This is the post I had hoped I would never have to make, but in the face of blatantly untrue commentary in the media, I feel we have to correct the record.
The current fire emergency on the NSW South Coast is unprecedented in both its scale and its severity. At the time of writing almost 400 homes have been lost in the last few days and worse still, seven lives. Entire towns have been leveled and communities are being evacuated. Fauna and flora has been wiped out at levels never previously imaginable and potentially rendering some species extinct. And it is nowhere close to ending.
There has been a lot of arguably premature and distasteful finger pointing about the causes and prevention of this crisis. Those with a right wing agenda to prosecute have blamed “green tape” and without foundation, some sort of conspiracy by environmental groups to ban hazard reduction, notwithstanding they hold no political power to actually do so.
Hazard reduction in NSW over the last year has been close to normal levels but clearly has been insufficient.
there are two reasons why. The first is the conditions in the field, where faced with warmer and drier weather as part of an ongoing drought, hazard reduction is not always possible. Those that call for an unregulated approach for private land owners to burn their properties as they see fit ignore one inconvenient fact – 87% of fires are man-made…being 40% by deliberate arson and the other 47% by accident. An attempt by a land owner to mitigate a risk on their own property can often result in a threat to many others if not properly managed.
The second reason hazard reduction may have not been carried out is one entirely within the Berejiklian Government’s control – resourcing. In 2017 the then Office of Environment and Heritage restructured the NPWS from 37 areas across the State to 8 regions. In doing so they removed $121 million from the NPWS budget and redesigned or cut more than 700 positions. Included in these were Rangers and Fire Management Officers (FMOs) – the very staff responsible for both hazard reduction and fire management and fighting in national parks.
The Public Service Association as the union for workers in NPWS held a rally in Bega on 24 November 2017 to air the concerns that these cuts would make local parks unmanageable. Below is a link to local media covering the rally. Our calls to reverse the cuts were ignored by the local member Andrew Constance MP and the then responsible Minister, Gabrielle Upton MP. On the day I recall meeting the local FMO who with twenty years experience and local knowledge, had been told he was no longer required.
The reversal of these cuts may or may not have improved the current situation. The fires are of such ferocity now that it appears nothing short of divine intervention would stop them. But we know these petty and ill considered job cuts have not assisted. The roles that were lost may have had a preventative effect in being able to snuff out fires earlier deep in national parks through strategically planned intervention based on detailed local knowledge before they became the raging infernos they are now. The question also should be asked not why cuts were made but why, when facing some of the driest conditions ever experienced in the State’s history over the last few years, that increases to relevant agencies such as NPWS, Fire and Rescue NSW, RFS and the Forestry Corporation were not made.
As part of a civil society we pay taxes first and foremost to be kept safe. There is no greater or more fundamental responsibility of government. If a government cannot be trusted to carry out this role then it must be indicative of not just misplaced priorities but a total lack of sense of duty to its citizens.
Our thoughts and efforts at this time must be with those on the front line and those facing what are for many of us unimaginable terror. But when the imminent dangers subside we must remember these dark days and hold those responsible by their neglect to account.