Brian Gilligan writes: Hazard reduction debate simply frustrating

NO SILVER BULLET: There are several crucial factors that contribute to successful fire management. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
NO SILVER BULLET: There are several crucial factors that contribute to successful fire management. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

During my time as head of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) from 1998 to 2003, I laboured repeatedly to explain the complexities of fire management and the limitations of hazard reduction.

Today, I worry that the ill-informed commentary that passes for debate is rolling around again 20 years on.

A few recollections and observations might explain my personal frustration:

In one fire emergency on the NSW south coast crews were unable to achieve an effective property protection back burn because the site had been subject to a recent hazard reduction burn.

In the cool of the evening, ahead of forecast bad weather, there was too much moisture and too little fuel to get an effective burn, even though we all knew the vegetation would burn furiously, threatening nearby houses, 24-48 hours later when the weather turned.

It did, and crews struggled to protect the adjacent properties.

I had critics repeatedly harangue me for not having burnt to reduce large fuel loads in mountain ash forests in the Kosciuszko region.

They were unprepared to accept that these particular forests are so damp, even throughout most summers, that they only burn in extreme fire weather conditions.

I took media representatives on a flight along the Main Range at Kosciuszko to show them where fire had burnt up to residual snow drifts, demonstrating that fuel reduction was not always an option.

It was and remains untrue that NPWS management is unwilling to undertake required hazard reduction.

It was and remains untrue that NPWS management is unwilling to undertake required hazard reduction.

In my experience, NPWS executives are experienced and practical land managers who are often exposed to criticism from narrowly focused activists or self interested lobbyists, not a happy working environment, but their professionalism has been repeatedly demonstrated.

One proposed hazard reduction burn on the northern outskirts of Sydney involved some 250 staff from several agencies and volunteer brigades, required the closure of the Main Northern railway Line and what is now the M1.

Unfortunately, the mid-winter weather delivered an air quality health alert for Sydney and the whole exercise had to be called off, requiring desperate efforts to reschedule while the brief seasonal window of opportunity for such a burn remained open.

I was emotionally devastated attempting to comfort the colleagues and families of four NPWS staff who died and three who were injured in a hazard reduction burn at Mount Ku-ring-gai in June 2000.

My agency was prosecuted by WorkCover, for not having ensured that all the required safety equipment was in use and protocols followed at Mount Ku-ring-gai.

I can't help wondering if those currently arguing for the removal of 'unnecessary red tape' might feel the same way if they had lived through the terrible lesson my staff and I learned from our identified failings in 2000, not to mention the ongoing anguish arising from that tragedy.

Some critics remain focused on the total area subject to hazard reduction burns, even though it is easy to tally up a large number of hectares burnt.

However, responsible land managers are focused on doing the important burns that are often the hardest to organise but might only involve relatively small areas.

I worked closely with then commissioner Phil Koperberg and we got on well.

We could only share a wry smile at the irony when, after each of the bad fire seasons the RFS budget was enhanced, but despite repeated attempts, I was rarely able to get any commensurate increase in the NPWS budget, even though we had ever larger areas to manage and ever more intense criticism of our fire management.

Governments always face difficult resource allocation decisions.

However, preparedness and prevention is clearly more likely to be more cost effective than trying to retrofit protective measures in the middle of a crisis.

Hazard reduction, strategic planning, equipment and training are all important contributors to successful fire management.

None, alone is a 'silver bullet'.

Systematic analysis of practical options for adapting to ever worsening weather extremes driven by climate change is still on our collective 'to do' list.

If such an iconic conservative as Margaret Thatcher could recognise the looming problem and, in 1989 (yes, 30 years ago) urge the United Nations to take action on climate change, why do we still have politicians unwilling to fully and urgently consider the fire management implications of climate change?

Brian Gilligan was the director general of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service from 1998-2003

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