Federal Inquiry into vegetation and land management and their effect on the intensity and frequency of bushfires: Peregian Beach Community Meeting

Image via ABC

Background

Peregian Beach is located on the northern edge of the Sunshine Coast in South East Queensland, Australia. Peak bushfire season is in spring, unlike NSW (spring/summer), Victoria (summer) and Tasmania (summer/autumn). Bushfires also tend to be less severe than those in other states such as NSW and Victoria.

The 2019-20 Peregian fires were a sequence of four fires over a period of 5 months from September 2019 to January 2020, with the most dangerous starting around 4:30pm on Monday 9 September 2019 in bushland near Koel Cct, Peregian Springs. Fanned by strong winds it then burned away from Peregian Springs and towards the coast, jumped across the Sunshine Motorway and Emu Mountain Road before impacting Peregian Beach (in Noosa council) and threatening Peregian Beach (Peregian Breeze Estate in Sunshine Coast Council), Peregian Beach (in Sunshine Coast Council, south of Lake Weyba, “Peregian Acreages”) as well as other nearby locations (see QLD FES notices). Ultimately, although thousands of residents were evacuated only one house was lost and there were no fatalities.

Inquiry

On 5 December 2019 the Australian federal government’s Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy resolved to conduct an inquiry into “the efficacy of past and current vegetation and land management policy, practice and legislation and their effect on the intensity and frequency of bushfires and subsequent risk to property, life and the environment.” The terms of reference are:

  • Past and current practices of land and vegetation management;
  • Whether current legislation and regulation is in conflict or causes confusion for landholders;
  • The science and research behind activities such as hazard reduction burning, clearing and rehabilitation;
  • Legislative capability at local, state and federal levels requiring landholders to reduce fire risk on their properties;
  • The impact of severe fires on the economy in urban, regional, rural and remote areas;
  • The progress and implementation of mitigation strategies recommended in state reviews over the last decade; and
  • The role that emergency services have working with land management officials in managing fire risk.

The Inquiry is accepting written submissions addressing one or more of the terms of reference until 31 March 2020.

Meeting

On Monday 20 January 2020 I attended a meeting for members of the community impacted by the Peregian Fires, hosted by Mr Ted O’Brien MP. Ted is the Chair of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy as well as the federal LNP Member for Fairfax which includes Peregian Springs and the Sunshine Coast Council parts of Peregian Beach. Ted assured us that we were welcome to speak about related issues not specifically included under the terms of reference. The meeting was held under Chatham House rules so that everyone could speak openly (this means the information disclosed during the meeting may be reported by those present, but the source may not be identified). Future official proceedings of the committee will be documented and reported via the Hansard. One of Ted’s team members, Julia, was present to take notes in order to capture the high level content of concerns. I also took brief notes and this is my recollection of what was said, through the filter of my own priorities!

As well as Ted and Julia, 11 members of the community (including myself) were present, representing Peregian Springs and Peregian Beach village. Impacts experienced ranged from the low end (me – evacuating early despite no imminent danger and following events online as they unfolded) to those who were directly in the line of fire and were evacuated via police door knocking due to an immediate threat to their lives.

The format of the meeting was a roundtable discussion, with everyone taking a turn to recount their experiences and discussing the challenges during and after the fires.

Major issues

There seemed to be broad agreement on several major issues which were reiterated by several participants:

