During a national bushfire crisis, you’d think the head of the NSW Rural Fire Service would spend every waking moment attacking the blazes.
Instead, he’s been forced to combat conspiracy theories about the fires, spread in an apparent attempt to draw focus from the devastating effects of climate change.
Speaking to ABC News Breakfast this morning, NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons called for common sense on the topic of hazard reduction burning.
“This is such a complex discussion, but I think it’s a discussion that we need to continue to have,” he said.
Let’s back up.
Hazard reduction burning, which sees firies and land managers safely ignite dry brush and other potential fuel sources before bushfire season really kicks off, has become a point of contention in this extraordinary bushfire season.
Government figures like Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce have claimed a lack of hazard reduction burns over recent months have fuelled the ongoing blazes. Joyce even claimed the Greens and environmental protection policies restricted controlled burn-offs.
A cursory glance at social media reveals a vocal contingent of Australians parroting the line that a lack of hazard reduction burns is the central reason for the megafires which have taken lives, destroyed properties, and pushed at-risk ecosystems to breaking point.
In turn, those theories have been amplified by conservative newspaper columnists. There’s a vicious feedback loop at play, reinforcing the idea that authorities place environmental concerns over human lives and livelihoods.
So, instead of bracing for yet another day in one of Australia’s worst natural disasters, Fitzsimmons spent a fair chunk of his morning calling bullshit on those conspiracies.
“Hazard reduction burning is really challenging, and the single biggest impediment to completing hazard reduction burning is the weather,” he said.
“With longer fire seasons, earlier starts and later finishes to fire seasons like we’ve been experiencing over recent times, you get a shrinking window of opportunity for more favourable hazard reduction burning periods.
“And in that shrinking windows, you get the extremes of it can be too wet and too cold to effectively get hazard reduction burns done, through to it being too hot and too dry, and therefore too dangerous.”
As for the idea that firies choose to protect flora and fauna instead of risking properties? Well, Fitzsimmons shot that idea down, too.
“We are not environmental bastards… Our priorities are life, property, and then environment ranks third,” he said.
"We are not environmental bastards."@NSWRFS Commissioner @RFSCommissioner on hazard reduction burning, which he stresses is not the panacea for stopping fires spreading.#nswfires #AustraliaFires pic.twitter.com/Jcm803vBx9
— News Breakfast (@BreakfastNews) January 7, 2020
Even while Fitzsimmons was battling one set of misinformation, another bubbled forth.
Authorities have revealed that 24 people had been charged with arson in relation to the recent blazes; adding in people accused of sparking fires due to negligence or failing to comply with fire bans, the number of people who’ve faced legal intervention across Australia since early November is 183.
But news reports on those figures have been presented and interpreted in weird, weird ways. As it stands, some outlets have parroted those stats as if 200 people have been charged with arson, vastly outstripping the allegations laid by law enforcement.
Then Donald Trump Jr., hardly an environmentalist, tweeted this:
Truly Disgusting that people would do this! God Bless Australia.
More than 180 alleged arsonists have been arrested since the start of the bushfire season, with 29 blazes deliberately lit in the Shoalhaven region of southeast NSW in just three months. https://t.co/xP0PtMQbuD
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 7, 2020
ABC states the proliferation of that theory has been aided by apparent Twitter bots, suggesting the misrepresentation of facts – whether it’s about hazard reduction burning, or the alleged arson crisis – is a concerted effort to colour the narrative of this bushfire season and, crucially, draw attention from its cause: a rapidly-warming planet, and the ways in which human industry is accelerating climate change.
It’s something that Fitzsimmmons has been warning us about since 2014. Maybe it’s time literally anyone in power listened.