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Bushfires and Climate Emergency

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Tags: Bushfires, Climate Change, Fuel Reduction Burns, AFAC review, Extinction

Bushfire Preparedness: Woodruff, September, 2019.


Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That the House -

(1) acknowledges the bushfire season has started early and ferociously in eastern Australia, with large out of control bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland;

(2) recognises these fires have caused devastating losses to families and businesses, with firefighters battling horrific high wind conditions with at least one critically injured;

(3) further acknowledges with concern the bushfires that ravaged 3 per cent of the state last summer, and that these extreme bushfire seasons are going to become more common unless we reverse atmospheric overheating;

(4) condemns the Liberals for their lack of action on the climate emergency;

(5) notes the Hodgman Government did not agree to fully implement all of the recommendations of the 2016 Tony Press Report and ignored the recommendations of a Report prepared by Tasmania Fire Service union and authors Simon Pilkington and Alex Dean; and

(6) as a hot, dry summer approaches, calls on the Government to table information detailing the changes that have been implemented leading up to the next fire season, including the number of employed and volunteer Remote Area Firefighters now, compared to early 2019, and any increase in resourcing to implement the 2019 Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council recommendations.

Fires are burning across the planet in places that they never used to burn and in times of the year that burning never occurred. Places are burning in vegetation and situations that appears incomprehensible and are outside human memory. Right now, communities in Queensland and New South Wales are suffering through severe bushfires and there are still catastrophic bushfires burning in communities in the hinterland and coastal areas, subtropical parts of Queensland and in northern New South Wales. On behalf of the Greens and, I would say, everyone in this parliament, our hearts go out to the people in those communities. We are thinking of the people on the front line, people who are fighting those fires, doing the work that is so exhausting and frightening and that Tasmanian communities have experienced in too recent memories.

The world's lack of action on climate change and environmental protection, including the inaction of our own federal and state governments, is costing us all a very great deal. We are seeing an increase in human lives lost through bushfires, and in countries that have never before had fires, and there is also a massive escalation in fire problems in places like California and Greece where whole communities, thousands of houses, have burnt in a single day.

We are seeing the mass destruction of ecosystems on a scale that has profound consequences for human survival. We are seeing the Arctic countries burning and we are seeing the Amazon on fire. This poses grave threats to indigenous communities in the Amazon, who rely on their forest for survival, it places at threat the extinction of animals and plants and it is a huge threat to the survival of the human species. If areas that have been previously sinks for carbon dioxide flip over and become sources of carbon dioxide, as the increasing drying of the planet and of those environments continues, it means that rainforests that were never burned are now drying and becoming very vulnerable to fire.

Unfortunately, what is happening in New South Wales is reflecting parts of that story and we are seeing subtropical rainforest areas in the Dorrigo Plateau, for example, high altitude rainforests in World Heritage listed places like the Mount Hyland Nature Reserve, on fire. These areas have remained unchanged for millions of years. We have seen the historic Binna Burra Lodge in Queensland burned to the ground. There has never been fire in that area in living memory.

The number of days of very high fire danger are increasing and this is a clear long-term trend that is given by warming and drying effects of climate change. This is now a very well-established fact, verified by the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, including by many other organisations at the global level.

Those communities in New South Wales and Queensland paying a very high price right now are following the experience we had too recently here in Tasmania. Last summer, 6 per cent of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was lost through burning, including Gondwanaland vegetation, plants and animals in areas that have also never previously experienced burning. Extreme bushfires threatened communities in the Huon Valley, the Derwent Valley, Central Highlands and the north-west. People suffered through months of harsh conditions, high anxiety levels and smoke inhalation that caused far greater numbers of people to be admitted to hospital with anxiety and asthma. Following that, there has been a substantial spend of resources and effort by that community that could have been spent elsewhere. The honey industry is also on its knees. I personally know of two families, wine growers in the Huon Valley, who have gone out of business as result of the impact of fires on their crops last year.

We heard from Chris Arnol in the Mercury today about the extreme risk for the east coast this summer, with global heating causing warmer conditions and low rainfall in that beautiful part of Tasmania, which only recently had the bizarre fire that occurred at Dolphin Sands several months ago. That fire showed very starkly to local communities, volunteer and career firefighters that the east coast has tinderbox dry conditions and it has vegetation that is extremely vulnerable to unpredictable outbreaks of fire.

