By ERWIN CHLANDA
“It is just waffle” is how Independent MLA for Araluen Robyn Lambley describes the response she got from the Department of Environment to questions about buffel grass and wildfires.
This is despite yet again a massive bushfire earlier this year in the West MacDonnells park, affecting 20% of it, similar to the blaze in 2019.
However, when Mrs Lambley (pictured during a hearing in 2016) resorted to “Legislative Assembly Written Questions” which must be responded to within 30 days the answers were more revealing but raise serious questions.
Meanwhile Environment Minister Lauren Moss today announced an aerial firefighting program including “firebombing – the dropping of water on or in front of the fire to reduce or halt the spread”.
The budget, under the National Aerial Firefighting Centre Agreement, is $2.5m over five years, she said in a media release.
This, by the Alice Springs News’ calculation, would buy four sorties and three flying hours a year from Very Large Aircraft Tankers (VLAT). That would leave no money for the rest of the measures promised by Ms Moss – “rapid delivery of firefighters and equipment to remote areas, fire detection, investigation and mapping, command, communications and control and aerial ignition to ignite planned fuel reduction backburns” which Ms Moss is including in the measures “ensuring we have the best resources available to combat” wildfires.
Meanwhile Mrs Lambley says in her earlier query, based on a report in the News, she asked in how many hectares did precautionary burning take place in the East and West MacDonnells during the last 12 months? And where?
The answer was: “Multiple aerial incendiary and ground burns were conducted at strategic locations across the Central Australian parks estate during 2022, several of which are proving to be very valuable in minimising the impact of the currently active fires.”
Mrs Lambley also asked: “In how many hectares did buffel eradication take place in the last 12 months? Where?”
The reply: “Parks and Wildlife implements an annual program of strategic pest plant and animal control and fire management which seeks to protect the highest value natural and cultural assets on the parks estate. Buffel control forms a significant component of this program in Central Australia.”
Now the Parliamentary Written Questions reveal that fire prevention activities covered only 2.3% of Central Australian parks land, which would be just 0.3% if the MacDonnell Ranges are included in their entirety.
The Finke George, Watarrka and West MacDonnell national parks and the Owen Springs Reserve together have 564,341 hectares.
The department disclosed that “aerial prescribed burns” – strategic burning of fire breaks to forestall huge infernos – only covered 13,000 hectares in ground burn and aerial incendiary program during 2022.
Details about buffel grass control elicited by Ms Lambley from the department reveal that it is mostly infrastructure that will be protected from the highly inflammable buffel plant declared a weed in SA.
This raises a question: What point is there in protecting infrastructure when people will stay away from a devastated landscape?
The department says: “NT Parks and Wildlife … undertakes mitigation of buffel grass aimed at asset protection.
“This includes reducing fuel loads around built infrastructure such a camp grounds and day use areas, housing and workshops.
“It also includes areas where we have known high biodiversity sites that will be adversely impacted from either competition from buffel grass or the increased risk of higher intensity and higher frequency fires.
“This also includes protection of heritage and cultural sites. Management of buffel grass is currently not measured in hectares.”
In other words, we have no idea how much land was involved in the combat of buffel, currently the subject of an enquiry that will report “later this year”.
PHOTO at top supplied by Minister Moss shows a single-engined propeller aircraft, hardly the kind of Very Large Aircraft Tanker needed for our infernos made worse by buffel grass.