Thursday, 9 February 2023
Bev McARTHUR (Western Victoria) (17:38): (31) My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Emergency Services. 16 February next week sees the 40th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires. More than 180 fires fanned by 110-kilometre-per-hour winds caused devastation across 210,000 hectares of land, destroying more than 2500 homes. Livestock losses were enormous – more than 340,000 sheep and 18,000 cattle. 2676 people were injured, and tragically 47 Victorians lost their lives, with 28 further deaths in South Australia. The fires brought an enormous volunteer effort, with 130,000 firefighters, defence force personnel, relief workers and support crews. The anniversary is a time to pause and remember what we lost, but it must also be a reminder to redouble our efforts – a warning against complacency.
Bushfires in Australia have always been with us and always will be, but we must take action to reduce their frequency and mitigate the damage to lives and property they cause. Despite countless inquiries, commissions and reports, I worry the most important lesson has not been learned. At other times I have talked about various concerns, including overhead powerlines, misguided policies to lock up state forests and the assault on the CFA. But the biggest lesson has to be on fuel load reduction. From the point of view of land managers, it is the only tool they have, yet the fashion appears again to have moved against it. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission prescribed long-term annual burns over a minimum 5 per cent of public land, but this target has been watered down. As my great friend former CSIRO scientist and fire expert David Packham insists, even that 5 per cent should have been a bare minimum. We have failed to learn from the Western Australian example of systematic extensive burns, despite more extreme weather. Since 1962 they have had two bushfire fatalities; Victoria has suffered 312. What does that tell you?
In Victoria currently I am alarmed to hear of the efforts of local CFA brigades to undertake their vital and once routine practice of roadside fire prevention. No more can they apply for a blanket permit for the fire season. Instead, specific burn plans are centrally created and include severe, unrealistic, ridiculous conditions. So the action I seek from the minister is your assistance in helping these brigades. They ask me: have the CFA outdoor regulations regarding schedule 12 burning permits been changed? What can you do to fight the bureaucratic hurdles making these essential efforts impossible?