Bushfire warning: ‘We are in dire straits’
Hazardous smoke has blanketed Sydney as the state braces for more dangerous bushfire weather and it's daunting to think this is just the beginning.
But NSW hasn't even entered what's traditionally the most devastating period of bushfire damage.
"We've got the worst to come," former NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins told news.com.au.
It's a concerning prediction when NSW has already lost 577 homes since August, double that of previous years. Fires have already burnt through about 1.6 million hectares of land, which is more than the entire 1993-94 season.
Mr Mullins said most major home losses usually happened in late November to early February when high temperatures hit Sydney, Newcastle, the Lower Hunter and South Coast.
"This is where most homes have been lost in the past and they haven't even been impacted yet," he said.
"So we need to brace ourselves. If we don't get summer storms to wet everything down, we are in dire straits."
Mr Mullins, along with 22 other retired fire and emergency service chiefs, predicted this would be a horror year and urgently sought a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April.
He said when they looked at the climate outlook early this year for the upcoming fire season they had a moment of "oh my God".
"We were genuinely concerned," Mr Mullins said.
LIVE COVERAGE: Sydney covered in smoke as bushfires cause chaos
Much of the state was in drought and while in previous years you could see indicators for moisture or rain in the build-up, this year they weren't there.
Combined with other climate indications, Mr Mullins said it was "almost inevitable" this would be a bad fire year.
"You don't need a crystal ball, when you've been doing it this long, you know the indicators and it was very clear."
SLEDGE AT OUR LEADERS: 'THEY ARE BASICALLY ON HOLIDAY'
He also dismissed commentary that it was not the right time to talk about climate change, sledging our political leaders in the process.
"It's exactly the right time. Parliament is not sitting and politicians have no operational role in responding to fires so what else are they going to do?" he said.
"They are basically on holiday at the moment, which is fair enough, but maybe they could have a think about future generations."
This week RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers urged people to "please use this as a wake-up call" to prepare and put a fire safety plan in place.
Mr Mullins believed Australia could have been better prepared for the horror conditions.
His group, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, tried to warn the PM that more water-bombers would likely be needed to tackle the bigger, faster and hotter bushfires that were on the way.
Unfortunately they failed to get a meeting with the PM and he said it was likely too late to get the water bombers now.
Instead of being prepared, the NSW Rural Fire Service last week announced it was leasing a DC-10 Air Tanker from the United States to help with fire efforts. This aircraft can be used to drop up to 35,000 litres of water or fire retardant.
Mr Mullins, who spent more than 20 years leading bushfire efforts in NSW, has argued for a national response to bushfires and also wants Mr Morrison to declare a climate emergency.
"We are not saying the federal government should take over responding to fires, that's a state and territory response," he said.
"But they should be looking at how to leverage the defence forces … things like transport, logistics and engineers."
Mr Mullins has fought fires in California where brigades have the use of military equipment such as predator drones, which have a suite of sensing equipment including ultraviolet scanning that can provide incredible high-resolution images for tracking and mapping fires.
While some fire chiefs have suggested their services are well resourced, Mr Mullins doesn't believe this is the true situation.
"Hats off to NSW for filling the gap and buying a 737 water bomber, which is the only one in Australia," he said.
"But if there was no resourcing problem, why are they asking for a DC10 from the US? That wasn't planned, that was a matter of urgency.
"I don't want to criticise my colleagues, I know the pressure they are under. That's why us retired chiefs are speaking out because we know they've been gagged.
"They are not allowed to speak about climate change."
Mr Mullins said he was "absolutely" not allowed to talk about climate change when he was working as the NSW commissioner and this was told to him in "no uncertain terms" after he made comments to The Sydney Morning Herald following bushfires in 2009.
MIMICKING GUN RIGHTS GROUPS
Mr Mullins made the point that if Australia was facing a crisis like the Grenfell Tower fire, people would immediately be wanting to know the causes and to discuss how to prevent it.
"But if it's about climate change, it's insensitive," Mr Mullins said.
He said American firefighters were now describing the shutting down of debate around climate change in the aftermath of serious bushfires, as mimicking the playbook of the National Rifle Association in the US, which shuts down conversation about gun control in the wake of massacres.
"I don't accept it and my other fire chief colleagues also don't accept it for a moment," Mr Mullins said.
Declaring a climate emergency in Australia would provide more focus and co-ordination on how to respond to the new conditions as well as how to transition the economy.
"In times of war or national disaster, they have mobilised the three layers of government and co-ordinated how to tackle an issue," he said.
He said it could involve planning on how to transition coal workers to skilled well-paid jobs, which places like Germany have done.
"Nothing like that is happening here," Mr Mullins said.
It could also look at things such as building infrastructure for electric cars and improving the electricity grid so that more renewables can feed in.
"There's so much to be done in Australia and because we've left it so long, it's become an emergency," he said.
'LETTING COWS LOOSE WON'T STOP FIRES'
As for claims the focus should be on hazard reduction burns, Mr Mullins said it should not be the only priority.
"I've lived and breathed this," he said. "Of course hazard reduction should be part of the mix but it's like saying 'let's make an omelette' and leaving out the egg," he said.
Mr Mullins said land use standards, vegetations types and climate change all needed to be part of the discussion.
"Letting cows loose in a national park is not going to stop extreme fire conditions from pushing one-metre high flames across people's lawns," he said.
"Basically anything will burn under these extreme conditions."
Mr Mullins said he had seen a fire start up near Grafton/Casino in an area that had already been burnt two weeks before.
Leaves from some of the dead trees had fallen to the ground and somehow began burning again, with flames spreading towards unburnt bush.
"There was no fuel there two weeks before … so it burnt twice, we actually hadn't seen that before, it was a first," Mr Mullins said.
"That's why it's simplistic to blame this on the Greens and the lack of hazard reduction.
"I'm not saying we don't need more hazard reduction but I just don't think this will stop what we're facing."
'IT'S AN IMMORAL THING TO SAY'
Mr Mullins said that since the 1990s he had watched fire seasons become longer to the point they were now overlapping with other states as well as with the fire season in the northern hemisphere, in places like California.
"There are longer heatwaves, lower humidity, stronger winds, less rainfall. It all adds up to the horror now," he said.
"We've tried to tell people but we want to rule a line under that and say, 'What do we do now?' It's no good saying 'we told you so'."
They have been told they will finally get to meet National Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud, hopefully in early next month.
"When 1000 cumulative years of experience are saying that these fires are no longer controllable and able to be handled, I think people do listen and get quite concerned," Mr Mullins said.
He also dismissed arguments that Australia couldn't make any difference to climate change.
"It's a stupid thing to say and it's an immoral thing to say," he said.
"We are among the top 20 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and per capita we are also up there. Our emissions has gone up for the last five years.
"Australia used to take its moral obligation to the world seriously, when my father when to WWII and my grandfather to WWI, we didn't say their contributions were not worth it because it was a small proportion of the war effort.
"I'd say Australia punched above its weight."