Page 2410 - Week 08 - Wednesday, 29 June 2005

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I have been told by many firefighters with memories that reach way back that one of the reasons why there was inadequate hazard reduction work done before 2003 was that burns were consistently cancelled because of concerns about smoke pollution. Unfortunately, the same legislation and guidelines that govern the authorisation and conduct of burns have not been changed since then. I am consistently told by firefighters on the ground, firefighters from the parks brigade, ACT Forests and firefighters from the Rural Fire Service that the current guidelines are too restrictive. They have in the past attended important burns that were postponed or cancelled simply because the wind was blowing one kilometre more than was permitted in their burn permit or because the wind direction was such that the washing on somebody’s line might have a bit of smoke blown over it.

The fact that smoke drift from a burn may inconvenience someone, may interfere with their view or may blow over their washing line or upset their sensibilities is not a sufficient reason to postpone the burn. Not three years after the devastation of the 2003 fires, some people are already complaining about smoke pollution caused by hazard reduction burns. At the end of the day, the question boils down to this: are we prepared to put up with the inconvenience of a tiny bit of smoke pollution if it is necessary to stop half of Canberra being destroyed again? The opposition says yes. We have very little time for complaints about smoke. We would prefer to work for the safety of ACT residents and the firefighters.

Often volunteers have to put their lives on the line and fight fires where there are tonnes of fuel on the ground because they have been unable to conduct effective burns. The only criterion for halting a burn should be whether or not the burn has a real potential for public harm. For example, the burn might break its containment lines or the smoke might be so intense that there is a real potential for it to cause respiratory or health problems or other dangerous outcomes. That is the test embodied in this bill, and it is this test that should be applied by experienced firefighters on the ground with an appreciation of prevailing conditions and variabilities at the time the burn is to be conducted.

By way of a simple example, if the firefighters on the ground reasonably believe that smoke pollution caused by a burn could interfere with the visibility of planes landing at the airport, they might decide not to proceed with the burn. That is a reasonable approach to take. Or if authorities were planning, say, a burn on Gossan Hill and the smoke could blow over Calvary Hospital, they might decide not to burn because of the impact on Calvary Hospital and the childcare centre associated with it.

I should point out in fairness that the unseasonable weather that Canberra has experienced in the past few months has meant that many of the problems of changing weather conditions affecting smoke drift and the small window open for the conduct of such burns have not been present and land managers have been able to get on with the very good work that they do, and I congratulate them for that. Notwithstanding the unseasonable weather this year, the imperative is for our firefighters to conduct this important hazard reduction work without overbearing restrictions. I hope members will see fit to pass this bill and enable our firefighters to get on more effectively with the job of protecting our community. I commend the bill to the house.

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