Australia needs to go on war footing in changing bushfire climate

Ian Bushnell 18 November 2019 16
ACT Rural Fire Service

An outdated approach? ACT Rural Fire Service members deployed to NSW Rural Fire Service for the continuing bushfire threats in the Port Macquarie region. Photo: ESA.

This week, eastern Australia faces a heatwave that threatens yet another bushfire calamity, with not a skerrick of real rain on the horizon.

The ACT has escaped the blowtorch so far but by the middle of the week it’s going to be 37ºC, and that damn wind just won’t let up.

On everybody’s lips who matter – farmers, scientists, firies – were the words that our Prime Minister and his Government dare not speak, climate change.

The howls of confected outrage from the National Party bovver boys such as Barnaby and Barilaro, and even the usually restrained Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack when the bleeding obvious was mentioned did the nation, and the volunteers sent into battle the flames, a disservice.

The false argument that the Greens were to blame for the fires was ludicrous but even Shane Rattenbury was forced to tweet the Greens did, in fact, support hazard reduction.

It was plain for all to see just who were the “raving lunatics”.

Anybody who has been working the land and compiling weather records, those researching bushfires, the fire chiefs who have had to protect the community and anybody who has noticed will tell you that the bushfire seasons are longer, it’s drier, the summers are hotter and that these changes have occurred over the last few decades and are accelerating.

I’ve been taking the road north to Queensland to see family of and on for 25 years, driving through the NSW and south-east Queensland fire grounds. The forests of northern NSW, the Border Ranges and the Scenic Rim are drying out.

The spring drive across the New England Tableland, usually one of the prettiest, was despairing this year. Blanketed in smoke, the parched and destocked land was lifeless. The venerable trees in Armidale’s central park are dying.

The cycle of drought has gotten tighter and is squeezing the life out of the land while our leaders bury their heads further into the sand and pray for rain like the good old days.

The bushfire crisis reflects what the science has been telling the world about global warming, what the fire researchers had warned the Government was coming and what the fire chiefs have been dealing with on the ground year on year.

ACT fire chief Joe Murphy

ACT fire chief Joe Murphy is in no doubt that climate change is behind the worsening bushfire situation in Australia. Photo: Region Media.

ACT fire chief Joe Murphy was one of many who contradicted the climate deniers in Government, saying firefighters are seeing a change in the weather patterns and the amount of water they have access to.

He says the average temperatures and average rainfall are now changing quite dynamically and quickly, making situations more unpredictable.

It doesn’t matter how often the PM turns up to put an arm around a grieving fire victim and offers a few dollars to see them right for a few days, or tells the exhausted volunteers the nation is grateful.

He needs to square up, face the nation and start getting serious about a proper climate strategy, curbing emissions and mitigating the impacts now upon us and likely to get worse before lessening.

It’s time to throw the politics out and form a war cabinet.

One of the first things to think about is that the days of the local volunteer brigade are limited. It’s only November and they are exhausted. They leave their jobs, their own homes and get by on adrenalin and cups of tea, and the goodwill of employers and families.

It is a great tradition but it has become unsustainable.

They are ordinary folk doing extraordinary things in extreme conditions and when they go home and back to work, God only knows what memories will haunt them, with little support to ward off the demons.

The length and intensity of the bushfire season requires a rapid response professional fighting force equipped with all the modern resources available, augmented by volunteers, who should be paid in one way or another.

And the resources should be available for debriefing and counselling.

Those arguing for more backburning and preventative work may like to also see the cuts to rangers and staff in national parks reversed, a short-sighted case of false economy if ever there was one, so more land management can happen.

It’s going to cost but the alternative price is higher.

The Government is right – it can’t make it rain tomorrow and it can’t stop the wind blowing. But by accepting the awful truth, taking the right advice and starting to put in place the measures to de-carbonise and mitigate the effects of climate change we will now have to live with, it can win our trust and offer us hope.

The “raving lunatic” approach is not an option.

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16 Responses to Australia needs to go on war footing in changing bushfire climate
Gary Richardson Gary Richardson 7:07 am 19 Nov 19

In 1939 when the Bush raged in Aus. With WW2 ALL persons went to war only a few left to fight fire the Bush fires it was declared ALL fire fighters are doing national service. This is why you get a National Medal for 15 yrs service

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:59 pm 18 Nov 19

There have been some important practical points made over the last week, or so, that could easily be picked up by a federal Government which wanted to do useful things in this area (and, of course, be seen to be doing useful things by voters) – restoring the spirit of the original federal/state funding deal for aerial fire-fighting is a prime example.

