NSW bushfire statistics which show only one prosecution for every 2000 unlawful burns gives the green light for illegal burning by landowners because "the law becomes a joke", said NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.
"These numbers don't lie," said Mr Shoebridge after the Newcastle Herald revealed Bureau of Crime Statistics data showing only 16 landowners have been convicted of illegal hazard reduction burn offences in NSW since 2009, despite problem landowner fires jumping from less than 350 in 2010 to nearly 3000 a year since 2017.
"When a teenager starts a grass fire then politicians call for harsh penalties, but when landowners do the exact same thing there is silence," he said.
"It may be politically convenient for the Liberal Government to focus on teenage arsonists but there is a real issue here of illegal burning by landowners that needs to be addressed."
The Herald on Thursday revealed data held by NSW emergency services shows "escaped" fires from hazard reduction by landowners, permit and pile burns have dramatically increased in less than a decade while politicians, mainly Nationals, have pushed for more hazard reduction burning to deal with catastrophic bushfires.
The push is despite strong challenges from academics, fire experts and fire commissioners, including Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, against the claims.
The data shows only two people were convicted for lighting fires for land clearing without permits or authority in 2016, despite the annual escaped landowner fires reported to authorities jumping from 1514 in 2015 to 2565 in 2016.
The highest number of recorded hazard reduction fire offence convictions in a single year is three, in 2015 and 2019, when the average annual reported incidence of "escaped" fires is nearly 3000.
In a statement on Friday the Rural Fire Service said 635 people in 2017/18 were issued with warning letters after 1664 illegal burns in NSW, another 28 were fined and 16 "received police action".
In the same year another 72 people received warning letters, and one fine was issued, after 267 escaped private burns, the RFS said.
There were 1625 illegal burns in 2018/19 resulting in 573 people being issued with warning letters. Eleven people were fined and 18 "received police action". There were an additional 248 escaped private pile burns, where 46 landowners received warning letters, one was fined and two "received police action".
"All these escaped fires do result in a number of resources being sent to respond, including aircraft which can be at considerable cost," the RFS said.
"The NSW RFS works closely with the NSW Police Force, including the provision of a liaison officer within the arson squad."
The RFS established a fire investigation and compliance unit in 2018 and employed an intelligence analyst to report on trends including illegal and careless fires, the statement said.
The RFS launched a media campaign in 2019/20 targeting regional and local areas to reduce the incidence of illegal and careless fires, and rolled out the Don't Be The Fire Risk To Your Community public awareness campaign targeting local landholders in areas where spikes in illegal and escaped burn incidents occurred.
The RFS had also deployed fire investigators and penalty notice issuing officers in the 2019/20 fire season to illegal and careless fire hotspot areas, including the lower north coast and Clarence valley, where an internal RFS document in 2008 identified "indiscriminate and irresponsible burning off practices" as a major cause of bushfires, including major fires.
Mr Shoebridge said the dramatic jump in "escaped" burns, including from hazard reduction by landowners, needed to be addressed during the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.
"One of the major focuses of the current inquiry must be the role that illegal burning by landowners has played in these dreadful fires, and whether or not the state government has been complicit in this practice," Mr Shoebridge said.
"It is hard to understand why this government is so unwilling to enforce the law, especially when we know that illegal burning by landowners has been a major source of large scale bush fires."
Mr Shoebridge said there would always be cases where "desperate last minute back burns" were essential to save life and property, "but this can hardly be the case for the thousands of escaped fires that the authorities have on the record".
Former Hunter and Central Coast RFS fire investigator Rick Miller said the push by National Party politicians for greater freedom for landowners to do hazard reduction burns failed to acknowledge the current known and serious risks posed by careless and reckless landowners.
"If you're going to talk about doubling hazard reduction burns, as some of these politicians are, then you're going to have to get real about the amount of illegal burns that are already occurring without real penalty," Mr Miller said.
In 2018 Mr Fitzsimmons said escaped fires posed "a very real and potentially deadly threat to the public".
NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals MP John Barilaro referred questions to Police and Emergency Services David Elliott. Mr Elliott did not respond.
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS
- Newcastle councillors up in arms over photo shoot
- Convicted child sex offender and Marist Brother William Wade pleads guilty to concealing child sex crimes
- NSW Labor slams Liberal National government's delay in building a Singleton bypass ahead of Shadow cabinet meeting
- Residents view escape from Williamtown contamination zone after federal government settles class-action claim
- Sonia Hornery lambasts state government in the wake of freak storm in Newcastle
- Bank set to foreclose on Williamtown farm after family flees red zone due to health concerns