Burning issue that gave fire chief his political kickstart

Burning issue that gave fire chief his political kickstart

5 November 2006

published by www.smh.com.au

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia — It came as no surprise on Friday when supreme spinmeister Phil Koperberg, the Rural Fire Service commissioner, announced his candidacy for the ALP seat of the Blue Mountains being vacated by his old mate, Environment Minister Bob Debus.

But, as Debus mulls over his invitation to Canberra to try to do to the nation what he did to NSW, we can only survey the disastrous environmental legacy of their 30-year friendship and wonder how it all went so wrong.

Koperberg has presided over devastating bushfire damage, thanks to the pandering to the green lobby of his political masters.

Green ideology – opposed to any human interference with nature, such as systematic hazard-reduction burning – has increasingly obstructed proper bushfire management.

Debus, with his greenie mentor Bob Carr, has locked away vast tracts of NSW bush into national parks, allowing massive fuel loads to build up on the ground and fire trails to become impassable, with the inevitable result that they became ripe for catastrophic bushfires.

Eight months before the 2003 firestorm that killed four people in Canberra, Koperberg told a NSW parliamentary inquiry that widespread hazard reduction was “an exercise in futility” and damaging to biodiversity. Those fires, which began with lightning strikes in fuel-rich national parks in NSW and the ACT, burned for 10 days before becoming an unstoppable 1000-degree tornado that swept into Canberra.

Koperberg and Debus have been good at blaming external forces such as climate change and arsonists for the increased destructive power of wildfires.

But veteran bushfire brigade volunteers like Tharwa Brigade captain Val Jeffery know the real culprit is the cultural shift over the past 15 years in firefighting from prevention to suppression.

“Suppression has developed into an industry that has to have bigger fires to survive and expand,” Jeffery has said.

Koperberg’s cosy relationship with government has brought huge inflows of taxpayer and insurance company cash which have allowed him to build the RFS into one of the largest firefighting empires in the world. As the budget has swelled, so too has the bureaucracy, with a quadrupling of office staff in the past five years.

A new $7 million headquarters at Homebush Bay, nicknamed Koperberg Castle, has further centralised power.

Bushfire brigade volunteers who once efficiently managed their patch of turf were emasculated. HQ took away their autonomy and turned them into unpaid slaves forced to abide by regulations intended for office-bound public servants. Many became so disillusioned they formed their own rebel organisation in 2004, the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, led by president Peter Cannon. At first Koperberg dismissed them as ratbags but one of his last acts as fire chief was to meet the VFFA in Parkes five weeks ago and announce his official recognition, all a bitlate.

Koperberg has turned bushfire fighting into an expensive, risky and reactive process, relying on big equipment such as Elvis-style water-bombing helicopters.

As Snowy Mountains farmer and former MP Peter Cochrane told the Parliamentary inquiry into the 2003 bushfires, fires used to be fought by “firefighters on horseback with wet bags and matches, not with the massive equipment and communications that we have now”.

He said the RFS used to be “something through which volunteers not only protected their own property but, as in times of war, protected the properties of their neighbours. These people were not controlled by a bureaucracy; they were controlled by a will to protect their property and the property of their families and their friends. That is not the case now . . . I believe that the NSW fire situation is the victim of politicisation from all sides of politics”.

So, while Koperberg might lose his fancy uniform, he won’t need to learn any new tricks as the new MP for the Blue Mountains.

“Who could think of a better preparation than 21 years as the commissioner of the RFS?” said Debus last week. Indeed.

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