Real cost of back-burning

May in Sydney was absolutely gorgeous! Bar these last few days, the weather was dry, warm and sunny. It was one of the warmest Mays in history! Ideal for lazy weekends enjoying the sun, going for a walk, or indeed going to the beach.
However, the glory of several of these weekends in May was spoiled by the smoke coming from the back-burning activities in the numerous national parks and forested areas in and around Sydney. The air quality was extremely poor, and in fact in parts of Sydney it was a health hazard to be outdoors.
The cause of the smoke was that the Rural Fire Service (RFS) took advantage of the nice weather conditions to conduct back-burning of lose vegetation (dead leaves, branches, etc.) to reduce fuel that could result in bushfires in the spring or summer. And they are doing this on the weekends, presumably because there are volunteer fire-fighters who can join on the weekends.
While the benefits of back-burning are indisputable, the question remains of whether or not they can be conducted in a way that minimises the negative effects on the public. If it is to be judged by the extent of the area affected and the duration of the episodes, it seems that RFS may not be taking into account the full cost of conducting the back-burning. There are significant health costs imposed on the wider public as a result of increased incidence or respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases due to poor air quality. In addition, there are significant costs resulting from diminished recreational and site-seeing benefits imposed on a very large number of Sydney residents and visitors. They cannot enjoy being outdoors, being at the beach, or sightseeing. Environmental economics has shown that the losses of these benefits can be very large when expressed in monetary terms.
Back-burning is an important activity for bushfire prevention. However, taking into account the health effects and diminished recreational and site-seeing benefits warrants that RFS takes a much more prudent approach to it. And, the sheer importance of back-burning should not be used as a trumping argument against calls for minimising its negative air quality effects!

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.