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Gladys Berejiklian slashes fire service budgets while NSW burns

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It is notable that the NSW State Government has recently cut its fire services, writes Tarric Brooker.

AS NSW BRACES itself against the threat of further catastrophic bushfires across much of the State, it has been revealed that the Berejiklian Government made major cuts to the capital expenditure budgets of both Fire and Rescue NSW and the Rural Fire Service.

While different from the daily operating budgets of these services that pay for things such as firefighters' salaries, the capital expenditure budget is put toward the purchase of all manner of essential fire fighting equipment such as fire trucks, helicopter water bombers and support ambulances.

Under the 2019-20 NSW State Budget, Fire and Rescue had its capital expenditure budget cut by $28.5 million or 35 per cent. The Rural Fire Service has its capital expenditure budget cut by $49.9 million or 75 per cent.

While some of these cuts can be attributed to big one-off purchases during the 2018-19 financial year such as a 737 fire fighting aircraft, both the Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW now have smaller capital expenditure budgets than at times during 2016.

In terms of the budget of day to day operations of the Fire services, Fire and Rescue had its budget cut by $12.9 million or 1.6% and the Rural Fire Service had its budget cut by $26.7 million or 4.8%.

However, there is also one other key pillar of fire fighting that has also been hit by the budget cuts of the NSW Coalition Government: the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. One of the most important tasks performed by Parks and Wildlife is controlled hazard reduction burns.

This pre-emptive action ensures that when bushfire season does arrive, the amount of deadwood and fuel for the fire is kept to an absolute minimum. This helps to ensure that if and when fires do occur they are more manageable and far less of a threat to property and communities.

Arguably as a result of more than $200 million in funding cuts by the NSW Coalition Government since 2016, the total area treated with hazard reduction burns has been reduced by an average of 26 per cent.

This has left more than 274,000 acres not subject to hazard reduction burns compared with a similar 3 year period before the budget cuts were enacted.

Amidst one of the worst bushfire seasons in living memory, these budget cuts are now being felt by the people of NSW and the firefighters on the frontlines protecting people’s homes.

While some people may still insist that the role of humankind’s carbon emissions in climate change is still in doubt. What is clearly not in doubt is the fact that our climate is changing; our summers are becoming hotter and drier and our governments' need to make decisions accordingly.

Now is clearly not the time to save a bit of extra money on not buying much-needed equipment for our firefighters or ensuring that our parks and wildlife services have the adequate resources to conduct the hazard reduction burns that keep our homes and communities safe.

With fire services also subjected to budget cuts of varying degrees in Queensland and Victoria, these current catastrophic bushfires need to serve as a wakeup call to state government’s that penny-pinching firefighter's budgets may put people’s lives and property at risk.

CORRECTION

It has come to our attention that, based on the figures of the initial 2018-19 and 2019-20 NSW State Budgets, both the NSW Rural Fire Service and NSW Fire and Rescue had their bottom line operating budgets increased. The operational budget cuts referred to above were arrived at by contrasting the final updated version of the 2018-19 NSW State Budget, with the initial 2019-20 figures. This discrepancy is due to the fact that throughout the year the Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue received top-up payments as needed by the NSW State Government.

This discrepancy was also confirmed in multiple reputable media sources, leading to this misleading comparison being made. We apologise for this discrepancy.

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator. 

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