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Bushfire Preparedness

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Tags: Bushfires, Fire Management

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today on the important matter that Mr Tucker has raised, the importance of preparing for bushfires in Tasmania. The Greens have a long and proud record of scrutinising the Government on its preparations for bushfires. We know very well the dangers of the increasing heating of the planet and the changes it is having on our weather systems; and the dangers of those changes to the communities around Tasmania.

As a state we are predominantly living in rural and regional areas and even people who are living in the cities, particularly Hobart, are thoroughly exposed to the risk of bushfires. None of us in this state really live in a place where we can be confident that we will not be physically affected by the possibility of bushfires in certain seasons.

I want to take a point of difference with Mr Tucker on his opening remarks where he talked about 'normal'. A 'normal' bushfire season, he says, is what is being predicted for this year in Tasmania. It is correct that the bushfire outlook for Australia did not identify from the weather systems over the next three months that there would be an extreme risk of bushfires in Tasmania. Mr Tucker, 'normal' does not mean the historical record of bushfires that we have experienced in Tasmania. That is not what normal means because we are not in that 'normal'. There is no normal when it comes to bushfires.

You would understand that if you had been able to attend the University of Tasmania's audiovisual link-in last year with one of the most senior fire chiefs in California. He, very clearly, outlined what 'normal' looks like in California in their bushfire seasons. I am speaking now from somebody who listened to that last year, and now we have all seen the experience the Californians are having again this year. It is the fourth serious lot of bushfires they have had to deal with as a state in four years.

We are seeing completely new bushfire weather events happening in pyrocumulus clouds and enormous hurricane-like storms are occurring. We saw new events that had not been recorded in eastern Australia last year, and there were records of apparently completely new bushfire phenomenon from California just this year. We can be quite sure that 'normal' will include much more extreme and severe experiences in any common year with increasing risk of years where we have catastrophic bushfires.

The fact that we are not suggested to have catastrophic bushfires in Tasmania this year, by no means does that suggest we should do anything other than treat this very seriously as a risk to communities, to wilderness, and other natural areas as the warm weather approaches.

I acknowledge the people in Tasmania who do the principal work of keeping us safe during a bushfire event and who do the hard work in between bushfire events, preparing for the next one, maintaining the trucks, the burning of areas for fuel reduction, and maintaining the records and data connections with the other organisations who are all collectively involved in keeping us safe and protecting our wilderness areas and settlements from bushfires.

The volunteer firefighters - more than 1000 in Tasmania, their hundreds of bushfire brigades in regional areas, and over 300 crew who are paid firefighters who are there all the time, caring for us and being on alert - these are the people who are there on the front line and I thank them and I thank their families for the time that they have to endure without them by their side in the bushfire events. I had conversations with people in Geeveston after the bushfires in 2019-20, many of whom had not seen people in their family who had been fighting fires, some of them for two months. People who slept for a month or more on the floor in a very simple set up in the local fire station, just grabbing the sleep they could in between fighting the fires.

The minister made a concerning response to the question from Ms Butler this morning in question time. He could not confirm that 20 volunteer fire brigades around Tasmania were not going to be closed. The department, as I understand it, hurriedly prepared a response to the media queries which happened after that, and said - 'No, it's not true'. The minister did not know what he needed to say. What he needed to say is that the brigades will not be closed.

I have been very concerned to hear a lack of clarity in the minister's communication on the matter of the closing of bushfire brigades. What people in the community need now more than ever is clear communication. They need to know and have confidence in the Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management that he is all over the detail of his department and that he is doing everything that is needed to prepare us for the upcoming season. The comments that the minister made around the closing of fire stations is concerning. I am still not clear that the minister is really being straight with Tasmanians about what is going on.

There is a review that Mr Mike Blake is chairing. That review as I understand is due to report back to the state Government next month. That is a review which is substantial. It is the review of the Fire Services Act which will centralise the Tasmania Fire Service and the State Emergency Service so that they come under the umbrella of a new Fire and Emergency Services Tasmania body. It will involve a change to resourcing, a change to funding, and a change to the structure. All those things come with impacts on people who are volunteers and on paid fire crews. All those changes are the last thing that you would hope to see brought into play on the cusp of a fire season. We are on the cusp of a fire season so it is really concerning that we are seeing the minister potentially overseeing a major restructure of the Fire Service and the emergency services and change the financing and resourcing of those two bodies at such a time. It is terrible timing.

Let us put this in context. It was only last week that we heard Parks will be sending vehicles during fire season to fight fires in wilderness areas with less than a full tank of water. We know from information supplied from the leaked material from Parks that the vehicles would be over-capacity if they were carrying a full tanker of water. How useless to send a crew into a fire with anything other than a full complement of water on board. That is concerning.

