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The recent Australian bushfires

CHAIR —Welcome. I think you were here this morning during proceedings so you heard the explanation that I gave about the hearing and aspects to do with evidence so I will not repeat that for you. We have Mr Nott's submission, which we previously received, and Mr Browne's, which we have received today. Would each of you like to make some opening remarks before we proceed to questions?

Mr Browne —I have written three pages here which relate to hazard reduction more than anything else. I am aware that this committee has had a lot of input from all sorts of things. I assume that the purpose of this committee of inquiry is to find out why bushfires are still destroying houses, other buildings, fire trucks, firefighters and huge tracts of bushland and paddocks of fodder at a time when firefighting forces are bigger and better equipped, with more competently trained personnel than at any point in our short history. Huge aircraft are hired to drop incredibly expensive water or retardant on fires. Fire tankers are moved across the state boundaries to areas of greatest need. But fires still get the upper hand. Why? What is wrong? How do we address the problem?

Somewhere in the complex mathematics of fire behaviour is a common denominator. The fact of it makes bushfires unmanageable. What is it? Drought, temperature, wind and humidity all contribute to unmanageable fire behaviour. Property can and has been lost in the Blue Mountains on cold days, calm days and four hours after rain, but never in areas adjacent to low fuels. Heavy fuels at the urban bushland interface set houses alight by direct flame contact, radiation and windblown burning debris.

These fires kill and injure residents and firefighters. They involve huge expenditure, including aircraft hire, bringing firefighters from intrastate and interstate, food, accommodation, transport, fuel, repairs, loss of wages and family disruption. Bushfires cannot be avoided. They will occur most summers, and the local firefighting forces will always be necessary. But sensible fuel management can reduce the intensity of fires so that they can be managed with local forces, with reasonable safety to those firefighting forces, without loss of life or injury and without property loss. Fuel is anything combustible—anything that will combust. Concrete steel will destruct if subject to enough heat from fire. For this discussion it is native vegetation—bark, leaves, twigs, grass, groundcover and low understorey—which is measured by throwing a wire square of a given size onto the fuel, collecting the fuel inside the square, oven drying it and weighing it.

Ground fuel in the Blue Mountains accumulates at 1.7 tonnes per hectare per year for the first six years. It then reduces to 0.6 of a tonne infinitum as decomposition takes place. Five years of fuel accumulation per hectare is 8.5 tonnes; 10 years, 12.5 tonnes; 15 years, 15.5 tonnes and 20 years, 18 tonnes. If you add to this up to three tonnes per hectare for understorey—shrubs, ladder fuels—in the short term you are looking at an accumulation of two tonnes per year; over a longer period you are looking at one tonne per year. This measurement of ground fuel excludes the tree canopy—the bark on fibrous bark trees. Anyone who has cut down a large eucalypt will attest to the fact that each tree head has at least a quarter of a tonne of fire fuel in leaves and small branches. Extrapolate this by the number of large trees on each hectare—which could be 30, 50 or 100—and in a crown fire situation you have added another 25 tonnes of fire fuel to the equation, which is above the firefighters' heads where the wind is stronger and there is little impediment to the windblown burning debris.

I have always been aware that Luke and McArthur's fire thesis was faulty, as is their fire danger meter. It was designed for low-intensity control burns that ignore the complexity of fire behaviour during a major bushfire. I have only ever used it in a classroom exercise or after a major fire had been extinguished to test its validity. It was always out by a factor of three to five times. Firefighters with the most modern equipment—tankers, pumps, foam, protective clothing, training and aerial support—still could not fight the fires of the last two summers' intensity by direct attack. They could only do so by resorting to back-burns, which become as intense as the main fire within minutes of ignition, trap wildlife between the two fires, totally destroy vegetation, increase the size of the fire, create up-drafts that carry burning debris on wind currents across and behind the defence lines, and endanger and kill firefighters. If there is an answer, it is to reduce or remove the heavy fuel loads before the fire season with low-intensity burns, slashing and trittering, and it needs to be done at the bushland-urban interface—500 to 1,000 metres deep on a rotational basis. As well as this, some broadacre hazard reduction across known fire paths north-west and south-west of the mountain towns is necessary: the Grose Valley, the Megalong Valley, Kings Tableland, Erskine Range and Florabella Pass, to name a few.

