“It was going to bloody roar wasn’t it”: ‘Fear of litigation’ undermining fire response


Flying through smoke in his own helicopter above fire lines, Central Queensland cattle producer James Speed has been alerting local landholders and rural fire brigade volunteers on the ground below to movements in fire fronts and locations of fire break jumps as they occur in real time.

When Beef Central called him to discuss the recent massive CQ fire, he said he could think of a thousand other things he’d prefer to be doing, but felt it was important to speak out to ensure the experiences of the past month are not forgotten and mistakes not repeated.

He also stresses that his concerns are not directed at any individuals specifically, and by and large he believes everyone involved in the fire-fighting effort has had good intentions at heart.

But problems occur when control of rural fires is transferred to command centres from the “big smoke” without adequate coordination with people with local knowledge and expertise, and a system that prevents adequate preparation before bushfires, resulting in blazes that become far more destructive forces across the entire landscape.

Mr Speed said previous requests in winter months for cool burns in nearby national parks to reduce fuel loads had been met with the response that showers of rain were needed first, so the ground would be wet before the fire was put over it to ensure grass would shoot straight away and not leave the ground bare for too long.

“Well, this is Central Queensland, we don’t get a shower of rain until October,” he said.

“The next day it is 40-degree heat, any moisture within the ground is gone, and by the time they get their fire sorted, it is back into drought conditions again.

“It will just roar and the ground will be left bare anyway.

“They think they’re environmentalists but they have no idea what they are doing.”

Without controlled cool season burns in national parks the system was “destroying what it is supposed to be protecting”, he said.

As an example he pointed to the disappearance of koalas in nearby national parks.

Almost 30 years ago, he said, his family sold some nearby country which became a national park.

“There were koalas in that country then then, but I doubt you’d find one today.

“I reckon they have been burned out.

“Some of that country from what I know hasn’t been (control) burned for the last 20 years.

“So what was going to happen?

“Of course it was going to bloody roar wasn’t it.”

Without hazard reduction burns as had happened in the past, fires burned far hotter and more intensely when they do occur, effectively “burning national parks to death”.

Mr Speed believes much of the substantial sum of money being spent trying to control fires would be better spent on preparation such as winter fires and investing in maintaining fire breaks for fire and erosion control.

“These fires shouldn’t have happened, some of it should have been burned in winter time when they could be controlled, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”

A lack of coordination between fire command centres away from the frontline and landholders and volunteers on the ground was another issue, he said.

Landholders lighting back burning fires to halt the larger fire front were being threatened with prosecution, with the warning they are technically in breach of rules prohibiting people from starting fires under a total fire ban.

A “fear of litigation” was discouraging people at all levels from making decisive calls at critical times he said.

“If you make a decision and it goes wrong you’re responsible.

“If you don’t make a decision then no one is responsible, are they.

“People high up in the food chain are not game to make a decision.

“And if you (as a landholder) make the decision to backburn and that fire jumps, you’re then responsible.

“It is all about responsibility, no one is game to put their hand up and take responsibility because if it turns pear shaped then they sue that individual to the point that they’re broke.

“The person who makes these decisions has got to be protected from the litigation should it go wrong.

“The indemnity side of it is what beats people. ”

Mr Speed said when fires become as intense as they have in the region in the past month, the scars last for years to come.

10 years ago his property was burned out, and the landscape had still not fully recovered, he said.

“I know the carrying capacity on my place isn’t what it was prior to the fire 10 years ago,” he said.

“The damage that has been done to the pasture will be long term in any of that fire area.

“The ground gets hot, you don’t get the same density of grass, it gets hard.

“It is like burning your vege garden, no one burns their vege garden, they want the mulch on the ground, so it burned all that off.

“I can show you on Goodliff places that were burned 10 years ago, and you can see where the fire break was, and the grass that was protected that didn’t get burned, you can see the difference from the air, it is chalk and cheese.

“And if you want to go and talk about emissions to the atmosphere – they’re banging on about all that sort of stuff, they want us to be carbon neutral , yet we have these fires… the parks would never be carbon neutral would they.”



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  1. Lisa McKinlay, 24/11/2023

    I’m in total agreement with Mr Speed. Bring back common sense not over educated greenies with no idea of how things are in the outback .

