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This fire season has brought new challenges

February 06, 2020

Below is an opinion piece I wrote for The Canberra Times on 6 February 2020.

You can read the original article here.

 

The bushfire crisis we have faced in recent months has had a profound impact across the country. A royal commission is an opportunity for victims to reflect on what they have experienced.

However, what we do not need is a drawn-out inquiry that covers the same ground as dozens of previous inquiries and reports.

A royal commission must not be an exercise in political posturing or finger-pointing.

There has been a disappointing level of misinformation and misdirected hatred as people try to reconcile this national tragedy. 

Fuel-load-reduction targets and policies - often misconstrued as backburning - have been offered as a sacrificial scapegoat.

Any discussion around hazard-reduction burning must be accompanied by the understanding that fire services across Australia can only reach their targets if it's safe to do so, and no amount of reduction burns can stop bushfires in the worst conditions.

Homes and lives can and have been lost when hazard-reduction burns go wrong.

Placing extra pressure on firefighters to carry out dangerous burns could have dire consequences.

This season did come with forewarning, and the federal government would have received the same information that the ACT government did in the lead-up to this summer.

We were told by our experts in emergency services and parks management that more than two years of persistently dry conditions and higher average temperatures would likely culminate in the extremely challenging season we have seen.

Fires in the ACT started in ways not seen before, underscoring the extreme dryness of our landscape.

Major bushfires seemed near-certain across Australia, despite the best efforts and preparations of parks and emergency services.

 

The ACT government has been investing more in our emergency services.

 

Our investments in the Emergency Services Agency airbase at the Canberra International Airport have turned Canberra into a regional hub for aerial firefighting.

The Firebird 100 intelligence helicopter procured at the start of the season has been a critical eye-in-the-sky for co-ordinating efforts on the ground and in the air.

History may record this summer as a tipping point, where the worst predictions of climate scientists started to become a reality.

We cannot ignore or gloss over the connection between climate change and the severity of this season.

One of the important lessons from this summer's experience is that a business-as-usual approach between the Commonwealth government and state and territory governments, as it pertains to emergency response management, will have to change.

The fires that we have faced this year have presented challenges over and above what we as a country have faced before, and it has required a level of co-operation this country has never seen.

The mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force provided the ACT emergency services with a significantly increased capacity, allowing our personnel to focus on firefighting.

An increased role for the Australian Defence Force in supporting state and territory agencies to prepare for bushfire seasons is worth discussing.

Now is the time to fully explore what bushfire seasons that last for two thirds or three quarters of the year mean for our national and global co-ordination and resourcing arrangements.

It is also a time to take stock of the impact that horrific bushfires can have on our firefighters.

Volunteer and paid firefighters, SES and the Parks and Conservation services have been pushed to their physical and mental limits. Some have tragically lost their lives. Their experiences must help inform how we manage our bushfire seasons.

This season is not over yet, and the ACT is still facing an uncertain period.

There are, however, many practical learnings from this summer's emergency, and I will take the next few days to consult with colleagues before we will submit the ACT's views on the draft terms of reference.

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