This proposal requires an overall master hazard reduction plan, with Oberon, Blaxland, Lithgow and Blue Mountains councils, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the New South Wales Forestry Commission and the Rural Fire Service being involved. This would not be a toothless tiger like the district committee, which was composed of police, SES, Air Force and anyone passing by on the monthly meeting day. These were people who knew absolutely nothing about bushfires but had a role as the mountain towns burned down. In short, re-form the bushfire prevention association of the late fifties and seventies, call them what you will, put the right people on them and give them carte blanche to draw up and implement the fuel management procedures necessary to protect towns, houses and residents from the destruction by bushfires, irrespective of land tenure and the policies of the land owners or guardians and free from interference from conservationists, environmentalists and government agencies like the EPA who have lost their way in the bureaucratic maze. If we do not pull out all stops to effectively control and reduce the impact of bushfires on the community then homes and lives will be lost, incomes affected and the Australian economy severely affected.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Browne. Mr Nott, would you like to add anything?

Mr Nott —Yes, I would. I was on the district committee here for 13 years. I have been a deputy captain, a captain, a deputy group captain, a group captain and a group leader in the time I have been in the fire service here in the Blue Mountains. I was in another fire service before, but I have been in the Blue Mountains since 1976. It is fair to say that I have probably had more command and control of major fires as a volunteer than any other volunteer that I am aware of. In fact, it is fair to say that I have had more control and command than most fire control officers these days, because that was in an era in which they would give you a thousand people and tell you, `Go and put the fire out.' In that respect, I would like to make one point to the committee about what happens.

In the time I was on the district committee, I fought regularly every meeting to facilitate hazard reduction, and it just got tied up in bureaucratic, environmental or legislative issues. The system just slowed down and slowed down. So you would fight and you would say to people on a day like today, `We really need to approve these burns, we need to get on with this and we need to encourage the brigades to go out and do it—and remember: they do it in their own time for free and the community is the total beneficiary of this.' This would fall on deaf ears. You would fight off mainly the National Parks and other parties at the committee until there was a roaring fire coming down from out of the Grose or out through the back ranges out here. Then they would come to me and say, `Don, what are we going to do?' and give you a few D9s. I have put a black line in and have been in charge of lighting it twice. What happens when you do that is you have got a huge fire coming down and then you go on light another huge fire and send it straight back at that other huge fire. The result is environmental genocide.

The real rub and the thing that makes me the most bitter is, after you do this and you save all the houses, they march you down the main street and tell you are a bloody hero. That is just ridiculous, because this is preventable. In this state—and I presume in other states—you have two fire services. They should have the carriage of suppression and mitigation, and everybody should have to work through them. You cannot have a situation where the National Parks go out and say, `This is a class 1 fire and were not going to do anything about it. We'll fiddle around until it gets to a class 3.' By that stage, in this country, it is far too big and some idiot like me is going to come along with my bulldozers and do enormous damage and light back-burns. Up here, when we put back-burns in, they get up in the order of 40 or 50 kilometres. The last one I lit went from Glenbrook to Wentworth Falls. I was in charge of the section from Glenbrook to Woodford. I can tell you that when we lit that back-burn, the fuel was so bad we used miles of hoses and spent thousands of dollars. Houses were at risk and some houses were damaged because the fuel levels were so high. They were so high simply because inadequate hazard reduction had been carried out.

CHAIR —You said you have had experience up here since 1976. How many years experience have you had elsewhere prior to that?

Mr Nott —I was at Coonabarabran. At that time I was a kid about 10 years old on the farm out there. We did not have anything like we have on farms now—a ute, a tractor with a carryall on the back, a bit of water, some leather boots or maybe a knapsack. When I was a real young bloke, one of my jobs was to carry the message on a horse from one side of the fire to the other. Communications were a little bit archaic!

CHAIR —Mr Browne, how long have you been involved in firefighting and related matters in the Blue Mountains?

Mr Browne —About 52 years.

CHAIR —You have had the odd day of experience!

