Environment, Water and Natural Resources Department Fire Management

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 14:50 :06 ): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation questions about controlled burns conducted by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

Leave granted.

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: On Sunday 18 October this year, DEWNR conducted a controlled burn in the Warren Conservation Park between Williamstown and the SA Water land surrounding the Warren Reservoir. The local weather on the day of the controlled burn was 25.1°Celsius maximum, with only 0.2 millimetres of rain for the whole day. The forecast temperature for Monday 19 October was 34°Celsius. Concerned residents saw the fire late on that Sunday afternoon and called 000. They were advised by the operator that DEWNR was conducting a controlled burn. However, the residents were unable to find advice of this on the CFS web page.

Upon further investigation, the reason for this burn was not listed on the CFS website. The residents were advised that the CFS was not informed by DEWNR that it was taking place. As the so-called controlled burn progressed overnight, the fire subsequently required volunteer firefighters from the Williamstown CFS to assist DEWNR firefighters in controlling the burn on 19 October in hot temperatures. My questions are:

1.What was the specific purpose of the controlled burn on that day and the reasoning for the timing selected, and what planning did DEWNR conduct prior to engaging in the burn, particularly relating to the forecast of hot weather for the following day?

2.Why was the CFS not advised of the controlled burn?

3.At what stage on Monday 19 October did DEWNR take the decision to call out local CFS volunteers?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:52 :31 ): [ I thank the honourable member for his most important questions, although I do have a different version of events surrounding that prescribed burn which I will come to shortly. By way of background, DEWNR (Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources) is responsible for fire management activities on public land that is under my care and control which is aimed at mitigation and the impact of bushfires. These lands, in total, cover about 23 per cent of the state. DEWNR also plays a major role, as I have indicated before in this chamber, in supporting the South Australian Country Fire Service in response to bushfire emergencies right across the state.

The key component of DEWNR's fire management activities is the delivery of an annual rolling program to prescribed burning. This prescribed burning program aims to reduce fuels in strategic locations on public lands in an attempt to reduce the impact of bushfires on life, property and the environment. The importance of prescribed burns was reinforced in January of this year during the Sampson Flat bushfire. I think I might have alluded to that in this place previously as well.

I have been advised that analysis and fire intensity mapping on both the 2014 Bangor and the 2015 Sampson Flat fires demonstrated that prescribed burns played a pivotal role in modifying bushfire behaviour and the subsequent spread of the fire. These fuel-reduced areas provide buffers for firefighters who are then able to gain tactical advantages during bushfire events, whilst also providing refuge for wildlife during and in the period of recovery after a bushfire. I have mentioned before DEWNR's brigade; I will not cover that in any great detail right now.

In terms of prescribed burns, they are done in a very considered manner. They are done based on a very prescribed amount of forward planning, and the program has changed quite significantly over the last decade or so. DEWNR has developed comprehensive fire management plans for public lands. These plans are risk based and provide the strategic direction to mitigate the risk that bushfire poses to life, property and the environment.

There are 15 fire management plans and one fire management strategy that has been released right across the state, covering approximately 52 per cent of parks and reserves managed by DEWNR—that is about 186 parks and reserves. The South Para fire management plan developed by three land management agencies (DEWNR, ForestrySA and SA Water together with the CFS) was scheduled to be released this year, but much of that planning was impacted by the Sampson Flat bushfire and the release of that plan has been delayed somewhat; we are now doing a review of the plan before a decision on how to proceed is reached.

A further two fire management plans are currently being developed. These plans will cover the northern Flinders Ranges and the Dudley Peninsula on Kangaroo Island. We are progressively working our way through our landholdings. Obviously, we are starting with the riskiest areas and working down the list.

Since 2002, the fire management operating budget has increased. I think it is just over $10 million in recent times, compared to about $400,000 in 2002, when this government came into office. Increased funding provided by this government has enabled the department to recruit and train staff in specialist fire management skills and to purchase and develop equipment, which includes the use of aircraft for undertaking prescribed burning and fuel reduction programs in high risk areas.

Since 2003, there has been a consistent increase in commitment by this government towards reducing the risks that bushfires pose to the lives and property of the people of our state. The number of brigade members in the DEWNR brigade has increased year by year, from about 300 in 2003-04 to more than 540 currently. The number of firefighting appliances and support vehicles, such as large trucks, small fire units, bulk water carriers, command vehicles, logistics vehicles and others used for different fire ground roles has increased to 115 in 2015, and DEWNR's budget for the training of firefighters has more than doubled, from $92,000 in 2003-04 to $241,000 in 2015-16.

