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Interview - ABC News 24

15 January 2020

Joe O'Brien

Subject: Bushfire Science Roundtable, climate change


Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews was interviewed on ABC News 24.

Joe O’Brien: The role of science and technology in fighting and reducing the risk of bushfires will be addressed by experts in Canberra today. Science Minister Karen Andrews will meet representatives from the CSIRO, the Academy of Science, along with bushfire researchers. She says today's roundtable will be the first of many.

Karen Andrews: Today we’re going to be focused on a couple of things. We are going to be talking about what evidence we have about patterns of bushfire behaviour. We are going to talk about what has happened in the current fire season and during the bushfires that we’re currently experiencing. We’ll talk about our science capability. We’ll look at where we have strengths, where we have opportunities to develop capability further. And we’re going to be starting to look at what some outcomes are going to be; how we can impact not just immediately, but also in the medium to longer term. So, for example, some of the things that we will be looking at are the contributors to the current fire season, what the future is likely to be, what tools we have that we can use to predict what the next and future fire seasons are going to be. But also to be looking at technologies that are going to assist our front-line firies to be able to do their job.

So the likes of CSIRO will be at today's roundtable. I’ve had many, many discussions with CSIRO and of course they’ve got a very long history with bushfire science. So I'll be interested to hear a lot more about what they’ve done with their Spark program that they developed in conjunction with the Victorian Government - how we can perhaps look at making such a system provide real time data. So for example, firies will be able to have something in their back pocket that they can then take out and go, okay, well this is where we need to be going next because this is the important fire. Is that fire about to jump a break? Is it going to come across a creek or a road? So they can put the resources that they need to on a real time basis. That’s probably a bit of a missing link at the moment.

But we’ll also be looking at other things which impact on fire risk and I'm sure many people would be very familiar with the signs that they see on the side of the road which actually look at what the fire danger, what the risks are going to be. Now CSIRO has done a lot of work on that and they've identified what the factors are that impact on the risk of bushfire and that includes things such as soil moisture content, humidity, prevailing winds and of course, temperature. So we’re going to be looking at those issues and what we can do to make sure that we’re adapting to future risk and we are becoming more resilient because we know that we’re not through the fire season now in Australia and there's going to be another one and another one and another one in coming years. So let's do all that we can to mitigate the risks.

Joe O’Brien: So a real focus on practical outcomes?

Karen Andrews: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s what my focus is. We need to have a discussion about what we do to mitigate the impacts of changes that we’re seeing across the board. We are a country that has long-experienced bushfires, has long-experienced drought. I am very focused on what we can do in the future to make sure we are more resilient and that we can cope with these changes as we face them.

Joe O’Brien: The Prime Minister has said there’s a number of factors influencing the fires. Do you accept the overarching and overwhelming factor affecting the duration and ferocity of these fires is climate change?

Karen Andrews: I accept that there are a number of factors and of course changes to the climate, which means that we are going to be facing hotter and drier summers, is clearly one of the inputs, one of the factors that’s going to be affecting bushfires.

Joe O’Brien: Yes. So it’s one of the factors but do you accept it’s probably the overarching and overwhelming factor?

Karen Andrews: Well that’s one of the things that I will talk to the people at my roundtable, my eminent scientists gathered around the table as well. But I'm sure they’re also going to be saying that there are a range of factors that we need to be looking at and there are a range of things that we need to do to make sure that we are better prepared.

Joe O’Brien: Do you agree that climate change is the overarching and overwhelming factor?

Karen Andrews: Look, I will continue to say that it is one of the factors because once we start going down the path...

Joe O’Brien: …What could possibly be a greater factor?

Karen Andrews: Well I don’t know that it’s in anyone's interest just to try to say, this is the first, second, third and fourth. We certainly need to prioritise and that’s one of the things that I will be talking to the scientists about later today. But there are a number of factors. In terms of the CSIRO determining what's going to be at a high risk, as I’ve said, they look at a number of factors, including prevailing winds. They do look at temperatures. They do look at humidity. They look at soil moisture content. What we can't do is focus on one single issue because by doing that we will actually be selling ourselves short. We actually need to look at this holistically. What are all of the issues that are impacting on our fire risk and what can we do to mitigate that?

Joe O’Brien: Karen Andrews there who’s holding those meetings today.