed. 

Almost every significant fire in Victoria during the 2019–20 season was as a result of lightning strike. 

Fuel reduction

The deeply contested question of fuel reduction burning, canvased extensively prior, during and since the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC), is again at the centre of public debate and discussion in Victoria and elsewhere in Australia. 

Fuel management forms a central theme of this report. However, fuel reduction burning is not a simple panacea, any more than the reintroduction of Aboriginal burning practices will restore the Victorian bush to its pre-European condition. 

Simply building a vast bushfire response capability marshalling more aircraft, personnel, trucks and equipment is on balance no more useful than it is affordable. What is required is something more sophisticated: an adaptive and innovative approach that takes the best from a range of approaches, synthesising them to a point where the optimal human and environmental outcomes are pursued. 

Land and fuel management remains a contested and divisive issue in Victoria.

At one end of the scale are those who believe that regular and repeated planned burning will reduce or eliminate uncontrollable bushfires. At the other end are those who favour total exclusion of fire from the landscape. While planned burning (and other fuel management techniques) can alter fuel loads, it must be carefully applied to reduce the risk of bushfire. 

Even with an extensive fuel management program, bushfire risk remains and increases as the vegetation regrows. Many forest types will readily carry fire within a couple of years at which point they cannot simply be reburned without environmental consequences. The total exclusion of fire from an environment which is uniquely adaptive to – and for some species dependent upon for regeneration – is equally at odds with sound management of Victoria’s altered 21st century landscape. 

Fuel management plays an important role in bushfire management; however, it is not a silver bullet. The extent to which it is effective and whether this effectiveness is measurable is limited by some key barriers identified in this Inquiry. 

Community dissatisfaction with the current fuel management practices on public land highlighted a desire to use alternative approaches including mechanical treatment to reduce smoke effects and overcome the small burn ‘window of opportunity’. There was also significant interest in facilitating opportunities for Traditional Owners to care for Country through increased cultural burning. 

Climate change

Concern over the future impact of climate change upon bushfires in Victoria was widely expressed to the Inquiry in submissions from government departments, emergency management agencies, community service organisations, councils, community groups and individuals. 

The past is no longer a reliable guide to the influence of climate and weather upon bushfires into the future. Climate change is influencing the patterns of natural hazards globally. In Australia, increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns are contributing to an increase in extreme fire weather across much of the country. In south-east Australia there have been long-term decreases in rainfall. The bushfire season in the 21st century begins earlier and ends later. 

The 2018 Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation State of the Climate Report predicts changes Australia will experience over the coming decades. Those that will influence the potential for bushfire are: 

  • further increase in temperatures, with more extremely hot days and fewer extremely cool days 
  • a decrease in cool season rainfall across many regions of southern Australia, with increasing drought 
  • an increase in the number of high fire weather danger days and a longer fire season for southern and eastern Australia. 

As an interesting aside, the report understands the need to act on climate change:

Climate change mitigation is a crucial step towards reducing bushfire risk in the long-term. (p30)

Climate change mitigation is a crucial step towards reducing bushfire risk in the long-term. The sector’s climate change mitigation actions are part of a broader whole-of-government commitment to reduced emissions under the Climate Change Act 2017. Just as the government recognises climate change mitigation is a whole-of-government responsibility, it must also adopt this approach for disaster risk reduction planning. As such, all elements of responding to climate change need to be embedded in government decision-making.  (p346)

The occurrences of earlier starts to the season has doubled in the last 45 years (from 5 occurrences through to 2002 with FFDI>25 before September, to 10 occurrences). These changes are expected to be further exacerbated under climate change. 

Climate change contributed to Australia’s extraordinary 2019–20 fire season through cumulative long- term changes in climate. 

Climate change has other indirect implications for bushfire risk management. Rising temperatures, increased fuel availability, increasing awareness of smoke and greenhouse gas emissions and less predictable wind conditions will reduce opportunities to safely undertake planned burning 

Cost of firefighting

Climate change means that ‘the high workload and severity of the seasons is likely to strain the recruitment and retention of paid and volunteer staff’.

To cope with fire seasons of greater severity and length, fire services will need greater workforce capacity and resourcing for firefighting equipment and infrastructure. Research conducted to assess changes in expenditure per year of fire services in various climate change scenarios shows the need for a marked increase on current expenditure. Modelling provided by Risk Frontiers indicates that expenditure for fire services will increase based on the projected increase in cumulative FFDI. With current expenditure estimated at around $1.5 billion, by 2025 it is estimated this will be around $2 billion. By 2055, modelling indicates it might be almost at $5 billion. 