It is also concerning that the risk-ready app the Government launched quietly last summer, which is meant to give home owners in bushfire-prone area the level of risk to their property from bushfires, is missing data for a large number of local council areas in Tasmania. That means it is still the case that if a home owner in 14 municipalities in Tasmania goes in to use the risk-ready app, it will falsely give them information that their property is not at risk. Minister, this has been pointed out to your department for well over two months. Why is this not being fixed? This is a massive issue for 14 municipalities in Tasmania where people are being misled about the risk to their property. It wast taken down for three months so it could be fixed and when it was put back online it has still 14 municipalities with no information in it. That is appalling and does not give people confidence.

When the minister points the finger and says there is rumour-mongering going on, maybe he should point it back to himself and correct the misinformation his department is providing to Tasmanians about their level of risk from bushfires. That might give people a bit more confidence about the other things he is saying.

We would also like to know what he is going to do about the tankers, the Parks vehicles that are going to be sent into remote areas with half a tank of water. What are you going to do about that, minister?

We would also like to know whether the remote area firefighters have been fully trained. I saw the good news in the paper the other day that another remote area team has been recruited to do that training work. That is really good news, but last November this minister was responsible for having 80 remote area team volunteers stood down because they had not received the training they needed to ensure they would be safe when they were helicoptered into bushfire areas in remote wilderness, nor had they received the training they needed to be taken in by a vehicle.

Those are the sorts of specialist skills we need in people who are going to take up this very dangerous work on our behalf. Maybe the minister can tell us how many remote area team staff are available for this season, whether it is the full complement or whether there are still people who are not ready yet.

It is all very well for Mr Tucker to rattle off a list of things the Government is doing. They are welcome but they are a minimum list of things that need to be done. This is not new information that the Greens or Labor are pointing out and trying to find holes in. This is the same stuff we have been pointing out year after year. We need a minister who will stand up and say, like the 33 fire chiefs from the National Bushfire Leaders Group, that climate change is real, climate change is happening, and climate change is affecting the fire season. It is changing its intensity and severity.

Mr Shelton - That is why we're doing the work we are.

Dr WOODRUFF - You can say that is why you are doing it, but Tasmanians want to hear the words. They have a minister sitting in one of the most important portfolios. They want to know you understand that the world is heating, that the risk of bushfires is completely different from what it has been historically, and that you recognise we have to take urgent measures not only to prepare for bushfires but to tackle the underlying causes driving them. That is what people want to hear from the minister responsible for Fire and Emergency Services.

They are the words that the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action made clear when they got together after the terrible bushfires that happened last summer on the east coast of Australia. They prepared a National Bushfire and Climate Summit report and I commend that report to the minister if he has not seen it.

Mr Shelton - I have read it.

Dr WOODRUFF - That is great.

Mr Shelton - It qualifies a lot of what we are doing with fuel reduction. It actually states there that we need to do more fuel reduction.

Madam SPEAKER - Through the Chair.

Dr WOODRUFF - That is very good news, Madam Speaker, and I am really pleased. There are a number of things here which are federal issues and quite a few that are state responsibilities. I also hope that the minister took account of recommendation 10 and not just read it, which says that there have to be integrated and long-term approaches to landscape management, including phasing out native logging and protecting biodiversity and carbon sinks. A very important point, minister. I hope you took that point on board and did not just hand-pick the things you thought would suit you and the policy approaches of your Government.

I hope you also took account of the recommendation to establish local government area climate change and bushfire expert centres so communities could be involved not only in bushfire fighting in terms of volunteer firefighting brigades but in a climate change emergency response centre that bushfires would be part of that. It needs to be part of a bigger climate change response. An emergency response for climate change requires not just a focus on bushfires but on all the other extreme weather events that happen such as landslides, terrific winds and so on.

In closing, I signal that the Greens support the amendments Ms Butler has proposed. We would like clarity, together with other people in the volunteer firefighting community, and a surety that there will be no stealthy or forced closures of volunteer fire brigades.

Mr SHELTON - Point of order, Madam Speaker. The member asked for clarity and I have already clarified that there will be no forced closures for volunteer fire stations. It is only a political amendment.

Madam SPEAKER - It is not a point of order.

Dr WOODRUFF - It is not a debate. Minister, you can make your point with your vote. There are no problems, so everyone can settle down. We are all in furious agreement. We will all agree to this amendment that there will be no stealthy and forced amalgamations. That is the end of the story.

It is clear that the community wants clear communication. If the COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing, it has shown us, as a community, that it is not just enough for premiers and ministers to stand up and give press conferences and put things in media releases. That is not communication. Communication is multi-faceted. It is about reassuring the community. Providing evidence and overall being transparent -

Mr Shelton - You are scaremongering.

Madam SPEAKER - Order, please, minister.

Dr WOODRUFF - Being transparent and being clear about what the Government is doing, and providing the evidence from the 14 municipalities for the RiskReady app.

Madam SPEAKER - The time for debate has expired.