  2. Cate Buckham, 22/11/2023

    I fully agree with Mr. Speed. We had the same problem here at Tarome SEQ in 2019, where Parks had a huge fuel load. That fire burnt so severely it killed thousands of magnificent, previously green, Iron bark and Pink Box trees. It killed wildlife, no Koalas left alive through that fire. Dead birds, wallabies and even dingoes were found. It was fortunate we had no livestock in that country at the time.

    The order of ‘no back burning’ could not be kept or the district would still be recovering today. As said in your article the litigation is our fear and the orders from no where near the fire front and with no knowledge of the area.

  3. John THOMSON, 22/11/2023

    Been in Rural Fires for more than 50 years. It is harder now to fight fires because of higher authorities making or Not making decisions. These decisions should be made from the bottom up, NOT FROM THE TOP DOWN!

  4. Yvonne Thomson, 22/11/2023

    Very interested in a Positive Outcome to this disaster.

  5. Ian Maher, 21/11/2023

    I had these same issues with the fire commisioner on a fire front in Mount Morgan. They refused to backburn. When I started to backburn to save my neighbours and some of my land I was told to cease what I was doing or I would be charged with arson. In inaccessable land the only way to stop a dire is to backburn. This is why fire are now becoming uncontrollable.

  6. Adam Elliott, 21/11/2023

    Same in South Australia. Rob England wrote a book about it. Bueaucrats who want big budgets running the show, severe lack of pragmatism.

  7. Lionel, 21/11/2023

    Great story James I can’t believe that would be the best thing to back burn to save grass

    • Dixie Nott, 23/11/2023

      Thank you Speed family for your help when I most appreciated it. Our ecosystems in Coastal Central QLD have evolved with a regular regime of recurrent fire on a three to five year return interval. It is a responsibility of land management to follow this cycle and patch burn in cool months. How to turf Unconnected Government out of the equation is impossible without a mentally connected urban population. A recent referendum showed 60% are connected. Help them find their voice.

  8. Josh Phelps, 21/11/2023

    Get this article in the Herald and the Australian – this needs to be heard.

  9. Mark Coleman, 21/11/2023

    Great article this is an Australia-wide issue. The so-called government land managers are not accountable. for their inaction! my entire herd was incinerated in 2006, it took 12 years to come back from that!! much of the county that was fried will never come back!! another National Park “Loved to death!
    Mark Coleman former president of the Moutain Cattlemen’s Association Vic

  10. Michael Burgis, 21/11/2023

    Great article. It’s a disgrace that the fire occurred and preventable actions had not been taken. So sad for many grazing and farming families who are trying to manage their properties in these increasing dry times.

    The regional fire and the fire within Carnarvon Gorge, failed to gain any relevant coverage from major news providers. One wonders why, perhaps it does not fit their green agenda.

    Unfortunately this type of bungling is endemic through-out government organisations , with much pandering to minority groups living in and around the suburbs.

    It’s highly unlikely that these bureaucrats will disappear in a whiff of smoke !

  11. Susan Weis, 21/11/2023

    James Speed we have experienced exactly what you are saying. We were burnt out in 2017 by a mismanaged fire that ignited 40 ks away from us. Some terrible decisions were made by those in authority and farmers were ignored. During the inquest my husband had to seek special exoneration because he lit a backburn to protect a paddock from a fire coming out of the national park. The authorities were so focussed on his actions that had no detrimental impact on anything and seem to ignore the fact that 55,000ha burnt while they watched on.
    I think you have hit on all the points that need to be addressed but its falling on deaf ears in the bureaucracy.

  12. Eric Webb, 20/11/2023

    James. Speed you are absolutely correct

  13. Tim Perrett, 20/11/2023

    We also join a large national park in CQ and can relate to James sentiment.My Grandfather came here in 1926 and grazed what is the Park today . I have been told by my parents he burnt all year round and never had Dozers,Graders,Fire Units ect and any problems with large fires.
    I know everyone wants the right out come but what’s happening now isn’t.
    Tim Perrett

  14. Andrew Walsh, 20/11/2023

    You are so bloody right James S,
    Only problem James N is who else reads this except us! How do you get this in front of the average city punter ?

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