On Sunday, volunteers from my own Rural Fire Service brigade faced off against 70 metre flames in the Blue Mountains. Properties were consumed by fire but thankfully no life was lost. This mega-blaze at Gospers Mountain, where I have spent several 16-hour shifts, has been raging for weeks and burned more than 380,000 hectares. There are 117 bushfires blazing in NSW alone and we face extreme heat by the end of the week.
By Greg Mullins
The Prime Minister has urged everyone to calm down about bushfires raging through NSW, Queensland, and now WA. He has said that he can recall as a boy seeing Sydney surrounded by bushfire smoke haze, and that for children, or anyone who hadn’t experienced it before, it was “deeply troubling”.
But the experiences I describe here are nothing like the Prime Minister’s recollections of yesteryear. The fires we are battling today started earlier, burn more intensely, have destroyed more homes and covered more ground than anything we’ve seen before in NSW. Fact, not opinion. Seasoned firefighters have felt overwhelmed by what they’ve seen, and exhaustion has become a way of life. Fear and anxiety among the population grows daily as fires advance.
The Prime Minister has said he takes advice from fire chiefs and will provide any assistance that is requested. However, his government continues to sit on a business case, more than 12 months old, pleading for more money to lease large firefighting aircraft. Last week’s funding announcement has been confirmed as simply a one-off. On Sunday, just before fire escalated in the Blue Mountains, the large 737 air tanker headed over to Perth to assist. An example of something my retired fire chief colleagues and I warned about – not enough aircraft to cover simultaneous, longer fire seasons.
“The fires we are battling today started earlier, burn more intensely, have destroyed more homes and covered more ground than anything we’ve seen before in NSW. Fact, not opinion.”
I’m glad the Prime Minister values the work of the brave men and women around the country, paid and volunteer, who face the flames. But firefighters and many others who work on the frontline have been warning that climate change is having a devastating impact. Prolonged drought, tinder-dry bush and extreme heat coupled with longer, overlapping fire seasons has made Australia an even more dangerous place.
In the face of this, the leadership vacuum and misinformation has been astounding.
Outside of Australia, we have become an international pariah. In Madrid the world heard with disbelief our government’s refusal to address the causes of climate change, while watching our bushfire catastrophe unfold. They saw images on their screens of our country burning, of parched land, dried waterways, burnt wildlife and frightened citizens. They must be asking themselves – as I do – what will it take to get our government to wake up to the climate emergency?
If I could, I would gladly take Mr Morrison and his cabinet to the frontline of one of these bushfires to experience for themselves what we are going through. Would that move him? Would he begin to understand the enormity of what this country is now facing due to years of failure to address the causes of climate change?
The Prime Minister has repeatedly declined requests to meet with representatives of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, but instead referred former fire chiefs to ministers Littleproud and Taylor. There are things we wanted to ask the Prime Minister to do, but we now realise that we must try to fill the leadership vacuum ourselves. Thankfully, we’re not alone. On Monday, 22 health and medical groups called on the Federal and NSW governments to respond to the public health emergency created by the ongoing air pollution from bushfire smoke.
The Federal Government’s failure to address climate change will increasingly place Australian lives and property in danger. As more people raise their voices to demand Federal Government action, I hope that the movement for change becomes irresistible.
If the Prime Minister really wants to restore calm, then he needs to step up and show leadership. A national, co-ordinated response to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, and a policy framework that will drastically reduce greenhouse emissions is now imperative. We owe it to future generations, and to those who are suffering loss right now.
Greg Mullins is a former commissioner NSW Fire and Rescue and founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.
First published at the Sydney Morning Herald – Tuesday 17 December 2019. See; https://www.smh.com.au/national/come-with-me-to-the-mega-blaze-scott-morrison-and-see-what-we-re-up-against-20191216-p53kcp.html
See also “Hugely disappointed Emergency Chiefs to hold bushfire summit with or without PM.” See; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/17/hugely-disappointed-emergency-chiefs-to-hold-bushfire-summit-with-or-without-pm