Mr Browne —I have been at most fires but all the major fires, such as the fires of 1952, 1957, 1968, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1994, 2001, 2002 and 2003.

CHAIR —I think you were in the audience earlier on when the Blue Mountains City Council gave evidence.

Mr Browne —No.

CHAIR —You were not; I am sorry. They painted a picture that everything was pretty hunky-dory between the council, the RFS and the National Parks and that everybody gets on brilliantly, everybody works together and does a great job for the whole region. Is that the view of the volunteer bush firefighters in this region?

Mr Browne —It is not my view of past history. At the coronial inquiries that follow these big, bad wipe-out fires, Blue Mountains City Council has always been severely criticised, as late as 1994, for not implementing what used to be section 13s—which are now section 66s—and for not doing something to reduce the fuel on their reserves and within the town boundaries, and also for not policing the building codes. The previous speaker mentioned all the—what I call papier-mÂch[eacute] houses—rough-sawn Western red cedar houses out on the end of ridges built up on poles. Those sorts of houses were still being built up to several years ago. Maybe they are still being built—I do not know. I do not believe the council is enforcing section 66 to the extent that it should. As of now, the council is certainly working better with respect to its building codes. One problem with the codes, when building in fire prone areas, is simply that on steep slopes you need a protection zone, which is not possible inside a small block of land. The council is saying that you cannot go over the fence into the National Park or wherever. It is saying, `Let's ignore the 20 tonnes of fuel out there because it belongs to somebody else. You must put your fuel-free zone and your hazard reduce zone inside your block.' If it is steep, sloping land facing the west, north-west or south-west, you need a greater distance than is possible inside that yard. So it is asking the landholder to do the impossible.

CHAIR —Perhaps section 66 should apply to the land on the other side of the private land?

Mr Browne —It used to, more or less, when it was a section 13. If you were to go back a bit in history, if there were a problem outside a resident's boundary, some hazard reduction was done out there. Whoever owns the fuel and the land owns the fire—if it were the National Parks, they accepted that they had a responsibility. So that when a fire comes roaring up to the back fence throwing embers and radiated heat et cetera, that fire belongs to the National Parks.

CHAIR —With the experience both of you have in the area, you would know the landscape pretty well and the types of vegetation. The committee is receiving a variety of evidence on the impact of fire on biodiversity. In various parts of the country it is different. The argument is about whether more frequent, lower intensity hazard reduction fires have potentially more of an impact on that biodiversity than the high intensity wildfire that might occur every eight years. Statistically, over the last 100 years wildfires in the Blue Mountains occur about every eight years—sometimes down to two or three years, but the average is about eight years. What is your view of the impact on this environment of those two different types of fires?

Mr Nott —If anybody here has read Tim Flannery's books or they have looked at any of the old pictures of when Macquarie or Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth came through the Blue Mountains, they will know that the blue gums, or deanii, forests here had grass underneath. The understorey was not there. Governor King said in a letter to the colonial secretary that, if we do not start to follow the regimes of the Indigenous people here, we are going to starve because we are going to continue to burn out our crops. They had a wheat crop at Parramatta in Governor King's time that they fought all night and lost a fair bit of. He wrote back to the colonial secretary in England, who was of course well-equipped to make a decision. It is evidence that no decision has been made, and still has not.

It is my view—and the view of other people as well—that when the Aborigines had carriage of the country they could not put out fires naked. It would be a hard job. So what used to happen? They would light fires to create green pick so that kangaroos and things would come in that they could eat. And there would be lightning strikes. These were naturally occurring events and they would burn until a number of things happened: either it rained and they went out, they ran into something like a wet gully rainforest where they went out of their own accord, or they went into previously burnt areas.

Our country has evolved like this. The problem we have got with all this talk of biodiversity, seed banks and everything else is that we have failed to accept that that is how the country evolved in the first place. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work that out, but obviously the people who are going to universities are not getting it in their degree courses. I will give you an example. In the Blue Mountains here we fought for three or four years to burn off a portion of land which is currently a development down at Blaxland and we could not get approval. It got so bad that we had captains of bushfire brigades resign over the issue. Finally, when the last fire came down—the Mount Hall fire—and we were planning the back-burns, we included that portion in that back-burn so that it would finally get burnt. That was held up for three or four years.

