20 January 2020

Rattenbury rebuts claims that "Greens hazard reduction ban" is to blame for blazes

| Shane Rattenbury MLA
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Hazardous fuel loads

Greens leader and ACT minister Shane Rattenbury says claims that Greens policy is responsible for hazardous fuel loads is bogus. Photo: File.

Saturday marked the 17th anniversary of the 2003 bushfires – events that are still seared into the memory of every Canberran living here at the time.

This summer, we don’t need to make much effort to relive those memories, as we’re seeing the same kinds of images over and over again from around Australia, including in the region around us.

It’s disappointing yet unsurprising that at a time of climate emergency, there are those – including the Murdoch press – that seek to distract us all from the urgent need for real climate action before us, by instead making bogus and thoroughly debunked claims blaming “the Greenies” for preventing hazard reduction efforts.

As bushfire expert Professor Ross Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, has said, these claims are “very tired and very old conspiracy theories” and are “an obvious attempt to deflect the conversation away from climate change”.

Here in Canberra, we saw the 18 January 2003 fire creating its own weather system – that looming pyrocumulus cloud, the colour of a bruise. We saw small, isolated blazes ignited by lightning join together to create the monster that roared down on our city.

As Canberrans, we’re also uniquely placed to know that the “Greens ban hazard reduction” claim is a lie, because we’ve had a Greens Minister for Territory and Management Services – me – whose role from 2013 to 2016 included overseeing the agencies responsible for the management of fuel loads across the ACT landscape.

This was a practical four-year demonstration of how the Greens approach bushfire risk. Each year, with the expert advice of the agency, we developed and implemented comprehensive fire-related operational works plans. For example, in 2013-14 I oversaw a significant program of burning, slashing and grazing across 20,000 hectares of land in the ACT to help manage the increasing risk of fires.

The overall approach to bushfires in the ACT was – and still is – guided by our Strategic Bushfire Management Plan. We review the plan every five years, in consultation with the community and key stakeholders such as the ACT and NSW Rural Fire Services, rural lessees, traditional custodians and conservationists so that it is guided by the best available experience and knowledge. The knowledge sharing and continual learning through this process is incredibly valuable.

The Plan takes a strategic and long-term approach to managing fuel loads. Different techniques such as slashing, grazing, mowing, physical removal, chemical treatment and prescribed burning are used in different contexts, depending on the physical environment, the proximity to the urban environment and ecological sensitivity.

Good fire management is not just about burning. For example, Namadgi includes areas of rare ‘sphagnum bogs’ that house endangered species and play an important role in the ACT’s drinking water catchment. Obviously places like this require very careful management.

As the ACT Minister for Climate Change, it’s clear to me that bushfire seasons are becoming longer and more severe as the climate changes. There have been countless warnings about the impacts of climate change on bushfire risk, including in Ross Garnaut’s 2008 climate change review that clearly identified the likelihood of experiencing severe impacts from fires from as early as 2020.

Back in 2016, a Climate Council report found that the direct effects of a three to four-degree Celsius temperature increase in the ACT – and we are currently on track for that – could more than double fire frequency and increase fire intensity by 20 per cent.

These increasingly severe fire seasons are terrible for all the reasons we are currently seeing, but to make matters worse, they also make it harder to mitigate and prepare for bushfires. Firefighting is becoming much harder.

As climate change extends the hotter and drier weather, the fire seasons of Australia and the US are starting to overlap. Firefighting resources can no longer be shared between countries as effectively.

The usual off-season between dangerous fire periods is vanishing. Firefighters have less time for all their tasks, including hazard reduction burning, and the opportunity for them to rest is evaporating.

The only solution to these challenges is to embrace the truth and deal with the real threats and challenges, and we should hold our heads high in this city, because we’re doing that. We have experienced severe impacts on our city from fire, and we learned from it.

We’re now world leaders in taking steps to reduce our emissions, doing our part so that hopefully summers like this one won’t someday count as “mild.”

And we know very well that it’s not “tree-huggers” making Australia burn.

Shane Rattenbury is the ACT Greens leader and the ACT’s Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability.

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George Watling9:24 pm 19 Jun 20

What a bunch of armchair experts. What are you qualifications and experience gentlemen?

rationalobserver9:20 am 11 Feb 20

If we accept that climate change is leading to more unfavourable fire conditions, and that the window for fuel reduction is reducing, etc, then the obvious question is what else can we modify to mitigate the short to medium term risks?
Climate change actions are decades away from delivering results, at best, and will only slow the change, not reverse it.
The only lever at our disposal are the national parks. These great swathes of heavily forested and inaccessible land is where many fires start, and where pretty much all of them get out of control and become unstoppable.
National Parks must be broken up into smaller, contained and more manageable chunks, with meaningful fire breaks constructed between each chunk. I’m talking 5k – 10k wide fire breaks. This has the added benefit of making targeted hazard reduction burns more achievable within the time available.
Anyone who decries this because of the environmental impact simply needs to consider the alternative; scorched earth from horizon to horizon where the environment is destroyed forever and has zero conservation value.
What’s more important? Innovation in the face of climate change, or sticking steadfastly to an outdated conservation management model for National Parks?
All that is lacking is the political will to actually do something constructive.