Greg Mullins wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. He points to these conditions no longer being exceptional. For people who do not know Greg Mullins, he is a very highly respected former fire and rescue commissioner from New South Wales. He is part of a group of firefighters, emergency service workers, who came out last summer and made a strong plea to the federal Government to take action of the climate emergency to recognise that we are in conditions that will increasingly become more threatening for human lives, and definitely more threatening for the natural ecosystems on which we depend. Greg Mullins said yesterday that the conditions we are experiencing are no longer exceptional. They are the new normal. We have to respond on a scale that is balanced with the increased risks we are facing.

There has been a lack of action taken by the federal Liberal Government on climate change. They are fundamentally driven by the interests of the coal and gas, fossil fuel, industry lobby. In the 1970s and 1980s, the documented evidence from the United States shows that Exxon, Chevron and all the other major oil companies colluded with each other to knowingly shut down openness and information about the impact of burning fossil fuels on increasing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures.

They knew that. It is well documented now and they did what the tobacco industry did. In fact, they employed tobacco industry lobbyists to sow seeds of doubt about the certainty around the science and to actively use language like 'uncertainty' to throttle the action that should have occurred three decades ago at least, which would have made such a difference to where we are today.

That did not happen, but still their patsies, the federal Liberal Party, with the active support of the federal Labor Party, patsies of those of the oil industry, coal and gas industry - these are the politicians who are putting the future wellbeing of all people who live in Australia at risk because of their worse than inaction, their purposeful supporting of the opening of new mines like the Adani Mine.

Ms O'Connor - Climate criminals.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, climate criminals, that is right Ms O'Connor. Former Liberal Leader John Hewson, as reported in the Guardian Australia a short time ago, has called on Scott Morrison to grant government MPs a conscience vote on a new parliamentary motion declaring a climate emergency. He wants MPs to champion the new parliamentary motion which is being pursued by the Australian Greens and is supported by most of the Lower House crossbench, and wants Scott Morrison to allow a conscience vote because he said Liberal backbenchers were feeling the pressure from their constituents about the coalition's lack of ambition on climate change.

So they should be. That indicates the effectiveness of the young people who have coordinated amongst themselves on our behalf, started the pressure on governments to recognise we are in a climate emergency. Those young people and the massive School Strike 4 Climate strikes which have occurred around the country have been a catalyst for change. Thank goodness they are forcing the adults in Australia to stand up and get out of our complacency and stop pretending incremental business as usual change is what is needed to respond to such an urgent crisis the whole of humanity faces, including Australians and every single person in Tasmania.

That momentum has shifted now as it ought to, from putting the responsibility on children to all of us adults. The next School Strike 4 Climate will be a global strike for climate. It will be adults and children. I hope Dr Broad, Ms Standen, Mr Tucker, Ms Courtney, Mrs Rylah, Mr Shelton, and all the other MPs who happen to be in the room today, will be there supporting children to show them it is not children who need to lead, but people in government need to lead and we need to declare a climate emergency.

Our brave firefighters will face off against the flames next summer or in the next few weeks, whenever that time will come; no matter what we do, they will be there. They need a lot more help in the form of deliberate action on climate emergency, to slow down the rate of heating. That is something the Greens will be returning to discuss in this parliament.

That is not why this motion has been brought before us today. It is essential, it is part of it but is not the principle subject of today's motion.

The purpose of today's motion is to identify what we need immediately for the upcoming summer bushfire season, or shall I say for the upcoming bushfire period because we have to understand despite the small amount of rain that occurred small or large in some parts of the state, it was not enough to get the east coast out of a high bushfire risk.

Chris Arnol has confirmed that in his piece in the Mercury. We are not out of the woods for east coast residents and cannot assume we will be out of the woods for people living in other parts of Tasmania either. We know all too well that rain at this time of the year can cause a flush of growth which can end up being a highly threatening form of vegetation when the summer gets hot.

We need more funding for support to develop community and individual fire protection plans. It is important that every person in Tasmania knows what to do when a bushfire comes; they know how to protect themselves, where to go, who to call on, what to do with their animals and whether to stay or leave their house, and what to do if the wind changes and they do not get out in time. These are essential things.

We need to have more funding for specialist equipment like large firefighting equipment at the federal level and at the state level. We have to stop the cuts affecting the firefighting capability of the Parks and Wildlife Service. The ongoing long-term cuts that have crippled our remote area team capacity have taken away the expertise we used to have in remote firefighting. We have to have the money available for proper fuel reduction burns so they can be done safely in a timely fashion and do what we can to protect Gondwana vegetation, communities, buildings and people.