You may say that it is bad that these things get held up for three or four years. What the committee needs to understand is that when that happens, you also have a downgrading of the volunteers' enthusiasm. If it is so bad that a captain resigns over the issue, what effect is it having on the brigades? What effect is the issue of hazard reduction having on the brigades' overall morale? It is a damn sight easier for them to polish the truck than it is to go out and do hazard reductions, which is what we used to do practically every weekend to protect the town.

In answer more directly to your question about the biodiversity, fuel levels and whether it should be burnt should be based on the amount of fuel there. If there is no fuel there and it is not a risk why would you want to burn it? That is ridiculous. You should not let the fuel around the bushland urban interface get to dangerous levels.

In 1994 they tell me I approved so many million dollars worth of helicopter flights. In the last lot of fires there is hearsay evidence—but I am sure it is procurable—that New South Wales spent $130 million on helicopters. If you pick up the news any day you will read that someone is whingeing about school teachers not being paid enough, that we have not got sufficient beds in hospitals or that the rail system is breaking down. What are we doing? We are funding helicopters to put out fires that we probably could prevent. I know that I am at cross-purposes with the government and the commissioner of the Rural Fire Service when I say this but anybody who believes that hazard reduction would not have made a difference to any of the recent wildfires is living in fairyland. Every drover in the country knows that if it is a cold night you chuck another log on the fire. Without the fuel there cannot be the high intensity fire.

Mr Browne —There is a safety factor here. If you put your firefighters into heavy fuels, the risk of them being injured, burnt or trapped increases. As the fuel doubles, the intensity of the fire doubles. If the fuel quadruples then the fire intensity quadruples. You get flame height and crown fires and you create a system on the fire ground which is very, very dangerous for the firefighter. If you have low fuels you can go in and put out a fire with four-, five- or six-foot flame height by direct attack in reasonable safety. These firefighters are volunteers and they get injured and killed, as do National Parks people. I believe this is unnecessary. We need to do something better than that.

Mr BARTLETT —I think you have both summed it up very well. I have a quick question to each of you. Don, in response to the 2001 fires the state government enacted legislation which came in in August last year. I put the question to council this morning—you were not here—that that raised the possibility of some blocks of land being sterilised or quarantined and not being able to be built on. What is your view of that? You have a fairly good understanding of fires and real estate in the area. Is it your view that that could be possible?

Mr Nott —Like Hugh, I was on the district committee when we invented DCP26. My view was that DCP26 was working pretty well up here and I am a real estate agent and I do a lot of work with developers. They had all accepted it. A little bit of kicking and screaming went on as you would imagine but it was accepted and it was working well. To try to centralise in each council area the whole process was going back to the old days of the state planning authority where they had a centralised approving authority. We would be much better served to have every council have to prepare a DCP26 such as we had up here and have that reviewed by the state planning authority and the Rural Fire Service, rather than trying to make the Rural Fire Service the approving authority.

What we have effectively done up here, as Hugh pointed out, is sterilise a whole lot of land. I have said this to previous coronials: if a piece of land is zoned residential it is a reasonable expectation that someone should build a house on it. If you want to stop people building a house on that through legislation then you have to turn around and compensate them. I think that is only fair. In many cases I think this legislation was brought out to appease people rather than to produce the result. It is certainly not producing the right result because it has caused a lot of trouble.

Mr BARTLETT —We have the situation where potentially people have worked and saved hard to buy their block of land and the state government has enacted legislation that will prevent them building and they will not be compensated?

Mr Nott —Absolutely. I have had young couples and other people in my office in tears over issues like this. In some of these places, with appropriate hazard reduction and building controls, it would not be difficult—they would have been able to build houses there and that would have been okay. It is my personal view that this is almost a way to stop development. If it is, I think it has been inordinately successful.

Mr BARTLETT —I have one quick question for Kevin. You talked about hazard reduction and you made the case very strongly. You suggested an area 500 to 1,000 metres deep at the urban-bush interface. How frequently would you envisage that being done or does that really depend, as Don said, on what level of fuel is there?

