Beating bushfires: Who’s right – The RFS, conservationists, farmers, politicians or firefighters?

Sydney Morning Herald

By Tim Barlass August 9, 2015

Wentworth-Falls-001-by-Wolter-Peeters

NSW Rural Fire Service crews prepare for the impact on homes of a bushfire around the Wentworth Falls escarpment during the week. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Which of these would you put your house on? Decide carefully. If you live in the Blue Mountains or bushfire-prone country, your home could literally depend on it.

Last week’s winter bushfire which threatened homes in the Blue Mountains two weeks after snowfalls suggests a future “catastrophic fire” because of large amounts of fuel not reduced by preventative burning.

That’s the view of Brian Williams, the new president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, who says much more hazard-reduction burning is essential. He’s based in Kurrajong Heights near the Blue Mountains and has 47 years’ experience fighting fires.

Wentworth-Falls-002-by-Wolter-Peeters

 

NSW Rural Fire Service crews put in a blackburn around the escarpment last Sunday. Photo: Wolter Peeters

“If nothing changes it’s not a matter of if, it’s simply a matter of when we have a fire in the Blue Mountains of a catastrophic nature which could well result in the considerable loss of life,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Rural Fire Service disagreed and blamed the fire on the type of vegetation that caught fire.

“Fuel loads in the area are not the reason for the extent of this fire,” she said. “Rather, the type of vegetation the fire was burning in, combined with the high winds and the topography of the area presented the right conditions for this fire to spread quickly and burn for a number of days.

Wentworth-Falls-003-by-Wolter-Peeters

The fire sreads around the Wentworth Falls escarpment. Photo: Wolter Peeters

“The heath the fire was burning in is a very dry, flammable vegetation and due to its nature is very well aerated. It is prone to flare up with wind alone and does not rely on temperature or humidity. Despite the snow two weeks prior, being an aerated type of vegetation it had dried sufficiently to make it difficult to contain.”

Another supporter of hazard reduction is Robert Brown. He’s the politician who headed the upper house inquiry into the Wambelong fire that destroyed 93 per cent of the Warrumbungle National Park and 50 homes near Coonabarabran and killed a vast amount of farm stock and wildlife. He includes the need for prevention burning among his inquiry’s recommendations to which the Baird government is due to respond this month.

Next is Kate Smolski, chief executive of NSW Nature Conservation Council. She is advising against the adoption of the the upper house inquiry recommendations including “an arbitrary annual rolling target of 5 per cent for hazard reduction on public lands and opening up of unnecessary fire trails in National Parks”.

“Unfortunately, many of the report’s recommendations have no scientific basis and will do little to improve fire management in NSW,” she said.

“Some of the report’s proposals would be very expensive to implement yet provide little benefit in terms of fire prevention and could cause substantial environmental damage.”

The Victorian royal commission recommended that a minimum 5 per cent of bushfire-prone public land be hazard reduced annually and that it was currently less than 1 per cent.

The proposed amount of hazard reduction in the Blue Mountains for the 2014/15 financial year was more than 630 hectares. The actual amount completed was around 100 hectares, the RFS said, explaining that a number of planned burns had to be postponed due to the weather.

Finally, just in case you haven’t yet decided who has got it right, the NSW Farmers Association is calling on the NSW government to adopt all 29 recommendations in the upper house report, including those relating to hazard reduction.

Premier Mike Baird’s interpretation is eagerly awaited.

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