Longer fire seasons

The lengthening of fire seasons is reducing opportunities for cross-jurisdictional resource sharing. As observed in the 2019–20 fire season, bushfires in Victoria are increasingly coinciding with fires and other emergency events elsewhere in Australia and overseas. This limits personnel and firefighting equipment (such as specialised aircraft) available for deployment to Victoria when needed and has implications for Victoria’s ability to provide support to other jurisdictions. 

Australia’s changing climate has been evident in significant accelerated warming, with nine of the ten hottest years on record occurring since 2005. Nationally, 2019 was the hottest year ever recorded. The year commenced with significant areas of eastern Australia already very dry, and low rainfall continued throughout 2019, intensifying the dry conditions. 

While these fires were not ‘unprecedented’, These fires were different, often ferocious and in some ways quite unlike those that had come before. What set the events on the nation’s east coast in 2019–20 apart – and in NSW in particular – had less to do with the scale and impact of large bushfires in the past than with the emerging environmental preconditions, the diversity of the landscape affected, drought and underlying dryness, the impact of climate change, and the effect of the fires on the biodiversity of many landscapes. 

The 2019–20 fires were part of a continuum of wildfire in Victoria in which a number of factors are at play – and in which the impact of climate change is increasingly evident. 

Wildlife and biodiversity protection

South-eastern Victoria is renowned nationally and internationally for its high diversity of wildlife and plant species. This includes approximately 300 plant species, almost 500 terrestrial vertebrate animals and a vast range of invertebrate fauna (as yet uncounted). There are also species of fish and other aquatic life forms inhabiting the rivers, lakes and estuaries impacted through runoff contaminating aquatic ecosystems 

Evidence provided shows a concerted effort by key organisations such as DELWP, Parks Victoria, Catchment Management Authorities and the Department of Jobs, Regions and Precincts (DJPR) to adapt strategies, structures and plans in preparation for increased pressures associated with climate change and large-scale bushfires. 

The strategies and plans highlight the considerable research, planning and coordination to map and identify high priority biodiversity areas across the state, including threatened species and communities. This detailed analysis enables improved decision-making to prioritise and coordinate conservation and welfare across public and private land during emergencies. However, it is evident that there are varying levels of preparedness between biodiversity and wildlife welfare arrangements. 

A key gap in biodiversity preparedness is the lack of formal structures and roles embedded within the AIIMS structure. There is no emergency response plan for biodiversity conservation. 

Considerable work has been conducted to increase preparedness for the impacts of bushfire in wildlife welfare through reform of key conservation legislation, regulation, strategies and policies. While work for ecological biodiversity is less mature, the foundations for greater preparedness and protection of Victoria’s wildlife and biodiversity have been established. 

The appointment of the Class 2 Controller – Wildlife greatly assisted in prioritising and coordinating the wildlife welfare and biodiversity response to better align with community expectations.

Finding Opportunities to harness the capacity of volunteers in wildlife response and relief activities were not considered early in the response activities for the 2019–20 fire season. 

As an example, to inform priorities under the Alpine and North East strategic bushfire plan, DELWP used information and data from community consultation, regional bushfire planning assessments, the Victorian Fire Risk Register – Bushfire, PHOENIX RapidFire (fire behaviour modelling) and government data on environmental assets and cultural heritage. The strategy provides maps of the values assessed to identify strategic priorities. The key values considered are: 

  • communities 
  • infrastructure and environmental services 
  • economy 
  • environment 
  • cultural heritage and community assets.

Biodiversity values under the environment theme were assessed based on high value ecological areas, which are areas most susceptible to fire due to habitat loss and waterway impacts. High value ecological areas also include nationally-listed threatened communities including Alpine Bog and Box Gum woodlands, wet forest (Alpine Ash) and some ecological fire groups, which require appropriate fire regimes or that have been long undisturbed by fire. 

An increasing proportion of the Eastern Victoria region has been burnt multiple times since 2000. The 2003 Alpine fires and the 2006–07 Great Divide fires covered some 50 per cent of the area affected again in 2019–20.48 Over 90 per cent of the fires in the 2019–20 fire season occurred on public land. Many localised species are increasingly vulnerable to extinction, and the full impacts of the fires and the ability of the ecosystem to recover post fire will take significant time to understand, including the impacts of cross-border biodiversity. 

