Two former fire chiefs have spoken to The Courier about their growing frustration with the national approach to tackling bushfires.
Both Neil Bibby, Victoria's former CFA boss, and Ewan Waller, the former chief fire officer of Forest Fire Management Victoria, expressed their hope that the recent devastation would lead to a profound shift in the national approach.
Both were among the 23 signatories - all former emergency services leaders - of a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison last autumn, calling for more action to address "catastrophic extreme weather conditions" and climate change.
In November, Mr Bibby warned of the "clear and present danger" facing the Ballarat region and huge swathes of the rest of the country. He says his frustration has grown as he has watched one of the most devastating fire seasons on record unfold - with months still to go.
"This goes back to March when we first raised the issue. Now we are playing catch-up," he said. "I keep telling people that the fires are just a symptom of a disease called climate change. Federal government has to take leadership here."
His words were echoed by Mr Waller, who said: "What I am looking for is national leadership, and to be bold and far-sighted... looking 20, 30 years out to how we are going to adapt and adjust to this new climate regime.
"I'm not seeing any signs of that and that's disappointing. It's testing the quality of our leadership.
"If you look at some of the good governments, like Hawke's and Howard's ...they worked within the electoral cycle but they also were statesmanlike and looked far and did some profound things.
"That's what I am looking for out of this - our leaders stand up and say it is a real challenge and rally us. The time is ripe for that. It will take some guts to do it."
TECHNOLOGY AND PREVENTION
While both emphasise leadership, their focus is on separate aspects of fire-fighting and prevention.
Mr Bibby stresses how innovation should be part of the key to tackling blazes. He gives the example of helicopters with infrared equipment to pinpoint hotspots after lightning strikes.
"We need helicopters up there immediately, not two days later," he said. "The days of waiting for a fire to come to you have gone, you have got to be in there and first attack and nip those fires in the bud."
He also welcomed the investment in the National Aerial Firefighting Centre. "They do a heck of a lot with the dollars they are given," he said. "They've just been given an injection of additional dollars for this year - that needs to be ongoing."
We're virtually walking away from the bush and saying 'the bush is going to get cooked regularly every five to 10 years' and we're going to put up with that'. That's completely unacceptable.Ewan Waller, former chief Forest Fire Management Victoria
Mr Waller, meanwhile, raises the topic of fuel and land management, a subject he acknowledges is "politically fraught" - much to his personal frustration.
"Good bush management is the only tool we've got really on the broad area," he said.
"If we're saying [as] was said recently by senior fire people and the government that it's not going to be picked up, we're virtually walking away from the bush and saying 'the bush is going to get cooked regularly every five to 10 years' and we're going to put up with that'. That's completely unacceptable.
"To say it's too difficult, to me it's un-Australian. It's got to be resourced [and] well planned. It's got to happen."
For him, the issue is very pertinent to Ballarat. "I worry about the outskirts around Ballarat, places like Creswick, they are quite vulnerable, particularly the small hobby farms," he said.
"Fire can get in there and move quickly and do a lot of damage. We've got too much of the season to go. We've got three months of difficult times [ahead]."
READ THE LETTER FROM EMERGENCY LEADERS (FROM LAST AUTUMN)
Both, unsurprisingly, emphasise the need for more 'boots on the ground'. Mr Bibby feels the burden on the CFA volunteers is becoming too heavy.
"What the nation has to come to grips with is that it can't ride on the back of volunteers for the next... decades.
"We have to look at how we manage and support volunteers so they can properly assist us but they can also have a life in their own right and earn some money at the jobs they're paid for," he said.
He pointed to the many Victorian volunteers who had gone to Queensland earlier in the season. "You can't run an organisation on volunteers that are already exhausted from what they have been doing in other states before they get to their own state."
Even spreading resources within the state was likely to become problematic, he suggested, pointing at the many Ballarat-based volunteers involved in the fire-fighting in East Gippsland.
"Some hard decisions have to be made about keeping people at home in case something occurs," he said.
Mr Waller also raised the pressure on resources. "Land management, the resourcing of the bush, it's been cut and cut and cut... Now we've got offices with nobody in them.
He gave the example of Corryong being under-staffed and called for more "middle managers and scientists" in the field.
"They need more people living in those communities, understanding what is happening in those communities, understanding the bush," he said.
A DEFINING MOMENT?
Both hope the damage done - economically, environmentally and on a human level - will inspire a more coordinated approach.
This is a climate change event. When I first started in the fire industry 46 years ago, major fires like the ones we are confronting now were every 10 years, then they moved to every six years, then every three years and now it's almost every yearNeil Bibby, former CFA chief
Mr Bibby wants a national workshop after the fire season is over to consider how we are going to manage the fire danger in the future.
He also advocates a national climate change framework akin to that in place at a state level in Victoria.
"It acknowledges that it is a problem, as opposed to [putting] your head in the sand and [saying] it's not a problem," he said.
"This is a climate change event. When I first started in the fire industry 46 years ago, major fires like the ones we are confronting now were every 10 years, then they moved to every six years, then every three years and now it's almost every year."
Mr Waller meanwhile describes this season's fires as a "third fundamental disturbance" into how we treat the bush. First he cites the dismissal of First Nations' management of the bush by early European arrivals; the second was the introduction of agriculture; now the fires of the 2019/20 season.
"It has to reshape how we manage the bush. It's questioning a lot of how we approach protection and conservation values," he said.
He is also candid about his reservations on whether a bipartisan approach is likely at federal level.
"I am doubtful, it's not the style of government, particularly not the style of this government, [to have] a joint approach to things," said Mr Waller.
Whether it leads to a co-ordinated approach or not, both former fire chiefs hope the unprecedented blazes could be a pivotal moment in the nation's history. "I hope it is. I think it will be," Mr Waller said.
Mr Bibby's response to the question is pithier still: "If it isn't, we're stuffed."
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