There are three reports sitting on the emergency services minister's desk -

Ms O'Connor - Gathering dust.

Dr WOODRUFF - Gathering dust exactly - that have to be actioned and be resourced. It is deeply concerning that here we are, at the end of September, and despite the minister making a great statement to parliament a couple of months ago in response to the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authority Council report on the summer bushfires this year, we have not heard anything further and that is why we are here today.

We are here to shine a light on the minister's apparent inaction. I look forward to him getting up, correcting the record. Perhaps I am wrong. I hope I am wrong, because all the minister did when that report was tabled was accept the recommendations in-principle and I have not heard a peep out of him since. An in-principle support is not the same as doing something about it. I hope the minister is going to get up and say he is supporting all the recommendations.

We had this massive review of the management of the Tasmanian fires of December 2018 to March 2019 prepared by some awesome specialists and from that review are nine recommendations. That report confirmed the bushfires we suffered last summer were the second largest only to the 1967 bushfires and they occurred during the second warmest summer on record in Tasmania, including with massive fuel loads. The three main fires were started by lightning strikes at Gell River on 27 December at the Great Pine Tier in the Central Plateau and Riveaux Road in Huon Valley on 15 January. The fires burned through 210 000 hectares of Tasmanian land and 2300 hectares of threatened vegetation communities in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, as well as a total of 6 per cent of the TWWHA, including endemic conifers like King Billy pine and pencil pine, and 14 per cent of our tall forests were burned.

The review found that fire crews were not properly resourced and were without the aircraft needed to identify hotspots. That is a damning finding. The minister effectively tried to bury it in an immensely long ministerial statement that hid the truth that people knew, people who had been around for long enough, not very long, all in the term of this Government. There is no opportunity here for this minister and this Government to kick the can back into the past of previous governments because we have had now three important pieces of work on what needs to be done to properly respond to the threat of bushfires in Tasmania and prepare us for future threats.

Dr Tony Press wrote the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Bushfire and Climate Change Research Report in December 2016 and there are some outstanding recommendations from that report. In July 2017, Simon Pilkington and Alex Dean wrote a very important briefing paper titled 'Fire Crews Involving the TFS Wildfire Capability for the Tasmania Fire Service'. We also have the AFAC review, as it has been called, which was produced this year.

We also have some important submissions from the United Firefighters Union of Australia, Tasmania branch. They have done a number of submissions to each of the reviews that have occurred. They made a submission to the Tony Press review and to the AFAC review. On the back of the submission they made, which had not been acted upon by previous emergency services minister, Michael Ferguson, they also wrote a clear letter signed by Lee Hills, the vice-president and senior industrial officer of the UFUA. They wrote a letter about the Tasmanian wildfires on 8 January and pointed to a proposal they had provided to the Government in 2017 to deal with initial attacks of wildfire response capability in remote areas, the basis of that proposal being remote access teams that were to be pre-identified and that would hit fires early. They said in the letter:

In September 2018 the UFUA and our members desperately attempted to have a trial of this proposal in place for the 2018-19 fire seasons. They were offered compromises and an MOU to alleviate any concerns that TFS management might have had, but TFS failed to have the trial in place by the start of the fire season.

If only they had been listened to. If only we had that additional capacity, because that is exactly what the AFAC review found. The AFAC review found that crews in Tasmania were not properly resourced and did not have the aircraft they needed to identify hotspots and, as a consequence, the Gell River fire which started on 27 December was not picked up as continuing and was not acted on in a timely fashion. What we saw as a result of that was a massive spread of that fire and a huge separation of resource energy from the Riveaux Road fire and the Gell River area. That was an enormous stress for people involved in the splitting and sharing of resources.

We rise to a challenge and I thank all the people involved in working through that fire period. It was traumatic for some of the people involved, but hugely tiring for everyone involved. People did their best, but we need governments to provide people with the tools so they can do their best and do better. We had people on the front line who asked for the tools so they could do better and those tools were not provided, there were no resources forthcoming. That, frankly, is disgraceful.

It is deeply concerning that we have a summer coming where we know there is a much higher risk of fires than there has been. We know there is a risk on the east coast already.

