Emergency Leaders for Climate Action – way off the mark

The VFFA are concerned that the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action are overlooking key elements of land management practice.

Climate change or variability impacts upon many factors relating to wildfire, but we are all at greater risk because we have neglected our bushland for way too long and the problems associated with fuel loads are becoming worse. Climate change is not the culprit, poor land management and bureaucratic fire service mismanagement is more to blame.

The VFFA web site has a plethora of stories relating to improved land management practices based upon Indigenous burning and the practices used by Australian bushmen, foresters, farmers and graziers in decades past.

You may have read press releases or the statement (see below) from this group of retired Australian Fire Chiefs claiming that the current bushfire problem in Australia is the result of climate change.

The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action group is pressing for action on climate change to prevent bushfires, protect our communities and firefighters.

This campaign is being spearheaded by Mr Greg Mullins, former Fire and Rescue New South Wales Commissioner who is now a Councillor with the Climate Council, an organisation dedicated to the idea that disastrous climate change is already upon us and will get worse unless action is taken. The proposed action is mostly related to reducing or ceasing emissions of carbon dioxide.

News media articles (see example below) on this topic are suggesting an apocalyptic future and fearing for the health and safety of firefighters, who will take the brunt of the fearsome future, unless action is taken.

There are rarely any mentions of other factors which might be associated with dangerous wildfires, such as:

  • the absence of, or conflicting policies,
  • no effective leadership,
  • high fuel levels in the bush (the simple graph below explains),
  • poorly prepared residential areas,
  • over-reliance on water bombers,
  • lack of practical fire research,
  • poor coordination between volunteer and career firefighters,
  • lack of access in national parks,
  • land management departments who do not effectively manage lands under their control,
  • the decline in the number of experienced bushfire staff in agencies, or
  • apathetic communities who are unable to learn from the lessons of the past.
The relationship between fuel loads and fire intensity

The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action are blaming climate change for all of the problems. Even if climate change was to blame, we cannot afford to wait until 2030 when the benefits of reducing carbon emissions cut in.

Blaming the wildfire problem on climate change is a cop-out by Fire Chiefs who have, and are, presiding over a disastrous period of bushfire and public land mismanagement in Australia.

Public money which could have been spent on making communities safer and more bushfire-resilient, will be wasted on projects that will have no bushfire benefits in the foreseeable future.

Why firefighters want climate change action

The West Australian – 11 Apr 2019 by Naomi Brown

When people think of bushfires they think of, well, the bush. Back in the early 2000s when I worked in the Fire and Emergency Services in WA, a fire broke out in parkland near Fremantle.

Embers had sailed into the air and over a road, landing on a house in an estate. It quickly caught fire and was destroyed.

The shock of losing a house in the middle of suburbia frightened me and many others. Bushfires could now happen anywhere.

Over time, emergency service workers like me have witnessed bushfire seasons getting longer and more intense.

After a fire event I’d often be asked to talk to those directly affected and what struck me was the shock that sat alongside their distress.

My role has been to plan ahead — to avoid, wherever possible, such events from occurring and minimising the damage when they do.

Delivering emergency fire services with a mixed paid and volunteer workforce is a task both highly satisfying and deeply challenging.

But the expectation that volunteers can be available and willing to respond to fires and floods for weeks on end is unrealistic.

Issues of mental and physical fatigue are a serious factor.

The average volunteer emergency service worker is getting older and the high levels of commitment to skills acquisition, training and response is much less attractive to younger generations.

The implications are far reaching and profound for emergency service personnel as well as the community.

There’s no doubt that a national and local collaborative approach by emergency services has led to improved messaging to the public and greater resource sharing of impending disasters.

Despite this, many people in disaster prone areas are complacent or even ignorant of their risk.

A greater ongoing effort by all authorities to emphasise the partnership between communities, individual households, disaster agencies and local, State and Federal government is needed.

Organisations must work harder, too, at increasing the diversity of their workforce and volunteers.

The number of women in paid emergency worker positions remains pitifully low.

Much more flexibility is needed in structuring shift rosters and supporting casual and part-time work.

I understand the NSW Fire Brigade is a leader in this area.

The acceptance and management of one-off volunteers during emergencies will also be vital for the future.

