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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23729

Mr McARTHUR (11:53 AM) —I am delighted to participate again in this debate on the report, A nation charred. Firstly, I want to acknowledge the contribution of the chair, the member for Eden-Monaro, for his outstanding chairmanship and tolerance and for finalising a landmark report. I also acknowledge my colleague the member for Gilmore for her contribution and participation in the committee. I would like to say from the outset that it has been suggested by some other members of the parliament that this inquiry was politically motivated. I totally reject that suggestion and put forward the view that some of us are concerned about the impact of bushfire, particularly in Canberra and in north-east Victoria. It was very far from our view that this was a political witch-hunt and, in my assessment, I was not too concerned about which particular party was in power at the state level. I was concerned about the devastation of property, forest and public land. It is a fact that 1.3 million hectares were burnt in north-east Victoria and that there was a vast tract of land burnt in Canberra. It is a fact that the Kosciuszko National Park was burnt. It is a fact that east Gippsland was burnt out quite extensively. Nobody can reject those factual matters. This was a devastating bushfire of mammoth proportions.

This is a landmark report, as I have said in other remarks, compared with the Stretton report of 1939. There were 500 submissions, some of them in handwriting by people who have had 40 or 50 years experience of bushfire fighting. They knew exactly what happened. They have had long experience and they provided an erudition and a point of view that many academics and administrators did not fully comprehend. The committee, along with the chairman, had a number of site inspections and private conversations. So the validity of this report is undoubted, following on from the inspections and the public witnesses who put forward points of view.

There is a conspiracy of silence by some critics of this report. State governments, state ministers and state fire authorities have said nothing. They have made no contribution and yet have been sniping from the sidelines. As the member for Gilmore said, they had the capacity to turn up at the public meetings and take notes but were not prepared to make a submission. Also, I note the absolute silence of environmentalists, who have made no comments about the devastation of these bushfires and yet, over many years, have argued for locking up the forests.

Hazard reduction burning is a matter of considerable debate. Most of the witnesses, a vast majority of whom had had years of experience in the forests, recommended that hazard reduction burning take place. I note that Western Australia still maintain a program of hazard reduction burning, of mosaic burning, and have done it very well, even allowing for the problem of smoke being a social difficulty in Perth. Local knowledge was commented upon. It was said that these fires were fought with bureaucracy rather than local firefighters. We had the remarkable situation that Swifts Creek was the headquarters for the north-east bushfires, and it was 60 kilometres from the fire front. It was quite an amazing situation, where local knowledge was totally overridden. Fire trails were blocked and ripped out, and I will be speaking more about that. This was a travesty of justice and good sense, and it put life and limb in danger.

The fires were not aggressively fought. Firefighters fought fires from eight to five and went home at night, when they should have been fighting fires in the cool of the evening. The communications systems left a lot to be desired, and it makes the mind boggle that in the modern age different systems are not compatible. Local land-holders were criminals if they went into a national park one day but were heroes if they entered the park the next day to fight fires. We have a system of values which one would challenge. If local land-holders set a fire alight and it burnt a national park, they would be before the courts on a criminal charge. However, if a national park burns out a land-holder, nothing is said and you would need to bring a coronial inquiry full of lawyers to fight that particular case.

Practical firefighters were overlooked, and all those handwritten submissions that the committee received indicated a depth of knowledge that many of the fire authorities just would not comprehend in the mountain areas where these fires occurred. We have an academic argument about biodiversity: the impact of fuel reduction burning might upset biodiversity. For the record I ask: which outcome do we want? Do we wish to have a bit of a discussion on biodiversity or do we want 2½ million hectares burnt out?

These fires became extremely hot. The committee looked at the Omeo-Blue Duck position, where the fires were so hot that it is unlikely that the area will recover for 30 or 40 years. That has been confirmed by Mr Cheney and his submissions to this inquiry and other inquiries. The hotness of the fire, because of the lack of fuel reduction burning, has meant that the devastation is much more severe than most commentators would agree upon. If we look at fuel reduction burning, we see that not one witness did not agree that fuel reduction burning was a desirable thing both for maintaining biodiversity in the forests and for maintaining the forests in a better state to fight fires. Generally speaking, they said that the fires could be controlled through fuel reduction burning. Dr Peter Attiwill said:

... there is no doubt that we should prescribe burn under most conditions—the situation is the same the world over, not just in Australia—otherwise organic matter builds up. This organic matter eventually locks up nutrients, and ecosystems become less productive. This was the experience in Yellowstone. The fire rejuvenated not just the plants and animals but the ecological processes on which sustainability depends.

So there we have it from one of the most eminent authorities in Australia on fire and ecology. I have had a number of discussions with him, and his expertise is undoubted in this area.

