What firefighters say about climate change

24 10 2013

The Conversation

Author

Michael Howes

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-firefighters-say-about-climate-change-19381

You do not find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses anymore… They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events. – A senior Victorian fire officer, interviewed in 2012 for a recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report.

There have been fierce arguments this week about whether it’s opportunistic to discuss climate change in connection to the devastating New South Wales fires. Amid all the bluster, it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little from one group of experts: frontline emergency service workers, including the firefighters risking their lives for the rest of us.

Yet if you do ask for their opinion – as we did for a study released in June this year – many, like the senior fire officer quoted above, are not reluctant to talk about climate change. In fact, quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about it more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In 2012-13, I led a joint research team from Griffith and RMIT to prepare a report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on disaster risk management and climate change.

To do so, we compared the emergency responses to Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the 2011 Perth hills bushfires, and the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We started by comparing the official inquiry reports into these events to the relevant research on disaster risk management. This was followed up by interviews with 22 experts from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, including nine fire officers, five emergency services workers, and eight assorted planners or policy officers. The proposals that emerged were then reviewed at a set of workshops.

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to the emergency service workers was an overwhelming acceptance and concern that climate change was already affecting Australia, based on their personal experiences with disasters.

As a Western Australian fire officer told our research team, we need to “get the scientists, who have a lot to share about climate change and climate change adaptation, talking to the operational people” – a suggestion backed by many of our interviewees.

Preventing future emergencies

Our report was not the first time that firefighters and other emergency workers have spoken out about climate change.

For instance, earlier this year it was reported that the United Firefighters Union released research by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research that found almost 2 million Australians were relying largely on volunteer fire brigades to protect them and A$500 billion in assets.

The same article referred to research from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a collaboration between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, on how the fire season across much of south-eastern Australia appeared to be going on for longer.

In November 2009, 25 firefighters, paramedics, police, military and emergency services workers spent nearly a month running 6000 kilometres from Cooktown in Queensland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne, speaking to communities along the way about their concerns about climate change. Many of them had worked in the Black Saturday firestorm, in which 173 people died, as well as the record-breaking heatwave beforehand that health experts estimated killed more than twice as many people as the fires.

In the same year, the United Firefighters Union’s national secretary wrote to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk… As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Lessons to be learnt

So what can we learn from listening to firefighters and other emergency services workers about how to be better prepared for future disasters?

Our study’s main aim was to come up with a set of practical changes based on those expert views on how to better integrate climate change adaptation into disaster management programs.

One suggestion was to set up a permanent fund, based on the success of Landcare. Anyone from government or the community might form a group and bid for money to tackle a particular issue, such as replanting local wetlands to reduce the impacts of flooding.

Another proposal was to set aside some local government funding to set up community resilience grants. Residents would be able to apply to their local council to fund projects, such as creating a network of people ready to assist elderly neighbours in times of bushfires or floods. Locals could even vote in town hall meetings on which proposals their council should fund.

Whatever we do, if we want to handle disasters better in the future, our frontline emergency workers have plenty of ideas to offer – if we’re ready to listen to what they say.

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6 responses

24 10 2013
Rapideffect

With Tony Abbott in power, the Australian people have just taken a backward step in halting climate change. None of our political parties are up to the task of listening to the scientists.
In the last election most Australians thought the economy was the most important issue (result from Vote Compass 1.2million responses). Until the environment is the most important issue to Australians, not the economy then there is little hope for change.

Everything is fine today, that is our illusion. Voltaire

24 10 2013
kika

one political party is different to the rest – the australian greens do base all their policies on current scientific research. perhaps this is why they are so feared by the old political parties.

24 10 2013
Lindsay

Until we stop talking about “Tony Abbott”, “The Greens” or some other “White Horse Riding Savior” nothing will change. Politics and Politicians reflect the people doing the voting (or as Mencken said “democracy is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses”). If there was a deep ground swell of environmental concern then there would be no need to wait for Government to act. The people would have already acted. But at this stage “free shit” provided by bloated governments trumps all. A political party committed to deep environmental change that asked for all shoulders to the wheel, would not get elected….anywhere in the world. We have much further to fall before there will be any meaningful cohesive action on the environment. In the meantime start in your own backyard and wait for others to catch up.

25 10 2013
bev

There is no connection in “fact” between the fires and climate change, the army has even claimed to have started fires there are a number of reasons why the fires started and a number of reasons why they get so big. We need to look closer at our management of the bush and at our fire prevention.
Fires are all about stupidity and the army are running around playing games.

25 10 2013
mikestasse

Bev……… no one is saying Climate Change STARTS FIRES……

What they are saying is that now the climate has changed weather patterns so much, they are worse and harder to fight.

25 10 2013
bev

oh! righto

the weather patterns changed due to decimation of all forests importantly the barrier brigalow and mulga that protects us from the worst the desert throws up, most TV weather reports point to hot winds from the desert, too easy hey?

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