Once regarded as just “too hard”, casual volunteering must become an important part of the bushfire fighting future.

Man-made climate change has deeply alarmed emergency services as they face the effects directly through fighting out-of-control bushfires, rescuing more people in flooded rivers, and comforting people through loss and the long road of recovery ahead.

Without addressing the fundamental cause of climate change, Australia, like the rest of the world faces destruction of its environment and infrastructure on a massive scale.

I’m deeply worried about this, and that’s why I’ve joined fire and emergency chiefs from around the country to sound a warning in the form of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action joint statement.

I enjoyed my role in helping to keep the community safe and resilient.

But how much better it would be if that job didn’t exist, if we stopped burning fossil fuels and if climate change wasn’t a subject for discussion.

Naomi Brown is former CEO, Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council, former Executive Director, State Emergency Service WA and Volunteer Marine Rescue, and a board member of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre. She is one of the 23 signatories of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action joint statement.

The Statement of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

We, the undersigned, who are former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services.

Climate change, driven mainly by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is worsening these extreme weather events, including hot days, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, coastal flooding and catastrophic bushfire weather. Australia has just experienced a summer of record-breaking heat, prolonged heatwaves, and devastating fires and floods – there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind: climate change is dangerous and it is affecting all of us now.

Facts You Need To Know

> Bushfire seasons are lasting longer and longer.

> The number of days of Very High to Catastrophic bushfire danger each year are increasing across much of Australia, and are projected to get even worse.

> Opportunities to carry out hazard reduction burns are decreasing because warmer, drier winters mean prescribed fires can often be too hard to control – so fuel loads will increase.

> Higher temperatures mean that forests and grasslands are drier, ignite more easily and burn more readily, meaning fires are harder to control.

> ‘Dry’ lightning storms are increasing in frequency, sparking many remote bushfires that are difficult to reach and control.

> Fire seasons across Australia and in the northern hemisphere used to be staggered – allowing exchange of vital equipment such as aerial water bombers, trucks and firefighters. The increasing overlap of fire seasons between states and territories and with the USA and Canada will limit our ability to help each other during major emergencies.

> A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing the risk of heavier downpours and flooding events – like that which recently affected Townsville.

> Current Federal Government climate policy has resulted in greenhouse gas pollution increasing over the last four years, putting Australian lives at risk. Communities, emergency services and health services across Australia need to be adequately resourced to cope with increasing natural disaster risk.

Tackling climate change effectively requires rapidly and deeply reducing greenhouse gas pollution here in Australia and around the world. We have the solutions at our disposal, we just need the political will to get on with the job.

We call on the Prime Minister to:

> Meet with a delegation of former emergency services leaders who will outline, unconstrained by their former employers, how climate change risks are rapidly escalating.

> Commit to a parliamentary inquiry into whether Australian emergency services are adequately resourced and equipped to cope with increasing natural disaster risks due to climate change.

> Recognise that strategic national firefighting assets like large firefighting aircraft are prohibitively expensive for states and territories, are currently leased from the northern hemisphere, and that increased overlap of fire seasons is restricting access to this equipment during times of need. A cost-benefit analysis of current arrangements and their effectiveness, and how Australia’s strategic aerial firefighting needs can be best met and funded, needs to be initiated in consultation with the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

> Ensure continued funding for stakeholder-driven research into how we can respond to, mitigate, and increase resilience to bushfires, natural hazards and escalating climate change risks.

We call on all State and Territory Governments to:

> Provide increased resources to enable forestry, national parks, urban and rural fire services to increase environmentally sensitive fuel reduction and fire mitigation programs.

> Focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation programs while taking strong action to significantly reduce state / territory emissions.

> Cease cutting the budgets and resources of forestry, national parks, urban and rural fire services, both directly and through instruments such as “efficiency dividends”, so that the services can increase operational capacity to deal with our “new normal” of catastrophic weather risks.

