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.

A Letter to The Greens
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3 thoughts on “A Letter to The Greens

  • December 23, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    As a bush firefighter, rural property owner, environmental scientist and science communicator on climate change, while I agree with some of this letter, that governments are great at getting out of their responsibilities where these are inconvenient and expensive, that more life-style oriented people in semirural and peri-urban areas and fewer serious farmers are factors in making fires more serious and dangerous;
    It is however, a big big mistake for firefighters to ignore the even bigger dangers of runaway climate change.

    Having been doing climate science communication talks to the community for nearly 30 years, as well as lecturing on the topic at the ANU and the Uni of Canberra for 13 years, I was very aware, that each year, on giving the lectures on this topic, or the public talks, that each one, had to change, as throughout this time, there has been a consistent underestimation of the trajectory of climate change. Time and time again, we have exceeded the previous worst case projections, and the speed, scale and severity of the impacts continue upwards.

    That reality, is the one we as firefighters will be confronted with, as the team of first responders to an increasing range of increasingly serious community disasters.

    But that message has not been clear, as there has been a very effective and underhand disinformation campaign run by the fossil fuel companies, and heavily funded by Exxon and the Koch Brothers in the US, use the same people, PR companies and so called “experts” to use the same delaying and confusing tactics as used by the tobacco and asbestos industries.

    It is harder as a science communicator and educator to tell the story of the complexity and dangers of climate change, while it is so much easier as a professional paid denier, to assure everyone that the science is unsettled, that more research is necessary, and that it is all a big scary tactic by greenie, gay, black one legged whales, unemployed scientists and the chardonnay sipping chattering classes of Balmain,,,,,, !!!

    Yes, many factors are making our work as RFS volunteers more complex and dangerous, but dismissing the biggest of the threats for the short term challenges is not a good idea for anyone.

  • December 28, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Danielle Marsden-Ballard

    Thank you for your comment, it is important for fire fighters to allow for climate change but we must accept the fact that our fuel loads are at catastrophic levels.

    With improved land management practices, we stand a better chance of minimising environmental disaster.

    The best way to deal with big fires is to prevent them from becoming big.

    We can do this in a number of ways:
    1. Improved land management and fuel reduction
    2. Investing in early fire detection systems
    3. Promoting early suppression (particularly on the bad days)

    Leave the very big aircraft in the hanger and fly out the Remote Area Fire Teams whilst the fire is manageable. Of course, that will only work if it is dove-tailed into points 1 and 2 above.

    Best Regards
    Mick Holton

  • January 1, 2018 at 12:56 am

    yes totally agree Mick. The RAFT team in this area was “disappeared” to the astonished disbelief and disappointment of those involved. Some of this comes from the state government public sector mentality, that the only safe decision is no decision and taking no action with risk, with the consequence that disastrous fires are worse… BUT you can’t blame a senior public servant or the real culprits driving this, the Minister, cabinet and the government of the day, and that is regardless of party.

    We also need to understand and adapt firestick burning and how it works for each region and our altered landscapes, as well as incorporate modern equivalents are needed to keep the understory and the fuel load low.

    I recently posted on our brigade FB page, on the use of goats for cleaning out the understory and overgrowth.

    You can reduce your own fire risk with selective grazing by goats. “Goats mimic a cool, late-season understory burn,” Madsen said. “They eat all the leaves from shrubs and seedlings, reducing the amount of regeneration so it’s not so dense in the future.”

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