TERRY LAIDLER. Stop the Fires

Jan 16, 2020

The old paradigm we used for “fighting” fires has failed. The new paradigm has to be that we decide to “Stop the Fires” and the new question is not how do we contain or manage them or wait them out. It is: “How do we put these fires out?”

There’s a well-known joke about a tourist in [insert the name of a country] who asks one of the locals for directions to [the capital city]. The local replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. One thing has struck me clearly after the weeks and months of crisis the nation has been through and has yet to endure: when we talk about how to deal with that crisis, we’re starting with the wrong question.

The old paradigm we used for “fighting” fires has failed. The new climatic conditions that we have known were coming since Ross Garnaut pointed them out in 2008 are now upon us:

• the fire season is longer, and consequently

• the time to prepare for it is shorter; and

• the fires are more intense and destructive.

The new paradigm has to be that we decide to “Stop the Fires” and the new question is not how do we contain or manage them or wait them out. It is: “How do we put these fires out?” To do so will be costly. But so is the cost of lives lost, people injured, fire-related health and mental health damage, properties and livelihoods destroyed, and our native flora and fauna ravaged.

What would we do the protect our nation from attack by an enemy who could do as much damage as the fires have already done? Among other things, we spend hundred of billions of dollars on submarines and F35s, neither of which are likely to save a single Australian life! That’s the sort of expenditure it might take to be able to put the fires out. It might ruin the government’s much sought after surplus, but so what if it helps prevent more Australian families facing years of economic deficit and uncertainty such as those who have lost so much in the fires will.

I don’t support proposals for a Royal Commission. I’m glad that they are an acknowledgement that we need a paradigm shift, that “business as usual” won’t cut it with the new types of fires we are experiencing in an environment where climate is changing. But Royal Commissions are too expensive, they lock people into adversarial roles and take too long.

We need a political process instead, one that brings the country together for common action to respond nimbly to the new environment, not a legal process for apportioning blame, and making recommendations that have been shown historically to have too little political clout.

Whatever process is put in place, the first term of reference HAS to be:

1. How do we put these new, more frequent, more intense fires out?

It must be a joint enterprise with Federal, State and Territory governments engaged. And the climate change has to be a premise, not a subject for debate! What we do has to be about action, not spin. 10 years of inaction is why the spin no longer works. Those who told us that taking steps to reduce our carbon emissions or to adapt to the already inevitable change was alarmism or that we were responding to a false crisis — they were wrong. The crisis is here and not only do we need to act, we need to catch up quickly.

We have expertise in these matters, and we should assemble it and act on it. But as a minimum, we’ll need a series of prevention strategies. These will probably involve planning, urban design and maintenance activity at the interfaces of settlement and bush or forest. We need to know what the best (not the cheapest) methods of hazard reduction at the interfaces are, and when to use them. We need the regulatory structures to ensure they are used. Some of the other prevention strategies will involve safer infrastructure – undergrounding cabling for electricity and vital communications, roads and bridges that are fire-proofed, more access infrastructure that is maintained so that it can also serve containment purposes.

We’ll also need early detection systems. It’s self-evident that fires are most easily extinguished close to source soon after they begin. What would it take for us to be able to identify any wildfire within half an hour of its outbreak? A fleet of drones? Specially equipped and targeted satellites?

And then, the most important question: what equipment and personnel do we need to put the fires out? We shouldn’t be renting this equipment on a grudging basis or getting our personnel on the cheap. Buy the super-tanker aircraft, the precise delivery aircraft, the heavy land-moving equipment, the heavy equipment used to fight oil fires we need. Build the infrastructure we need to support and deliver this fire-fighting capacity where it is needed – water supply, dispersed bases, housing for personnel and their families.

Train the personnel required. Maybe we need a new branch of the ADF, the Australian Emergency Protection Service, with SAS type fire teams and rescue teams, a defence force that is funded to use highly developed logistics capacities to deliver equipment and personnel to any part of the country within an hour. Our specialist bushfire fighting service will also need evacuation equipment.

And we will still need to be prepared for the super-fires that develop despite our best efforts. We will still need better-equipped local firefighting services able to oversee the preventive strategies, to organize community responses as fires encroach and to deal with on the ground threats in settled areas. We very much need the promised Recovery Agency to minimize the longer-term effects of disaster survival.

Yes, I’m talking about a major effort of national will, effort and funding. Nothing else will let us put these new fires out and recover from them!

Terry Laidler is a psychologist and a former ABC Melbourne Drive presenter. He chaired the Victorian Road Safety Co-ordinating Council in the early 1990s through the Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot campaign that saw a paradigm shift in road safety in the state.

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