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Bushfire Politics Part 3 : Inquiries and Royal Commissions

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, yet we seem to be unprepared for catastrophic fires. If we invested funds into early prevention, far less would be required to repair the damage to lives and property afterwards.
Australia has had no less than 56 bushfire inquiries, yet the Prime Minister is calling for another such investigation. The PM wants another Royal Commission to go over the same ground again. Will this next inquiry recommend different bushfire mitigation strategies, and will they also, like previous recommendations, be ignored once again by State and Local Governments?

Executive Summary:

Aboriginals have, for tens of thousands of years, followed by settlers and farmers, burnt the bush to reduce fuel loads, understanding bushfires are an integral part of the Australian landscape. Over the past few decades, however, governments have been derelict in their ‘duty-of-care’ to manage fires effectively.  As expected, the blame-game is in full swing between governments, fire authorities, communities and property owners.  To help make sense of this current catastrophic fire season, we decided to investigate. This paper looks at four (4) areas that are relevant to the current bush fire outcomes. We,

  • Question why lessons learnt and inquiries in the past have largely been ignored
  • Examine the recommendations from the 2003 and 2009 inquiries
  • Ask why State Governments have increased areas of National Parks, reduced fire services and closed fire trails
  • Look at Local Governments green-tape legislation and planning laws
  • Provide a possible explanation for catastrophic bushfires that appear linked to cost cutting, mismanagement, political negligence and international influence

Section 1:  Presents solutions to ensure a repeat of 2019/20 bushfires cannot happen again.

Section 2:  Investigates the history of Australian bushfires

Section 3: Examines the findings of the 2003 Federal Parliamentary Inquiry and the Vic. 2009 Royal Commission into bushfires

Section 4: Looks at the politics and possible outside influences that have affected bushfire prevention and mitigation


Discussion Paper Section 3: Inquiries and Royal Commissions

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, yet we seem to be unprepared for catastrophic fires. If we invested funds into early prevention, far less would be required to repair the damage to lives and property afterwards.

Australia has had no less than 56 bushfire inquiries, yet the Prime Minister is calling for another such investigation. The PM wants another Royal Commission to go over the same ground again. Will this next inquiry recommend different bushfire mitigation strategies, and will they also, like previous recommendations, be ignored once again by State and Local Governments?

Australian Bushfires

We look at two previous major investigations; The 2003 Federal Inquiry and the 2009 Victorian Royal Commission.

2003 FEDERAL PARLIAMENTARY REPORT INTO VIC. NSW. TAS. BUSHFIRES

The 2003 Federal Inquiry into the bush fires in NSW, Victoria, and NSW resulted in an extensive report as a result of 500 submissions from land holders, firefighters, scientists, and retired people with years of firefighting experience.

Worth noting, however, was the fact agencies responsible for land management, fire prevention and fire suppression did not submit any information to this inquiry – the full report which is readily available (1)

Below is an extract from the Chair of the Committee, Gary Nairn MP, ‘A Nation Charred’

“During the summer of 2003, a total of almost four million hectares in the Australian Capital Territory and across five Australian states, were severely burnt from wildfire. The devastating loss of stock and property, the heart-breaking loss of bushland and wildlife, together with the tragic loss of confidence suffered by those directly affected by the bushfires, left a nation charred to its physical and spiritual core.

The overwhelming view of the more than five hundred people who presented written and/or oral submissions to the Inquiry on the Recent Australian Bushfires was that proper land management , proper fire prevention principles and proper fire suppression strategies could have greatly limited the risk of these high intensity wildfires.

The Committee heard a consistent message right around Australia: –

  • There has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long;
  • Local knowledge and experience are being ignored by an increasingly top-heavy bureaucracy;
  • When accessing the source of fires, volunteers are fed up with having their lives put at risk by fire trails that are blocked and left without maintenance;
  • There is a reluctance by state agencies to aggressively attack bushfires when they first start, thus enabling the fires to build in intensity and making them harder to control; and
  • Better communications between and within relevant agencies is long overdue.

 Chair of Committee Gary Nairn MP said: There must be serious and sincere recognition of the need to change the culture and practices within many of our public land managers and firefighting agencies. For never again can we afford to be A Nation Charred”

In total 54 recommendations were made. Some significant findings worthy of note:

That the Commonwealth, in conjunction with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)

  • Develop a NATIONAL database that provides information on fuel loads, considering vegetation type and climate, across all land tenures
  • That local governments (councils) implement required fuel management standards on private property and land under their control
  • Determine a NATIONAL minimum standard for adequate access to all public lands including wilderness areas and National Parks.
  • Assist the states and territories in the construction, maintenance and signage of fire trail networks
  • Increase water access points for bush fighting on public land to the minimum NATIONAL standard
  • That COAG members give greater flexibility to local Brigade Captains in the issuing of permits for fuel reduction burns
  • Conduct further research in the effectiveness of grazing(cattle) as a fire mitigation practice
  • Ensure appropriative measures are taken for the eradication of weeds on private and public land, following a bushfire event
  • Review the principles of fire prevention and rapid and effective initial attacks adopted and implemented
  • Make a commitment to a NATIONALLY coordinated full ground support for fire fighting
  • Impose a fire levy tax on rates for landowners in NSW, Vic and Tasmania, and abolish the current system within Insurance Premiums
  • Consider introducing NATIONAL bushfire training through schools and libraries
  • Having a NATIONAL Bushfire Awareness and Preparedness Day like ‘Clean up Australia Day’
  • A review of the Duty of Care of public and private landholders, and their potential liability (in the event of a bushfire)

Critical recommendations from the 2003 inquiry have largely been ignored; while other decisions not recommended, have had negative outcomes.