Saving the planet is not something the Australian government can do, and no amount of rhetoric about “real action”, “climate emergency”, etc. can change that fact. It will ultimately be about the major powers (the sorts of nations which Charles de Gaulle knowingly referred to as “cold monsters”) deciding that it’s in their interest to make serious changes, not just talk about it at summits – and that will depend upon technology which is always “just around the corner”, but clearly not yet available at scale, and at an acceptable price.

    astro2 astro2 10:30 pm 18 Nov 19

    ‘Saving the planet is not something the Australian Government can do”….Yeah? I guess you think inventing WI FI is not something we could do either…..I think if you did a little digging you’d be surprised at the influence a middle-ranking power can impart. Start by reading about the founding of the United Nations after WW2 and the role of Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt in that process. In summary, development of a renewable energy technology is something Australia is very well placed to undertake. We could also become quite successful in dong so.

Pat Barling Pat Barling 3:00 pm 18 Nov 19

Hmm well for starters the picture shows SES people not RFS. Secondly article and a lot of others keep talking about back burning, sorry it is called hazard reduction, back burning is a fire fighting technique/tactic/strategy (as is burning out).

    Philip Selmes Philip Selmes 5:46 pm 18 Nov 19

    Pat Barling hmmm yes, and no. Hazard Reduction Burning is burning to a prescription, and so ALL burns are Prescribed Burns. HRB is just one, you can have environmental burns, cultural burns, and of course a back burn. But all are burnt with a specific intent, and media, politicians and general public love using 'back burn', mostly out of context, as youve rightly pointed out Pat.

    Pat Barling Pat Barling 6:58 pm 18 Nov 19

    Philip Selmes yes you are correct, but the use of the term 'backburn' is used too often and out of context, and I was trying to correct the context as used in the article. Regarding a backburn when implemented it is more about the intent - a control line etc as opposed to the the prescription (though that is part of the planning) while a HRB is about the prescription and reducing the fuel load.:)

rationalobserver rationalobserver 1:29 pm 18 Nov 19

A search of TROVE shows that large fires are nothing new in Australia. The hardest fires to contain are in national parks. Some alternative and practical measures to deal with the situation are;
Scaling back the national parks to mirror the funding available to manage them properly. Opening up the national parks to contributory recreation such as 4wd touring and hunting, with the added benefit that fire management tracks remain usable and feral animal numbers are reduced. Lastly, pay less attention to city based eco zealots and more attention to the people who live and work in the bush every day.

    astro2 astro2 6:25 pm 18 Nov 19

    A search of TROVE will also indicate that the frequency, range and months that the fires are occurring in is way different to past fires. All fire brigade authorities are stating this. Hunting and 4WD driving in National Parks won’t stop the bushfires that are happening. The article points all this out. You give yourself away with Murdoch-style chants like “city-based eco zealots”. Yep, pay more attention to the people who live and work in the bush every day who are saying that, without any doubt, fire seasons are longer, fiercer and a lot more dangerous.

Acton Acton 11:28 am 18 Nov 19

Long term firefighters say the problem of more fires is due to objections to seasonal back burning to reduce forest fuel build-up. Who is opposing these burn-offs?
Is climate change causing spontaneous fires? Or is it the work of arsonists?
If they are genuinely concerned about the environment, why are Greens supporters not out there volunteering to fight fires? What are the Greens doing in any practical way to help fire-fighters? Nothing.
Or do the Greens want to see more fires so as to push along their own climate change beliefs and agenda?

    paulmuster paulmuster 8:47 am 26 Dec 19

    Climate change is opposing back burning by significantly reducing the window of time available to do so. Couple that with the peppercorn budgets made availalbe for backburning an the 20m odd HA of area where active management is required and you start to see the problem.

    Not that the Greens have a government anywhere that determines how much gets spent on fire management, but pushing a climate change agenda to tax polluters who profit from activities that increase the risk of clmate related disasters is a much better solution that denial (assuming you support the idea of a healthy planet).

Karen De Karen De 11:18 am 18 Nov 19

Exactly what my friend in Glen Innes said, where is the military in this time of crisis?

David Foster David Foster 8:08 am 18 Nov 19

😂😂😂 good luck with that 🤣🤣🤣

Dianna Nixon Dianna Nixon 7:45 am 18 Nov 19

The volunteers are amazing, however the scale of the fires now being experienced will need different responses. Volunteers can't be expected to fight fires for weeks and months.

Ben Roberts Ben Roberts 7:40 am 18 Nov 19

I’ve said if before and I’ll say it again, we need a national firefighting reserve service.

Greg Newton Greg Newton 7:39 am 18 Nov 19

There seems to be an assumption that volunteer based emergency services are not capable of a professional response. By and large volunteer RFS Brigades and SES Units are elements in large professional organisations with both volunteers and paid staff working together to deliver capability. What’s needed is greater support for volunteers when they leave their normal employment to support community.

Bek Clark Bek Clark 7:33 am 18 Nov 19

Military-like? Just like Union General George McClellan, famous for his take it slow approach that resulted in interminable delays and missed opportunities to hit the rebels hard and potentially shorten the America Civil War. Yeah sounds like.

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