This post comes in the form of an an open letter to Greg Mullins, written by Rick Cooper on the 9th December 2020.

Skies turn blood-orange as fires trap 4000 people on Mallacoota beach
Source: The Telegraph, Dec 31, 2019

An Open Letter to Greg Mullins
C/- Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

Dear Sir

A Question of Burning Urgency

As the climate change debate dragged on, steadily gaining more and more traction, agency budgets and work forces diminished over recent decades. The focus on forest management appears to have shifted from achieving regular practical fuel reduction outcomes to conducting ever increasing ecological surveys and paper shuffling for failed planned burns, now conveniently legitimised by a climate-change-induced narrower window of opportunity and a lack of human resources. In the meantime, forests in the southeast continued to deteriorate with ever increasing fuel loads making planned burning so much more difficult and dangerous. That is, until they were incinerated along with billions of wildlife during the Black Summer fires.

Living and working all my adult life ‘in the bush’, building, farming, State Forests NSW, RFS, DELWP, and CFA has given me a practical hands-on understanding and knowledge of the southeast’s forests and their management, particularly in regard to fire mitigation and fire fighting. It is from this background that I contribute as both a Founding and Committee Member to the The Howitt Society, a group of experienced land and fire managers and acknowledged bushmen who are concerned for the health and safety of the Australian bush and in particular fire management. (https://thehowittsociety.com or https://www.facebook.com/groups/657193818155845)

Whilst I am prepared to believe the science around climate warming and do what is within my means to minimise my own impact, I feel it is counterproductive and unconscionable for both the Climate Council, and in particular yourself, to opportunistically use increasing bushfire frequency and intensity – the result of decades of forest mismanagement – to flog its mantra. That message, designed to put the wind up the public with threats of dire consequences should it fail to support to the Climate Council’s climate action agenda, lends itself more to a campaign of dishonesty, blackmail and fake news.

There appears to be a certain hypocrisy in selling one message through the media:

Mr Mullins, who is one of Australia’s most outspoken voices on bushfire preparedness, said it was essential the final report addressed the root cause of the bushfires’ intensity.

Mr Greg Mullins

“They have already said that climate change drove these fires, set the conditions for these fires to happen,”

Mr Mullins told 7.30

“Therefore, we need to drive down emissions. If there’s nothing in the report about that, the royal commission has failed.”

ABC News

and

“… there is no debate now, we know what is causing the problem, we have to get on and fix this very rapidly and stop burning fossil fuels”

Peter Dunn, The Project

While the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA)’s own submission to the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) Inquiry carries a far more realistic and honest message which includes the following statement:

“Of all the factors that contribute to the intensity of a fire (temperature, wind speed, humidity, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load), only fuel load can be readily modified by human effort, but bearing in mind that since the industrial revolution it is now clear that humans have also modified the world’s temperature, and action on emissions may eventually assist to bring this down.”

Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

I’m sorry but “… only fuel load can be readily modified by human effort” is hardly the same as “… we know what is causing the problem, we have to get on and fix this very rapidly and stop burning fossil fuels” – so which one do you really mean?

It is counterproductive and dishonest to con the public, the bureaucracy and the politicians, whenever media opportunity arises, that climate change is almost solely responsible for causing and increasing catastrophic fire events, or that reducing climate change will reduce incidence of catastrophic bushfires, as it thereby creates little or no appetite to increase annual fuel reduction targets. Alarmingly, although the IGEM report noted that bushfire intensity is influenced by the amount of fuel available to burn, it failed to make ANY recommendation for more burning to reduce fuel loads.

There has been far too little burning carried out in so many areas due to extreme fuel levels and drought, and to date agencies have failed to adapt their burning programs and methods to suit the altered conditions.

