Contradictory figures being bandied around on fire reduction policies could lessen the chances of a meaningful outcome to Queensland’s scorching fortnight, without an independent inquiry.
As rain eased the threat of the bushfire emergency last week, attention turned to its causes.
With evidence mounting against the efficacy of firebreaks on government-controlled land, the number of landholders affected by fires on state parks and forest leases, and queries about Operation Cool Burn, natural resources minister, Anthony Lynham tried to snuff out speculation with a press conference last Thursday.
He said the Palaszczuk government's vegetation management laws in regard to fire safety had not changed.
“You can still clear firebreaks, clear tracks, make sure your family home is safe,” he said. “You can also perform routine burning on your property to make sure the fire load is kept down.”
He accused the LNP of confusing the community, of scaremongering, and of playing politics with tragic events, saying the facts were that the government hadn’t changed its codes for managing fire risk in vegetation management law.
He also said firebreaks were still being maintained in conservation areas.
When asked about a decreasing number of hazard reduction burns, Dr Lynham referred to a total of 22,000 burns in Queensland last year without differentiating between those undertaken by landholders and those that government bodies such as National Parks and Wildlife might have done.
According to the answer to a question on notice by Broadwater MP, David Crisafulli, asked in Parliament in October, the number of hazard reduction burns attended to by QFES had fallen from a high of 3187 in 2015 to 2241 so far this year.
QFES couldn’t supply data on the hectares covered by these burns, but a Department of Environment spokeswoman said in 2017-18 Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service conducted planned burns over an area of nearly 943,000 hectares, which was well above the original target of about 632,000 hectares.
It was the highest amount covered in five years, according to the spokeswoman, who also said that since January, QPWS had undertaken 276 planned burns.
Dr Lynham’s assertion that firebreaks were still being maintained in conservation areas has been strenuously rebutted in succeeding days, particularly by opposition emergency services spokesman, Lachlan Millar.
His concern was with the management of state-owned land, which included grazing leases, saying there weren’t enough firebreaks or cool burns to stop fires getting through.
“Yes, you can put firebreaks in but you've only got to talk to people like Tom Marland about putting breaks in on state forest land – he couldn’t do it,” Mr Millar said.
Mr Marland has a 1600ha grazing lease at Gin Gin in addition to his cattle property and said the intensity of the fire that ripped through his property was a direct result of not being allowed to conduct preventative control fires.
“We applied for a permit to burn in December 2017. We followed up again in June 2018 and visited their offices three times in October,” Mr Marland said.
“We were advised that the permit had been approved but not processed. We are still waiting on the permit and a response.
“In October this year we received 4 inches (100mm) of rain. These were ideal conditions to do a cool hazard reduction back burn. We had a permit from our local fire warden and safely burnt our freehold country.
“We couldn't get a permit for our lease so didn't burn.”
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Mr Millar asked what the government had to hide by having a review undertaken internally by IGEM, or the Inspector General Emergency Management, rather than by a parliamentary inquiry.
“A department review is in-house – you’re only going to be talking to yourself,” he said.
“The government needs to allow firefighters, graziers, everyone on the front line to have input.
“Is an in-house review going to be made public? An inquiry is public and transparent, and it would have recommendations.”
State KAP leader, Rob Katter has backed those demanding a far-reaching inquiry be conducted to determine whether environmental policies by the Palaszczuk government were to blame for exacerbating the bush fires.
The LNP has proposed the terms of reference for such an inquiry, which it said should be conducted by the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, to investigate and report to Parliament on the effectiveness of the government’s bushfire prevention and preparedness activities after the 2018 Queensland fires:
- Analysis of fire reduction practices conducted on state-owned land and national parks including the maintenance of fire breaks and reduction of fuel loads;
- Examination of the appropriateness of funding provided by government to implement fire reduction practices in state-owned land and national parks;
- The effectiveness of the government’s native vegetation and land management laws and practices;
- Why there has been a reduction in the QFES Hazard Reduction Burns in 2017 and 2018 compared to previous years;
- The effectiveness and timeliness of government issued fire reduction permits needed by landholders to conduct fire preparedness activities;
- The justification for why the government has not fully implemented any of the Auditor-General’s recommendations from 2014-15 report;
- Consideration of the appropriateness of penalties for those deliberately starting fires; and
- Analysis of communication practices undertaken to provide affected communities before, during and after bushfire events.