  • Information & Communication: Lack of clear, accurate, timely communication was a major problem.
    The fires were unprecedented and unexpected. Many people were unaware of the threat even as they were in the direct path of the fire.
    Media and non-locals seemed confused about nomenclature of locations with numerous place names of quite different locations containing “Peregian”. This made announcements and news reports confusing for locals trying to decide whether or not they were at risk.
    Misinformation was spread via traditional and social media.
    ABC Sunshine Coast Radio was covering the Gold Coast fires at the same time. They did not seem to have sufficient resources/awareness to quickly switch coverage to the local emergency. Anecdotally, not many people listen to ABC Radio, the national emergency broadcaster, and are unaware that this is meant to be the authoritative source of information.
    People were unfamiliar with the wording of the QFES warnings and these were convoluted and confusing.
    Peregian Springs and Peregian Beach have notoriously bad mobile phone reception and this became completely unavailable for many residents on the morning of Tue 10 Sep, possibly due to mobile bandwidth being reserved for emergency services personnel.
  • Evacuation
    Escape routes. There are limited roads out of the affected areas and in particular, there is only one way through Peregian Beach village (David Low Way) with exits north and south. It will be vitally important to protect the north exit via Marcus Beach creek from coastal inundation/erosion due to climate change.
    There were roadworks taking place on the evacuation route, with the crew refusing to discontinue work.
    A lot of congestion. On occasion, people already on the road were not letting others out of driveways
  • Support
    Immediate support in the aftermath was great but it’s also needed now, 5 months later and there’s nothing available or publicised. Many stories of mental health effects being worse now than in the days following the event and in some cases very significant issues.
    Also concern for well-being of emergency personnel working incredibly long hours, and in the case of police officers no respiratory protection with stories of officers exposed up to 72 hours, with their helmets filling with smoke and forcing them to reinhale particulates (because their helmets contain their communications equipment).
  • Heroes
    The fire fighters and police were absolute heroes and without them (and the community looking out for each other) there would have been fatalities. Police lights were vital for being able to find the way in the black smoke. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable and reliant on the community to look out for them (they might be unaware of the situation, need help evacuating etc). Police & RFS did their best under extremely difficult circumstances which were exacerbated due to their lack of local knowledge.
  • Action Needed
    We don’t need another royal commission, there is already plenty of information out there from previous inquiries etc. We need to get on with using it. We also need to be ready for the start of the next fire season in 7 months (August).

Other issues mentioned more briefly

  • People park on fire hydrants – need barriers to prevent this, a fine afterwards is not effective for prevention.
  • Some residents have views over bushland that gives them much greater awareness of fire location and movement. They act as a source of information for the local community (eg “can you see where the fire is”) and also an early warning system (“I’ll leave when you leave”).
  • Interest in land management practices by traditional custodians. Is that knowledge still present? Can we access it? Is it still appropriate with the different conditions we are experiencing now due to climate change?
  • Traditionally bush fires are not a major threat and Queensland is better prepared for storms, floods and cyclones. NSW and Vic are far better prepared. What can we learn from them?
  • We have incredible technology but are not using it effectively: satellites, sensors, machine learning etc
  • We don’t have nearly enough firefighters. Some lifesaving volunteers are willing to devote time to volunteer for firefighting but we need more permanent firefighters.
  • Fuel load reduction – who can do this, and when? Firefighters are exhausted/unavailable after long fire fighting season and appropriate periods for burns are becoming shorter/occurring less frequently.
  • Concerns about federal funding for states being for recovery not mitigation/prevention.
  • Arson will probably continue to be a factor, how can we address this? (Note – police allege that the Peregian fires were started by arson and the matter is before the courts)

Suggestions

  • Leverage local/community knowledge to develop emergency response/evacuation plans. Council to develop plans through community consultation. Send those up the chain of command when they are finalised, so that they are accessible when an emergency occurs, and can be disseminated down the chain of command to emergency personnel attending from other areas.
  • Updated training for emergency services personnel, in particular with reference to local matters.
  • Develop clear place names for use in warnings etc. Nominate one authoritative source of information with a direct line to the QFES.
  • Proactive outreach from community organisations to affected people over the following months (at least), “checking in” rather than expecting people to find out who to contact and actually do it.
  • Global donations for NSW RFS – can they be used towards early detection, communication systems that can then be shared throughout Australia not just used in NSW?
  • Can we make mobile phone infrastructure more resilient?
  • Can natural disaster recovery funding given to local communities by federal government be used for mitigation if recovery has been addressed?

Conclusion

My personal feeling is that the federal government’s response to the bushfire crisis has been very similar to its response to the climate emergency: disorganised and reactive, too little too late, with no leadership or plan for the future. There still seems to be factional in-fighting around issues as basic as accepting the science and the need to do more to lower actual emissions. With rapid global changes and divestment from coal, we’re facing a coming economic disaster if we continue to prop up our economy with fossil fuels. We’re on the path to becoming international pariahs which will damage not only trade but tourism and education, which rely heavily on overseas consumer sentiment.

I’d like to thank Ted for taking the time to listen to the concerns of the Peregian community and I hope he will become one of the “modern Liberals” and champion real emission reductions through a clear plan with immediate, measurable actions.

Otherwise Australia will be the last one holding a lump of coal when the music stops.

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