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Government Cuts Made Australia’s Summer from Hell Worse

May 29, 2020

Australia’s ‘Summer from Hell’ was exacerbated by a lack of planning, coordination and funding for bushfire services by all governments, according to the Australian Workers’ Union.

In a submission to the National Royal Commission into the Black Summer Bushfires, the AWU says an over-reliance on casuals and volunteer firefighters proved costly and highlighted the need for a significant funding boost into Australia’s full-time firefighting army with appropriate equipment – including the National Parks and Wildlife Service in NSW, Forestry Corporation NSW and Forest Firefighters in Victoria.

The AWU also criticised the Victorian and NSW Governments for failing to provide enough resources to undertake crucial fuel load reduction and has called on the Federal Government to supplement state budgets to ensure our firefighters are fully resourced and fully staffed in the future.

Daniel Walton, National Secretary of the AWU, said: “Every single Australian was touched by the tragedy of our recent Sumer from Hell. The intensity of this bush fire season was unprecedented. Seven million hectares of land were burnt across NSW and Victoria and thousands of homes were lost.

“Our firefighting members were hit hard from weeks on being on the front line. We expected far too much from far too few.

“It’s incomprehensible that we entered into the bushfire season totally unprepared and with vacancies across our national parks. There were enough warnings to realise this was bound to happen and the consequences of the failure to act were catastrophic.

“Our firefighting members are heroes risking their lives to save others – and its vital that we back them in with the appropriate resources.”

“With Australia’s bushfire season growing ever longer and our summers ever hotter, it’s vital we don’t waste any more time. We need to act now and we need our state and federal governments to work together and ensure our firefighters are properly equipped and have the numbers to do their job safely and prevent future outbreaks.”

The report draws on the AWU’s submissions to the Victorian and NSW government inquiries.

Key recommendations include:

  • The NSW Government must immediately commit to filling more than 50 vacancies across NPWS and further funding to employ 40 NPWS pest officers to help manage and protect endangered wildlife.
  • $200 million to be provided for the NSW Forestry Corp for a statewide tree planting program.
  • An extra $15 million to be given to NSW State Forests to undertake hazard reductions throughout the year and the creation of two specialist fire mitigation teams.
  • Introducing new techniques that will allow for all-year round hazard reduction by implementing indigenous burning techniques.
  • VicForests workers should be employed to undertake remediation activities including firebreaks and road and site clearing and there should be an expansion of land management fire hazard reduction practices across the state.

The submission also focuses on the lack of coordination and planning between the states and the Federal Government noting: “Lack of sufficient coordination between the states (and inter-agency) and the federal government is an obvious area for change to expedite hazard reduction and fire suppression. Too often the rather than ending up in a “blame game” of who is responsible for what. Megafires do not recognise state boundaries and nor should relevant authorities in planning for hazard reduction and fire suppression.”

The AWU says cross border coordination of systems, personnel and equipment needs to be a priority for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

One area to start focusing on would be the development of a proper National Aerial Firefighting Centre. “The current system where states are allowed to operate in silos and only work together in a reactive, piecemeal fashion is inefficient, unsustainable and unjustifiable. This would seem to be an obvious opportunity for the federal government to provide leadership in dealing with the current challenge. There is scope to develop a national firefighting aerial fleet with coordination by the federal government co-funded with the states.”

The Federal Government’s Royal Commission began this week.

You can read the full AWU submission here.

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