ENVIRONMENT: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Federal bushfire inquiry's challenge
, April 19, 2003
Following the terrible bushfires which ravaged north-eastern Victoria, south-eastern New South Wales and the ACT during January and February, the House of Representatives has established a new inquiry into the bushfire disaster.
Its terms of reference are widely drawn, and should encourage public involvement. They include:
(a) the extent and impact of the bushfires on the environment, private and public assets and local communities;
(b) the causes of and risk factors contributing to the impact and severity of the bushfires, including land management practices and policies in national parks, state forests, other Crown land and private property;
(c) the adequacy and economic and environmental impact of hazard reduction and other strategies for bushfire prevention, suppression and control; and
(d) appropriate land management policies and practices to mitigate the damage caused by bushfires to the environment, property, community facilities and infrastructure and the potential environmental impact of such policies and practices.
The Committee chairman, Gary Nairn, the federal member for Eden Monaro, said that his electorate was one of several affected by the recent fires.
"We have been asked to report to the Parliament in November, so that recommendations we make can start to be in time for the next fire season."
Mr Nairn said the inquiry would take a national perspective and concentrate on what must be done across Australia to minimise future risks. It will add to the work of the coronial and territory inquiries already underway.
"It is a very wide ranging inquiry looking at all aspects of the bushfire hazard situation in Australia. The inquiry will identify measures that can be implemented by governments, industry and the community to minimise the incidence and impact of bushfires on life, property and the environment."
Despite the promise of a thorough and prompt inquiry, recent history - particularly in New South Wales and Victoria - indicates that such inquiries have been held frequently in the past, but failed to address the key issues.
For example, following the devastating bushfires in New South Wales in December 2001-January 2002, there was a NSW Joint Select Committee on Bushfires, which reported on June 28, 2002.
Its report was basically a whitewash, containing vague recommendations in favour of hazard reduction burning - while also supporting restrictions which made it difficult to perform.
This included an approval process for burn-offs "as recommended by the Interdepartmental Committee on Environmental Assessments for Bush Fire Hazard Reduction Proposals."
It made no clear-cut recommendations that fire trails should be a top priority throughout national parks and forests, instead arguing that "fire trails can also be used by people dumping rubbish, which can itself constitute a fire hazard, [and] inappropriate or intensive use of fire trails by recreational groups using horses or four-wheel drive vehicles may also cause environmental damage."
The NSW Inquiry failed to make any recommendations on maximum fuel loads in national parks, and clearly preferred "biodiversity" to effective bushfire control, although the evidence shows that a lack of hazard reduction leads to wildfires which, in turn, destroy both flora and fauna on a massive scale.
Not unexpectedly, less than a year later, a huge swathe of state forests in south-eastern New South Wales was devastated by bushfires.
Yet Brian Gilligan, the head of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service - where only one per cent of forests were subject of fuel reduction burn-offs last year - has rejected the idea of targets in fuel reduction burns.
There have been at least seven separate inquiries or reports into bushfires in New South Wales since 1994, but they clearly failed to solve the problems.
For example, a Coronial inquiry which concluded in 1996 said, "The evidence satisfied the Court conclusively that throughout NSW during the period 1989-93, the fuel load was not managed as intended by Parliament and high fuel loads were principally responsible for the intensity of the uncontrollable fires." Deja vu.
The reason why nothing has been done about bushfire prevention in New South Wales and Victoria over the past ten years is the impact of radical environmentalist organisations such as the Greens, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the various government-funded Environment Centres which have made fuel-reduction burning, on the scale required to be effective, politically difficult or even impossible.
As former ACT Chief Minister, Kate Carnell, recently observed, Labor (and also Liberal) governments have been afraid to challenge the political influence these groups have exerted (Financial Review
, January 24-27, 2003).
The Parliamentary committee is seeking public input, and wants written submissions by Friday, 9 May. They should be addressed to the Committee Secretary, Select Committee on the Australian Bushfires, Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600, or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org