Mr Browne —It depends on the fuel accumulation, which is related mainly to the canopy and the type of vegetation, but probably every four to six years. In grassland, it would have to be done every two years. However, if we are talking about further west in the rural areas, it does not have to be burnt—it can simply be grazed through a system which is put in place. If it is private land that adjoins the national park, for instance, the land-holder is told that he has to graze those paddocks up against the park on a rotational basis every two years so that you do not get this accumulation of fuel outside the park or reserve. But, in the mountains, it needs to be every four to six years. It does not all have to be done in one go. You do not have to go from Katoomba to Glenbrook on that side of the line. It has already been done to Wentworth Falls, so you are looking at only some areas. If an area is done in one year and another area is done a couple of years later, it provides biodiversity. When you are doing one area the wildlife is able to move into the other area and there is high protein fodder there for it, because it was burnt off a couple of years before.

Mr SCHULTZ —It is my understanding that, between you, you have about 100 years of experience in fighting bushfires. That is not a reflection on your ages, but it is certainly a reflection on the courage, concern and commitment that you have had to your community and to the environment over that period of time and I compliment both of you on it. From my point of view, it is sad that people like you, who have spent decades doing what you do in the interests of the community, are not listened to a lot more by the so-called experts. If you were, we would probably not be sitting here today in this inquiry talking to you.

Would it be fair to say that, taking into consideration the comments you have made with regard to the National Parks and Wildlife Service—and I am trying to be fair and balanced here, despite what people might think about my comments in the past—the insatiable appetite and drive by successive governments, not just this government at the state level, but successive governments, to increase the size of our national parks and to close up more and more of the national parks into wilderness areas has created an enormous pressure on the National Parks and Wildlife Service personnel? When I say that, it is in the context of not having the manpower or the resources to be able to handle and appropriately manage the land mass that is under their control. Am I being fair in saying that?

Mr Browne —Yes, I believe you are. I was a national park ranger for 25 years. I was the first ranger employed in the Blue Mountains National Park in 1960 when the park was dedicated. It was under a trust in those days—and that was seven years before the national park service was thought up by the then Minister for Lands, Tom Lewis. In those days the park boundary was behind the big transmission lines, several hundred metres out of the towns. In the Blackheath area it was on the east of the Grose River. That large strip of land that was still crown land outside the national park was where a lot of the bushfire brigades did their hazard reduction. It was land that could be managed without coming up against the restrictions of the national park.

Over the years the people managing the national park system have moved the boundary up to the towns and in fact into the towns. There is a road in Blackheath where there are a dozen houses up that side of the road and they have moved the national park right up opposite them. If you go down the highway to Leura, the national park is almost on the highway. This is land that they really do not need. It is land that has been modified by people using it. It has been modified by people cutting wood out of it, burning it off, walking their dogs into it and throwing their rubbish onto it. It is simply land that has no value to National Parks at all. It is something that National Parks have done because they have an agreement with the Department of Lands that any land that belongs to that department that they are seeking to get rid of by sale or giving away, they have to notify National Parks that a section of land is becoming available and National Parks simply take it and add it to their estate.

Mr SCHULTZ —Would I be correct in saying that in the scenario that you have just painted—where the national parks have come up to the urban interface—if that small section of land had control burning done at the appropriate times of the year, a) it would make the urban inhabitants and the urban infrastructure a lot safer from wildfire and b) given that that land would be able to be back-burned or the fuel reduced in it, it would not have any detrimental effect on the biodiversity of the remaining part of the national park?

Mr Browne —It would be half of one per cent of their estate. It would be minimal. If it were treated properly it would be opened up, the understorey and the ladder fuels would be taken out of it, it would regress back to what Don said earlier when the Aborigines were managing it, and the people of the adjoining towns would use it. They would walk their dogs in it. They would go out and commune with nature. If you head off into the national park now, the understorey will simply rape you unless you are on a constructed track. There are all sorts of wattles, tea-trees and hakeas and they will simply tear you to pieces. You have your defined tracks, your wallaby tracks, and if you get off those you cannot go anywhere. If this buffer zone—if we want to call it a buffer zone—was treated, slashed, burnt off or whatever with the management criteria that you put in place, it would just become a park on the perimeter of the town and people would get some benefit from it.

