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Blatant bureaucracy fuels fire risk in Adelaide Hills

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In July last year, Federal MP Rebekah Sharkie was informed about a local man's effort to warn of a potential fire hazard in Adelaide Hills (Screenshot via YouTube)

At least a dozen South Australian officials have been alerted to a potential local fire hazard, but red tape is ruining efforts to reduce risk, writes Oliver Corfe.

IT CAN BE irritating to have been doing a job to one’s own satisfaction and then have a complete stranger suggest a safer, quicker, more efficient way.

Bureaucracy develops defence mechanisms against those well-meaning but objectionable people who attempt to defend the oppressed or prevent waste — the first duty of any official is to protect his or her organisation, deny responsibility and frustrate the passing of information.

I am afflicted by that condition of observing too readily, bottlenecks, hazards and bullying — a circumstance advantageous within the manufacturing industry, but an abomination to bureaucracy, where the path to advancement is to accommodate the peccadillos of one’s superiors. For years, therefore, I hesitated to report an obvious fire hazard, hoping that somebody else would do something about it. 

The problem is this. Residential areas within the Adelaide Hills have mostly developed close to the railway line and South Eastern Freeway (S.E. Freeway), which run roughly parallel to each other from the city to Murray Bridge and then proceed on to Melbourne. 

From the Crafers/Stirling/Aldgate/Bridgewater areas, the only direct exit from the hills is the S.E. Freeway. Other roads are Upper Sturt Road, Greenhill Road and Norton Summit Road, all narrow and winding with close overhanging trees — ideal for a leisurely drive in an open sports car on a Sunday afternoon, but not safe if one is in a hurry.

Between Crafers and Stirling, there are footpaths running close to the freeway and between these and the road itself, there are several hectares of pine forest which for years have never been cleared of deadwood and weeds. Looking at this flammable vegetation on the sloping ground it seemed obvious that if any part of it ignited, all of the pine trees on either side of the freeway would burn, possibly setting fire to vehicles on the road.

The S.E. Freeway is always busy, but especially so during bushfires when many people are tempted to drive towards the sea. Accidents on the freeway are frequent, slowing traffic to a crawl. Why does this matter? Cars filled with petrol slowly passing burning trees are liable to explode, endangering both the occupants and other vehicles nearby. People would die and houses on either side of the freeway would burn. If any authority had contributed, through negligence, to the cause of the fire, it might be liable for damages.

Shortly after the Cudlee Creek Fire, it seemed a good idea to warn the Department for Infrastructure and Transport (DIT) of its potential liability. I wrote a letter to DIT Chief Executive Tony Braxton-Smith on 25 January 2020 and sent a copy to the mayor of Adelaide Hills Council (AHC).

My expectations were that the letter would be passed down to the section responsible for maintenance and somebody would inspect the area — and a team would be sent in to remove the flammable material. This didn’t happen. Instead, a remarkable chain of correspondence commenced which I now relate.

Tony Braxton-Smith didn’t reply, so I wrote a similar letter to (then) Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Local Government Stephan Knoll on 6 March 2020. I sent copies to the mayor and wrote to my local MP, Josh Teague. The minister’s office sent a letter of acknowledgement on 11 March, saying: 'A response will be provided in due course.'

Having not heard from Tony Braxton-Smith, the minister, Josh Teague or the mayor, I wrote again to Josh Teague and the minister on 12 May, saying that winter would be an ideal time in which to carry out the recommended work. Josh Teague's office manager, replied by email on 15 May saying that Mr Teague had contacted the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, the Minister for Environment and Water and The Minister for Emergency Services, about the matters raised. The email said that the office would contact me with further information.

Two weeks later I considered that the matter was of sufficient importance to see my local member face-to-face and called at his office to make an appointment. The receptionist said it would be difficult to make an appointment, but that Mr Teague had written to the ministers. 

I thanked him and said I would still like to see Mr Teague in person. The receptionist then said that the appointments diary was not in the office. I asked if the appointments diary might soon be returned to the office and was told he didn’t know. 

I sat down to wait. The receptionist told me that he was a volunteer with the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) and that he had recently been at Kangaroo Island attempting to extinguish the fires there. This was commendable, but why couldn't I see Mr Teague? A state Member of Parliament attends on only about 50 days a year and if he won’t see his constituents on the other days, how does he earn his $211,000 thereabouts per annum?

Eventually, I was promised that if I went home somebody would telephone me that afternoon and an appointment would be arranged.

Josh Teague saw me on 11 June and said he agreed with all the matters I had raised. His office is a five-minute walk from the area of concern and he said that he had, himself, observed the fire hazard. He was going to see Stephan Knoll that afternoon and would remind him of it, but that I would be welcome to see him again at any time.

On 2 July I received a letter from Stephan Knoll saying:

'Vegetation management... will be undertaken prior to the next fire season.' 

He also enclosed a copy of a letter from Tony Braxton-Smith dated 10 March, which said that:

'... maintenance had been completed on 29 January 2020 and had been inspected on 12 February'.

Previously, on 29 June, I had telephoned Federal MP Rebekha Sharkie’s office to make an appointment, but the telephone was slammed down before I could speak. It should be explained that I have a speech impediment, making it difficult to speak on the telephone. I rang again and the same thing happened. On the third or fourth attempt, I managed to say enough words to be recognised as a human being and was told that I must first send in an email stating the reasons for the requested interview — which I did.

