Dr HAINES (Indi) (18:20): After a shocker of a fire season last year, the next fire season is upon us. As I drove up to Canberra on Sunday, I could see that the hills of the Indigo Valley are starting to dry off. A constituent who was out in Goughs Bay on Saturday told me that in the hot sun of the weekend the snakes were out around Lake Eildon. Summer is coming and with it the fire season.
We know that last year the government ignored warnings of a looming disaster bushfire season, and we know what resulted. This year we must prepare better. The heavy rains we’ve had over winter and spring have meant that grasses are longer and denser than they have been in years. In fact, it has been the most extraordinary spring we’ve had in decades.
According to Adrian Gutsche from the CFA District 24, which covers Wodonga, Towong, Alpine and Indigo shires, the grass loads right now are between eight and 10 tonnes a hectare, double what we normally would expect. The long grasses in paddocks and by the sides of roads mean that the risk of grassfires will be much higher this year. People who experienced last year’s bushfires in the Upper Murray, Corryong and Cudgewa have contacted me, concerned about what this means for them and their bushfire preparedness.
Yet COVID-19 has meant it is difficult for the CFA to do its usual preparations in the way that it normally would. The CFA is focused on doing community education in a COVID-safe way and preparing brigades for the season ahead. CFA Alpine commander Marc Owens is calling on people to get out onto their properties over the next few weeks to start slashing to reduce the risk of grassfires. Local groups, like the north-east regional resilience forum led by Paul Ryan, are working on building the long-term resilience of the region.
But in many cases, these hard-working locals are not getting the support they need to properly prevent and prepare for bushfires. The final report of the bushfire royal commission two weeks ago found that Australia’s disaster outlook is alarming. The 80 recommendations of the royal commission make it clear that Australia was not prepared for the Black Summer and is not prepared for the hotter summers that are to come. At least 19 people and organisations in my electorate of Indi made submissions to the commission. I thank them, and I thank every person in our region who helped respond to last summer’s fires and those who are now leading up with their preparations and doing the work that we need for the recovery from last year’s fires.
For these people and for all of us who lived through the bushfires of last summer many of the recommendations of the royal commission will come as little surprise. The royal commission recommends a huge boost to our firefighting capability, including a sovereign aerial firefighting force, investment in a domestic aerial firefighting industry, and a new national register of firefighting assets. The government has said it will take time to consider the full report of the royal commission, which of course in some ways is fair. But the fire season won’t wait. I’m calling on the government to act quickly to make sure that our bushfire-prone communities are sufficiently prepared for this coming season.
Here are four recommendations that the government should accept and action immediately: The royal commission recommendation 6.1 calls for the state and territory governments to assess the capacity and capability of fire and emergency services in light of the current and future risks. Recommendation 6.2 calls for a national register of fire and emergency services personnel and equipment.
These recommendation will be particularly important for people like Beechworth Fire Brigade chief Bruce Forrest, who for many months now has been raising the alarm that the Beechworth Fire Brigade does not have the equipment it needs to protect the town. The brigade has no vehicles that can access Beechworth Gorge, so if a fire broke out it would threaten half the town. The Beechworth brigade is calling for a raft of equipment upgrades, including an ultralight tanker, a pumper tanker, two light tankers and sheds. The Beechworth brigade’s requirements would cost $2.1 million to protect the town of Beechworth. That’s only slightly more than the government has spent in bushfire payments in Indigo Shire so far this year. It would be a sensible investment indeed, and it’s a fraction of the $600 million the region lost in tourism in the first half of this year.
Last summer, in Bruce’s words, ‘The Beechworth brigade were brought to breaking point and going into the next season they still don’t have this equipment. Part of the town is simply undefendable.’ It’s not acceptable that rural fire services should be denied the equipment they need to keep their communities safe and it’s amazing that after the year we’ve just had that these services aren’t getting every piece of kit they need.
Recommendation 17.1 calls for public availability of fuel-load management strategies. It calls for all managers of public lands to clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel-load management strategies and to report annually on the outcomes of those strategies. Requiring government agencies and others to report publicly and be accountable for their fuel-load management is a sensible idea. This would give reassurance to my constituents that they’re not being forgotten about and that the wild oats beside the road in the Upper Murray will indeed be cut. The royal commission made clear that hazard reduction is not a silver bullet for addressing bushfires. However, it did find that clear information about government fuel-load management strategies can be difficult to obtain and this undermines public confidence and affects the broader public debate about this very polarising topic.
Information about fuel loads and fuel-load management should, according to the royal commission, be made more accessible. I would add that it not only undermines public confidence but leads to real anxiety in fire-prone communities. For instance, I know right now that some agencies, like Regional Roads Victoria, which is responsible for managing some roadside vegetation, is waiting to slash grass because, given the rain and the temperature, if they slashed now they’d be back in a few weeks to do it again. All of that costs the taxpayer. But everyday people in those communities don’t actually know that there’s a plan. All they see is the ever-growing grass and they have no reassurance that this bushfire hazard will indeed be managed. I get many, many constituent calls about issues such as this. Our communities, particularly in the Upper Murray, deserve the kind of clear and transparent year-round communication that the royal commission calls for.
Finally, recommendation 13.6 calls for the development of a single national app for all natural disasters. So many people in border communities like Walwa, Tintaldra and Towong were caught out last year because the Victorian fire warning app didn’t contain any information about the massive fires burning so close to them right across the Murray River. If you go east of Mount Porcupine, the Murray River becomes very narrow. Fires jump over it like nothing, so having two separate warning systems and communications plans and emergency service response teams simply doesn’t work for my border communities.
I understand the government will take its time to consider the royal commission, but the fire season won’t wait and these are some simple interventions our communities are calling for right now. We need to support our CFAs with the equipment that they need. We need to ensure transparency on fuel management on public lands and we need to make sure that border communities are supported with a single communications system.
Last year the government did not prepare well enough for the fires, and we all saw the result. Here we are now on the brink of the next fire season and our communities are calling out for the support they need to reassure them and get them ready for the next fire season that’s about to start. I’m calling on the government to make sure that the mistakes of last year are not repeated.