Biodiversity impacts 

The scale and intensity of the fires coupled with the rich biodiversity has led to a devastating impact on Victoria’s biodiversity. DELWP outlined that ‘under climate change we are entering a new world in terms of the scale and complexity of managing fire impacts on biodiversity’ 

The 2019–20 Victorian fire season impacted 10 per cent of each of the three highest classes in the Strategic Biodiversity Values, 70 per cent of the nationally listed Warm Temperate Rainforest and 53 per cent of the Banksia Woodland. As well as this, 104 parks and reserves managed by Parks Victoria were impacted, 61 with significant impacts, including 34 with all land burnt, 18 with 75–99 per cent of land burnt and nine with 50–74 per cent of land burnt.

Species impacts 

Individual species have been severely impacted, with over 173 rare or threatened species, including 13 nationally listed species having over 50 per cent of their habitat burnt and around 60 species losing over 75 per cent of their Victorian habitat. Many species occur within isolated habitat areas and there is concern the fires may lead to species, even those not classified as threatened, becoming locally extinct. In particular there are serious concerns for the Eastern BristleBird, Long-footed Potoroo, Large Brown Tree Frog, Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby, East Gippsland Galaxias species (native fish), Native Quince, Kerrawang and Tangle Orchid 

The Alps

The Victorian experience last summer was close in terms of location, geographic extent and loss to the 2003 Alpine fires and 2006-07 Great Divide fires. 

In 2003, more than 1 million ha of the Alpine region burned between January and March. In 2006–07, large parts of the Alpine region were affected as another 1 million-plus ha burned. Some of this area would again be affected in 2019–20. 

This means that areas of the High Country have now burnt three times in less than 20 year.

Remote area work

Crucial to success in managing responses to future bushfires is the ability for early detection to inform first attack. Satellite technology is already used to detect the incidence of lightning strikes and this provides a good indication of the likelihood of fire starts across the landscape. 

Given the predicted impacts of climate change highlighted above, preparedness for fires needs to consider resources – such as personnel and assets. 

Fuel reduction

The Inspector-General for Emergency Management recommends that in conjunction with Inquiry Recommendation 2, the State establish or assign responsibility to a single body or entity to lead and coordinate the implementation of evidence-based fuel management policy, practice and assurance and reporting on activities on both public and private land in Victoria. 

The state establish or assign responsibility to a single body or entity to lead and coordinate the implementation of evidence-based fuel management policy, practice and assurance

Land managers and fire agencies have been inhibited in their delivery of the planned burning element of their fuel management programs due to unfavourable weather over recent years. 

A significant percentage of community representations to this Inquiry were not satisfied with current fuel management practices on public land. The rationale for this dissatisfaction and proposed alternative approaches are not easily reconciled due to fundamental differences in the values and experiences underpinning these beliefs.

The Inspector-General for Emergency Management recommends that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (or the single entity referenced in Recommendation 4) – supported by other organisations with a legislated responsibility for fuel management – plan for and increase the application of non-burning fuel management treatments including mechanical means. 

DELWP to lead the development and distribution of evidence-based land and fuel management tools for use by all legislated fuel management organisations to ensure a common approach to fuel management. 

DELWP to develop a common set of objectives, metrics and reporting requirements for fuel management that form part of a compulsory regime that enables the Victorian Government to report publicly on a holistic fuel management program. 


The Victorian 2019–20 fire season saw a demand for emergency personnel that has not previously been experienced. This was as a result of both the request for and early deployment of personnel to assist other jurisdictions and the severity and duration of the fires seen across Victoria. Resources had to be maintained across the whole of Victoria even while the fires in the east of the state were drawing heavily on capacity. Even before the 2019–20 Victorian fire season had started firefighters and operational support personnel were being called upon to support response efforts across Australia. The majority of these were CFA volunteers. 

The availability of resources for deployment to the east of Victoria was impacted by fires in other jurisdictions as well the need to maintain sufficient resources across the rest of Victoria to respond to events. 

The events of the 2019–20 fire season placed significant strain on the existing capacity and capability of the sector which had implications for the management of fatigue and the occupational health and safety of personnel both on the frontline response and in the control centres. 

The existing capacity (including surge capacity) across the Victorian emergency sector was challenged by the extended duration and severity of the 2019–20 fire season. 

The Inspector-General for Emergency Management recommends that Emergency Management Victoria collaborate with the emergency management sector to develop a capacity model that considers current and future: 

a)  career and volunteer emergency management personnel requirements 

b)  identified and trained personnel for surge requirements 

c)  emergency risks and climate scenarios. 