Mr SCHULTZ —Do either of you gentlemen have any knowledge or experiences with regard to National Parks closing off fire trails or making fire trails impassable? This in itself, in my view and from my experiences in the Kosciuszko National Park, creates a death trap for volunteers going in there to fight fires. Do you have any knowledge of that?

Mr Browne —It has been done everywhere. It has been done on the mountains. I went to fires in the Pilliga; it was done in the Pilliga. In places they have taken dozers in to actually roll huge boulders into place. They have put in steel gates. Go back to 1957: most of Leura, Wentworth Falls and part of Bullaburra and Lawson were destroyed by fire, 200 homes were burnt, eight people were burnt to death and guesthouses, shops, the post office and the Baptist church were also burnt. After that, there was a commission of inquiry into what should be done about fires coming in from the Grose and burning down the mountain towns. The inquiry found that there was a need for fire trails going out along all the ridges so that distant fires from lightning strikes or whatever could be attacked when they were small and stopped from coming into the towns.

To do this, a bushfire prevention association was put together. It was given a charter to construct all these fire trails and at the same time put in some dams for water, some helipads and various other things and also to assist in re-forming the bushfire brigades on the mountains and doing hazard reduction. Five hundred kilometres of fire trails were put in on the Blue Mountains, and National Parks have closed probably a third of them. National Parks simply looked at them and said, `This trail has no fire advantage.' But what they were really saying was, `It has a high maintenance cost and therefore we don't want to do it. So we will simply shut Linden Ridge, which goes for 15 or 20 miles out to the edge of the Grose, because it's too difficult for us to maintain it to a reasonable standard.'

Mr Nott —As Hugh will remember, the district committee recommended that some trails be gated and locked to keep the vandals out, because not only are they are an access point for people who want to light fires and who get in there and make a lot of mess, but the other thing that Kevin did not mention is that a lot of these trails in themselves—if they are not adequately maintained, if they are not made wide enough so that there are turning circles and the like and if one side of them is not fuel reduced—can be death traps. It is part of management of the whole.

Mr SCHULTZ —Can I take you back into history a little bit, to the fires here in 1994 and the fires elsewhere in the state in 1995 and the coronial inquiry that flowed on from that in 1996. A number of recommendations were made by the coroner at that time. Amongst the recommendations, although it was not picked up, was the recommendation by the coroner that the current structure be split in two, having the Rural Fire Service running autonomously on its own as distinct from the urban brigades, and the current bushfire council, as I think it is called, being disbanded and a board of independent commissioners commissioned to undertake the oversight of those two brigades. What are your views on that particular recommendation by the coroner in 1996?

Mr Nott —I think it is quite reasonable and it is in just about every state in Australia that you have a metropolitan fire brigade and a rural fire brigade. But what you do not need is forestry having control of their land—and they do generally manage their land well—and you do not need the National Parks trying to control the vast tracts that they own. All the people that are land managers, be they councils or otherwise, should have to report back to an approved authority. If you had the two authorities, I am sure it would work quite well. But at the moment you do not have that situation, because, if you read our act, Forests, National Parks and numerous other people are fire authorities in their own right. Effectively they have the same authority as the Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service or the commissioner of the metropolitan brigade.

Mr Browne —As you said earlier, they do not have the manpower or the resources to fight large fires on their land, so they then ask for the assistance of the Rural Fire Service. If it is good enough for the Rural Fire Service to fight their fires and put their lives on the line, surely it is good enough for the Rural Fire Service to do the fuel management.

CHAIR —We will have to keep moving, I am afraid, because we are going to run out of time.

Mr ORGAN —Mr Nott and Mr Browne, after that presentation, I feel like spending about an hour asking you various questions and making various comments, but we have only got a minute. Mr Browne, you said that, since National Parks has closed a lot of land, it has become overgrown. I always thought that the Blue Mountains was a very lush, rich area and that was one of the reasons it took white people a long time to get here. It was not a grassland area as well. I think it is a real furphy that the so-called history of this land is one of Aborigines carrying out hazard reduction and that it was one big grassland area. I think that is just a furphy, especially in areas such as the Blue Mountains, where we have rich, impenetrable rainforest all over the place.

