explainer

How to have a conversation with someone who believes the bushfires are the Greens' fault.

In November 2019, as the current bushfire crisis began to gather momentum, Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce pointed his finger across the aisle of Parliament House.

“The problems we have got have been created by the Greens,” the former party leader turned backbencher told The Australian.

“We haven’t had the capacity to easily access [hazard] reduction burns because of all of the paperwork that is part of green policy.”

Watch: This is what it’s like inside a NSW RFS truck. Post continues below.

Video by NSW RFS

It’s a persistent argument being slung around as the disaster has unfolded; a disaster that, so far, has claimed 25 lives, thousands of homes and close to 10 million hectares of land in the eastern states.

The argument, which has largely been championed by conservative media commentators, suggests that ‘Greenie’ MPs and officials prevented hazard-reduction activity prior to the bushfire season, in an effort to protect native plants and animals. This, the commentators claim, allowed fuel loads (such as leaf litter, grasses, shrubs etc.) to build up and thereby resulted in the current fires being more severe than they would otherwise have been.

But according to experts in the field — including key scientists, former national parks bosses and fire service chiefs — it’s simply not true.

Let’s break down the argument, so you can have an effective conversation with someone who raises it.

‘The Greens got in the way of hazard-reduction burning.’

This isn’t true.

As a minor party at state and federal level, not only are the Greens not in a political position to enforce such policy, they don’t hold it in the first place. As they assert in a statement via their website: “The Australian Greens support hazard reduction burning (before bushfire season) to reduce the impact of bushfire when guided by the best scientific, ecological and emergency service expertise.”

https://twitter.com/ShoebridgeMLC/status/1214069074721853440

Besides, even if the Greens had the power and inclination to step in, it wouldn’t be that simple. In NSW (the state at the core of the argument), hazard reduction activity is governed by a Bush Fire Coordinating Committee, which is chaired by the Rural Fire Service and includes farming, forestry and conservation bodies as well as representatives from relevant state and local government departments.

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On Wednesday, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons assured the public that, when it comes to planning hazard-reduction burning, human lives come well ahead of conservation.

“We are not environmental bastards, we actually work through a sensible, environmental regime,” he told ABC News Breakfast.

“Our priorities are life, property and that environment ranks third.”

‘Well, we aren’t doing as much hazard reduction as before.’

This is also untrue.

The target for hazard reduction activity was increased in 2017 under the NSW Enhanced Bushfire Management Program to 135,000 hectares of bushland each year. And that target was exceeded in 2018 and 2019.

Over the previous five years of the program, from 2011, the National Parks and Wildlife Service alone conducted hazard reduction burns covering more than 680,000 hectares on NSW parks and reserves. That’s more than double the total carried out in the five years before that.

These burns are planned well in advance according to a lot of complicated factors, and state fire authorities don’t deny that there have been disruptions to the process. But they have pointed to unsuitable weather conditions as the key issue; not politicians or policy.

‘More hazard-reduction burning could have prevented this disaster from being as bad as it is.’

Not necessarily. Hazard-reduction burning is just one way of preparing for bushfires, along with strategies like land clearing. And there’s strong evidence that it’s pretty much useless in conditions like those we’re facing this fire season.

As experts in bushfire behaviour and management from the University of Melbourne stated via  The Conversation, “reduced fuel loads do little for bushfire mitigation under extreme fire weather and in times of drought.”

https://twitter.com/mikeletnic/status/1213934906293682176

Research indicates that in extreme conditions like these, fires are driven more by weather — strong winds, in particular — than available fuel.

This was clear in the aftermath of Victoria’s 2009 deadly ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires, which occurred during some of the most severe fire weather conditions ever recorded in Australia. A research team led by Professor Ross Bradstock of the University of Woollongong found that even in the areas where fuel had been treated with hazard-reduction burning, less than five years prior, it had no impact on the intensity of the fires.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the RFS has been seeing this first-hand in NSW this season. He told News Breakfast that vegetation is currently so dry that, even in areas where hazard reduction burns are only two years old, “we’re seeing these fires on these bad days just skip straight through it”.

“Hazard reduction is absolutely an important factor when it comes to fire management and managing fire in the landscape,” he said, “but it is not the panacea.”

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority’s chief officer Steve Warrington agrees. He told The Sydney Morning Herald: “Some of the hysteria that this will be the solution to all our problems is really just quite an emotional load of rubbish, to be honest.”

Featured images: Getty.

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