This joint statement was signed by:

Mary Barry – Former CEO, Victorian State Emergency Service
Neil Bibby AFSM – Former Chief Executive Officer, Country Fire Authority Victoria, and former Deputy Chief Officer, Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade
Tony Blanks AFSM – Former Fire Unit Manager, Tasmania National Parks, and former Fire Manager, Forestry Tasmania
Mike Brown AM, AFSM – Former Chief Fire Officer, Tasmania Fire Service
Naomi Brown – Former CEO, Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council
Bob Conroy – Former Fire Manager, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
Major General Peter Dunn AO (Ret) – Former Commissioner, ACT Emergency Services Authority
John Gledhill AFSM – Former Chief Fire Officer, Tasmania Fire Service
Dr Jeff Godfredson AFSM – Former Chief Fire Officer, Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade
Dr Wayne Gregson APM – Former Commissioner, WA Dept of Fire & Emergency Services
Craig Hynes AFSM – Former Chief Operations Officer, WA Fire and Emergency Services Authority
Lee Johnson AFSM – Former Commissioner Qld Fire & Emergency Services. Director: Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre
Murray Kear AFSM – Former Commissioner, NSW State Emergency Service
Phil Koperberg AO, AFSM, BEM – Former NSW Minister for the Environment, former Commissioner NSW Rural Fire Service
Craig Lapsley PSM – Former Emergency Management Commissioner and Fire Services Commissioner, Victoria, former Deputy Chief Officer, Country Fire Authority Victoria
Andrew Lawson AFSM – Former Deputy Chief Officer, SA Country Fire Service
Grant Lupton AFSM – Former Chief Fire Officer, South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service
Greg Mullins AO, AFSM – Former Commissioner Fire & Rescue NSW. Climate Councillor
Frank Pagano AFSM, ESM – Former Executive Director, Emergency Management Queensland, and former Deputy Commissioner, Queensland Fire & Rescue Service
Steve Rothwell AFSM – Former Director and Chief Fire Officer, NT Fire & Emergency Services
Stephen Sutton – Former Chief Fire Control Officer, Bushfires NT
Ken Thompson AFSM – Former Deputy Commissioner, Fire & Rescue NSW
Ewan Waller AFSM – Former Chief Fire Officer, Forest Fire Management, Victoria

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2 Replies to “Emergency Leaders for Climate Action – way off the mark”

  1. A copy of my letter to The West Australian newspaper for your interest:

    I commend Naomi Brown (The West, 11/4/19) for wanting to make life easier and safer for Australian firefighters. But trying to fix the bushfire threat by trying to fix the climate is not the answer. What is needed is a management approach that will make fires easier and safer to control right now, not in twenty years time, and we need an approach that will succeed irrespective of changes to the climate.

    The weakness in Naomi Brown’s proposition is that while she defines the problem, she provides no immediate or practical solution. Fixing the climate to help control bushfires sounds nice ….but in practical terms, what does this mean?. “Decarbonising” the nation? Even if, starting tomorrow, the entire Australian population ceased emitting CO2 , there would be no impact on the Australian climate for decades, perhaps none at all. So what else does Ms Brown suggest we do to fix the climate?

    The alternative to trying to fix the climate is to fix the bushfire situation. This means adopting a “preventative medicine” approach with the emphasis on preparedness and damage mitigation . This is practical, proven, can be done right now, is cheap and the benefits are immediate. Residential areas must be made as fire-proof as possible, bushland fuels must be maintained at levels where they cannot carry a high-intensity fire, and the community must be supported by an alert and well-trained cadre of firefighters. The efficacy of this approach has been demonstrated over and again, all over the world in every different type of climate. Not only do communities and the environment benefit, but the risk of death and injury to firefighters declines sharply.

    What we know already is that if a sensible “preventative medicine” approach is adopted climate change can come and go, but bushfire damage will be minimised. Best of all our firefighters will go home to their families at the end of their shifts.

    Kind Regards

    Roger Underwood AM
    Chairman The Bushfire Front Inc

  2. Dear Mr Underwood,
    Hazard reduction and prevention is essential – immediately – I totally agree. It’s essential for the community, asset protection plus the health and safety of all our volunteers – not just firies, our SES, surf lifesaving volunteers all put their lives on the line to protect our community.
    But management of emissions is also essential and needs to be addressed ASAP. A just transition away from fossil fuels is needed immediately.
    Climate change might come and go – but humanity will not prevail if the emissions continue to rise like the temperatures.
    There is a Global Climate Action Strike on 20th September. Emergency workers are urged to join the Strike. We hope to see you all there.
    Kind regards
    Ruth Erby
    Just a mum with 4 kids who works in health

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