The deployment of operational personnel to New South Wales and Queensland occurred at a critical time for Victoria, with a significant number of personnel deployed at a time of high fire occurrence in the Gippsland area. Personnel deployed were primarily Country Fire Authority volunteers. The workforce model in place in Victoria is underpinned by the number and strength of its volunteer agencies, when large scale concurrent events occur across Australia this model can be significantly tested. 

Aerial fire fighting

NAFC procure aircraft on behalf of jurisdictions and provide some supplementary Commonwealth funding. Jurisdictions are responsible for the tasking of aircraft. 

The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts – including first attack – would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect. 

Aerial firefighting comprises a key capability in fire suppression and response activities. Aircraft use has three major advantages over ground-based suppression including speed, access and observation. Aerial fire-fighting has been found to be more effective when combined with ground-based crews and less effective during extreme conditions when aircraft can become grounded by severe weather conditions, smoke or low cloud.

For the 2019–20 fire season, the Victorian air fleet consisted of 50 firefighting aircraft. This comprised 27 helicopters conducting fire bombing, rappelling and air attack supervision; 16 bombers (including two Large Air Tankers); and seven fixed wing aircraft (including two Infra-Red Linescan). The fleet was pre- positioned around Victoria from October 2019. 

Victoria had access to a surge capacity of up to 100 additional aircraft available to support the core fleet. In some areas, aircraft operate on pre-determined dispatch under which aircraft respond at the same time as ground resources. Night-time aerial firefighting capabilities have been trialled in recent seasons and were used in the 2019–20 fire season. DELWP and CFA share aircraft resources to provide fire patrol, spotting, reporting and suppression roles.

As part of the national aircraft fleet, Victoria can access aircraft from other states and Victoria’s aircraft can operate interstate if it is required. 

A number of Victoria’s requests to NAFC for specific additional aircraft (Type 1 helicopters and float equipped SEATs) were not met in the 2019–20 season. NAFCs response was limited to the provision of Large Air Tankers (LAT). There were occasions where smaller, more agile aircraft were requested but not deployed to Victoria. 

There has been a general increase in the use of LATs and VLATs in recent years, however, the increase has not been uniform. For example, fewer LAT hours were flown in 2019-20 than in 2018–19. 

An evaluation of the use of a DC-10 VLAT in 2010 concluded that the aircraft was not suitable for achieving effective suppression under most Australian bushfire conditions.370 Experience in NSW concluded that LATs were able to lay retardant lines significantly faster than small aircraft369, though other evaluations questioned the effectiveness of such a tactic given fires could spot over retardant lines. 

The use of aerial assets for firefighting in the Victorian environment has not been extensively evaluated and any research in the area must be carefully considered in terms of its relevance to Victorian environments. 

The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts – including first attack – would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect. 

Community submissions referred to aerial resources and the need for more aircraft, including their use in an increased capability in first attack and fire suppression. Submissions commented on a need for both the use of the fleet (need for increased use of LATs, different decisions on when aerial attack is used and a larger PDD capacity and 24/7 aerial attack) and a call for increased resources for aerial attack (additional funding for leasing or purchasing addition aircraft and the national air fleet). 

The national fleet is made up of aircraft operated by various jurisdictional fire agencies and is supplemented by aircraft chartered by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC). The NAFC was formed in 2003 to provide a cooperative national arrangement for combating bushfires. This national aircraft fleet complements aerial firefighting resources arranged directly by the states and territories and receives funding support from the Australian Government, state and territory governments. 

In 2019–20 the national aerial firefighting fleet was approximately 130 contracted aircraft. This is supplemented by additional state owned and contracted aircraft, and other aircraft hired to meet peak demand across Australia. More than 500 aircraft, provided by over 150 operators, are available for firefighting across Australia. 

On 12 December 2019 (after the 2019–20 Victorian fire season had commenced), the government released its budget update which included additional funding of: 

  • $14.1 million (m) for additional aviation firefighting resources to contribute to the fleet of 50 aircraft, including two air tankers, space at the Avalon airbase and specialist night-time aircraft 

In the 2 previous years, Treasurer’s Advances were approved for fire suppression and additional aviation resources. 

The fires of the future

Victoria needs to determine the level of preparedness it wants in place to reduce future risks. In doing so, consideration needs to be given to the predicted outcomes of climate change on weather patterns, increasing severity of events and the increasing likelihood of concurrent events occurring within Victoria, as well as nationally and internationally.