Credit where credit’s due – I’ve questionned the rationality of your observations in the past, but I think you make some very valid points on this occasion.
While I believe we need national parks, we do need to look at inaccessibility and the wide spread destruction caused by these large fires, not to mention amount of crap such fires put into the air, because they cannot be contained.

Nice idea but I doubt whether it would stack up to any costing model. In smaller countries with less bush it might be more practical but I think you’ll find the sheer extent of Australian bushland would make the idea unworkable.

Capital Retro6:52 pm 11 Feb 20

I second that.

My relatives from Gippsland have long claimed that part of the problem caused by the Greens has not been and intentional opposition to hazard reduction burns, but the destruction of almost all activities that had a vested interest in maintaining roads in the forests..

Recreational users and especially loggers needed the roads and would put effort into maintaining them. Loggers in particular needed roads suitable for trucks.

Now that our forests are locked up, who maintains the roads?

Is it any surprise that in many parts of the country our firefighters are finding it increasingly hard to get into the areas to conduct hazard reduction burns?

Great post Rational Observer. One that actually considers the problem, it’s causes and proposes a logical solution to manage the risk.

Obviously this type of idea would need to be fleshed out further but it’s clear that in some areas, the interface between national parks and their surrounding areas need to be looked at, along with more resources for hazard reduction and actually controlling fires when they start.

rationalobserver9:15 am 14 Feb 20

It’s only the national parks you have to worry about. That’s where fires get out of control and become unmanageable. Start somewhere. Topography and proximity would make the easy pickings obvious.

I’d always understood the Wilderness Act to be the ‘brain-child’ of the Greens… this Act provides for locking away vast tracts of ‘wilderness’ (often dense forest) and removing the existing fire trails. This means not only are there vast areas where no hazard reduction can occur, but if a fire does occur in one of these areas, it is impossible to access it to fight it while it’s still small – we just have to wait for it to arrive at the urban interface, by which time it is big enough to travel with unstoppable momentum (and heat), “creating its own weather conditions”. One has to wonder why the fire trails were put there in the first place, and so named…

rationalobserver11:55 am 03 Feb 20

tim_c they can’t go putting back the fire trails because then the public will want to start using what really is theirs for things like 4wd trips, and when they do that they will observe for themselves not only the vast areas of devastation from the fires, but the blackberry choked gullies and feral animals making a mockery of the term “wilderness”.
Nothing to see here, move along.

Eucalypts drop about 10 tonnes of debris per acre per year according to CSIRO.
Eucalyptus dried wood on the ground has the same BTU output as brown coal, when it burns. Thats a lot of heat.
Now image 10 years of no hazard reduction burning to remove fuel build up.
Any rational person would expect any fire going trhough is going to burn hot and very fast with approx 100 ( 10 ton x 10 years ) tons of very dry fuel per acre to burn.
Its not rocket science.

1) Neither the Liberal Party, Greens Party, ALP or the Nationals oppose hazard reduction burning.
2) Where less hazard reduction burning has taken place in any given year, the reasons why, according to the RFS, are because of a shorter season in which hazard reduction burning may be safely undertaken. These shorter ‘safe’ seasons are due to the impact of climate change.

Every bushfire enquiry since 1939 had advocated burning a certain % of land, but the quotas are never net.

As a result, we have huge fires like recently. Ask any south coast resident who can tell you not enough burning has been done and look at the result.

Its about not ticking off the snowflakes who moan about the smoke but squeal the loudest when thier house burns down…..

To make omlettes you need to break a few eggs..

The class actions against councils and govt for not doing enough hazard reduction burning are now starting. Good. Throw a few idiots in jail for endangering whole communities lives and the precedent will be set.

Steve, if only it was as simple as just saying Let’s hazard burn X% of bushland and everything will be fine. Except when the conditions aren’t favourable for hazard burning (as they frequently are with the impacts of climate change, then you are risking properties and lives by hazard burning when not safe to do so. Ask south coast residents who know how dry and exceptionally warm conditions have been, climate change leading to worse bushfire seasons as forecast.

The issue has almost nothing to do with not having enough time to conduct hazard reduction burns.

It’s about having the resources to conduct them and not having people complain to stop them and the government capitulating to pressure.

When people have said it’s difficult to conduct the amount of hazard reduction required, what they actually mean is it’s difficult with current resources (a large proportion of which are volunteers).

Almost every inquiry looking at this in the last few decades has recommended vastly increased hazard reduction areas should be burnt.

Unfortunately, governments don’t want to fork out the extra cash, trying to solely rely on volunteers. Along with this, there are large portions of the population who don’t like hazard reduction burns at all because of the temporary loss of amenity due to localised smoke and air quality issues as well as environmental concerns.

