Firefighter rakes govt over the coals

Firefighter rakes govt over the coals

17 September 2012

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Australia – Tharwa warhorse Val Jeffery will retire as captain of the local bushfire brigade after 38 years on Wednesday, hopeful of a new career as an ACT politician but still despairing about what he believes has been a serious decline in bushfire management in the territory over the decades.

A Liberal candidate for Brindabella in next month’s ACT election, Mr Jeffery intends to deliver a speech at the annual general meeting of the brigade on Wednesday in which he declares there has been a ”constant trail of political and bureaucratic failure to address the proper management of the bushfire risk to the ACT”.

”Particularly from the time of the bureaucratic [then Emergency Services Bureau] usurping of the independent Bush Fire Council role and the introduction of self-government. This vital protection of the community has been on a constant downward spiral from then onwards,” his speech read.

Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell paid tribute to Mr Jeffery but denied the ACT was in worst shape when it came to bushfire management and said the Bush Fire Council, chaired by Mr Jeffery’s son Kevin, still played a vital role.

”Everyone respects Val Jeffery’s contribution to bush firefighting in the ACT,” Mr Corbell said.

”It’s been a long and dedicated period of service as a volunteer firefighter. But times have changed and since self-government, it was inevitable, the arrangements for governance of bushfire fighting would change, and that’s happened under governments of both political persuasions.

”Have we learnt the lessons of 2003? Without a doubt. We have a comprehensive, best-practice strategic bushfire management plan. We undertake wide-ranging and extensive hazard fuel reduction activities every year.”

Mr Corbell said the bushfire council remained an independent statutory organisation that was charged with working directly with the minister and Rural Fire Service to give an independent analysis of the bushfire risk.

”I value its advice. In fact, it’s an important accountability mechanism for me in terms of making sure the RFS and land management agencies are doing their jobs in getting ready for bushfires,” he said.

Just four months from the 10th anniversary of the 2003 bushfires in which four people died and nearly 500 homes were destroyed, Mr Corbell said the ACT was bracing for a possibly dangerous summer but he was confident the city was ready for any threat.

There had been 234ha of prescribed burning, 376ha of physical removal of fuel, 8082ha of slashing and 7309ha of grazed land.

”I think we can proud of our efforts over the last 10 years and we have never been better prepared for bushfire,” he said.

But Mr Jeffrey has a different take. He lived through the disastrous 1939 fires which prompted the creation of the Bush Fire Council, comprised of members who came from ”the areas of those with most to lose” from a fire, such as landholders and forestry workers.

”The Bush Fire Council maintained effective and positive bushfire protection for the community for the next 50 years until the culture change of bureaucratic and political interference from the ’90s onwards until today took not only the ACT but most of Australia on a slippery slope of misguided bushfire management,” he said.

”It was recognised that the greatest risk to the ACT from bushfire was from fires originating in NSW to the west of the ACT.

”To mitigate that risk, the ACT Bush Fire Council secured a lease over NSW land in the mountains to the west for the purpose of fuel mitigation and bushfire control. ACT Forests successfully managed that work right through until the nose-dive into environmental stupidity that happened at about the same time as ACT self-government.

”The lease was relinquished and the fuel loads built up to the disastrous levels that accentuated the 2003 fires.”

Mr Jeffery was also critical that no one was ”held accountable or responsible” for the 2003 fires so ”nothing improved in bushfire protection for the ACT community. No wake-up call taken or heeded”.

He said the ACT had lurched ”from one administrative and management mess to another”. The Rural Fire Service since the 2003 bushfires had ”endured” three ministers, four commissioners, five chief officers, six deputy chief officers, four structure changes and five administrative heads, he said.

Mr Corbell did not deny those figures but said: ”In terms of leadership in emergency services, for the last four years, it’s been a period of stability and consolidation”.

The minister also said the ACT had an intensive education and media campaign to warn householders of the threat of fire.”We seek to remind and to refresh people’s memories and make them aware of why it’s so important to be prepared for a fire.”

As to the coming summer, Mr Corbell said fire authorities were waiting on a final assessment from the Bureau of Meteorology but ”the risk is certainly much higher than it has been over the last two summers”.

”There have been small grass fires in Gungahlin and Curtin in the past few days and that highlights we could be in for a typical hot Canberra summer and there is significant fuel growth on the ground, even with extensive hazard reduction activities,” he said.




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