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January 09th 2016 print

David Packham and Tim Malseed

A Burning Issue for the PM

The bushfire-prompted, but entirely unneeded, evacuation of Lorne is further evidence that state governments are incapable of acting in the best interests of public safety. Malcolm Turnbull has the authority to intervene. He should find the courage to do so

malcolm fire smallerAs subsequent events have demonstrated, the bushfire-inspired evacuation of the Victorian seaside resort of Lorne on Christmas Day proved entirely unnecessary, as did another evacuation several days later further down the coast.  As everyone knows, crying wolf makes future warnings less credible, so this latest example of mismanagement by bureaucratic edict was more than a nuisance and impost on residents, especially local traders whose summer takings were ruined. Simply put, the unneeded evacuation has helped set the stage for greater fire disasters in the future. In the same state where 173 lives were lost on Black Saturday, such inspired mismanagement verges on the culpable.

For instance, what happens on a day when the forest fire danger index is worse than on Christmas Day, when fire goes from advancing a mere few hundred metres to leaping 24 kilometres in a single hour? How many people will die because they ignore the now less-credible official warnings to evacuate?

Moreover, the philosophy that inspired Lorne’s evacuation, had it been applied after the ignition of the Kilmore East fire on Black Saturday in February, 2009, would have triggered a mass exodus of Melbourne’s outer north-east suburbs. Can you just imagine the chaos? Picture hundreds of thousands of people clogging roads and freeways in their panic to get away. Further, imagine the death toll if the flames were to catch up with those gridlocked refugees. Don’t scoff, it has happened before. In 1969, 23 people died when fire swept through Lara, between Melbourne and Geelong. Seventeen of those fatalities were motorists trapped in their cars on the Geelong Road. One of the survivors, Footscray’s champion ruckman Gary Dempsey, thereafter wore only long-sleeve jumpers to cover the horrendous burn scars on his arms.

The confusion caused by the Lorne bushfire evacuation follows an 18-month investigation, including at the highest levels of government, into official warnings about extreme bushfires. The former federal minister in charge of the CSIRO opined that a worst-case passage-of-fire figure is 24 kilometres ahead of the front in one hour, while a former Victorian minister says it is just 9km/h. Premiers of other states have sent letters, but, unfortunately, the Prime Minister won’t venture an opinion on who is right. This is a major issue that needs to be resolved before more Australians are killed. In that context, we question whether the Lorne evacuation was a symptom of a larger confusion, demonstrated by the failure to resolve the 9 km/h or 24 km/h passage-of-fire figures, which are fundamental to timely warnings about extreme bushfires. One thing we do know: on Black Saturday, windborne embers were igniting fresh blazes as far as 30-35km-plus from the main fronts. This is on the record and beyond dispute, so why the confusion?

The lightning strike that initiated the Lorne evacuation was a routine event. Such fires once were extinguished by teams of local fire fighters. Victoria’s former Chief Forest Fire Officer Rod Incoll recently detailed how the job was done when he worked in the Otways adjacent to Lorne and the destroyed township of Wye River. Back in the day, Rod’s crews would “hold” the fire with a rigorous first attack enlisting backup from other forest districts and bulldozers. They would expect to control the fire within two or three days, and they would do so on a relatively small budget when compared with the avalanche of money that builds and expands bureaucratic empires while simultaneously, and perversely, worsening bushfire danger.

So what went wrong between then and now? Our appraisal is that politics intervened and the practical, proven, cheap and effective fire-fighting methods of can-do foresters were trumped by the upgrading of politically driven bureaucrats. The late Ray Evans’ submission to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission carefully articulated how the state government scuttled its agencies’ capacity to control of bushfires and did so in a series of deliberate political actions.

However, those apparent political actions and the infernos they bought can be reversed, as America’s Yosemite National Park has done with brilliant results.

In order to determine who is responsible for the mismanagement of bushfire in Victoria, we wrote Bushfire Death Trap-The Eltham Gateway, which notes that a parade of Victorian premiers and planning ministers “had the power and responsibility for the six years…” to mitigate the threat prior to the devastation that occurred on Black Saturday. Tragically, that massive loss of life and property demonstrated that the authority to do something about horrendous forest and roadside fuel loads was not matched by a willingness to exercise a commensurate level of responsibility. It now emerges that the willful blindness of Victorian politicians extends all the way to Canberra, where the Prime Minister is similarly lax in exercising his obligations as the ultimate bushfire authority. How so? Well, as  substantial bushfire-management support is provided by the federal government, the prime minister of the day is obliged to make sure that money is well spent.

As the Victorian bushfire bureaucracy has demonstrated itself incapable of reform, we believe it is incumbent on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene. Until now, prime ministers have escaped this accountability, but Mr Turnbull can no longer plead ignorance.  In October, 2015, a letter to him from our friend and colleague Belinda Clarkson, copied to all State and Territory leaders, concluded:

“As the Prime Minister of Australia obliged to make disaster grants, I respectfully suggest this impending disaster is your responsibility”.

On December 13, 2015, a response on behalf of Prime Minister Turnbull from the Attorney-General’s Department conceded as much:

“…the Australian Government provides substantial support…to drive nationally consistent approaches…includes enhancing bushfire systems…”

During Prime Minister Turnbull’s televised tour of the Christmas Day devastation, Victorian Premier Andrews was seen as a background presence in some TV footage but not heard. One conclusion the casual viewer might draw is that the Prime Minister bears ultimate responsibility, even though he helicoptered to the evacuation zone for what his handlers must have regarded as a mere photo op.

In the days that follow each and every bushfire disaster the media also stakes its claim to a share of the blame. Largely ignorant of the ways of forest fires, unschooled in fighting them and prone to parrot green nostrums and nonsense, reporters become at best stenographers and, almost as often, cheer squads for the same politicians they should be calling to account. The template for stories is as shallow as it is familiar: confused and distraught victims, people who have lost homes and kin, are pressed to find the upbeat side of avoidable tragedies. They are prompted to speak of community spirit, our brave fire fighters and individual acts of heroism. Meanwhile, questions about politicians’ responsibility go largely unasked. And when they are raised, they are ridiculed as manifestations of “the blame game” — as if there was no blame whatsoever to be apportioned!

Later, as the news cycle moves on, the need to understand past disasters and avoid fresh ones is deemed no longer newsworthy and media interest recedes until, a few years down the road, the entire, tragic process is repeated all over again.

The solution to bushfire infernos is not complicated, but it will not be achieved until a critical mass of the mainstream media does its job, exposes the farce and demands a solution. In this regard a willingness on the part of the current Prime Minister to get involved, to demonstrate leadership,  would be a great help. True, he would risk alienating some of his green-eyed admirers, but he would do truth and public safety a great service were he to find the courage to exercise the responsibility that is undoubtedly within his purview.