The bushfire season began shockingly early this year. This is exactly what climate scientists are telling us to expect as the climate warms. And now in another devastating climate tragedy, 10,000 people have been killed by Tyhphon Haiyan in the Phillipines.
Yet Abbott and the Liberals tried to shut down discussion about climate change and weather, declaring attempts to link the NSW fires and climate change, “politicising human tragedy”. Yet Abbott was quite happy to make mileage himself, gratuitously courting media attention for his volunteer firefighting.
The link between climate change and bushfires is undeniable. The world is already warming: the Bureau of Meteorology says the year to the end of October was the hottest on record. Professor Will Steffen, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists explained that, “the likelihood of extreme fire weather has gone up over the last three decades or so. The bushfire season has also lengthened at both ends.”
Governments should be boosting spending to deal with this reality.
Yet as the fires destroyed over 200 homes in the Blue Mountains, the NSW government was cutting firefighters’ jobs and resources by imposing cuts on the Rural Fire Service (RFS).
In January RFS Association President Brian McKinlay slammed the budget cuts, declaring that, “Governments cut emergency services at their peril”. The NSW Auditor-General revealed that the RFS budget was cut from $307 million to $287 million in 2011-12.
McKinlay has explained that, “What it means is infrastructure items such as tankers and capital equipment and control centre [construction] hasn’t proceeded as in previous years.”
There are more cuts to come. Both the Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue in metropolitan areas face cuts to jobs and wages. The bulk of the RFS are already volunteer firefighters who take time off work to face fire emergencies. This means many are retirees, with a third of Queensland’s volunteers aged over 55. Cutting the few full-time staff will leave it even less equipped to fight fires.
The RFS has been told to reduce its wages bill by $12 million over the next four years—at a likely cost of 120 jobs.
As Fire Brigade Employees Union NSW Secretary Jim Casey told Solidarity, “The cuts escalate over a four year period. They will end up being an 8 per cent reduction in the wages budget.”
“At current levels of cuts management are meeting targets by temporary closure of fire stations when they are short staffed. At some point in 2015/2016 it will mean permanent job losses.
“The problem is not so much this fire season, but the next and ones after that. Once jobs go and stations close their doors permanently these resources won’t be available. Less fire engines available means delayed response. This means we get to working jobs later than we otherwise would expect to, which makes the fireground exponentially more dangerous for both us and the community.”
Abbott’s fire sale
But the state government is not the only one pinching pennies. Abbott’s federal government tightened the rules for disaster recovery payments to people affected by the fires, denying people cut off from their homes or without power and water for extended periods any payment.
There was further embarrassment for the government when it was revealed that the army had started the fire near Lithgow, the largest fire among dozens in the state that week, which destroyed at least seven homes and burnt for more than a week.
The army confirmed that a training exercise involving the detonation of explosives had started the blaze.
It has emerged that the military are serial offenders. The same week a live-fire exercise in Queensland sparked a grass fire on the Sunshine coast. On the Saturday before smoke bombs and simulated explosives started a fire at an army training base near Port Augusta in South Australia, burning for three square kilometers.
On climate change, as on properly funding the bushfire response, our governments’ heads are in the sand.