The Rural Fire Brigades Association of Queensland’s general manager has described the state government’s review into the 2018 bushfires as ‘not cutting it with us’.
Justin Choveaux’s comments follow criticism of the government’s approach to learning from the fires from AgForce president, Georgie Somerset, who said the review would not cover the factors that impacted most heavily on their severity, as they saw it – lack of resourcing to adequately manage fuel loads in national parks and on state land, and vegetation management laws that prevented land owners from being able to control fires on their properties.
Mr Choveaux described the review being conducted by the Inspector-General Emergency Management as not a real bushfire review because its terms of reference made it clear it was only incorporating responses for the fires on the east coast, where there had been a disaster declaration.
“There have been a lot of fires across Queensland since August – Woolooga, Toogoolawah, the border country, the Arcadia Valley – this is not going to cut it with us,” he said.
Instead, he said his organisation, which covers the 93 per cent of Queensland where rural brigades operate, would “answer the questions they should have asked”.
“We’re not going to focus on the response; the rural brigades did a brilliant job, they kept coming back for more,” he said. “Instead, we intend to focus on land management, particularly Crown land.”
Mr Choveaux said the state government was a landholder like everyone else, with no special rights, which meant they had an obligation to their neighbours to do hazard reduction burns and maintain their land.
“In some instances the government is a very bad neighbour,” he said, pointing to road and rail corridors as well as national parks and reserves.
Its policy of adding to the eight million hectares of national park land, without growing the staffing necessary to maintain that land came in for criticism.
He said more people with relevant land management knowledge should be put on the books.
Coupled with that was the way politicians reacted to public pressure, citing the example of people drying clothes complaining of smoke from burn-offs.
“That’s the hard part – politicians are reactionary. It’s important for them to be able to weather the small number of criticisms,” he said.
Responding to Department of Environment statistics showing that in 2017-18 the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service conducted planned burns over an area of nearly 943,000 hectares, well above the original target of about 632,000 hectares and the highest amount in five years, Mr Choveaux said it was where you burnt and what needed burning that was important.
“The minister can’t just say, I did more of this so it’s more gooder,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Public service practices, such as clocking off the fire line at 4pm, will also be addressed in the RFBAQ submission.
Mr Choveaux said it was demoralising for volunteer firies in rural brigades being good neighbours and helping combat bushfire outbreaks in national parks, when park staff left as per regulations.
“They’re under-funded and under-resourced. Either you’re in the game or you’re not,” he said. “You either meet your legal obligations to manage your land – be consistent, honest and courageous – or scale down the land you own to meet the resources available, or stay as you are, and that’s not responsible.”
That wasn’t all he had to say. A tendency, he said, by some government departments to treat fire response units as a free resource that managed their land when an emergency situation hit, had to be stopped.
“You own the fuel, you own the fire,” he said. “QFES and rural brigades exist to support you.”
Mr Choveaux said he had a reasonable expectation that IGEM would accept the whole of RFBAQ’s submission despite it straying from the terms of reference.
“We’re also inviting landholders to contribute and we expect their submissions to be considered as well,” he said.
The RFBAQ received an email notifying them of the review on December 20. It had been promoted by natural resources minister, Anthony Lynham, on December 8.
A vigorous response from Mr Choveaux, describing the January 25 closing date as unacceptable, accompanied by vocal support from opposition fire and emergency services spokesman, Lachlan Millar, saw the final day for submissions extended to the end of February.
“Locals have only been given five weeks to make submissions and many have been busy preparing for cyclones or on Christmas holidays,” Mr Millar said in early January, prior to the announcement of the change in date.