Large parts of New South Wales have been in the grip of catastrophic fire weather this week as firefighters desperately work to save homes, properties and lives.
But as firefighters try and beat back the bushfires, a familiar blame game began with critics pointing fingers at “greenies”, claiming they get in the way of hazard reduction efforts that might have reduced the size and scale of the disaster.
“These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires,” says Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, who has been researching bushfires for 40 years.
“They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
So what are the claims?
The chief accuser is Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce who says “greens policy” gets in the way “of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it”.
Among Joyce’s claims, made in several interviews this week, are that Greens policies have made hazard reduction activities more difficult.
This claim, just to be clear, is about the policies of a party that has never been in government.
Joyce also blamed the Greens for “paperwork” that made it harder to carry out hazard reduction activities.
“It’s not burning because they burnt off, it’s burning because they didn’t burn off,” Joyce told SkyNews.
According to Bradstock, Joyce’s claims are familiar but “without foundation.”
“It’s simply conspiracy stuff. It’s an obvious attempt to deflect the conversation away from climate change.”
A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, has written this week that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning.
He said: “Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim.”
What is hazard reduction?
Preparations for bushfire season are done outside the most dangerous periods using a suite of methods known as hazard reduction.
“The fuel is the hazard, so it’s about reducing that fuel load to diminish the intensity of a subsequent wildfire,” Bradstock says.
Methods include prescribed burning where authorities identify at-risk areas close to developments, or in areas known for being sites where large fires ignite, and “reduce the load” with controlled burning.
In some areas, hazard reduction is carried out by removing trees and vegetation.
Another method is to create fuel breaks, also known as fire breaks, where trees are cleared to prevent the spread of a fire to protect developments and infrastructure. This is also done routinely around power lines.
It is activities like this which Joyce claims are being suppressed by bureaucracy.
Is there a drop in hazard reduction?
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has told Guardian Australia that the National Parks and Wildlife Service carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000ha in 2018 and 2019.
The NPWS had a hazard reduction target to treat 680,000ha of parks and reserves in the five years from 2011, which the spokesperson said it had exceeded.
The spokesperson added: “Hazard reduction is just one way of preparing for bushfires – it doesn’t remove the threat of fire.”
Bradstock says: “In New South Wales, hazard reduction work is governed by policies that are set by coordinating committee chaired by the Rural Fire Service. They bring together all players – with representatives from farmers, environment groups and governments.
“Hazard reduction work has increased because of increased funding to the RFS and to national parks. There has been more carried out in recent years than in previous decades.”
What about cuts to staff?
The Public Service Association has also attacked the NSW government for what it said was a “35% cut to fire-trained positions” in national parks.
Its acting general secretary, Troy Wright, said on Tuesday: “It is the Nationals who hold the purse string. Rather than funding the NPWS properly so that they can undertake strategic reductions they have crippled them with massive budget cuts and devastating restructures.”
The NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, told Guardian Australia that NPWS had 1,665 full time equivalent staff, a rise of 144 since 2017. Since 2011, Kean said the NSW government had increased the number of NPWS firefighters from 1,050 to 1,226.
Some 400 NPWS staff were out fighting fires. He says: “They are risking their lives to keep the community safe. Many are fighting fires that are not on park, but to protect people and property.”
He says NPWS undertakes 75% of all hazard reduction in the state, adding that last season, NPWS undertook 137,500 hectares of prescribed burns, which was above its target of 135,000 hectares.
What can residents do?
Bradstock says research “overwhelmingly” demonstrates that creating a 40- to 50-metre fuel break around a house can give it a much greater chance of surviving fires.
He says property holders are largely free to carry out these activities themselves without needing to seek permits.
“That vegetation clearance is one of the most effective things to do to mitigate risk.”
Bradstock says there is often confusion around the term “backburning” which is only done while fires are burning and is not considered a hazard reduction activity.
A separate fire is lit “back against the wind” to suppress the fuel load in the direction a bushfire is travelling, but firefighters are cautious as these fires can also get out of control when conditions are severe.
Does hazard reduction have its limits?
There will always be trade-offs between budgets, the amount of hazard reduction that can be carried out, and the environmental and social impacts of burning or removing trees and vegetation.
Bradstock says that no fire authority has an infinite budget and he says that in NSW, the hazard reduction work had reached “the limits of its practical capacity”.
“Hazard reduction will play a role, but as the weather gets worse, our research shows its effectiveness diminishes and we will have to introduce other means – maybe more money to clear the edges around developments, but it comes back to return on investment.”
He says authorities are also now having to contend with another reality – that prescribed burning creates smoke, “and we now know that bushfire smoke kills people”.
He says hazard reduction burns close to major cities such as Sydney had limits because “we end up doing fuel reduction to save lives, but it can also be taking lives” though smoke inhalation.