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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4132

Senator BACK (1:00 PM) —I rise on a matter of significant concern to all Australians in the aftermath of the tragic Victorian bushfires in February this year. I am concerned that failed land management practices and inadequate preparation have contributed not only to the extent of those losses but, more importantly, to the fact that elsewhere in Australia these disasters have occurred and will continue to occur unless action is taken. I am indebted to several committed and competent authorities around Australia for their contribution in preparing this matter of public interest.

Under our Constitution, land management is the responsibility of the states, and bushfire acts and similar legislation are implemented by local governments. Of course it is appropriate that local bushfire protection is practised within the local communities where the risk must be managed. I do not propose a role for the Commonwealth in delivering local bushfire protection. However, I strongly recommend a proactive role for the federal government in the prevention and control of wildfires in Australia. There is a role for the Senate to examine and provide leadership in the following areas: development of a national bushfire policy, bushfire research in Australia, auditing and public accounting of the implementation of commissions of inquiry, and community education and public awareness.

Those of us involved in this industry recognise a bushfire cycle. The cycle simply is this: disaster followed by inquiry, followed by apathy, followed by another wildfire disaster. We need to break that cycle. We regrettably saw stage 1 in February—that is, a disastrous bushfire. Stage 2 occurs quickly with a flurry of inquiries, commissions of inquiry, a degree of concern by the community and the expenditure of money. A lot of the recommendations are implemented. We see upgrading of evidence and importance, expenditure on equipment and renewed commitment to reducing fuel levels.

But, unfortunately, we move all too quickly to stage 3 of the cycle, and that is apathy. Why apathy? Because, generally speaking, we are successful in the work that is done, the level of interest declines, those who would speak against the concept of fuel reduction and prescribed burning get their voice and we often see people go back into those same communities and build with much the same materials because of planning difficulties. The fourth stage is a return to another major wildfire disaster following that period of apathy. I plead that we must develop policy at the national level so that we can cut the cycle of bushfire disaster, expenditure and apathy followed by further disaster.

Bushfire in this country is a natural phenomenon. It is essential for the health of our woodland and our bush environment. However, by contrast, wildfires are a natural disaster with a similar effect on communities to tsunamis, cyclones and earthquakes. The difference between wildfires and these other natural disasters is that they can be prevented or their effect can be minimised. The tragedy of recent fire events around Australia—including here in Canberra and its hinterland, in the hinterland of Sydney and the Victorian fires—is that their intensity could have been minimised or even eliminated with proper land management over time. That is my matter of public interest.

Under Australian conditions, if we fail to manage fire as part of overall land management then everything else is a waste of time. This means the management of biodiversity, including plant, animal and bird species. The one and only key tool is prescribed burning to reduce the level of flammable fuels. Those who say prescribed burning should be banned to protect biodiversity in bushfire prone areas need only visit the recently burnt areas of Victoria to see the scorched earth effect as a result of those fires.

We also hear people speak against prescribed burning because of the risk to water catchments. Of course, the opposite is the case. There is little if any negative impact of prescribed burning around catchment areas during the cool springtime of the year. So important is this, in fact, that in Western Australia our water authority pays the Department of Environment and Conservation to undertake prescribed burning in the cool season to protect our potable water reserves.

It is important for the chamber to understand Australia’s pre-eminent role in the bushfire area. I refer to internationally acclaimed research into bushfire behaviour that has only recently been completed here in Australia. Project Vesta, led by CSIRO scientists from Canberra with the very active involvement of the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, was very strongly supported by all fire organisations in this country as well as New Zealand and Canada. For the first time in Australia, we have the outcome of definitive research into fire behaviour in dry eucalypt forests reporting on fuel structure, dynamics and behaviour. More importantly, this work endorsed the long-established view that prescribed burning is critical in land management.

I recommend the executive summary of Project Vesta to all of my Senate colleagues. The research largely confirmed the wealth of knowledge gained over time on the importance of reducing fuel levels in eucalypt forests, but it did yield vital new information on estimating hazards, predicting fire spread through eucalypt forests, fire spotting ahead of the fire front and, of course, enhancing the safety of firefighters. I make the point that with most of our summer bushfires we would expect fire spotting out from 800 metres to one kilometre. In the Victorian fires on 7 February we saw fire spotting 20 kilometres ahead of the fire fronts.

To understand the impact of wildfires on the environment, it is important to know that the greenhouse gases that were created by the fires on 7 February were the equivalent of 12 months of greenhouse gas emissions by all of Australia’s industries—one full year. All of this points to the need for a nationally coordinated bushfire research program so that we can identify, expand and benefit from the excellent knowledge base that exists in this country.

