Parkland bushfire disaster

Parkland bushfire disaster

28 December 2006

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Australia — NSW is facing a massive increase in bushfire risk because the State Government has created two million extra hectares of parkland but hired just one extra ranger to fight fires.

In the Blue Mountains, where fires have already threatened several townships in recent weeks, there are just 15 emergency staff covering 250,000ha. Workers say they need 50.

Internal documents obtained by The Daily Telegraph reveal parks and forestry officers are barely coping with the demands of tackling remote fires – while the Opposition’s plan to slash 20,000 public service jobs could literally wipe out townships.

“It means fires will get worse, there’s no doubt about that,” a senior National Parks ranger said.

“If you don’t have the people to do the rapid response the fires could come out of a park and take out a village.”

Forestry workers have also warned that a difficult bushfire season could end in disaster.

“Over the past fire seasons one of the most notable impacts was in staff availability to conduct fire suppression duties,” a planning officer said in one staff survey.

“Had the fire season been more intense, core duties would have suffered.”

Parks and forestry workers are the first line of defence against bushfires – responsible for spotting outbreaks and tackling remote fires before they spread to populated areas.

The survey, conducted by the Public Service Association, also found forestry officers no longer had time for fire trail maintenance or the servicing of tankers and 4WDs.

Scientific analysis predicts a 25 per cent increase in bushfire risk by 2050 but public service job freezes and proposed cuts by the Opposition mean there could be fewer firefighters on the frontline.

National Parks and Wildlife Service figures show the size of national parks and reserves has leapt from 4.5 million hectares in 1997 to 6.5 million hectares last year.

The number of rangers has been increased by only one – from 255 to 256 – and even this was a cut of four positions from 2003.

The Opposition plan to cut 20,000 jobs would mean 300 would be lost from the Department of Environment and Conservation if applied across the board.

While the Government and the Opposition have pledged not to cut frontline workers, those at the coalface say that cuts to back-office staff will have the same effect as firefighters become bogged down in paperwork and administrative duties.

There are also fears over what is considered frontline or not.

A radio technician who co-ordinates communications and repairs for NSW Forests said firefighting efforts would be crippled by cuts in this or any other supporting areas.

“We need more people supporting what we do, not less,” he said.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Bob Debus said he was satisfied current staffing levels were adequate and National Parks had been given a huge funding boost this year.

Deputy Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell said the Liberals’ cuts to bureaucracy would free up resources for frontline staff.

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