24 May 2005 questionsarchive

I seek leave to make an explanation before asking the Minister for Emergency Services a question about burn-offs.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: I understand that burn-offs are prohibited during both the fire danger season and on total fire ban days. Many honourable members would note that, in recent days, since the ceasing of the extended fire ban on 15 May, there have been a number of incidents, particularly on private property, where fires have escaped containment lines.

Of note is a fire yesterday at Knotts Hill at Marble Road, which involved the burning of 15 hectares of scrub and required an observation helicopter and a number of firefighters on the ground. In another incident, a fire at Sturt Valley Road in Stirling caused damage totalling $20 000.

CFS fire data, as published on 13 May by the Courier Mail, show that some 789 fires in the past five years in South Australia were attributed to burn-offs getting out of control.

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins: Is that the Courier Mail?

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: The Queensland Courier Mail reporting on South Australia. The article states:

Fire authorities fear burn-offs could get out of control and develop into large-scale bushfires because of unusually dry weather across South Australia.

I note that the article was printed two days before the extended fire ban was lifted. We have had one of the hottest and driest autumns on record, so, clearly, the ground and vegetation are more of a fuel load problem than usual. My questions to the minister are:

1. Is she concerned about the number of burn-offs that have been getting out of control?

2. Has the CFS, the MFS, or any authority, made representations to her regarding their concerns?

3. Has she considered extending the fire season in such conditions? If not, why not?

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO (Minister for Emergency Services): I thank the honourable member for her question.

She is correct in saying that, this year, we have had one of the hottest and driest summers and autumns, and, regrettably, conditions continue to be dry. Despite regular indications from the Bureau of Meteorology predicting shower activity, it has not eventuated. The CFS has attended an above average number of burn-offs out of control for this time of the year.

It is reluctant to reintroduce restrictions, as many farmers and land-holders engage in useful and safe precautionary burnoffs at this time, as it is when they have to burn off. I see that the Hon. John Dawkins is nodding his head.

It is a fact that both the DEH and Forestry SA have undertaken a number of successful burn-offs throughout the state. Recently, we have experienced uncharacteristic weather conditions—for example, conditions that have seen the fire index rise to extreme in the Mid North, which is unprecedented for this time of the year. Because of this, the CFS has been extremely busy assisting land-holders to control burn-offs. As I said, it is a good time of the year to do so, but land-holders need to be aware of the day-to-day conditions and not take on more than they can manage. They need to be aware of that fine line. Land-holders should be conducting small burn-offs to containment lines, such as mineral earth control lines.

In view of the weather conditions, the CFS has the option to declare a fire ban for a specific area. The honourable member is correct that, this year, we extended fire bans until 15 May in the Mount Lofty and Kangaroo Island districts. At the time, on the surface the risks seemed to have dropped after that, combined with the fact that we were getting cooler nights and dews. As I have said, during May we have seen some prescribed burn-offs undertaken by DEH, because the surface area is moist at that time of the year.

The CFS is continually assessing the risks, and we would like to think that at this time of the year the risks should continue to reduce. If we happen to get a day when weather conditions are of concern, the risk can be controlled and minimised by the use of individual fire bans. However, we have regrettably seen some near escapes. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to place on the record that, while the CFS is responsible for issuing fire bans, it is not the CFS which either grants or cancels burn-off permits: it is done by local councils. I am advised that fire bans automatically cancel burn-off permits, and that has been the case for many years.

However, it is the local council which cancels the permits.

Under section 35 of the Country Fires Act 1989, the CFS board has legislative responsibility to fix the dates for the fire ban season for each of the 15 fire ban districts in South Australia. This is originally done in consultation with the CFS regional bushfire prevention committees prior to the commencement of the season in about October each year.

The Hon. T.G. Cameron interjecting:

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO: Can I say to the member that I hope it pours on your game on Saturday.

The Hon. T.G. Cameron: Pours on my game?

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO:Well, you said there was a football game, didn’t you?

The Hon. T.G. Cameron: I just asked what it was going to be like on Saturday for the football. You’re not wishing that it pours all over the few South Australians who are going along to the football, are you?

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO: A lot of the people on the other side are nodding, so it is not my imagination.

The Hon. T.G. Cameron interjecting:

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO: Did I say that? The minister called for rain on Saturday: you have selective hearing.

The Hon. T.G. Cameron interjecting:

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO: As it progresses to the end of the season, it is reviewed, based on the day-to-day information received from the regional bushfire prevention committees and the Bureau of Meteorology. In conclusion, we need to be very vigilant in relation to burn-offs. There is a fine balance between ensuring that the landowners—the farmers—can continue with a viable crop for this time of year—and, of course, if they leave it too late, it will no longer be viable—and that our community is safe.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: I have a supplementary question. Given the unseasonal conditions, what additional measures has the minister undertaken to prevent danger to the community from burn-offs, which are now allowed owing to the conclusion of the fire ban season?

Members interjecting:

The Hon. CARMEL ZOLLO: I think we have had far too many interjections. I thought I had already answered that question. As the minister responsible, when there is a fire the CFS is in contact virtually every hour in order that I am kept informed as to the situation. Essentially, it is an operational matter, and it is a fine balance between doing what is right for agricultural businesses and ensuring the safety of the community.