Firefighters' union leader: climate change and bush fires

Peter Marshall is the national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, which represents 13,000 firefighters working across the country. In the wake of the recent bushfire crisis in Victoria, he spoke with Green Left Weekly's Katherine Bradstreet on the current debates surrounding the connection between bushfires, climate change, and the environmental movement.

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What will climate change mean for firefighters?

Climate change is a big issue for firefighters. In 2004, you had the fires in Canberra that were catastrophic in terms of property and, indeed, loss of life. In 2006, you had fires in South Australia of a significant nature and, in 2007, you had them in Tasmania.

Here we are in 2009, and in Victoria you've had significant and historically one of the worst wildfire scenarios that we've seen in this state. What needs to be faced is the ever-increasing evidence that fires that were traditionally able to be contained are now in a super-heated environment and are resulting in the type of mega-fires which we've seen here in Victoria.

The federal government handed down a report to the CSIRO in 2007 that predicted that the 10-15 year event of wildfire that we've traditionally seen is going to become a more frequent challenge for emergency services and governments. The 10-15 year event will come down to every 3-5 years.

On a low-warming scenario you're going to see an increase of up to 231% of high fire danger days.

Fire services traditionally have used a number of factors for taking into consideration how they best protect the community when deploying resources and procedures. They have not taken into account global warming or climate change and that is one of the fundamental reasons there needs to be a rethink.

Firefighters go about their business in protecting the community. Our occupation is one where you enter into hostile environments, environments deemed to be unsafe for most people, yet firefighters are required as part of their work ethic to respond to that unsafe environment.

The very least that can be done is that the government do everything in its capability to ensure that that hostile environment, the unpredictability of it, is reduced as much as possible. So what we're saying is, the firefighters will continue to do their work, but we're asking the government to try to assist them by addressing these issues.

It's not just climate change that needs to be looked at, it's the urban growth. You have a dangerous combination of what they call the rural-urban interface — that is a science on its own as to how to best protect the people and community in that area.

It is also a science on its own [knowing] how to ensure that the constructions that are placed in that area are able to protect communities rather than become a source of fuel for the type of fires that we've seen and will continue to see.

Do you have any comments on the claims that it's environmentalist policies that are to blame for these recent fires?

No. The bottom line is it's easy to point the finger at the green groups, but the reality is that out of a whole year there's only potentially 12 days where you can actually do burning off and even then there have been occasions where that type of fire prevention has gone horribly wrong, where houses have been lost.

So it's wrong to point the finger at the green groups, it's simply wrong. What really needs to be looked at is the structure of the fire services, you need to have a look at the building code of Australia. Sure, we need to have a look at that urban-rural interface, in the context of making sure that there isn't a huge load of fuel there, but at the end of the day, the opportunistic attempt to blame this devastation on green groups should simply be rejected. It's not even factual.

How well-equipped are the fire services at the moment, to deal with the increased frequency and severity of fires?

There needs to be a stocktake of all the fire services, not just here in Victoria, there needs to be a national approach. Whether you're in Queensland, whether you're in Western Australia, whether you're in South Australia or Victoria, the reality is that rather than all fire services each doing their own thing, there needs to be a federal body that coordinates to determine whether the services are appropriately resourced and if their procedures are the world-best practice in the context of facing these new challenges.

Has there been much discussion about how firefighters will approach the proposed Royal Commission?

We've formed a working party and so far we've had 133 contributions from members as to issues that need to be addressed. We embrace the opportunity to submit those in a constructive way to the Royal Commission, to ensure that, if there were mistakes, that we learn from those mistakes.

The Age ran an article a few weeks ago, which reported that firefighters with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade wanted to assist with the fires, but were not permitted by the Country Fire Authority.

It's one of the issues which will come out during the Royal Commission. It's the fact that, essentially, you have three different fire services here in Victoria all with different legislative responsibilities, all with their own territories. One fire service cannot go into another area unless it is invited and those sort of barriers, we believe, do not provide an environment that is conducive to providing the best possible protection.