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins interjecting:

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: The honourable member is rather agitated about the response, but it is important to put on the record the complexity around firefighting and mitigation of fires in this state. It is easy for members of the Liberal opposition to come in here and make outrageous claims based on the flimsiest of information, pretending that there is some outrage that needs to be addressed. They have no comprehension of the amount of planning that is undertaken in preparing for the fire season.

They have no understanding whatsoever of what the department goes through in terms of consultation, in terms of planning, in terms of a delivery of a prescribed burn in spring and in autumn. They have no conception, and they are not even interested—not interested. All they are interested in is a quick headline to the flimsiest of claims, and at any stage when a minister tries to give them some serious background information they fob us off, because they are just not interested.

Nonetheless, I will persevere, because I am sure other members of the chamber are interested. DEWNR's budget for conducting prescribed burning has more than quadrupled, increasing from $120,000 in 2003-04 to over $683,000 in 2015-16. I am not trying to be political about this: I am not trying to point out the fact that the former Liberal government had absolutely no emphasis whatsoever compared to current times in terms of mitigation practices.

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins: How many fires have you ever fought?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: None at all, because I am not qualified to do so, but we have staff who are and we have more than doubled them, and we have more than quadrupled the investment in conducting prescribed burning.

The Hon. G.E. Gago interjecting:

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: As my leader says, she is very disappointed in me because I haven't conducted brain surgery either. Once again, I hasten to say, I am not qualified to do so, but I am sure there are people we can go to for the honourable member's answer to this question, whether it be a brain surgeon or not. I am not sure that that would assist him in any case in listening to my answer patiently and with a degree of humility. As I said, DEWNR's budget for conducting prescribed burning has more than quadrupled, increasing from $127,000 in 2003-04 to over $683,000 in 2015-16.

Members interjecting:

The PRESIDENT: Order!

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Mr President, I could go on. DEWNR's budget for employing seasonal staff—

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins: I hope we'll be able to hear when he gets to the Warren, eventually.

The PRESIDENT: If you would all be quiet, you might be able to hear it if he gets to the Warren.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Thank you, Mr President, I will go on. DEWNR's budget for employing seasonal staff for the peak summer fire period has increased from $800,000 in 2003-04 to over $2.3 million in 2015-16. DEWNR's budget for community education engagement around fire management prescribed burning has increased from $10,000 in 2003 to over $112,000 in 2015-16.

Since 2004 DEWNR has conducted 620 prescribed burns on DEWNR-managed land, treating more than 70,000 hectares of public land. More than 260 of these have been in the Mount Lofty Ranges, reducing bushfire fuel loads across more than 4,000 hectares of high-risk public land under our care and control. So, the government is committed to protecting our communities and reducing the risk of bushfire to lives and property, and the facts back this up, as I have just indicated.

As I said at the beginning, DEWNR only conducts prescribed burns when they deem it safe to do so. They take into consideration weather conditions, Bureau of Meteorology projections, fuel load calculations from the history of past burns and also on-site inspections. They take all of these things into consideration when making a determination and only proceed with prescribed burns when they feel it is safe and appropriate to do so.

In relation to the Warren, I understand that that prescribed burn was due to happen I think on the Friday before country cabinet in the Barossa. As was relayed to me by staff, because of course we could see the smoke on the skyline coming over the ridge, the temperature or the conditions over the weekend were not so conducive to burning; in fact, they dampened down the burn, and in consultation with the CFS they said that the best proposition for them was to continue the burn into the Monday and Tuesday.

As far as I am aware, that was the advice I had at hand on the Monday of country cabinet. I have not had an update since then, if the honourable member would like to pursue those questions. But I have to remind him: do not come to this chamber with flimsy accusations based on absolutely no evidence. If he wanted to ask me a question about this, he could have picked up the phone; I could have called the department and got back to him straight away. Instead he would rather come in here grandstanding, saying that he has information that will embarrass the government incredibly: my advice is that that is not the case.

 

Environment, Water and Natural Resources Department Fire Management

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 15:02 :10 ): By way of supplementary question, given that the prescribed burn was conducted in heavily wooded country, why wasn't the CFS informed? Why wasn't it on the CFS website if the minister says that the CFS had provided advice? I find that hard to believe.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 15:02 :30 ): I do not accept any of the allegations the honourable member is making in his question. I am not even sure that they are true at all. They are of course things that I will take back and ask questions about of my agency, but I do not accept for a moment that those assertions are based on any fact whatsoever.