Bushfire Prevention - The 10/50 Code

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[Download PDF] As the member for Blue Mountains I know that the changes the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015 seeks to enact will impact on the daily lives of each of my constituents. These changes will affect not only the fire risk profile of houses in bushfire-prone areas but also the local environment that we are fortunate to call home. To this end, I acknowledge that this legislation arises, to a great extent, in response to the Blue Mountains bushfires of 2013, which caused the loss of more than 2,000 homes in the Winmalee, Yellow Rock and Mount Victoria regions. 

I pay tribute to the amazing work of local Rural Fire Service [RFS] brigades, the volunteers, the staff at the bushfire control centre and the firefighters who travelled from interstate to fight the Blue Mountains bushfires two years ago, and all of their families who worry about them during critical incidents such as fire emergencies. 

In speaking to this legislation I will refer to two significant reports. The first is the findings of an assessment carried out by the NSW Rural Fire Service in 2009, which examined the 10/30 code in Victoria. This document informed the introduction of the New South Wales 10/50 code. Secondly, I will refer to preliminary advice from the Office of Environment and Heritage to the NSW Rural Fire Service in November 2014. Naturally, the 10/50 vegetation clearing code of practice is an issue of significant concern to my constituents. Many of them have presented to me opposing views. The Blue Mountains City Council and the Blue Mountains Conservation Society are experts in the management and protection of our local environment and have prepared submissions to the 10/50 clearing review. I encourage members to seek those out and to understand the complex issues from the perspective of local experts. I share their concerns about this legislation. 

I am fundamentally concerned that the Government has opted for a self-assessment process for vegetation clearing. Allowing self-assessment cuts out the expertise of the local RFS and council in making decisions about which trees must be removed and which ones must be allowed to stay. It often pits neighbour against neighbour. These decisions are complex and the impacts of bad decisions made by ill-informed or reckless self-assessors are long lasting. Moreover, the publicity around the 10/50 scheme and the lack of self-assessment provisions has reached far and wide, as we have heard today in this place. There is real concern from communities beyond the Blue Mountains that unscrupulous home owners will take advantage of the scheme to improve their property's views under the guise of mitigating bushfire risk. 

The one-size-fits-all approach, which is a hallmark of the Government's 10/50 package, presents a number of risks to our unique environment, including risks to our biodiversity; negative impacts on the environment, including impacts upon threatened species; soil erosion; land slippage risks; destruction of riparian zones; and risks to our Aboriginal and cultural heritage. The NSW Rural Fire Service acknowledges that it is clear that while the scheme is designed to reduce bushfire risk there has been some abuse of the fuel reduction provisions for other purposes. Separately, the Office of Environment and Heritage admits that the 10/50 rule is not being used for its intended purpose—that is, it is being used for improving views rather than bushfire risk management. The RFS and the Office of Environment and Heritage concede that the code does not consider enough the potential environmental impacts, including threatened species and endangered ecological communities, and that they will potentially deliver significant loss of biodiversity in New South Wales. 

The Rural Fire Service's review of the Victorian 10/30 code in 2009 concluded that the approach may not generate the safety outcomes the community is hoping for and may in fact result in some people being more vulnerable. It went on to say that the clearing of vegetation without considering how the resulting debris will be managed is likely to result in a greater bushfire hazard. Shortly after I came to office I was contacted by a young man from Mount Riverview, Eli Bendall, who is a member of the Wilderness Society. He was able to point to local examples where improper waste disposal was occurring, exacerbating the bushfire risk for families in the Blue Mountains. Woodchips were being scattered in asset protection zones, around people's homes, in large piles beneath power lines and at bushland interfaces between suburbia and national parks or forests. This reckless behaviour dramatically increases bushfire risk, both in starting a fire and in providing fuel for an established fire to grow and travel through suburban communities. This risk stems from the self-assessment process and it means that trees which may not represent a significant bushfire risk are converted into potential fuel, creating or exacerbating risk. In recognising these issues, the Office of Environment and Heritage concluded that "10/50 is creating a false sense of security on the part of landowners".

An evidence-based approach must be employed with this policy area. It cannot be done by the seat of the Minister's pants. It is not a policy area that can be directed by megaphone or press release. The self-assessment provisions must be removed from the 10/50 scheme and some expert input restored to the process. I hasten to add that we must not increase the administrative burden upon the New South Wales Rural Fire Service or local councils without properly funding their work. We need to ensure that enough money is available to the Rural Fire Service and local councils so they can do their work. It is easy for members to talk about the excellent work of our emergency services but it must also be backed by a commitment to properly fund them. The responsibility of minimising the impact on protected areas of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage National Park should be balanced with the need to manage risk posed by bushfire. I support the bill with the proposed Opposition amendments—namely, that we return the assessment process to the NSW Rural Fire Service and local councils; we establish a public registry; and we ensure that the endangered ecological communities per schedule 1A part 2 and schedule 1 part 3 of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 are included.

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