Mr Browne, you spoke of papier-mÂch[eacute] houses built on ridges and how the size of the block does not allow adequate fire protection. You then placed responsibility on National Parks and other bodies for dealing with this issue. Could I suggest to you that perhaps nothing should be built on that land and that perhaps the residential zoning of that land is inappropriate? I would also ask whether the bushfire officers are involved in the rezoning process, because it appears that, in areas such as this where we have got population issues, inappropriate land is being rezoned as residential and then, as Mr Nott says, people are buying the land in good faith and all of a sudden they are being made aware of the problems with the land. It would seem to me that rural firefighters and bushfire officers should also be involved in the rezoning process.

Mr Browne —The problem with the Blue Mountains is that the land was zoned 50 or 100 years ago, and a lot of the subdivisions were not taken up. They just sat in limbo because nobody wanted to live way out in the donga when there was land closer in. When land got scarce on the mountains and prices went up, all of a sudden these previous subdivisions were brought forward again. I was employed by Blue Mountains City Council from 1985 to 1990 as a deputy fire control officer or inspector, as they call them now. The first thing I did was zone the mountains into fire risk areas. I did that using topographical maps and the known data of slope, wind direction, aspect and the whole lot. We came up with low risk land, medium risk land, high risk land and extreme risk land. We then designed a building code to fit those risks, in consultation with the health and building department. We said there would be no building on the extreme risk land. That was put into place and, from that point on, I lived in the Land and Environment Court because that was the avenue of the people who had been paying rates on this land for God knows how long.

Sydney people had bought a block of land and had thought, `We're going to retire up there.' When they came to build on it, they were stopped. Simply because it was costing council so much, not only to take me to the Land and Environment Court but to take their building inspector, their engineer and all these people down there, we stepped back and said, `We will put a different code in place that will make people building on that land build a house'—like the previous speaker mentioned—'that has a high degree of fire resistance.' Again, half of these people, when they got the extra $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 on the cost of their house, went back to the Land and Environment Court again. So you cannot do it unless there is some funding somewhere that says to that person, `We will buy that block of land from you at current value or at what you paid for it and all the rates you have paid on it in the last 20 years.' That funding is not available, because the Blue Mountains City Council just does not have it.

Mr McARTHUR —You are rather critical of the National Parks personnel. Would you be recommending that there be a move back to the ranger type of operation, compared to the current attitude?

Mr Browne —That is a hard one to answer.

Mr McARTHUR —It is in your submission.

Mr Browne —There have been national parks in New South Wales since 1874. The second national park in the world was Royal National Park; the first one was Yellowstone in America. They were always managed by trusts, up to 1967, and those trusts employed not academic people but people with hands-on skills. A ranger in those days did everything. He looked after the park, he looked after the visitors, he looked after the roads, he got a pick and shovel and dug the pit toilets, he did some hazard reduction and he fought fires—he was a hands-on person. When the National Parks and Wildlife Service came into being in 1967, instead of putting in an Australian person as the first director of the service—and they had a beauty in Kosciuszko named Neville Gare—they brought out an American named Sam Weems as director of our national parks for three years.

When they asked America for the loan of a person for three years, the American parks service looked around and said, `Who can we most do without?' and they sent Sam Weems. The first thing that Sam Weems did when he got here was to look around and say, `Where are all your graduates?' There were not any, so he said, `You'd better get a few.' At that time industry was snapping up the good graduates the moment they walked out of university. There was plenty of work, business was booming and so the meagre money that was being paid to graduates by the National Parks and Wildlife Service attracted people with a BA degree or something and the parks got filled up with the wrong people. Time has removed the old hands-on ranger; he has gone, and we have these other people. Time has promoted them to the top jobs. The new graduates coming in are graduates in one of the environmental sciences—and that is good—but the boss is the old BA graduate ranger employed by Sam Weems, and so that is where the problem lies.

Mr McARTHUR —Why do you think there is a lack of reduction burning? We have talked a lot about why in fact the authorities, individuals and parks are not executing reduction burns.

