An early and intense start to the bushfire season shocked NSW last year. Who can forget the images of the burnt remains of houses and the grief of their distressed owners, the scenes of exhausted fire fighters, the two lives lost fighting the flames?
Government would be negligent not to take steps to protect communities from further destruction and to prepare for the more ferocious fires and longer bushfire seasons that climate change threatens to bring.
But, as The Sun-Herald has reported, one reform designed to do just that is having serious unintended consequences, which cannot be ignored.
New vegetation clearing rules, which allow residents in "entitlement areas" near bushfire prone zones to remove trees within 10 metres of homes and to clear shrubs out to 50 metres without consent, have captured parts of Sydney where the removal of vegetation could reveal a water view that adds $500,000 to a property's value.
The risk that residents will use the excuse of bushfire protection to remove a tree that obscures a harbour view is real. The jacaranda that drops flowers on the driveway or the eucalypts standing in the way of further development are also in danger.
Pittwater Council has reported 10 trees a day are being lost. Councils and environmentalists fear for leafy suburbs such as Mosman, Hunters Hill, Hornsby, Lane Cove and Beecroft. In the Premier's own electorate of Manly, several large old gums have been felled and a council ranger was powerless to stop their demise.
Council efforts over many years to keep and improve vegetation coverage for the benefit of native animals and birds and to counter the heat effects of urban environments are threatened.
Regional areas are also at risk. At Fingal Head, 0.4 hectares of critically endangered remnant rainforest was cleared under the rules, known as the 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Code of Practice.
We know that with the Independent Commission Against Corruption in full swing, and the crossbench swelling with former government members, the Premier has his plate full, but we urge him not to let that distract him from taking an interest in an issue of vital importance in his own backyard. It is not good enough for ministers to pass responsibility for answering the community's questions about it between each other and finally to the Rural Fire Service as they did when The Sun-Herald sought comment last week.
The government must assure us the RFS will not only talk to local councils about the problems but will act on their concerns. The fact that the period for public consultation on the code closed on July 21, and it was enacted on August 1, suggests their submissions to this process were not treated seriously.
Removal of unnecessary red tape is laudable, but the Blue Mountains are very different from harbour-side Sydney and a one-size-fits-all approach is not workable. The RFS must exempt from the code urban council areas which have a low risk of bushfire and/or which are managing those risks competently. In Victoria, a 10/30 rule applies state-wide but 21 metropolitan municipalities are exempt. A 10/50 rule applies only to areas which may be significantly affected by fire. NSW must also insert better protection for endangered environmental communities into its code. The balance between bushfire protection and protecting the environment must be recalibrated.