Australia — Do you reckon people would get Troy Buswells attention these days if they showed him how to save $1 billion? The new Treasurer is scratching to find every dollar he can either prune from Labors ongoing programs or defer spending until Doomsday in the face of WAs declining revenue outlook from the global financial crisis.
A group comprised mainly of former senior public servants thinks it can help him.
They say that if the Barnett Government returned to a system of prescribed burning of forest water catchments combined with some prudent tree thinning the planned controversial desalination plant at Binningup would not be needed.
According to their research, spending an extra $1 million a year on that system would improve water inflows to our dams by more than the plants 100 gigalitre output and would save its $1 billion capital cost.
The Bushfire Front is a voluntary group made up of luminaries such as former director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Bruce Beggs and former public service commissioner Frank Campbell.
Like many others in the group, both were foresters with an intimate knowledge of fighting bushfires in WA.
Frank Campbell was working for the Forests Department at Dwellingup when the devastating bushfires hit in 1961, raging for 41 days. A royal commission which resulted from the destruction of some 160 buildings across a series of timber towns enshrined the prescribed burning of our forests for decades.
But eventually a long campaign by environmentalists against the practice and the aversion of Perth residents to smoke blowing over the metropolitan area has seen prescribed burning fall by the wayside.
The Bushfire Front says that the subsequent fuel build-up in our forests is so bad that WA faces the prospect of Canberra-style wildfires that threaten lives and homes in Dunsborough and Denmark, in particular, and also a range of Perth Hills communities.
Mr Campbell says the lessons of Dwellingup have been forgotten.
With CALM going into the Department of Environment and Conservation, most of the old foresters have gone, he said yesterday.
The old stream of experience with fire has almost gone and those who have replaced them really know nothing about it.
Mr Campbell says the bushfire threat in the South-West of WA is as bad or worse than in 1961.
They have allowed the prescribed burning program to run down to the extent that they have got about 90 per cent of the forest not burnt for 10 years or more, he said.
And thats a design for disaster.
Add to that the fact that several years ago the government did away with the country Bush Fires Board and put it into FESA. FESA has never had the same communication with country shires that the BFB had.
The shires have tended to drop the ball and there is now a breakdown of the old volunteer system.
On top of that you have got this very strong green view of life in places like Denmark and Dunsborough. And these are the places where you would get the most loss of life in a big fire.
If a fire goes through there in the wrong conditions, nobody will get out. They make no effort to protect themselves.
Mr Campbell said both towns had many homes built on small landholdings surrounded by lots of bush and adjoining forests and national parks that had not seen a fire for decades.
The Bushfire Front met then premier Geoff Gallop in 2005. He gave them a good hearing, but said he would take advice from his department.
The problem is that the department is no longer competent to give that advice, Mr Campbell said.
The Bushfire Front also argues against the prevailing view that preventative burning cycles should be pushed out to 12 years to protect biodiversity.
There is just no scientific evidence to show that is the case, Mr Campbell said. That happens to be a philosophical view held by a number of scientists, so-called.
Some people are always going to see prescribed burning as not a very attractive outcome. Its like preparing meat to eat for the Perth market. Most people dont want to be in the butchering process.
The Bushfire Front points to a Water Corporation trial in the Wungong Dam catchment where it says thinning and burning every five to six years has indicated an extra 47 gigalitres of annual inflow.
They say that if this was replicated at Mundaring, Serpentine and North Dandalup dams, Perths water concerns would be over.
Interestingly, the Bushfire Front influenced National Party policy before the 2004 State election. That bushfire management policy called for an increase in the annual burning targets to overcome the current backlog.
The policy was highly critical of the fire-fighting resources of the Department of Environment and Conservation and of the preparedness of local government in country areas.
Labor (under the influence of green activists) oversaw a serious decline in the levels of bushfire mitigation and prevention work, plus a major loss of fire-fighting equipment from southern forests, the policy said.
It will be interesting to see if the new National Party in government still has the fire in its belly about the safety of country communities.
Maybe it can interest the cash-strapped Treasurer trying to find money for the royalties to regions funds in the claims of an economic windfall and ensured water supplies from burning catchment areas.