Mr Nott —It takes too long to get the approvals. What needs to happen—and I will answer the question in a roundabout way—is, as Hugh said, public education. You have to have fuel-reduced zones maybe up to a kilometre or more behind the houses and then you have to have mosaic pattern burning. They will tell you in effect that all of that stuff happens. But it is not happening—Kerry lives up here and he would know that; Kevin and I both know that and Hugh knows that—because you do not see any smoke anywhere up here. It is not happening because it can take years to get these approvals, or they go through part 5 environmental assessments and they just go around and around in an ever-decreasing circle like the dodo bird. What happens then is that the brigades get sick of it and go and find something else to do. That is in effect what has happened. They have lost their oomph. When I was captain of Winmalee brigade, I would have to go to work on a Saturday morning. I would ring up my senior deputy captain and say, `This is a good day. We know there is a lot of fuel out at St Columba's College that is going to menace Sunset Boulevard at Winmalee. We've got an approval. Ring them up, get the troops out there and light it up and get rid of it today'—and it would just happen.

In Kevin's day—and, in part, in my day—they used to go out onto the Black Range and drive along in a truck with a drip torch tied to a shovel and burn off a great tract of land, because the fuel was heavy and it needed to be done. I am not saying that everything was perfect then, either, because some brigades would go out—and for whatever reason the fire always came out of the Fruit Bowl Gully at Faulconbridge or something—and burn it every weekend if they could. It got to the stage that if you let it go like that there would be nothing but rocks left.

What has to happen is that, once a risk is identified, irrespective of who the land manager is—and National Parks are probably the biggest one, but it does not matter; they just happen to be on the receiving end—they should be given a period of time to show cause for why the hazard should not be removed or reduced by whatever means. That might be by trittering or any of the other methods. That time should not be three years while some bloke goes and writes a thesis about why it should or should not be burnt because of some seed bank; it should be 90 days. Then, if a fire gets in there and burns somebody's house down, those who say it does not need to be done should take the responsibility.

If I went down the road here and shot someone on the train, I would take responsibility for doing damage to that person. If you are a land manager and you have been notified of a risk, you should take responsibility. What happens to the RTA if someone rings them up or writes a note to them and says, `There's a great big crack in the bridge,' and they do not do anything about it and the bridge falls down? What happens? Do they just say: `Oh, well, bad luck. The insurance companies and the public in general will fund compensation for all these people who got killed or whose houses burnt'? These land managers are not taking responsibility and nobody has enough ticker to make them take responsibility. It is that simple.

Mr McARTHUR —Why do you think the National Parks have not put in a submission to this inquiry?

Mr Nott —Why hasn't the state government? The Rural Fire Service has not.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —Mr Chairman, if that sort of questioning is going to continue, this committee is going to have some real questions. The member knows the reason why that is the case.

Mr McARTHUR —These are independent people.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —I could very well ask them whether they are aware that the Prime Minister is conducting an inquiry and that the state governments have indicated that they are going to cooperate with the Prime Minister's inquiry and not with Wilson Tuckey's inquiry.

Mr McARTHUR —It is quite a legitimate question.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —I could ask that question, but I have not up until this point. I have been very patient.

Mr SCHULTZ —I know you will continue to be so, Gavan!

CHAIR —We have all been very patient and we are over time.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —Could I tell you, Chair, that it is a serious issue, because from the point of inception this inquiry has been charged with being a political exercise.

Ms PANOPOULOS —That is rubbish.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —If committee members are prepared to turn it into one, so be it. What will come out of this—

CHAIR —Gavan, hang on. I am the chair of this committee.

Ms PANOPOULOS —Gavan, we know you are keen to protect your state Labor mates and we understand why you are saying this.

CHAIR —Sophie, please.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —We know that you are keen to get into them, and that is the reason for the inquiry.

CHAIR —My apologies to Mr Browne and Mr Nott. These are matters that the committee can discuss in private.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —We will discuss them in private.

CHAIR —I thank you both for your excellent evidence to the committee. We appreciate having had the benefit of your experience over a long time.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Schultz):

That this committee authorises publication of the proof transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 11.39 a.m.