The lack of aggressive firefighting greatly disturbed the chairman and me. We saw situations where the fire was not attacked in the first instance. When the lightning strike occurred at McIntyre's Hut near Canberra on 8 January, nobody approached it. Everyone knew that the Brindabellas were full of fuel—it was a tinderbox and ready to go. One of the most reliable witnesses at the inquiry was Mr Val Jeffery, and the committee's report stated:

Mr Val Jeffery, a very experienced fire fighter and former Chairman of the ACT Bushfire Council, told the Committee that:

When those fires started with lightning strikes on 8 January, they should have been attacked immediately, hard and heavily with everything we could have thrown at them. That is the way we would have done it in the past. We never lost a lightning strike in my experience since the 1939 fire, so why did we lose them on 8 January? We did not try, frankly, as sad as it seems, to put those fires out. They could have been put out. Those fires were virtually all accessible by vehicle.

That was one of the most reliable witnesses before the inquiry saying that the fires were not put out aggressively. In north-east Victoria, the fires burnt for 59 days, even though there were only two bad fire days—and the chairman entirely agrees with me. In 1982, fires like these were put out in two weeks, yet here they burnt for 59 days. The Parks people who were fighting the fires had an eight-to-five mentality. They came and fought the fires almost as semiprofessionals. They went home at night, they went away for tea breaks, and the changeover times were not as good as they should have been. In western Victoria, my home part of the world, you put a fire out in the first instance. You go there and put it out immediately; you do not let it burn for 12 or 24 hours. Everyone knows that to be the position.

Firefighting is a risk assessment business. If you were on the US Coast Guard, you would be taking a risk assessment of what the problems are. Firefighting cannot be run from the academic position that if it is more than a metre high you do not go near it. Historically, you have to fight a fire the best way you can with the best equipment you have got on hand. What I am saying is the idea that helicopters will save the day and having fire chiefs going on television dressed up in all their medals saying, `We're fighting the fire aggressively,' is not the way to go. The way to go is to make sure that local people with local knowledge fight the fire on the ground. The CFA and the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales—with those hundreds of years of experience—are the ones who should fight the fires.

As the chairman would remember, the fire trails were ripped up in a number of these forest areas. The culverts were taken out so that people could not go into the forest. Can you believe it? Can you believe that people would do such a thing? It put firefighters' lives at risk, because they would go down a fire trail and find there was no turning circle—the culvert was ripped up and the fire trail was no longer operative. That is unbelievable. I cannot find words to describe that rationale. How could these environmentalists put firefighters' lives at risk and rip up fire trails just so they could stop people going into the national parks that Premier Carr and Premier Bracks have created in those two states? We have a situation where, because of ideology, these fire trails had been ripped up.

The COAG meeting will take place between the federal government and the state authorities. I would encourage them to read this report. It is a landmark report. It has a wealth of knowledge. It has 500 very carefully thought out submissions supporting the report. The report has been very well written by the secretariat and it was very well canvassed by both sides of this parliament. It represents a landmark view on the recent fires.

It is on the public record; there was no influence from senior members of this government or of any other government to provide evidence and a desired outcome. The report is a reflection of the views of all those genuine firefighters who we met all around Australia. They had a point of view and they had suffered greatly over 59 days of firefighting in North-East Victoria. Their fences were burnt out and their farms were destroyed because of the incompetence of park officials and because people had an attitude of mind to let the fire burn.

The report is one of the best reports produced by this parliament. It is backed up by a wealth of practical, academic and very reliable knowledge. We should use the report in developing some further frameworks. The recommendations are well thought through and I encourage the COAG meeting to take into account not only the final report but many of the submissions which were prepared very carefully by those people who have so much experience and who put so much effort into trying to find a solution. The report is unlike the other reports in Victoria and elsewhere. The Victorian Premier said the Victorian report provided some of the answers. I can say quite categorically that it did not address the issues, while this report did.

In America, President Clinton and then President Bush came to the view, after 30 years, that forests need careful maintenance. There was a case for fuel reduction burning and for harvesting timber in the forests and, if you wished to maintain forests in America, that is the way to go. That conclusion was reached after a lot of debate and I hope that, in the next 20 years, there will be an enlightened view here in Australia and people will maintain the forests and move away from this lock-up mentality without the ability and the resources to carry out fuel reduction burns, to look after the timber and the flora and fauna, to get rid of the feral animals and to generally maintain these areas. Mark my words: the fires will reappear and they will burn more ferociously unless we change the attitudes, views and management techniques. I commend the report and thank the parliament for allowing me another say. Finally, I commend our hardworking chairman on his magnificent job in preparing this report.