RAGING bushfires in Tasmania and NSW over the past week have added weight to calls to extend federal government funding for a critical research agency that’s about to expire.
Bushfire CRC chief executive officer Gary Morgan said his organisation was only funded by the Commonwealth up to the end of June this year.
After that date, Mr Morgan said the Bushfire CRC’s research efforts would then begin to wind down, with no new research to commence.
He said for the last 10 years the Bushfire CRC had worked closely with fire agencies throughout Australia, providing the science that allows them to better prepare for and manage fire seasons, “like the one we are currently in”.
“After June we are not sure what is going to happen,” he said.
“We would prefer that the Bushfire CRC continues to deliver the science that is needed to manage bushfires right across Australia and we hope that the Australian government also sees the value in good research to protect Australian communities from bushfires.
“It takes time and effort to get a new research program up and running with a cohort of researchers across the country.
“If we delay any further, national fire research will grind to a halt and we risk losing the momentum built up over the last 10 years at the Bushfire CRC.”
Mr Morgan said recent emergencies had shown that Australia needed to know more about fire, flood and natural hazards. He said new research was vital for creating new knowledge.
“Experience alone will not teach us,” he said. “A broader national research institute should be established with federal funding to continue cooperative research on an ongoing basis.”
It’s understood the research agency is being wound up due to rules around the limits for consecutive funding periods for CRCs.
In November last year, Federal and State Emergency Management Ministers confirmed their support for the establishment of a Disaster Resilience CRC to leverage off the learnings of all types of disasters.
It’s understood bush fires will be a major focus for the new CRC application – rather than a dedicated research group.
But WA Liberal Senator Chris Back has cautioned against losing the dynamics of a specific national research organisation for bushfires, with a strong track record and support from various state agencies and fire authorities.
In total, the Bushfire CRC has received $44 million in Commonwealth funding from 2003 to mid-2013.
For the last three years it has received $5m a year, after Federal government funding was allocated to conduct specific research into issues arising from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.
A spokesperson for the CRC said now that those issues have been looked at, researchers and fire industry members wanted to look more broadly at issues affecting the whole nation, and New Zealand, which his also a research partner.
The CRC is seeking Commonwealth funding of at least $5m a year, to help maintain a similar research effort.
The federal government funding is matched by funds from all State fire and land management agencies, which have said they intend to maintain contributions so long as the Commonwealth remains committed.
Nationals Leader Warren Truss said he was unaware the Bushfire CRC’s funding was due to conclude mid-year.
Due to lack of details, Mr Truss declined to say if the Coalition would maintain funding for the research agency if they were in government.
But he said bushfires were a significant issue in Australia.
“Anything that we can do to better manage bush fires is important so it’s surprising the government would be considering cutting this funding,” he said.
Mr Truss said seed funding from the Commonwealth was used to establish CRCs and it was then expected they created new partnerships to maintain their research work.
But he said some CRCs have been unable to progress towards that second step.
Mr Truss said the Bushfire CRC was not only researching ways of dealing with fire responses but also how to prevent and limit the cause of fires, like better understanding how to treat fuel loads and conduct back-burning.
Federal Minister for Science and Research Senator Chris Evans said the government had made it clear that a national centre for research on natural hazards was an essential part of Australia's emergency capability.
Minister Evans said since 2003 the Bushfire CRC has undertaken valuable research and its operation had been extended on current funds until June 30, 2014.
“I have instructed my department to discuss with the CRC options beyond the current funding period,” he said.
The Bushfire CRC has also responded to a request from the Tasmanian Fire Service to study community preparedness and the warning messages sent ahead of the recent outbreak of damaging fires.
Other areas that may be looked at once the emergency situation settles include the behaviour of the fires, the response to the fires, the loss or survival of particular houses and other structures, and issues specific to the high number of tourists in the region.
Researchers will be sourced from Bushfire CRC partners including the universities of Tasmania, La Trobe, Western Australia, Murdoch and RMIT.
Mr Morgan said the research was of national significance and data gathered will inform not just the residents of Tasmania and the Tasmania Fire Service, but also communities and fire agencies across Australia and New Zealand.