TRANSCRIPT OF SENATOR RICHARD COLBECK
ADDRESS TO INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM ON BUSHFIRE MANAGEMENT
MAY 1, 2014
Thanks very much for the introduction. I would like to welcome everyone here today, including our visitors from the United States and particularly those from embassies that are participating in this process. It's great to see such a level of cooperation occurring at this symposium. This symposium is something that I am really quite interested in, specifically because of my interest in forestry.
The delegation here from the United States is going to my home state of Tasmania in a few days and I know you will have a great time down there. It's a sensational part of this country and the world and you'll see some fantastic forests down there too.
It's because of my interests in forests, broader landscape management, and access to forests that I also have an interest in how they're managed more broadly and obviously bushfire is a part of that. But bushfire has also marked my time in the Australian Parliament. I started in the Australian Parliament in the February of 2002 which was right on the back of the intense bushfires that went through New South Wales in the summer of 2001/02 and we have in this last summer seen a repeat of that cycle. So how we actually manage that is a really important issue for us all in the context of how we manage our broader landscape.
I remember very vividly talking to firefighters from my home state of Tassie who came to New South Wales to assist with those fires and they told me the fuel loads were a meter and a half deep on the forest floor and how that was a recipe for disaster.
I remember the enormous wildfires that went through the United States in the early 2000s and the impact that had and how it actually started to change the way people in the United States thought about their forest management. I've followed some of the changes in practice that have started to occur in the United States, particularly closer to built-up areas, and there is now starting to occur some mechanical extraction from the forests to reduce the fuel load so that we can start to mitigate the impacts of forest fire. In the development of forest policy here in Australia I'm particularly interested in how we start to incorporate that into our broader landscape management.
In 2009 we experienced absolutely devastating bushfires in Victoria, where hundreds of people lost their lives and communities were decimated. At that point in time a number of my colleagues and I went back through previous reports of Royal Commissions and Enquiries into bushfires that had occurred in this country, back to 1939 where we had a significant bushfire event in Victoria. What struck us when we looked at the recommendations was how similar the recommendations of those reports had been. We discussed amongst ourselves how little it appeared that we had learnt in actually managing some of the issues and managing the fuel load was one of the key recommendations that came out in so many of those reports and it seemed that we weren't actually dealing with that in a way that was effective.
I remember ringing my uncle, who is well into his eighties now, who lives in Victoria and asking him about the bushfires and whether it was impacting on him where he lived. He told me that he was okay because the bushfires went where they normally go. The knowledge of those people who have lived through a number of cycles of fire and understand how it acts in those local communities is important but he told me that no one listens to what they have to say anymore.
During the bushfires of 1967 in Hobart, when I was young, I remember there was a ring of fire around Hobart and everything around it and the mountain burnt. That was a very significant defining event in my life as a child and I recall my grandmother ringing from Melbourne because the news over there had said that all of Hobart had been burnt. Now fortunately it hadn't, but a lot of it had and I have to say my fear is that Hobart is probably at great threat now because of some of the attitudes that exist in the broader community than what it was in 1967, if we got the wrong fire conditions in Tasmania.
One of the concerns that I have is about attitude change and changing the attitudes of people to accessing the forest for removal of biomass, for whatever end purpose, but taking fuel load out of the forest. In Tasmania it got to the stage where because a regeneration burn was seen as a negative thing as part of our forestry management practices, every time a puff of smoke appeared on the horizon the local talkback radio would light up with people complaining about smoke and talking about how bad their asthma was. It got to the stage where it was even difficult to do a fuel reduction burn because people obviously don't understand the difference. Those who were campaigning against the forest industry used every single opportunity that they possibly could get to rail against the industry and a fuel reduction burn in their eyes provided an opportunity no different to a regeneration burn. So they are some of the challenges we have here in our country and particularly in my home state.
The bushfires that occurred in Tasmania a couple of years ago actually started to turn that around because there were certain areas that were impacted that were saved by the fact they had recently had a regeneration burn and some of the activists had to acknowledge that. That was the start of the turning around in the attitudes in our broader community. How we manage our landscape more broadly is really important and with that conversation now starting to occur on an international scale it's important to discuss where does forestry, where does bushfire, where does fuel reduction fit into the broader landscape.
We're having an enormous debate here in Australia about whether we harvest our forests for timber products or whether we lock them up for carbon storage. The science that I've seen, and it's been confirmed here in Australia and it's been confirmed in the Unites States and nearly every other sound paper that I've read, indicates that if you properly manage a forest and account for the carbon that's stored in timber products over time you'll actually store more carbon than by just leaving it alone.
By leaving a forest alone you also end up with a build-up of, obviously carbon storage in the landscape, but to a fireman that's called fuel load. If you look at the ratios that relate to the fuel load versus the intensity of the fire they are all very well understood and that also needs to be managed.
So the concept of starting to manage your forests by using mechanical removal, particularly in areas that are more built up than some of the more remote areas, has to be an option because even using fire to reduce fuel loads can be problematic in those closer and built up areas. So we need a mix of management tools and I think discussions like this across different nations, which all have issues with bushfires and bushfire management, and considering all of that in a broader landscape management context, is really important.
I'm really pleased to see this symposium has been pulled together and I'm really delighted to have the opportunity to be here this afternoon, I'm really interested in some of the topics that are on the agenda. I would like to again add my welcome to everyone here from the respective countries. It is really good to see something like this occurring and the interchange between our countries. It's a long standing relationship and one that I see as being very important because we've got a lot that we can learn from each other from our various circumstances.
It gives me a great deal of pleasure to open this symposium and I look forward to catching up with you during the rest of the day, I will be here for the rest of the afternoon. Thank you very much for the invitation to be here.