We want to hear from the minister about his support, or not, for the recommendations from the AFAC report and the Tony Press report. We want to hear what resources he is going to put in this summer. The budget we scrutinised in Estimates was totally deficient in resources to respond to the AFAC review. The Treasurer is cutting 0.07 per cent from every government department and we have yet to hear where the cuts are to come from in the fire service. They are certainly coming from hospitals, from frontline nurses and from people who need elective surgeries. They are being cut. So where are the cuts coming from in the Police, Fire and Emergency Services area? I would like to hear from the minister about that. Is that why there is no money in the Budget? Where is the commitment to funding the recommendations from the AFAC review? They do not come for nothing.

There are some things in here that involve discussions. The first recommendation is that the Tasmania Fire Service, Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania initiate a discussion amongst their Australasian peers about good practice around managing new fire starts in remote terrain. Can we please get an update from the minister about how that is going? The second recommendation from AFAC is that TFS should pursue the creation of a cadre of volunteer remote area firefighters. Will that be done by this summer? Have they been created? What resourcing has been put into that cadre of remote area firefighters? How many will there be and where will they be deployed?

The third recommendation is that the TFS should initiate a policy review to clearly identify what body or agency is responsible for planning, carrying out and enforcing fuel management on private property at a township level. That is crucial. This is exactly the issue we are confronting when people need to do fuel management on private properties. It is important that they get the support, not just at the start when they are getting a permit or a volunteer to come and look over their property, but there is no process, at least not that I am aware of, of having those fires checked at the end to make sure they have been properly extinguished. We see this time and again, through people doing their best and believing a fire to be out - and I have experienced this myself. We have a property outside of Cygnet and I have personally experienced getting the permit, lighting the fire, doing the burn-off using the blade on the tractor to making sure that the fire has not spread, it being extinguished and rained on for six days, light rain, the perfect conditions for burn-off and seeing it be rekindled in the night when a wind came up. I can see Mr Tucker smiling. Yes, it was very concerning. We were aware that was a risk, but how many other people are not aware of that risk? Support and training is needed, as well as resourcing for volunteers who come to check and conduct fuel management on private properties at a township level.

The fourth recommendation is that TFS, PWS and Forestry Tasmania work with Government and each other to continue to pursue a whole-of-state fuel management and burning program that encompasses all land tenures. I am interested to hear from the minister where that is up to.

Recommendation five is that TFS, PWS and Forestry Tasmania are to agree to an updated version of inter-agency fire management protocols. Has that been completed? Will that be conducted well in advance of November? What opportunity is there for volunteers involved in those organisations to be engaged in that process?

Recommendation six is that TFS, PWS and Forestry Tasmania are to establish a state air desk to be staffed by specialist staff, year-round.

Recommendation seven is that TFS, PWS and Forestry Tasmania are to jointly reach a decision on whether a winch-capable remote area firefighting capability should be maintained in Tasmania. Has that been decided upon? Where is the funding for it? If we are not going to have it in Tasmania, how are going to have it available when we need it? That is something that was lacking in the 201819 summer fires; the ability to get people into remote areas in a timely fashion.

Recommendation eight is that the organisations should jointly carry out work to identify an acceptable shift length and patterns for all personnel working on emergency operations.

Recommendation nine is that TFS engage in discussions with the Government about the construction of purpose-built, state-controlled centre facilities for emergency management in Tasmania. That is because AFAC clearly named the woeful inadequacies of the current state control centre. That clearly has to be fixed before the next large bushfire.

It is crystal clear that the crews who attended the Gell River fire in the southwest last summer were not properly resourced; there was no aircraft available to identify the hotspots and frontline fire crews withdrew too early as a consequence. Communication issues were identified between Parks and Wildlife and the fire service and resources were delayed from Parks.

I would like to hear the minister's response because it is important for all Tasmanians to understand that we have a Government and a minister who has listened to these successive reviews, who is taking it seriously, that is going to put the support in that our volunteer and paid firefighters need. With this commitment from the Government, we can be confident we have the best tools at hand possible, that we are as well prepared as we can be, and that people understand how to respond when the next bushfire comes.

There will be more dry lightning strikes. Even though we have not had these before in Tasmania, these are the weather patterns we must come to expect as being the new normal. Our landscapes are already exceptionally dry and there is another long, hot summer on the way. I would like to hear from the minister how he has reprioritised the budget and how he has found the money to resource these areas so that the welfare of Tasmanians is not at risk this summer and we keep our natural ecosystems intact.