Smoke clears but burning questions remain


Fire Fight Australia, the spectacular 10-hour fundraising concert at the weekend, was compelling evidence that Australians and indeed people worldwide care for each other. The show was telecast internationally and many donations flowed in from overseas, no doubt prompted by the array of superstars who came down under to contribute their talents.

capital hill writer Paul Bongiorno
Political analyst Paul Bongiorno

The $10 million raised will be directed not only to rural and regional fire services but also to people who have lost their homes and livelihoods as well as to wildlife recovery. It is a fifth of the amount raised by the show’s host, comedian Celeste Barber. Her Facebook appeal had a target of around $30,000 for the NSW Rural Fire Service; it has raised an incredible $51 million. In itself this is a message that other inhabitants of the planet, besides fire ravaged Australians, realise that something new and huge is happening.

Australia’s Chief Scientist put it succinctly at the National Press Club: “Climate change is nature’s reaction to our actions.” Climate change, he said, is real and happening and will result in even more extremes unless there is a global effort to reduce emissions. This is not the statement of a climate religious fanatic but of a scientist based on measurable events. Climate change is not a matter of belief but of acceptance of facts.

Towards the end of the Fire Fight Australia concert, actor Russell Crowe echoed these sentiments. He had a near run thing in the catastrophic fire storm as he had to fight to save his property. Crowe sums up the situation we are now in and asks the burning questions. When will our government and the governments of the world get serious about emission reduction, is the first one. The second: when will the inadequacies of our fire fighting arrangements be better addressed.

There has been some controversy over where Celeste Barber’s millions will go. There shouldn’t be. She directed all funds to the RFS Fund that is dedicated to the equipment, training and administration of the RFS brigade. And if a report in the Weekend Australian is to be believed, the RFS has been left under-resourced and underfunded. It is a state government agency that administers volunteer fire fighters.

This summer raises questions on whether state governments who employ similar models have been negligent in leaving this essential service to volunteers and their fundraising. According to the newspaper, the other fire ravaged states of Victoria and South Australia also leave “hero volunteers to fight blazes with old trucks and substandard equipment”. But none of the $51 million will go to them; something many of Celeste Barber’s donors would not have realised.

You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to uncover the tensions between the professional fire fighting services and the volunteers. It is hard to argue with the national president of the United Firefighters Union, Greg McConville. He says the time has come to employ more professionals and look after volunteers better.

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