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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7719

Senator TIERNEY (1:39 PM) —New South Wales has been through another traumatic bushfire disaster. I fear that what we have now with the rains is just a temporary respite, because it is not expected that major rains will come again until autumn. So as we have our Christmas dinner and following that we are probably going to be back into the bushfire season again. This has been a common theme in my life, as I have lived mainly in country areas. I can remember as a small child the thick swirl of bushfire smoke around our home. The recent smell of bushfires half a century later still triggers memories of that fearful day.

As a 10-year-old, I sat around a table in our home with my two elder brothers playing Canasta. There was nowhere to run to as the fires approached our small town of Bargo in the southern highlands. I lost the game. It was very hard to concentrate on the cards as we waited in hope for our parents to return from the fires. But there was a sudden change of wind direction, the town was saved and we breathed a sigh of relief. Five years earlier, the town I then lived in, Eden on the far South Coast, was almost wiped out by fires as well but there we had a beach to run to—the only escape. Again, the wind changed and the town was saved.

Bushfires are a regular phenomenon in New South Wales because it is the most fire prone region in the world. We are all familiar with the crackle of leaves on the ground, the faint smell of smoke, a thin line of smoke and then a conflagration as the life of the bush goes through another inevitable cycle, as it has for tens of thousands of years as the eucalypts have come to dominate totally the Australian landscape. We have decided to live within this circle of fire, but that does not void the responsibility of state governments to properly manage the interface between humans and the bush. They must manage it far more carefully. The fire cycle can be contained and can be minimised by adopting a proper fire hazard reduction program.

I ask: why has our state government's policy in this area gone backwards, threatening life, property and the environment? The New South Wales Carr government have evaded their responsibilities as they have adopted a dark green agenda over the last seven years. In 1994 especially, we were given a major wake-up call in New South Wales by the effects of the bushfire at that time. What has been done since? Through the years of the Carr government—through the mid-nineties to the turn of the century— what did they actually do in terms of fire hazard reduction programs?

The advantage of carrying out such programs, which were commonplace up to the election of the Carr government, is that you can more carefully manage the forests of New South Wales. Fire hazard reduction is conducted by back-burning, or what is called `cold fire'. This can be much more carefully managed in the cooler months. It allows animals to get out of the way and reduces the risk to vegetation that is posed by hot fire. Hot fire moves at great speed and with intensity, and many small animals are unable to escape. The effect of hot fire on trees is quite traumatic. With a cold fire only the outer area of trees is burnt, but in a hot fire the intensity of the heat damages the central core of the trees and the shrubs. It does not allow for quick regrowth. As you drive around areas affected by last year's Christmas fires you can see how slow the regeneration is.

The annual report of the National Parks and Wildlife Service for 2000-01, which was issued recently, gives the following set of figures on prescribed burns, or cold burns, in New South Wales. The figures annually tell the story of how the Carr government is evading its responsibility on this issue. Going back to 1993, we see that hazard reduction was conducted on 48,000 hectares. In 1996, following the election of the Carr government, we see that, in the first year of the Carr government, the conducting of hazard reduction dropped dramatically to 26,000 hectares—it dropped by almost half at that point. In 1997-98 it was down to 8,000 hectares, and in 1999-2000 it was down to 6,700 hectares. So, going back eight years earlier— 1993—we see that hazard reduction was conducted on 48,000 hectares and then, in 1999-2000, on 6,700 hectares. It is a dramatic reduction. We are now reaping the whirlwind of that policy where, in areas that are not protected, conflagrations have occurred around Sydney, right to the doorstep of people in Western Sydney, in the Hunter Valley to the north and on the South Coast.

The last government that took proper responsibility for the management of bushfires in New South Wales was John Fahey's Liberal government, which left office in 1995. Because of the extent of the fires last year, one year ago, a major joint select committee was set up by the New South Wales parliament to look at the bushfires. It brought a report down in June this year. The Carr government actually tabled that June report in late November—several weeks ago. Not only has this report been ignored; there was also no chance last winter to put in place the very necessary measures that might have led to a reduction in the intensity of the fires that have just occurred. Because conditions are so dry, obviously bushfires are going to occur. But the extent and intensity of the fires could have been reduced if the Carr government had acted on that report and reduced the risk last winter.

