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Senator Christine Milne
Leader of The Greens
Parliament House, Canberra

Dear Senator,

I listened to you speaking on the ABC yesterday (3rd Jan 2014), in which you attributed the recent bushfires in the Adelaide Hills to global warming/climate change. At the same time, I observe that southern Australia has always experienced hot, dry, windy days in summer, and periodic droughts have been experienced ever since rainfall records began.

I do not claim to be a climate scientist, but I do know about bushfires. I have spent most of my 50+ year career in land management and conservation, involved in firefighting, bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation, and in design and operation of bushfire management systems. I have also studied fire science and been involved in fire research.

I agree that the number of damaging and high intensity bushfires in southern Australia is on the increase, and has been since the late 1990s. There are three reasons:

  1. The number of people living in bushfire prone areas has expanded massively. Most of these people are city-bred and are not bushfire-wise. Furthermore they are living in houses and suburbs that were not designed or constructed to resist bushfire damage. In short, society today is far more vulnerable to bushfire damage than ever before.
  2. Mostly our bushfire authorities are approaching bushfire management from the wrong direction. In focusing on suppression-after-the-event instead of on preparing residential areas and forests in the expectation of fire, they are ensuring that large, intense fires are inevitable. This flawed policy is coupled to an enormous over-confidence, the idea that through expensive suppression technology, any fire can be easily and safely suppressed. On the contrary, current firefighting technology is not greatly superior to that of the 1960s, and every summer we see firefighters overwhelmed by fires burning in heavy fuels, even under quite moderate conditions. The new focus on a “leave and live” policy, in which whole towns and suburbs are evacuated at the first sign of smoke, is a tacit admission that fires have become unstoppable (even under, I repeat, quite moderate weather conditions.
  3. In focusing on suppression and evacuation, our authorities are failing to take the one single measure that will make firefighting safer and more effective, will minimise bushfire damage, and will allow people to defend well-prepared homes: this is systematic fuel reduction in bushland and residential areas, using mild-intensity prescribed fire in the bush. Before this approach was largely abandoned in Western Australia in the late 1990s, we had the best fire management system in the world. Research has demonstrated that a well-conducted program of mild fires every few years has no deleterious impact on biodiversity – on the contrary, it protects the environment from the large all-encompassing infernos that set an ecosystem all the way back to zero.

I believe the Greens are making a serious mistake in blaming the bushfire problem on climate change. In the first place, it provides the authorities with an excuse for failed land management and incompetent urban design. It enables government and local government agencies, who are not doing their job, to say “its not our fault, blame the coal industry, or motor vehicles, or Tony Abbott”. In the second place, there is almost nothing that can be done in the short term that will make any difference. Even if shutting down the Queensland coal industry, converting electricity generators to wind, putting urban Australians onto bicycles, replanting Australian farms with native trees etc, leads to a diminution of CO2 emissions and a drop in mean annual temperatures by a degree or two, it will take decades for this to occur, and if fuels are not managed in the meantime, and if communities are allowed to continue to build and live in indefensible residential areas intermingled with bush, the bushfire problem will simply continue to worsen.

I urge you to take a different approach in your leadership of the Greens. Instead of providing the authorities with an excuse, and promoting actions that will have no immediate benefit, I think you should throw your weight behind improving land and residential management, to minimising the threat of fire, and the opportunity for fires to do enormous damage.

Yours sincerely

Roger Underwood
Chairman, The Bushfire Front Inc.

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