The State Government was warned 11 times about Fraser Island’s mismanagement by a scientific committee that was disbanded soon after.
The State Government was warned 11 times about Fraser Island’s mismanagement by a scientific committee that was disbanded soon after.

Fraser Island fires were ‘time bomb’ waiting to happen

FRASER ISLAND was a "time bomb ready to explode", with 11 warnings given to former Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch's about the landmark's dire management between 2018 and 2019.

The damning claims, contained in reports by Government-funded advisory committees, for the first time lay bare exactly what the Government knew about the island in the lead up to its worst bushfire in recent history.

A Courier-Mail special investigation can also reveal that Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) tried to "block access" to the island's scientific and education permits when it was requested by two Government-funded advisory committees.

Ms Enoch did not respond when contacted by The Courier-Mail yesterday, neither did current Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon, or DES.

Former environment minister Leeanne Enoch. Picture: Richard Walker
Former environment minister Leeanne Enoch. Picture: Richard Walker

 

In a statement, a State Government spokesman said the committee's communiques did not address any concerns about bushfires. But communique from August 2019 said the Committee was concerned about the impact of climate change on "wildfire".

The committees - made up of scientists, politicians and Indigenous elders - delivered their final warning to then-Minister Enoch in August last year, before they were shut down two months later.

In it, they "strongly suggested" that issues of vegetation management and funding arrangements be "resolved promptly".

They had also written about how little Federal Government representatives attended their meetings.

A spotlight has been shone on QPWS this week, after it was accused of mismanaging the bushfire situation by allowing it to jump a track and become out of control.

It also did not hand over management of the blaze to Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) until November 27 - almost six weeks after it started from an illegal campfire.

Former committee member John Sinclair - also known as "Mr Fraser Island" - was part of an environmental research group that declared the island was "a time bomb ready to explode"

"Fraser Island fire management suffers from an appalling lack of resources, Mr Sinclair's Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO) declared in 2014.

"Fuel loads that continue to accumulate in unburned areas create a sort of time bomb ready to explode when there is any ignition."

 

Former committee member John Sinclair has been a fierce protector of Fraser Island.
Former committee member John Sinclair has been a fierce protector of Fraser Island.

 

In 2019, Fraser Island was given Australian Government funding worth just $145,000 per year, the committee said.

By comparison, Far North Queensland's Wet Tropics received $5.8 million.

Despite the promise of a new committee by the Department of Environment and Science (DES) in 2019, it was never formed.

Just a year later, a bushfire has now scorched half the island.

"In many aspects, the draft (management) plan (for the island) is seriously flawed," the committee told the State and Federal governments in March 2018.

"Currently, neither the funding nor the management planning reflects this World Heritage status."

Last year, the committees said QPWS had tried to block it receiving information about the island.

"Without access to the information in the (scientific and education) permits, it is very difficult for the committee to monitor scientific research and its outcomes, thereby meet its fundamental duty," the committee wrote in February 2019.

"Key scientific findings that could inform management of Fraser Island World Heritage Area are consequently lost."

Recommendations from the committees were submitted to both the State and Federal Environment Ministers, Leeanne Enoch and Sussan Ley, respectively.

Five committees for different World Heritage Areas were spruiked by former Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles in December 2016, who said at the time "some of Australia's most eminent scientists will provide expert advice to the State Government on how to maintain and protect" them.

 

About 82,000 hectares of bushland has burned on Fraser Island since the fire began. Picture: Facebook/Glen Winney
About 82,000 hectares of bushland has burned on Fraser Island since the fire began. Picture: Facebook/Glen Winney

 

Dr Miles also said the committees would play a "vital role" in conserving the landmark, while the committees themselves said it was an "opportunity to raise the bar for K'gari (Fraser Island)".

The two Fraser Island committees were the only ones discontinued last year, The Courier-Mail can reveal.

Since the committees were shut down and Mr Sinclair died in 2019, about 82,500ha has burned on the island.

Former Fraser Island Advisory Committee member Mike West said the fire was a " … predictable … environmental disaster" that highlighted the urgent need for the committee to be reformed.

"Virtually the whole island in one year has been burnt to a crisp apart from some of the strong green rainforests. It's cruel to watch," he said.

Mr West applied for a job on the new committee at the end of last year, but never heard back, he said.

"A committee who knows what they're talking about needs to come back."

"It's certainly the worst thing that's happened to the Island since I've been involved (1980)," he said.

The state government did not comment on whether any members had been selected yet.

"The Committees are appointed by Queensland and there is no Commonwealth obstacle to this process. The Department is not aware of any outstanding correspondence in relation the appointment of a chair," a spokesman for the federal department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said.

 

 

Environmentalists will today charter a flight over the island to look for wildlife, after raising concerns earlier this week about the State Government downplaying the impact of the fire on native species.

"They keep underplaying it … we'd like to show it's not as well as they seem to be making out," Save Fraser Island Dingoes public relations officer Cheryl Bryant said.

DES this week said in a statement: "Fire is a natural part of Queensland's landscape and K'gari has adapted to survive bushfires, with some species of flora and fauna totally reliant on it for regeneration or future food source and habitat."

Ms Bryant said dingoes on the island had been pushed into rival territory by the fire and were attacking each other, including their pups.

"Our concern is basically for the next generation, if we lose this generation of puppies we don't know what that will hold," she said.

A State Government spokesman said the process of forming a new committee was underway.

"The Queensland Government has consistently sought extra Federal funding to align with the additional investment the Queensland Government is making in the management of World Heritage Areas," the spokesman said.

"The Federal Government's investment in Queensland's world heritage areas has not increased for more than a decade."

A spokesman said the Federal Government had provided $610,000 in funding for the island in recent years.

Ninety personnel, 38 vehicles and 17 aircraft responded to the fire yesterday.

Heightened fire danger is expected to continue on the island.

 

 

 

 

Originally published as Fraser Island fires were 'time bomb' waiting to happen



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