I’d like to share with you the example of the Wingan fire which impacted Mallacoota on the morning of NYE. Weather conditions through December were mild as you can see by the BOM observations (below). The weather station is at the airport to the west, the direction from which the fire was approaching the town and the max gust of 100km/h and 9am wind speed of 39km/h would be fire generated as winds were forecast between about 10-25km/h. Yes, the area had been in drought for three years and was dry but there was no attempt whatsoever to try and suppress or control this fire either soon after initial ignition or at any time in the following days either due to, or despite, the extreme levels of very dry fuel.

Image: Screenshot from http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/dwo/201912/html/IDCJDW3046.201912.shtml, click image to view data on the BOM web site.

Note: A higher resolution screenshot has also been uploaded (1.6MB), click HERE to view.

The fire reached Mallacoota about 9am when it was only 24°C having burned through heavy fuel loads all night and ultimately causing the loss of 123 homes to ember attack. Fortunately there were no fatalities. One can’t help wondering how Mallacoota, a town with just one road in and out, 750 houses, permanent population around 1100 and anywhere from 8-10k holiday makers at that time of year, would have fared had weather conditions been extreme. Fuel reduction had been negligible in the Croajingalong National Park since it was impacted by a large bushfire in 1983 and it is hardly surprising that 87% of the park, or 77,000ha, was burnt in this fire which then continued burning north to Eden and surrounds. How can anyone in their right mind believe this is due to climate change and not to gross mismanagement?

Climate change is already being used as a convenient excuse to do nothing. If there is to be no change in how we manage fuels then there will be no change in fire frequency and intensity and we can expect more and regular mega fires to devastate the environment and wildlife, while needlessly risking human lives and property.

Is it not ironic that a former ‘fire chief’ should use his influence almost exclusively to promote climate action at the expense of any practical measures which might realistically reduce increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires and the consequent further destruction of environment, wildlife and loss of human life and property? Perhaps, however, it should not come as a surprise after all from one whose own bio on the Climate Council website states he is “an internationally recognised expert in responding to major bushfires”, which does not automatically make him an expert in land and forest management or the prevention or mitigation of bushfires.

It is certainly creating division among the public – a division which reflects the all too familiar inequitable country versus city divide. On one hand there are any number of eminent fire scientists, experienced agency, land and forest managers, fire practitioners, forestry workers, bush and country dwellers with lifetimes of knowledge, experience and history of fire in our environment. They genuinely understand the root cause of increasing mega fires and wish to see effective progress in the area of fuel reduction and bushfire mitigation. Frustratingly, they struggle to be heard through a cacophony of climate activism noise emanating from a gang of questionable ‘experts’ (many of whom have only urban firefighting, emergency response or administration backgrounds from which to draw) who, on the other hand, have convinced a majority of misguided city dwellers, environmental activists, conservationists and academics that it is now impossible to carry out prescribed burning, with addressing climate change and spending up big on shiny new fire fighting resources being the only answer.

So successful has been your message that neither the Federal Royal Commission (RC) into Natural Disaster Management or the Victorian IGEM Inquiry saw fit to recognise the inevitable consequences of repeated bushfire disasters on our communities or natural environment, let alone make any recommendations for prioritising an increase in fuel reduction to minimise the damage.

Are you, a former ‘fire chief’, proud of your success in diverting public opinion and political will away from the only practical measures which can influence future fire intensity and frequency regardless of any reduction in climate change?

Are you, a former ‘fire chief’, prepared to publicly reiterate in mainstream media the ECLA’s statement, conveniently hidden away in its submission to the Victorian IGEM Inquiry:

“Of all the factors that contribute to the intensity of a fire (temperature, wind speed, humidity, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load), only fuel load can be readily modified by human effort, but bearing in mind that since the industrial revolution it is now clear that humans have also modified the world’s temperature, and action on emissions may eventually assist to bring this down.”

Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

Are you, a former ‘fire chief’, comfortable in the knowledge that your lack of honesty with the Australian public will contribute to the next inevitable round of bushfire disasters, and are you prepared to accept such responsibility?

Yours faithfully
Rick Cooper

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