What Project Vesta did, of course, was to validate what Aboriginal people have known for thousands of years and what modern fire managers have observed over time—that is, the intensity of major wildfires can be controlled or even prevented. It is critically important for us to understand that. The conclusion we end up with is that uncontrolled major disastrous fires can actually be reduced or at least minimised.

There are three principal drivers of severe wildfires: the level of fuel on the forest floor, its level of dryness and the behaviour of wind. People speak of temperature, the slope of the ground and humidity. Of course these things have an effect, but it is not as great as that of the other three. On the fire ground we cannot control moisture levels or wind strength and direction, but we can control the level of fuel not only on the forest floor but in other at-risk environments.

It is a regrettable fact that in recent years we have seen grossly inadequate prescribed burning as part of land management in many areas of Australia, especially in the hinterlands of our major residential centres, where probably the greatest risk exists, certainly to people. This has occurred partially because of the pressure of keeping smoke away from urban communities. Land managers now tell me that they are facing the threat of litigation in the event that there is an adverse reaction to a fire that gets away. Of course, what is most important is the protection of the human community, our natural community and our forests.

I want to give two examples from Western Australia in the last few years. The first was in the outer suburbs of Perth on a January morning in 2005. The temperature got up to 45 degrees, with howling northerly and north-easterly winds. Seven fires were deliberately lit that day. The fire commenced in an area that had not been burnt for some 16 to 20 years and, obviously, that fire could not be controlled. It burnt out 30,000 hectares whilst it was moving towards suburbs east of the city and then burnt itself into an area that had been burnt two years earlier. Within hours the firefighters were able to get on top of that fire and contain it, with no loss of life or major loss of property. Subsequent independent CSIRO research into that fire suggested that, had that area not been burnt two years previously, it would have become the subject of the conflagration, and the fire would have trebled and burnt out 100,000 hectares with a loss of somewhere between 200 and 300 homes and the possible loss of life. By contrast, down at Bridgetown, in the south of the state, in the summer of 2007 we had a fire in an area that had not been burnt for years. It was heading straight for the town. Any effort to actually contain the fire had already been given up, and it was only a change of wind that saved that particular town and its community.

In most areas of southern Australia, which is dominated by eucalypt forests, the collective wisdom is that we need to be burning some seven to 10 per cent of our forested areas each year. In many areas around Australia, regrettably, we are burning not seven or 10 per cent but less than half of one per cent of our forests. This is unacceptable. Prevention and preparedness is always a wiser strategy than response and recovery.

We know as a community that, when there is a major event like this, we have an outpouring of community and government support. That will always be the case, and thus should it ever be. The risk, of course, is that this actually sends the wrong signal. It may in fact be rewarding the failure of state and local authorities to implement what I say are well-known, essential and long-established fire and land management practices while waiting for these events to take place.

In the aftermath of disastrous wildfires, should we be spending more on fire suppression technologies, including aerial water bombing, rather than fire prevention? As the person who introduced water-bombing aircraft into Western Australia in the 1990s and saw it develop into a highly effective component of fire suppression, I am the last person to oppose expenditure in these areas. But I do say that we have to look at the problem and we have to look at prevention.

Fire suppression should not come at the expense of land management practices which are proven to reduce the likelihood of bushfires in the first place, and I believe there is a role here for the Commonwealth. We already invest heavily in areas associated with fire mitigation in tertiary education and community awareness. I certainly believe we have a legitimate role to develop bushfire policy at a national level in association with the states and local government.

I mentioned prescribed burning, which is only one means of reducing fuel on the forest floor, but we should not overlook the impact of livestock grazing. Since 1990 we have seen a halving of the number of sheep in Australia, including in Victoria. At a national level we should be channelling more funding into bushfire management. We should be scrutinising the recommendations that have come out of major inquiries such as the royal commission into the Victorian fires and the Nairn report into the fires here in Canberra.

I believe that the Australian community would be well served if we were to report annually on the progress of implementing those sorts of recommendations—the ones that have been funded, the ones that have not and the degree of success or otherwise of those recommendations. In my view we need an annual audit from this place and we should report to the wider community on where those funds have been spent and the success or otherwise of those recommendations.

I commenced by saying that land management should remain the responsibility of the states and that bushfire management on private land, where appropriate, should remain firmly with the local authorities who are closest to the affected communities. I do not resile from this. This is not in the province of the Commonwealth. Our Constitution accords this to the states, and so it should remain.

I do, however, support a more strategic role for the Commonwealth in wildfire prevention and management and I seek to actively participate in the Senate Select Committee Inquiry on Agriculture and Related Industries, which is going to look at wildfire mitigation. Specifically, I seek a role for the Commonwealth in national bushfire policy, in auditing and reporting on the implementation of recommendations, in research and in public awareness.

May I conclude with the vision that I originally had for my own organisation, which was that Western Australia should be free of the impact of devastating wildfires. I extend that vision to the country. (Time expired)