Australia– The NSW Rural Fire Service has been accused of ignoring key safety warnings that the potential misuse of the controversial 10/50 bushfire tree clearing laws could lead to an even more dangerous situations, before they were pushed through in NSW last year.
Documents obtained by The Sun-Herald show that the NSW government knew that the Victorian rural fire service had warned that the safety risk from woodchips and vegetation left lying around from unregulated tree removal could “result in a greater bushfire hazard”.
It also warned a false sense of security is likely to be generated if people feel that 30 metres of clearing will secure their safety from bushfires in all cases. “The big sell for these laws was bushfire protection”: David Shoebridge.
“The big sell for these laws was bushfire protection”: David Shoebridge. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
Greens MP David Shoebridge said “the big sell for these laws was bushfire protection yet we now know that the government ignored key safety advice that these changes make communities less safe”.
“In ignoring this advice the government has put lives and communities at risk, all to push through a bloody-minded one-size-fits-all approach to tree clearing.
“This is the exact system that code 10/50 undermines with its sweeping state-wide application.”
A leaked email from a Local Government NSW official to a NSW Rural Fire Service official with the warning attached has revealed the government and the fire service knew of the risk warnings raised by the Victorian bushfire-clearing proposal.
That advice had warned that the community could be lulled into a false sense of security about the potential risks of bushfires and that uncontrolled tree felling could have serious problems.
A freedom of information application shows that the RFS did not review or take into consideration those warnings raised by its Victorian counterpart before the introduction of the 10/50 laws in NSW.
The bushfire laws were introduced last August and since then thousands of trees have been cleared across the state.
The laws allowed people who are living within 350 metres of designated bushfire-prone areas to clear trees on their property within 10 metres of a home and shrubs within 50 metres, without seeking approval. It makes no distinction between bushland and urban areas.
Within weeks evidence had emerged of home owners in built-up urban areas were using the new powers to clear land for development and to improve harbour views.
Since then there have been increasing reports of debris and woodchips dumped in public places, suburban streets, bushfire asset protection zones and underneath power lines and Mr Shoebridge said his office has been sent pictures of debris lying around.
Sonja Elwood, the founder of Sydney Wildlife, said the organisation is constantly being alerted to discarded piles of woodchips and debris from trees that have been cut down.
“Not only are we seeing the loss of beautiful and mature trees and wildlife across many Sydney suburbs, we are also seeing piles of flammable woodchips left behind in unsafe places as waste.
“To know that senior RFS officers advised the government that this would likely happen, and that it was an inevitable fire hazard once these ridiculous laws were put in place, the credibility of these laws is really questioned,” Ms Elwood said.
A spokeswoman for the RFS said the document was created in 2009 as an assessment of a 10/30 scheme which was proposed by the Victorian government at the time.
“It is in no way a commentary on the 10/50 Code of Practice in NSW,” she said in a written statement.
“The 10/50 scheme is just one method landowners can use to reduce the risk to their property. The NSW RFS consistently advises communities in high-risk areas to also remove leaves from gutters, ensure they have a working hose and to make a bushfire survival plan,” she said.
“NSW also has effective hazard management laws in place which enable the NSW RFS to forcibly remove debris left on a property if necessary.”
Following public backlash against the laws, a formal review of the 10/50 laws was undertaken.
The spokeswoman said the review would be completed this year.