Canberra’s silence in the face of mounting public concern can no longer be justified.
Every nation identifies itself through stories – some true, some dodgy, some entirely mythical. Ours are about settlers coming around the world, about fighting battles far from our shores, about bushrangers, troopers, squatters, drovers, indigenous people and immigrants.
A thread running through all these stories is that in this harsh, unforgiving land whose moods can turn lives upside down, people have to be physically tough, resourceful, purposeful, plain-speaking and courageous.
With wildfire in the news, our Australian heroes of the moment, with all those qualities and more, are the ones putting themselves in harm’s way to keep flames at bay and save lives and property.
Early in April this year a group of 23 of these people, former chiefs of fire and emergency services in all states and territories – many still active volunteers in local fire brigades – signed a letter to prime minister Scott Morrison seeking an urgent meeting to tell him about their critical concerns.
They wrote of increasingly extreme weather events overwhelming emergency services and putting lives, properties and livelihoods at risk, and asked for a federal parliamentary inquiry into the resourcing and equipping of the nation’s emergency services.
The group, which calls itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, sought an urgent review of fire-fighting aircraft, pointing out that access to large helicopters and fixed-wing planes leased from the northern hemisphere was restricted because of an increasing overlap of fire seasons.
The PM was in the midst of an election campaign when the letter was sent, so it was no surprise that he didn’t reply. It was re-sent after the Morrison victory. Two months later the PM replied proposing that the group meet with energy minister Angus Taylor.
As spokesperson Greg Mullins, a former NSW fire chief, told the story last week, the group wanted ministers with finance and emergency responsibilities to be in the discussion, but Taylor declined to help get them to a meeting. They again sought help from the PM, but got no response.
As the fire chiefs had foreshadowed in their letter, the present Queensland fire season started early, in August, when the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre warned it was shaping up to be a bad one.
In 2003 the Howard government agreed to meet states halfway in a cost-sharing lease of fire-fighting aircraft. Leasing or buying these aircraft now costs far more than in 2003. But Canberra’s contribution has barely moved from that time, leaving states carrying 90 per cent of the burden.
With “unprecedented” NSW and Queensland fires raging and with angry insults between Nationals and Greens MPs adding to the general din, David Littleproud, whose agriculture and water portfolio also covers emergency services, has now agreed to meet with the group next month.
The political fracas is no surprise. Climate change comes up every time there has been a fire or weather emergency, and the standard response is that “now is not the time” to discuss it. Aware of the perils of raising it in fraught times, people tend to say nothing.
But between emergencies, too, the Morrison government actively discourages discussion of climate change impacts and mitigation. Ministers quickly brush off questions on the topic, and we continue to have to nurse their political sensitivities by treading carefully around it.
Global warming doesn’t cause fires, but it does make them worse. Scientific study of the connection finds that the way climate change alters rainfall, wind and evaporation patterns causes many places to dry more quickly, making fires more likely to ignite and spread, and far more intense.
Mullins pointed out danger signals: autumn-winter rain in south-eastern Australia now 20 per cent below average, fire seasons up to two months longer than before, and windows narrowing for hazard reduction burning. We face the prospect of 12-month fire seasons, as now happens in California.
A growing chorus – yesterday the insurance industry added its considerable voice – is urging the government to engage with genuine public concerns and develop a national wildfire strategy to deal with a changing climate. Its silence on this subject cannot be justified.
There is a silver lining. Drought creeps up on you, but wildfire makes a big noise. If the warning from these heroes about ever-worsening fire seasons doesn’t push the Morrison government into taking climate change seriously, nothing will.
• LOCAL initiatives to help the push to lower emissions are a vital counter to national inaction. Circular Economy Huon is conducting an EV recharging seminar for tourism operators at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, 2064 Huon Highway, from 9 till 11 am today. • And at the South Hobart community’s annual meeting tomorrow (7pm, SH Primary School Hall) residents will hear about a bulk purchase of electric vehicles.