To blame climate change for this is a cop out

John McAvoy, if you are making a claim that “the greens party” somehow changed “the environmental act” you need to do a bit more research, i.e. what acts are you referring to and how did they change them. Otherwise it’s just another false claim. The point of the article was that it rebutted the claim.

HiddenDragon9:44 pm 21 Jan 20

“The usual off-season between dangerous fire periods is vanishing. Firefighters have less time for all their tasks, including hazard reduction burning, and the opportunity for them to rest is evaporating.

The only solution to these challenges is to embrace the truth and deal with the real threats and challenges,”

Defining, and dealing with “the real threats and challenges” may be where this line of argument gets a bit lost.

The air quality (or lack of it) index, which was given prominence when the worst of the bushfire smoke made Canberra the most air-polluted city in the world, was also a reminder that cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Delhi are near the top of that list all the time, not just during a temporary crisis. Those cities are home to some of the most powerful people in the world, leading, as they do, about one third of humanity and with (particularly in the case of the Chinese) almost unlimited financial, scientific and technological resources at their disposal. And yet they are not rushing to embrace “the urgent need for real climate action” even though they, their families and peers live daily with very serious environmental pollution –


So rather than pretending “that hopefully summers like this one won’t someday count as mild” – as long as plucky little Canberra keeps doing stuff about carbon emissions – we should be facing the international reality (not fantasising that we can change it) and looking much, much harder at hazard reduction and related issues which are within our control.

The problem with the claim that ‘China and India’ are doing nothing about climate change is that it’s easily debunked and shows lack of knowledge about international fora around climate change initiatives. So “plucky little Canberra doing it’s bit” is actually contributing to international initiatives on mitigating the impacts of climate change. I think you’ll find that ultimately that’s the only way forward, notwithstanding that we must also implement adaptation measures for the impacts already occurring.

If Mr Rattenbury wants to argue that the Greens have not hindered hazard reduction burns, as is widely suspected, then he should provide facts and statistics to support his case. What is needed, but which is strangely absent from this piece, is independent verifiable evidence of ACT hectares of hazard reduction burning conducted in 2018-19, compared with (say) ten years ago. Has it increased or decreased?

I’m afraid. Acton, that your claim of what may be “widely suspected” is about as wide as a news corp echo chamber of dwindling deniers. The rest of Australia understands the science

Thought we lived in a society where the onus of proof was on those making accusations not those defending themselves.

So how about providing some facts to support the claims.

rationalobserver9:25 am 14 Feb 20

Here’s a fun fact JC. Prior to 2:30 am on 8th November 2019 (look up the change log), Green policy was against hazard reduction burns. This fire season they must have been feeling the heat (pun intended) and decided they were not on a winner, and so changed it. Having manned a number of fire evacuation centres this year, I can tell you anyone walking in wearing a greens tshirt was in for a very torrid time.
Since the change, it has often been claimed by greens apologists such as yourself that greens policy supports HRD’s. It does now. It didn’t before now. Apology accepted.

So the former greens candidate, Jill Redwood, and her cronies in East Gippsland didn’t prevent hazard reduction burns?

No, they didn’t. Sorry to disappoint you.

Capital Retro8:13 am 21 Jan 20

While it may not have been the Greens per se who prevented fuel buildup in NSW national parks, the personal green policies of the former NSW Bob Carr would appear to have helped.

Note this is an article from Fairfax, not Murdoch.

Who authored the article? Doesn’t appear to have a name. Wonder why.? Something to think about.

rationalobserver7:33 pm 23 Jan 20

That was the start down the slippery slope. Greatly increase the area under NPWS management for political reasons, fail to match that with appropriate funding and resources to achieve the stated objective of “conservation”, End result is great slabs of country burn beyond recovery, many creatures of all descriptions dead and injured, and bulk personal trauma. Vote green? well you got what you asked for.

Capital Retro10:26 am 24 Jan 20

You really are a forensic one astro2 and there’s nothing wrong with that. The article appears to have been in the National SMH section and there is a note that Alan Ramsay was on leave. Given that Ramsay (now retired) was a rusted on lefty (there were very few that were not lefties at Faifax), it doesn’t appear to have been written by him though but does that matter? I can remember clearly similar comments at the time. When you finish thinking about it how about a comment one way or the other.

Hmm, so no source to the article then; other than it wasn’t Alan Ramsay. Perhaps try posting attributable sources next time.

Well, no actually as it is quite clear that the Greens don’t oppose hazard reduction burns. It seems that many people voted Nationals who have no drought or climate change policy and are now suffering the effects. You ignore the science of climate change at your peril it seems.

Capital Retro6:56 pm 11 Feb 20

The SMH are a reliable source so don’t try and spin your way out of this.

rationalobserver9:05 pm 20 Jan 20

Did you get Scotty from marketing to write this for you?
Stop using the drought as an excuse for pushing ideology.
If you can’t control fires in the park, then reduce the size of the park to align with available resources and windows of opportunity.

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