After several days – there had been no call back – I drove the ten miles to Rebekha’s office. Several staff members came out to look at me and at last one of them recognised me as a person who had substantially contributed to Ms Sharkie’s election efforts. An appointment was made for 28 July, at which an adviser seemed to do most of the talking. The S.E. Freeway fire hazard is a state rather than a federal matter, but as the freeway runs through the seat of Mayo, Ms Sharkie was interested and encouraged me to follow it up if nothing had been done by November.

On 26 July Stephan Knoll resigned as Transport Minister in the middle of a financial scandal, but I presumed he would have left a note on his desk for the new minister.

On 20 October I issued a press release explaining efforts so far and as a result, The Advertiser published two articles in November.

One article quoted a CFS spokesman as saying that vegetation along the freeway was at manageable levels, and:

'... did not pose a bushfire risk.'

A letter was sent to Josh Teague on 11 November reminding him of our earlier interview and asking him to contact the new Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Corey Wingard. I received an email saying that this had been done.

On 19 November I spoke to a reporter at The Advertiser and was told that DIT had informed the paper that clearing work would commence on 20 November. I sent an email to Josh Teague thanking him for his apparently successful efforts. 

But nothing happened.

I telephoned DIT on its emergency telephone number and was told that the minister had been advised of my concerns and a report would be made to him. Meanwhile, no action would be taken (contrary to recent information from The Advertiser).

Apparently, an email had been sent to CFS headquarters on 24 November suggesting that someone from there look at the area. A CFS spokesperson explained to me that the proper procedure was to contact the Adelaide Hills Council (AHC) who had the power to tell DIT what to do.

AHC said all this was wrong; I should contact the CFS regional operations planning office, which I did. A spokesperson there said he would contact an AHC team leader and tell him what to do. 

Many telephone calls during the first week of December resulted in a basic refusal to look at the area. There was the offer of giving a pro-forma letter to Adelaide Hills Council to pass on to DIT. Eventually, an AHC representative did look at the area and declared that it presented no fire risk at all. He said that embers would be unlikely to start a fire, but that if those pines did catch fire, "you can say goodbye to Stirling". The CFS representative said he didn’t want to contradict AHC.  

On 23 November I had called in at Josh Teague’s office and asked the office manager if I could make an appointment, as invited to by Josh on 11 June. I was told that somebody would ring me back (presumably the appointments book was lost again), but as I received no call, I rang on 30 November and spoke to a receptionist. He refused to make an appointment, saying there was no point in my seeing Mr Teague until a reply had been received from Corey Wingard.

Mayor of Adelaide Hills Council (AHC) Dr Jan-Claire Wisdom wrote, on 4 January 2021, advising that DIT had cleared the area on 8 December and council staff had inspected the work and declared there was minimal risk from ember attack. I again approached AHC with information on embers, hoping to speak to the mayor. Dr Wisdom was on annual leave and I spoke to AHC's Director of Development and Regulatory Services, Marc Salver, on 18 January. 

At first, Marc repeated the arguments of AHC, that embers were unlikely to ignite timber. I showed him evidence to the contrary obtained from several websites and Marc suggested that we walk to the area in question. He then agreed that there was the possibility of fire and said he would write to DIT to confirm this.

When I returned home I found a letter emailed from Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Corey Wingard, saying:

'Removal of fallen and dead trees between Stirling and Crafers, specifically alongside the walkway east of Howard Drive, is scheduled to be completed in January 2021.'

On 24 January 2021, there was a bushfire in Cherry Gardens that approached Echunga, Mylor, Longwood and Heathfield, burning 2,700 hectares. Several neighbours evacuated to Adelaide. Work commenced the following day, clearing near the freeway — exactly one year after my writing to Tony Braxton-Smith. But only for one day.

Recently, I have spoken with an employee of DIT, who agrees that the work should be done, but it is a matter of budget... and submissions will need to be made... and it may take two or three financial years to complete the work. 

Local newspaper, The Courier, says:  

'A class action has been launched against SA Power Networks seeking about $150m in damages on behalf of Cudlee Creek bushfire victims...'

Mine is an example of attempting to communicate with a bureaucracy about a simple uncontroversial matter. There is resistance at all levels, so nothing happens. 

One may sympathise with Michael Fagan who broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982 to complain that “the system doesn’t work”. And with the residents of Beirut who thought it was a really bad idea to store 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate near the city. Governments often won’t listen.

How do you go if you need to report something a bit delicate, like inappropriate behaviour of a senior minister; fraud within the public service; a human rights issue or advice on how not to start a war? Most people just won’t bother. Why go there when you are bound to fail? That is wrong. Secretaries, receptionists, political advisers and public servants are paid to facilitate the flow of good ideas, and yet so many of that often contemptuous mob believe they are obliged to frustrate the thinking citizen.

To be fair, for balance, many of those drawn into this web have been cooperative within the constraints placed upon them and most have been courteous, even sociable. But just being nice doesn’t get the job done. 

At least a dozen officials have been alerted to a hazard that could cause claims of hundreds of millions of dollars, the probability of which would be reduced by removing some logs and brush-cutting some blackberries.

Oliver Corfe has worked in stock-broking and the motor industry. He studied commerce at Swinburne University and has had two novels published The Sea Gull Rider and Redemption.

 
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Blatant bureaucracy fuels fire risk in Adelaide Hills

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