Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr has taken the opportunity to commend the NSW Bushfire Inquiry in the Lower House this week, thanking the two authors of the report, as well as the frontline workers and volunteers who assisted during the bushfires earlier this year.
“Last summer we experienced bushfires on a scale not seen in our recorded history,” Dr McGirr began.
“In my region nearly half of the Snowy Valleys local government area was burnt. Lives were tragically lost, property destroyed and industries brought to their knees.”
Dr McGirr said that an important point made by the state Inquiry is that we cannot rely on old ways to fight the fires of the future.
“As our climate changes so must we and so must government and the way it works with regional and local communities and people,” he said.
“The report recommends strengthened accountability, especially across agencies. The report does not recommend creating a new structure for bushfire preparation and prevention but it does want strengthened the current structure of a State bushfire coordinating committee and regional bushfire management committees.”
Dr McGirr said that these recommendations will ensure that bushfire plans are up to date and involve the community, and where agencies cannot agree at a local level, the matters could be escalated so they get appropriately managed in time.
“It is not good enough that the ‘too-hard’ decisions are batted back and forth without a resolution,” he said.
The Wagga MP said that in future bushfire seasons he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what happened to Batlow when it was told it was “undefendable.”
“…the report notes [that hazard reduction burning] is complicated and in extreme fires may be of limited value. However, hazard reduction is critical close to important assets, especially around towns and communities,” Dr McGirr said.
“Places must not be told they are ‘undefendable’, as Batlow was told. This is about government working with and for communities. It is also about relationships.”
Dr McGirr said that communities within his Wagga electorate would welcome the recommendations about transparent land management, and the aspiration that “government landholders will be seen as highly desirous neighbours.”
“The report recommends government agencies managing land at all levels be the ‘best possible neighbours’. This includes maintaining fire trails, bridges, roads and communications infrastructure and undertaking weed control and hazard reduction. It means greater clarity around clearing roadside vegetation,” Dr McGirr said.
“I know many in my electorate would certainly welcome this and many would also welcome better communication and support for the community—not the RFS, who are fighting fires.”
Dr McGirr told the lower house that many farmers and landowners across the electorate “felt abandoned as they fought to defend their land and communities.”
Dr McGirr also raised concerns about farm fire unit integration. The Inquiry noted that there are no formal protocols for the engagement and tasking of these units, and Dr McGirr added that this was a recommendation of the 2017 Sir Ivan fire coronial inquiry, but the Government hasn’t responded yet.
The state Inquiry outlines that the RFS will make farm fire unit integration a priority for 2020-21, however Dr McGirr is concerned that this is “only a limited recommendation.”
“I strongly urge the RFS to work closely with, respect and support farmers, landowners and community volunteers. I will be watching the farm fire unit initiative closely,” he said.
Dr McGirr also told the Lower House about major telecommunication concerns that arose during the Black Summer bushfires.
“Telecommunications are absolutely critical in a crisis. Many of those most affected were left without communication for too long. Much of this was due to a loss of electricity,” Dr McGirr said.
“It is worth questioning, as the report does, whether our electricity network should be constructed on a ‘least cost’ basis. I ask: Has there been enough consideration given to safety and the cost of rebuilding an overhead versus an underground network?”
Dr McGirr publicly thanked all those who volunteered in bushfire evacuation centres, and said that in future bushfire seasons, more community members should be trained.
“I thank those who worked in and supported the evacuation centres, especially in my electorate. However, we can train more community members to help. I heard of many people who were turned away from helping because they had not been trained,” he said.
Dr McGirr said that there should be a one-stop registration for evacuees to streamline the process, and an approach that welcomes Indigenous people.
Moving on from the horrific bushfire season, Dr McGirr said it is important that we learn from the past.
“It is important to all those who lost their lives, to their families and our communities that suffered that we learn from what has happened,” he said.
“It is critical that our Government works with and for communities. I believe the report helps us to do this.”