Opinion piece published in The Australian, 4 December 2019
It’s time for the federal government to seize control of fire mitigation and management in our nation. The human, financial and environmental costs of bushfires are immense. The states have largely failed in this area because of the insidious green influence in our state bureaucracies, locking up vast tracts of land, destroying access tracks and refusing permission to reduce fuel loads. A new federal approach would prise the management of fire mitigation from the states and, if done properly, offer a counter-intuitive way to restore effective local control.
Now the most recent fires have abated, it is time to reflect on why we continue to allow them to devastate us and our landscape without proper mitigation strategies.
For the 2007 federal election I prepared on behalf of the Howard government a $10m bushfire mitigation fund, announcing it in the ruins of the Wielangta Forest in Tasmania after a massive burn. This was an area the Greens wanted “preserved” from forestry. With sustainable forest practices and a ready workforce, the devastating fire could have been extinguished before it took hold, with wildlife and habitat preserved. Instead, habitat and wood production were both lost.
The important role of local mitigation strategies has been neglected in relation to the recent fires due to an exaggerated focus on climate change. Yet this interpretation fails to provide any explanation for the recorded history of fires in Australia from the first days of European exploration. Captain James Cook described Australia as “this continent of smoke” during his maiden 1770 voyage. My home state of Tasmania has the Bay of Fires, given its name by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773 for the obvious reason.
Since European settlement destructive bushfires have been a regular occurrence. The biggest remains Black Thursday, in 1851, which affected a quarter of Victoria and burnt five million hectares. This compares to 1.5 million hectares burnt in NSW in the most recent fires. Bushfire has been a constant menace in our history, as even the most casual examination of the record will reveal.
Even if we accept the mantra that the recent fires are principally due to climate change, however, then this surely suggests that more stringent mitigation activities need to be undertaken to reduce the risk. But that would require something the inner-city Greens don’t want to acknowledge — an uncompromising reduction of the fuel loads in our forests. Yes, the cold burns would put CO2 into the atmosphere, but the forest litter ultimately will be burnt in a hot fire or slowly decompose releasing the trapped carbon dioxide in any event.
There is no doubt that cold burns will reduce CO2 emissions over time and also preserve trees for sustainable harvesting, providing a much-needed, genuinely renewable resource and habitat for wildlife. I’ve seen “reserved forests” preserved for koala habitat, denying forest workers and their communities a livelihood, being turned into an eerily silent scorched landscape without a single ant or bird left, let alone a koala. Yet koalas had cohabited with forestry in the region for more than 100 years.
Recent experience proves that locking up our forests neither preserves biosecurity nor our native wildlife. In fact the opposite is true. Policies formed on a lack of basic understanding in our cities stifle locals from clearing their land, reducing fuel loads, removing trees from nearby houses, and so on. As a result, there is considerably more fuel for fires that break out, increasing their scale and severity.
The counter-productive impact of green and red tape imposed by state governments in the name of environmentalism needs to be acknowledged. Realistic and practical approaches should be the order of the day and the warm, fuzzy, feel-good policies leading to disaster after disaster, and which have led to so much destruction, need to be rejected.
When it comes to our approach to bushfires, we can no longer afford the status quo. The cost to taxpayers, not to mention the human cost, is profound. We need to pursue a coherent national approach that will combine the weight of the federal government with local knowledge and expertise. The guiding role played by the federal government under such an approach would enable a comparison of performance and practices in different areas, with the aim of compiling a national repository of knowledge local practitioners could draw on to learn from experience elsewhere. This will ultimately save the taxpayer, life, limb, property, wildlife and habitat.
It would be a far more impressive bottom line than the charred devastation with which we are left under today’s approach.