Firefighters union leader: ‘There are no climate sceptics on the end of a fire hose’

United Firefighters Union national secretary Greg McConville
United Firefighters Union national president Greg McConville. Photo: Paul Oboohov

United Firefighters Union ACT branch secretary and national president Greg McConville, together with representatives of the local Indigenous community, Farmers for Climate Action and The Greens, addressed the “Our federal government fiddles while Australia burns: Let’s put the heat under them” event outside Parliament House in Canberra on November 25. This is what he had to say.

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I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia's Indigenous peoples.

When talking about fire, Acknowledgement of Country and people takes on a special resonance. The effective utilisation of fire by Indigenous peoples to shape this country is well documented. 

Bearing that in mind, “paying respects” needs to be more than lip service. The challenge we face now is that following colonisation and settlement, we have radically changed the regime of fire management in this country, and we would do well to rebuild it.

Four years ago, on the eve of the Paris Climate talks, I stood here and urged that governments do just that.

In real terms, little has changed since. 

Rising bushfire risk

We remain on a trajectory that was succinctly summarised by the Climate Council two weeks ago: “The nature of bushfires in Australia has changed. Bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than in the past, and the risk to people and property has increased. 

“For well over 20 years scientists have warned that climate change would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia. This warning was accurate.”

The Climate Council made five key findings, which echoed similar findings in earlier studies:

“1) The catastrophic, unprecedented fire conditions currently affecting New South Wales and Queensland have been aggravated by climate change. Bushfire risk was exacerbated by record breaking drought, very dry fuels and soils and record breaking heat.

“2) Bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than in the past. The risks to people and property have increased and fire seasons have lengthened. It is becoming more dangerous to fight fires in Australia.

“3) The fire season has lengthened so substantially that it has already reduced opportunities for fuel reduction burning. This means it is harder to prepare for worsening conditions.

“4) The costs of fighting fires are increasing. Australia relies on resource sharing arrangements between countries and states and territories within Australia. As seasons overlap and fires become more destructive, governments will be increasingly constrained in their ability to share resources and the costs of tackling fires will increase.

“5) The government must develop an urgent plan to (1) prepare Australian communities, health and emergency services for escalating fire danger; and (2) rapidly phase out the burning of coal, oil and gas which is driving more dangerous fires.”

Extreme weather events

We are not only experiencing increased bushfire risk, but also more extreme weather events, which place an increased demand on emergency services, including fire and rescue services. Some examples of that extreme weather are:

Extreme weather events have led to a growing number of emergency responses by firefighters. Productivity Commission data shows that the number of responses by firefighters to “floods, storms, tempests and like events” in the ACT alone, almost doubled from 2008–09 to 2017–18.

It is disappointing to hear remarks, like that of the federal Minister for Emergency Management in September, that “climate change is irrelevant” to the response to bushfires. Longer fire seasons, increasingly unpredictable and changeable weather conditions, hotter temperatures and lower rainfall all combine to increase the challenges that firefighters face on the fireground. 

To make remarks of that kind is to suggest that a “business-as-usual approach” will see us through. Sadly, it’s the “business-as-usual approach” that got us here.

There are two things about firefighters and firefighting that need to be said. 

Leading by example

The first is that our members have a philosophy of “leaving the job in better shape than they found it”. The second is that, on their worst day, firefighters still give 100% effort and performance, because if they do not, people will die.

Politicians would do well to match the effort and commitment of firefighters in addressing the very real escalation of fire risks and the very real pain and loss that communities now face. 

The problems facing our political leaders require that, like firefighters, they give 100% commitment to leaving things better than they found them.

We have been pointing to these problems for some time. In January 2003, 160,000 hectares, almost 70% of the ACT, and a further 100,000 hectares in neighbouring NSW were burned in devastating bushfires. 

A study undertaken by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research in 2013 found that to deal with climate-related increased bushfire risks, Australia will need to increase the number of firefighters by between 67% and 83% by 2030.

The same study concluded that the ACT will need to increase the number of firefighters by between 75% and 96% over the same period: almost double the current number.

A 2014 Climate Council study found that heatwaves are now hotter, longer and occur more often, and that the number of hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years. 

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre sent a proposal on behalf of all states and territories to Canberra in 2017 for an annual increase of $11 million above its existing $15 million in funding, but they still have not received an answer. 

While aerial firefighting craft are highly important, they are not the only answer: with the Queensland fires several weeks ago, such aircraft were grounded by extreme winds.

United voice

Recently, 23 former fire chiefs united to bring their message to the fore: “It’s exactly as we predicted.

“We’ve seen records broken and the word ‘unprecedented’ used on many occasions.

“Fires are literally off the scale in fire danger in this warming planet.

“This is showing how climate change is supercharging the bushfire problem in Australia, and internationally.”

When you have fire chiefs and the union representing firefighters united on this issue, it gives great weight to the compelling message on climate change and fires and emergencies.

We say to the government that this is what you must do, and you must do it now:

1) Urgently work with state and territory governments to build greater capacity to fight fires nationally. That includes raising the number of firefighters by at least two-thirds by 2030.

2) Reduce emissions. As the Climate Council observed, Australia is not on track to meet even its dismal Paris target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. We have the solutions at our disposal to tackle climate change: we need to accelerate the transition to renewables and storage technologies, as well as to non-polluting transport, infrastructure and food production. We need the federal government to step up to protect Australian lives from worsening disasters in the future.

To those who, for whatever reason, do not agree with what we have to say about the impact of climate change on fires, we say this: The things we are urging be done will not hurt you. They will help you. 

Please listen to us — we are listening to you and our members are serving you in your moments of greatest need. Please, help us to help you.

These problems are real. The threat of climate change to bushfire risks is huge. The resource implications are huge. The need to act on climate change has never been greater. There are no climate sceptics on the end of a fire hose.

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