Sydney, New South Wales, Australia — The bushfire season has well and truly begun and the Carr-Iemma government has been caught flat-footed. Again.
It would seem Emergency Services Minister Tony Kelly, Police Minister Carl Scully and Attorney-General Bob Debus are not strong believers in pro-active policy-making.
Scully, a serial repeat offender, was forced last week to reinstate police arson squad Strike Force Tronto.
It had been quietly disbanded after Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg admitted that arsonists were probably to blame for some of the more than 50 bushfires that hit NSW during the unseasonably hot weather the weekend before last.
Why the strike force was demobilised has not been satisfactorily explained and given the lack of transparency that is a feature of this Government’s policy decisions, probably never will be.
Yet arson has been a major factor in many of the most serious blazes experienced in the state over the past 30 years.
With the hottest, driest August on record and gale force winds and unprecedented temperatures over that last September weekend, it is little wonder that most experts are predicting a bushfire seasonto rival the 1993-94 and 2001-02 conflagrations.
Wet and windy weather severely cut opportunities to conduct hazard reduction burns during the cooler months and the National Parks and Wildlife Service lacks the manpower (and some believe the will) to run burns through its vast tracts of land.
Debus, as Environment Minister, must take responsibility for this, just as he must, in his role as Attorney-General,accept responsibility for the relatively lenient penalties that apply to criminals who deliberately set bushfires.
According to the Bureau of Criminal Statistics, the number of people prosecuted under new bushfire laws in 2003 was seven, in 2004 there were five and in 2005 just four.
In 2003, three of the offenders were jailed for terms of eight months, four years and three months, and five years.
One was given a 15-month suspended sentence, two received community service orders of 500 hours and 150 hours and the other was given an 18-month bond.
In 2004, one offender was jailed for nine months, two received periodic detention of four months and 12 months, another was placed on a two-year bond and the other was given a community service order of 500 hours.
Last year, two were jailed for 12 months, one was placed on a three-year bond and the other was given a fine.
The reality is, however, that deliberately lighting a fire in the Australian bush is akin to committing an act of terrorism in a city. No one can predict the consequences of that act.
Though the training in the NSW RFS is as rigourous as any for volunteers, the nature of fire is such that thousands of factors can come into play and any strategy can be undone ina second.
Proof of this was unfortunately demonstrated at Ebenezer the weekend before last when a fire lit on a farm under the supervision of the local rural fire brigade spread to Cattai and Maroota South near the Hawkesbury.
The firefighters failed to see that the fire they had started to clear a pile of poplar logs was still smouldering deep beneath the surface when they left, though they had apparently taken all precautions to ensure it was completely out.
The extraordinary winds managed to find an ember or two and fan them into life, creating the monster fire that eventually accounted for the destruction of three houses.
This should be a cautionary tale for all who live in or visit rural areas. Fire is not always obvious and while that campfire may appear to be extinguished to the best trained eye, it is always worth making absolutely certain that it is dead and not just dormant.
Fires can travel underground along root systems which act like slow-burning fuses.
The majority of NSW is now in a fire danger period during which penalties for unauthorised fires range from 12 months imprisonment to fines of up to $5500.
During a total fire ban, the same penalties apply but penalties for a fire that escapes and damages or destroys life, property or the environment can attract much greater fines and jail terms with maximums at $100,000 and/or 14 years.
These penalties still seem paltry when the risk of danger is so well known. Arson is a considered act, no matter what the mental state of the firebug at the time. It is an act of terror and should be dealt with justas severely.
Most of us don’t stand in the RFS front line, putting our lives at risk. For those who do, it is doubly galling to know that the fire they are fighting was lit deliberately for no good reason and that the idiot responsible will get a slap over the wrist.
ADMISSION: I am a member of an active RFS brigade and am dreading the long nights of anxiety the summer inevitably brings.