Let us have a look at the record of hazard reduction over the last two years. We will start with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Bob Carr is great at opening national parks. It is a good thing to have national parks, but if you do you have to have the resources to manage them properly, including the proper management of fire risk. What are the Carr government doing? They are burning off only 0.7 of one per cent in these national parks. This sets up these areas for massive fires in the future. The CSIRO believes that the proper level of hazard reduction in such areas should be five to seven per cent. Under a Brogden government, a promise has been made to increase it dramatically to five per cent, which is a massive increase over what is happening at the moment. In my area of the Hunter, out of the 14 national parks and state recreation areas, covering a total area of almost half a million hectares, only 2,600 hectares—or less than 0.6 per cent—of the total area has undergone hazard reduction in the last two years, setting the whole area up for fire again in the future.

The Carr government has said that last year's fires cost New South Wales $100 million. Already the fires that have occurred up to early December this year have cost $100 million. Just think, with the dry spell continuing to March, what the costs are going to amount to over the next few months. When are we ever going to learn? I am here speaking about the fires that have just occurred, but one year ago I also spoke in the Senate about the fires that had just occurred then. I told the Senate:

When are we going to learn to better manage our forests and the fires that threaten them?

This should be a top priority. Over five million people are now living on the eastern seaboard of New South Wales and they are increasingly encroaching on our national forests. I made a call then that we put proper fire reduction strategies in place so that we do not get the extensive bushfires that we had last season. It was all ignored, and here we are, 10 months later, back where we were before last season's fires—and back where we were in 1994.

When is the Carr government ever going to learn, and when is it ever going to properly introduce hazard reduction policies annually? If you do not have the cold fires to reduce the hazard of bushfire, you are going to get hot fires, in spades. We saw it this year; we saw it last year. It is not fair that we put the voluntary bushfire brigade into this dangerous situation. They could very carefully conduct these reductions of fuel over the winter in safe conditions, where fires would not get out of control. Now we have put them in enormous danger. You saw the footage on the TV of those fires over the last few weeks. These fires spot ahead and jump, and bushfire fighters can suddenly be surrounded by fire in very hot and windy conditions. It is just amazing that more lives are not lost.

At this point I would like to express my personal gratitude for the unstinting and brave work of these voluntary bushfire fighters. They do not get paid for this work. Because we do not have proper policies in New South Wales, they put their lives at risk in the most horrific conditions—a lot of that is unnecessary. The agenda of the Carr government in the management of forests is totally counterproductive. It is a pity Bob Brown—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Knowles)—Senator Brown.

Senator TIERNEY —Senator Brown is not here in the Senate at the moment to hear this. The dark green agenda that Senator Brown constantly supports in this place creates greater destruction of animals and forests because we get a huge build-up of fuel and then these massive fires occur. Why cannot people who support this dark green agenda see that they are creating greater destruction to the forests of this country?

To better understand the way fire works and to better implement policies that do work and that are directed by science, not by ideology, the federal government recently announced funding of $25 million for the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which brings together $110 million in contributions from the federal government and other participants. This centre will bring together experts from state based fire authorities, including the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the CSIRO, the universities, the Bureau of Meteorology and several other organisations around Australia to form a vital fighting force to increase understanding of bushfires and how to control them.

The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre will develop a comprehensive understanding of the behaviour and dangers of bushfires, given local differences in vegetation, land management and weather. The research will be applied in both the biophysical context—taking into consideration the control of air quality, maintenance of biodiversity and prescribed burning—and the social context, including enhanced safety of people and buildings during bushfires. A key objective of the CRC will be to increase the self-sufficiency of communities in managing the risk from bushfires. Let us hope that this works. Let us hope that it lays a basis for an effective bushfire management policy that is not driven by dark green ideology but by scientific evidence that will inform us on how best to manage the human-bush interface in our country—particularly in the state of New South Wales, which is the most fire prone region in the world.