Open letter from the Firefighters Union February 14th, 2009
We will be fighting more fires unless we tackle the problem’s source.
An Open Letter from Peter Marshall, national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.
DEAR Mr Rudd and Mr Brumby,
On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk and our readiness to meet future catastrophic events. The fires in Victoria have ripped through towns and suburbs, farms and forests, destroying lives and livelihoods. Ashen remains are the sorrowful legacy of the devastation they caused. Never before in Australian history have we been confronted with such destruction at the hands of fire.
Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events. Consider the devastation in Victoria.
Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a “low global warming scenario” will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days.
However, under a “high global warming scenario”, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for a massive increase of up to 221 per cent in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted as often as every eight years.
Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events. Something is going on. As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland.
Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk. Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Unfortunately, the scientists are advising that no matter what we do, a “low global warming” scenario is almost inevitable, and so we must make fire plans accordingly. Fire does not respect state borders and we need a national inquiry into the state of readiness of the country’s fire services to meet this century’s challenges.
Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the “low global warming” scenario of a 25 per cent increase in extreme fire days — and catastrophic fire events every five years — in major Victorian country locations in just under 12 years’ time. Likewise, when the scientists tell us that under a “low warming” scenario in 2020, Wagga Wagga faces “very extreme” events every two years, warning bells must surely be ringing. Climate change, however, is only one factor.
There are many other pressures on our fire services. As cities expand into formerly rural areas and “growth corridors”, many volunteer brigades find their new members have full-time jobs in the city and all the pressures of urban life, and therefore less time to devote to firefighting. These areas need more resources. And professional firefighters routinely perform duties from rescue to emergency medical response, and we are now trained to be part of the front-line response to any terrorist attacks: duties we are proud to perform but which will increasingly put us under strain as we respond to more and more fires.
The real question now must be whether the nation as a whole is devoting the resources it needs to fire prevention and suppression. We are gravely concerned that the royal commission to be set up in Victoria will have a narrow brief to investigate a geographically specific disaster. It cannot have the scope needed to provide an overview of Australia’s fire readiness.
Further, we want to ensure that it is not a whitewash, with narrow terms of reference designed to ensure political cover for the Victorian Government. The proposed Victorian royal commission should be folded into a broader national inquiry into the nature of Australia’s fire risk and our preparedness to meet that risk.
Consideration must also be given to massive new federal and state investment in infrastructure and firefighters. A portion of any stimulus package must go towards preventing future disaster, as well as rebuilding after the current one. Finally, now is not the time to play a “blame game” with respect to the Victorian fires. But at the appropriate time, we hope to be able to publicly air the concerns we have been conveying over many years to those in power about the state of readiness of our fire services.
A national inquiry would allow Australia to get to the bottom of what happened, but also to work out how to ensure that nowhere in the country will it happen again. We urge state and federal governments to make sure this tragedy wasn’t completely in vain: grasp this opportunity to develop Australia’s first-ever national approach to fire and rescue.
Peter Marshall is national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.