  • Agreements between Conservation groups and National Parks in 2016 resulted in cattle grazing ceasing resulting in excess undergrowth. (2, 3).
  • Subsequent hazard reduction levels in several states are still below targets set in 2003, and local Brigade Captains are still frustrated with the slow response for permission to conduct cool burns. In addition, gates are locked across fire trails in National Parks preventing access by firefighting crews. (4, 5)
  • The responsibility for local councils to implement fuel reduction standards on private and publicly owned land has not resulted in positive outcomes. In 2011 a landowner creating a fire break between publicly owned land and his own property, went to jail. (6) Some 14 years on from the 2003 Inquiry, the 2017 CSIRO Report “You own the fuel- but who owns the fire” resulted in the legal responsibility of landowners still under debate.  (7)

2009 BLACK SATURDAY ROYAL COMMISSION INTO BUSH FIRES – Victoria

 The extensive report from the 2009 Royal Commission into the Black Saturday files, was the result of extensive consultation and deliberations with the people and communities affected, through open hearings and live web streaming. (2)

Australian Bushfires

Below is an extract from the Royal Commission findings, from the Chair Hon. Bernard Teague AO and Commissioners Ronald McLeod AM and Susan Pascoe AM

“The bushfires of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, caused the death of 173 people. Black Saturday will write itself into Victoria history with record-breaking weather conditions and bushfires of a scale and ferocity that tested human endurance. Although some communities were physically destroyed, their members also displayed ingenuity, strength and resolve in the face of this calamity. There was also widespread devastation of considerable areas of the scenic forests and woodlands that form part of Victoria’s natural heritage.

Bushfires is an intrinsic part of Victoria landscape, and if time dims our memory, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to learn from the experience of Black Saturday and improve the way we prepare for, and respond to, bushfires.

The stories of those affected grounded our work. They continually reminded all at the Commissions that bushfires deeply affect people and communities and that their needs and safety must be at the forefront of government policy.

The recommendations we make give priority to protecting human life and they are designed to reflect the share responsibility that governments, fire agencies, communities and individuals have for minimizing the prospect of a tragedy of this scale ever happening again”.

In total 64 recommendations were made.  Some significant recommendations worthy of note:

That the state (which includes ALL stakeholders and is not confined to one specific authority)

  • Ensures the national curriculum incorporates the history of bushfires in Australia and in areas of geography, science and environmental studies include bush fire education
  • The Commonwealth develops a NATIONAL bushfire awareness campaign
  • In Conjunction with the Department of Defence, develop an agreement that allows Commonwealth firefighting and resources to be incorporated into plans and used on days of high risk
  • Pursue a statewide approach to arson prevention and all areas of high risk have plans and programs relevant to this risk
  • Pursue the National Action Plan to reduce bushfire arson in Australia
  • Map and designate Bushfire prone areas for the purpose of planning and building control
  • Adopt a clear objective of restricting development in Bushfire prone area giving due consideration to biodiversity conservation
  • Develop guidelines for determining the maximum level of vegetation removal for bushfire mitigation, beyond which level the application would be rejected
  • The state to fund and commit to implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an average rolling target of 5% MINIMUM of public land.
  • A research program aimed at refining arson prevention and detection strategies

Recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday fires have largely been ignored (9)

  • Hazard reduction burns conducted in Victoria over the past three years combined did not reach the level recommended for a single year by the Black Saturday royal commission.
  • An analysis of annual reports from the state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning found planned burns had returned to pre-Black Saturday levels of just 130,000 ha a year — only one-third of the 5 per cent or 385,000ha recommended by the royal commission in 2010. (10)

 

Mismanaged hazard reduction – Victoria

Mismanaged hazard reduction – Victoria

 Between the 2003 and 2009 inquiries, significant changes in ‘fire-management principles’ are evident. It is the opinion of Rite-ON! that the focus of bushfires in Australia has changed from:

  • fire prevention to fire suppression
  • hazard reduction to biodiversity protection
  • a recommended national approach -but stayed with a piece-meal state response
  • emphasis on bushfire management to political point scoring
  • less money for prevention, requiring more funds for rebuilding
  • focus on solutions to focus on blame leading to simplistic remedies.

Will another inquiry result in recommendations being adopted?

Will non-compliant states be rewarded by greater compensation for failing to meet their obligations?

When will we learn from history, past experiences, and past inquiries?

Coming soon:

Part 4 covering the legislation and international agreements signed by governments, that influence the way we deal with bushfires. Has Australia put other issues and supranational interests before the national interest?

  

References:

 

  1. aphref.aph.gov.au_house_committee_bushfires_inquiry_report_fullreport
  2. https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/381027-the-sad-truth-of-using-public-lands-for-cattle-grazing
  3. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-11/cattle-grazing-leases-national-parks-laws-pass-qld-parliament/7404184
  4. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/CIB/cib0203/03Cib08
  5. https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/angry-fire-fighters-demand-fuel-reduction-burns-20200110-p53qga
  6. http://joannenova.com.au/2019/11/farmers-jammed-between-an-inferno-and-a-trip-to-jail-remember-maxwell-szulc/
  7. https://www.publish.csiro.au/wf/pdf/WF17070
  8. http://theconversation.com/theres-only-one-way-to-make-bushfires-less-powerful-take-out-the-stuff-that-burns-129323
  9. http://royalcommission.vic.gov.au/Commission-Reports/Final-Report.html
  10. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/bushfires-hazard-reduction-plan-ignores-black-saturday-inquiry-targets/news-story/410a06f04403175565a7beab20ba550b

 

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