Fire Management Plans

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 15:21 ): Will the minister concede that the controlled burn in the Warren Conservation Park last year was certainly not undertaken when conditions were safe, that the minister's response to me recently, after some months, would confirm that that was the case, and that the website information was incorrect?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 15:21 ): The Liberal Party in this place just don't seem to understand the issues around prescribed burning. It's not surprising. They can't even pick up the telephone and ask their betters in the federal commonwealth parliament about who they talk to about what programs, for goodness sake! 

Again, the Hon. Mr Dawkins is learning very, very bad practices from the Hon. Mr Wade in terms of verballing ministers in reporting what was in the response. I think it might be better that he reads out what was actually in the answer, rather than verballing ministers. But, given his interest, let me start off and give the opposition a bit of a lesson. Every year, the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources carries out a program of prescribed burning which is part of a broader five-year rolling program. 

An honourable member interjecting: 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Settle back. The South Australian government is committed to its prescribed burning program because it has long been recognised as the most effective and economic way of reducing bushfire fuels on a large scale. In recognition of the importance of prescribed burning, this government has invested significantly in the program. 

Before we came into government in 2002, there was no prescribed burning program at all. When this mob opposite were in government, they had no prescribed burning program—none at all, nothing. Not only has this government created the program but we have also grown the program more and more every single year. Since 2003-04, we have more than quadrupled DEWNR's budget for conducting prescribed burning, more than doubled DEWNR's budget for training firefighters and more than doubled the number of DEWNR brigade members. What did they have when they were in government? No plan at all, no prescribed burning. They said, 'You guys can just go off and do it yourselves.' 

The Hon. K.J. Maher: How much did they do? 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Zero. The Hon. Mr Maher asked, 'How much did the Liberals do?' They did zero. In South Australia, the recent Bangor, Sampson Flat and Seal Bay bushfires have provided some insight, I am advised, into the effectiveness of prescribed burning. These bushfires have highlighted the ways in which prescribed burning reduces fire behaviours and provides firefighters with tactical advantages in containing fires. 

Fuel management is the only physical element associated with bushfire that can be manipulated in preparing for bushfires. I am advised that reduced fuel loads directly relate to reduced bushfire intensity. Prescribed burning may not necessarily stop a bushfire from spreading on days of heightened fire danger, but it will provide firefighters with a safer environment and earlier containment options when conditions begin to subside. 

DEWNR is responsible for fire management activities on all public lands under my care and control, covering approximately 23 per cent of the state, to help mitigate the impact of bushfires. DEWNR also plays a major role in supporting the South Australian Country Fire Service's response to bushfire emergencies right across the state. There is no doubt that DEWNR staff involved in planning and conducting prescribed burns take their roles very seriously, and I've got to say I am incredibly disappointed when Liberal Party members from this side of the chamber or in the other place go out— 
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: This side of the chamber? 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: —your side of the chamber or in the other place—go out and criticise these hardworking staff who put their self-interests and their lives on the line to defend this state, and all they can do is come in here and quibble about, 'Did you do a burn in spring or did you do it in autumn?' That is all the Hon. Mr Wade has got: 'Did you do it in spring or did you do it in autumn?' 

The program is carried out, as I said, by these highly-trained professionals with fire management experience and expertise. DEWNR forms the largest brigade of the CFS with 569 brigade members, including 367 firefighters, who can be called on at any time to attend bushfire incidents both on and off public land, as well as delivering our prescribed burning program. The remaining brigade members are also available for response, filling incident management support roles. 

DEWNR's fire management operating budget for 2015-16 is $10.3 million. This funding employs 94 specialist fire management staff, which includes 49 seasonal project firefighters who are employed for nine months of the year over the fire season to assist with prescribed burning and bushfire response activities. The budget also supports DEWNR's fleet of 84 firefighting appliances, comprising 51 quick-response four-wheel-drive vehicles with 400 litre capacity, 19 large trucks with 1,000 to 3,500‑litre capacity and 14 bulk water carriers. 

As part of the memorandum of understanding, an additional budget of approximately $1 million is allocated from SA Water to DEWNR to employ a further 23 seasonal firefighters and provide six additional large appliances for efforts on SA Water land. 

Under state government interagency arrangements, DEWNR plays a lead role in supporting and delivering fire management activities on other public lands, including prescribed burning and bushfire response. An interagency agreement has been in place with SA Water since 2005, I am advised, and a similar arrangement is in place with ForestrySA to assist in the delivery of fire management activities in the Mid North region of the state. 

