ENVIRONMENT: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
NSW wildfires: State premier is ultimately responsible
, November 9, 2013
The deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, was quick to blame the tragic bushfires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney on Tony Abbott, because of the Abbott government’s decision — yet to be implemented — to repeal the carbon tax.
Bandt tweeted to his followers a photo of the bushfires, with the note, “Tony Abbott’s plan means more bushfires for Australia & more pics like this of Sydney.”
Undoubtedly, the dry winter and scorching winds from the hot centre of the continent exacerbated the spread of the fires. Moreover, the increasing number of people who have built their homes in recent years in bushland on Sydney’s western fringe has endangered human life.
Fire-fighters described conditions on the worst fire day, October 17, in terms similar to those in Victoria in February 2009, when bushfires ravaged communities east and north-east of Melbourne.
But the underlying cause in the NSW bushfires — as in the bushfires in Victoria and other states — is the lack of fuel-reduction burning, and this has been amply documented in official government statistics.
Every year, there are extreme variations in rainfall and temperature across the country, and bushfire management plans need to be based on the variations in weather conditions, by adopting a long-term strategy of fuel-reduction burns, to achieve a realistic average level.
Studies by fire management experts have shown that, ideally, the combustible trash which litters the floors of Australia’s bushland, and which turns the inevitable bushfires into life-threatening wildfires, should be burned at least every 10 years.
This has been documented in evidence before a number of inquiries conducted by fire management experts from state governments and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, including the royal commission following the 2009 Victorian bushfires in which 170 lives were lost.
Roger Underwood, an experienced forester in Western Australia, wrote that after the terrible 1961 fires, “The bulk of the south-west forest [of WA] was burned by controlled, low intensity fire every 6-9 years or so, producing a mosaic of fuel-reduced areas.” These prevented wildfires for a period of 30 years, after which the lessons of the past were forgotten, and WA has since faced increasingly damaging bushfires.
Where controlled burning of the bush is done regularly, the low to medium intensity fires will not only burn leaves, twigs and fallen branches that build up on the forest floor, but leave the dominant species of eucalypts intact. Native animal species, which are adapted to regular fires, also survive them.
But the amount of fuel-reduction burn-offs in New South Wales is pitifully small.
According to the 2011-2 annual report of the NSW Rural Fire Service, which documented the amount of fuel-reduction burns in the state over the previous four years, the area subject to controlled burns over that year was 138,211 hectares — barely above the five-year average.
But, according to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, which administers the state’s forests and national parks, it has over 7 million hectares under management.
The amount of land subject to fuel-reduction burns is thus less than 2 per cent of the land under management, when at least 10 per cent each year is required for effective fire management.
The level of fuel-reduction burning in New South Wales suggests a rotation rate of once every 50 years — almost worthless from a fire abatement perspective.
The actual situation is even worse than these figures show. The Rural Fire Service also manages fires on private land, so the actual amount of fuel-reduction in state forests and national parks is even lower than the figure above.
The Rural Fire Service’s annual report also shows that, over the next four years, the level of planned fuel-reduction burns is expected to rise to a five-year average of 180,000 hectares — still less than 3 per cent of the land under management.
Although the Minister for Emergency Services, Mike Gallacher, has taken a high profile in relation to the fires, the National Parks and Wildlife Service actually comes under the direct responsibility of the NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell.
(The National Parks and Wildlife Service is part of the Office of Environment and Heritage, within the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet).
After the 2011 election, the incoming Premier reorganised the former Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, and took the national parks into his own department.
One of the reasons for the change was dissatisfaction with the influence of extreme environmentalists on forest management under the former Labor government. However, the figures show that little has changed.
No doubt there will be a full inquiry into the terrible bushfires which have threatened entire communities in the Blue Mountains; but, until governments introduce effective fuel-reduction targets, tragedies such as those seen recently in New South Wales will be repeated across the country.