As a thunderstorm threatened to ignite tinder-dry grass in and around Canberra yesterday, sparks were already flying between firefighters and bureaucrats managing Canberra's extreme fire danger.
The temperature climbed to a top of 36.2 degrees at about 12.30pm yesterday and gusting north-westerly winds came ahead of a brief thunder and lightning storm.
By 4.35pm the temperature had dropped to a more comfortable 21.2 degrees.
But the heat remained on the Government, with Southern ACT volunteer bushfire brigade captain Val Jeffery saying the budget for bushfire hazard fuel reduction should be managed by the Emergency Services Authority, not Environment ACT. He said taking control of the hazard reduction budget from firefighters and giving it to ACT Environment land managers 12 to 15 years ago was a big mistake. Since then the budget had been eroded and land managers had not put a strong enough priority on fuel reduction.
Executive director of Arts, Heritage and Environment ACT Dr Maxine Cooper said she would need more specific information to comment on budget cuts.
Dr Cooper said a 12-month strategic plan included 500 activities to minimise the bushfire risk.
In the next week slashing of grass would be done at Urambi Hill, Red Hill, Cooleman Ridge, Bruce Ridge and Mulligans Flat. A grader would be deployed at Namadgi and Cooleman Ridge, a dozer would clear growth at Ingledene and Kowen Forests, and a strategic burn would be done at Cooleman Ridge, depending on the weather.
Mr Jeffery, who predicted the deadly January 2003 firestorm in Canberra, said the Government's habit of throwing up figures on how many hectares had been slashed was not the solution to reducing the bushfire risk, but a bureaucratic cover-up for Environment ACT.
"They are not taking it seriously enough and it is a typical bureaucratic attitude ... 'We can quote these figures'.
"I'll admit that they can't cover every inch of dangerous fuels in the ACT, but by any long stretch of the imagination there has to be a major change in their attitude towards bushfire fuels." Mr Jeffery and ACT Bushfire Council member Michael Lonergan believe the Government has been caught off guard by the spring build-up of grass.
Mr Lonergan said more money had to be made available to address the seriousness of the fire danger. A managed burn would be more effective than slashing, which simply rearranged fuel. It did not reduce it.
"We have not had a long grass season like this for eight or nine years, and it has caught people a little off guard. I don't like criticising people who have been caught off guard; the fact of the matter though, is there is a fairly serious fire hazard floating around."
He said brushcutters should be used in inaccessible areas and the Emergency Services Authority could arrange strategic burning of long grass.
Dr Cooper said Environment ACT had not been caught off guard, had worked "incredibly closely" with ESA, and had fire- fighters with 20 and 30 years' experience to advise on strategy.
The bushfire plan was developed in consultation with the Rural Fire Service and ACT Bushfire Council, which included Mr Lonergan. "We have also put on seasonal fire staff, which is another level of staffing capability.We are implementing our plan. We are doing everything we can to minimise the risk.
"We have planned to do control burns, that can only be done when the weather permits. We have a suite of things going on."
Dr Cooper said controlling fuel build-up did not stop at boundary fences on reserves, and community members could do a fair bit to protect their properties.
Technical officers had advised that slashing grass rearranged fuel so fire intensity was less and the speed of a fire was reduced.
Canberra Times:John Thistleton
Thursday, 12 January 2006