The collaborative and cooperative spirit that has been embraced by these various agencies demonstrates the state's commitment to meeting the challenges of an increasing bushfire threat through the effective and efficient use of resources. DEWNR's prescribed burns program is meticulously planned and always includes a thorough assessment of the environment and any associated risk factors, such as proximity of other assets, wind, temperature, dryness of vegetation, and the geography of the site. 

DEWNR has developed and employs the latest technology and science available for the design and implementation of the program. For example, DEWNR has developed a burn risk assessment tool to assess the various risk elements and provide an overall risk rating for each burn being conducted. They have adapted a fire spread modelling tool, called Phoenix RapidFire, to the South Australian environment to predict fire behaviours and rates of spread to ensure that appropriate resources are allocated and that warnings can be delivered to communities. 

They have also developed aerial ignition capabilities which enable them to burn larger areas in a safer and more cost-effective manner. It is quite clear that every precaution is taken not only to ensure the prescribed burns are carried out with the utmost care but also only when it is safe to do so, because that is the best way to ensure the safety of residents and, of course, our firefighters. 

Alongside these technological developments, DEWNR has also committed to engaging local communities throughout the planning and implementation of prescribed burns. I understand that DEWNR has increased its community engagement capacity in relation to fire management on parks and reserves. DEWNR has developed and planned an engagement strategy and a schedule of engagement activities which target relevant stakeholders and groups across the state. 

Prescribed burns, as I said, can only take place when weather conditions are deemed suitable for the planned activity to be conducted safely and effectively. This means that, while burning is mostly conducted during the spring and autumn seasons when conditions are likely to be favourable, the number of burns actually completed is dependent on the seasonal conditions. I am advised that the 2015-16 prescribed burn program has been revised now that the autumn program has been finalised.

For spring and autumn, DEWNR plans to undertake 77 prescribed burns, reducing fuel across more than 9,600 hectares of public land across the state. This includes 13 burns on behalf of SA Water and ForestrySA, I am advised, which aim to treat more than 800 hectares. I understand that 43 of these burns are planned for the Mount Lofty Ranges, treating approximately 1,400 hectares of high-risk public land. 

This past spring was particularly challenging, given the early onset of hot weather from the beginning of October resulting in unsuitable conditions for safety and effectively conducting prescribed burns. For spring 2015, DEWNR completed 24 burns across 900 hectares of land across the state, including seven burns across 345 hectares conducted on behalf of SA Water and ForestrySA. Nineteen of these burns were conducted in the high-risk Mount Lofty Ranges, treating 433 hectares of high-risk public land. 

A number of burns that were planned for spring were postponed due to weather conditions being unsuitable or fire behaviours being too intense to manage the burns safely because of the dryness of the fuel. As prescribed burning is part of a rolling program, 10 of the postponed burns are now planned for this autumn season. For autumn there are 49 prescribed burns proposed to treat more than 7,300 hectares of public land across the state. This includes six burns across 270 hectares on behalf of ForestrySA and SA Water, I am advised. Of the 49 burns, 18 are planned for the Mount Lofty Ranges region to reduce fuels across approximately 620 hectares of high-risk public land. 

I am further advised that the proposed program varies from week to week as some burns are postponed and others are brought forward from the next season to ensure that the most appropriate burn is implemented for the weather conditions being experienced—common sense, Mr President. Common sense in practice, yet all the Liberals can do is complain, 'Oh, you didn't get to a burn last spring. When are you going to do it?' Well, we tell them, 'We do it when it's safe.' 

As of Tuesday 12 April, 20 prescribed burns have been completed across the state in 2016, treating more than 2,057 hectares of public land. Of these prescribed burns, 11 have been implemented in the Mount Lofty Ranges, reducing fuels across approximately 350 hectares of high-risk public land. 

DEWNR undertakes a number of these activities throughout the year to prepare for the fire danger season and help protect the state against the ongoing risk of bushfire. All activities are planned for completion but, as I say, they are always planned with eyes firmly fixed on public safety. We will always do it that way, despite the criticism of the Hon. Mr Wade, who totters in here saying, 'You didn't do all your spring planned burns.' That's because the season and the weather conditions didn't permit, and we only do those when it is safe. 

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins: Nine minutes; what a waste of time. 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: What a stupid question. What a waste of a question. 

Members interjecting: 

The PRESIDENT: Order! I call on business of the day.