Bushfire royal commission will fail if it does not recommend reducing emissions: Former fire chief

18 October 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au/

AUSTRALIA – Leading fire experts say they fear the bushfire royal commission will miss an opportunity if it does not address Australia’s carbon emissions when it delivers its final report next week.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue chief Greg Mullins’s submission on behalf of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action was one of more than 1,700 made to the inquiry.

The commission has until October 28 to deliver its recommendations to the Federal Government.

Mr Mullins, who is one of Australia’s most outspoken voices on bushfire preparedness, said it was essential the final report addressed the root cause of the bushfires’ intensity.

“They have already said that climate change drove these fires, set the conditions for these fires to happen,” Mr Mullins told 7.30.

“Therefore, we need to drive down emissions. If there’s nothing in the report about that, the royal commission has failed.”

The commission said in its interim observations, “Further warming over the next 20 years appears to be inevitable,” and, “Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense.”

But Mr Mullins said there was still a danger next week’s report could miss the opportunity to properly address climate change.

They are concerns mirrored in comments made by the NSW state Member for Bega, Andrew Constance, whose electorate was heavily affected last summer.

“We’ve got to be honest about climate change,” the Liberal Party MP and state Transport Minister told 7.30.

“The amount of energy that we have expended as a country, as a nation, on arguments which gone nowhere in terms of this issue, it’s got to stop.”

Mr Constance said the summer’s fire season could not just be defined as a bushfire event.

“It wasn’t. This was an event of global significance,” he said.

“You don’t have the largest wildfire in the history of the planet and think that’s normal … We should have buried thousands of people and it’s only sheer luck we didn’t.”

‘Cool your jets’: Emergency Services Minister

Mr Mullins, who has previously said he tried for months to meet with the Government ahead of last year’s bushfire season, told 7.30 “we weren’t listened to”.

Federal Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud told 7.30 Mr Mullins “should know better than anyone that the Government always takes the advice from current fire commissioners”.

“And his claim is disrespectful to our current fire commissioners in effectively claiming that they did not provide that advice,” he said.

The final report is expected to recommend a revamped role for Emergency Management Australia (EMA), the federal body responsible for emergency management coordination.

“The thing that we’re frightened of — and the fire agencies are frightened of — is that there’s a centralisation of administration and it just becomes a measuring, reporting bureaucracy that really adds very little value,” Mr Mullins said.

“It needs to be driven by the fire and emergency services.”

However, Mr Littleproud said: “Everyone just needs to cool their jets.”

“We don’t intend to take over the operation, operational management of fires,” he said.

He said instead, EMA could play “a pivotal role” in coordinating matters such as fire warning systems and hazard reduction burns.

“I mean, the states have really got to let go of some things in particular,” he said.

NSW RFS Commissioner Bob Rogers told 7.30 the royal commission’s recommendations would build on the lessons learnt last summer about cooperation between states and territories.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think fires are going to be managed from Canberra; they will be managed by state entities who have the statutory responsibility,” he said.

“But in saying that, I think there’s absolutely a role for the Federal Government and the coordination arrangements.”

‘What we need is a really landmark statement’

Fire ecologist David Bowman said his submission highlighted the complexity of the problem and the need to avoid simply investing more resources in firefighting.

But the University of Tasmania professor fears the royal commission will not lead to the rapid changes needed.

“If you look at some of the topics that the royal commission are touching on, you’re talking about everything from mental health, administrative reform, insurance, town planning, climate change, bushfire management, and pretty much everything in between,” he said.

“We’re talking about a massive program, and one of the major issues that is really requiring leadership — political leadership — is balancing centralising power into bureaucracies and empowering individuals and communities to take responsibility.

“And that is a very vexed issue.”

Professor Bowman said there was a real danger the royal commission would not recommend adaptations of a necessary speed and scale.

“[It] will basically be just kicking the can down the road a little bit here, a little bit there,” he said.

“What we need is a really landmark statement that we’re in a new place, or a new awareness … where we can actually see the sorts of changes that we need to get safe to coexist with bushfires.”

Key points:

  • An interim report from the inquiry said floods and fires were expected to become more intense as the Earth warmed
  • Former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins says he wants to see the inquiry recommend more action on curbing emissions
  • Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud says states will continue to manage the operational elements of fire responses
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