A reflection on Australia’s killer fire year. Is there a lesson for B.C. in the Antipodes’ recent bush fires catastrophe?
The catastrophic bushfires in Victoria this year, and the other great fires of recent years in Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia are dramatic expressions not just of killing forces unleashed, but of human folly. No less than the foolish strategies of the World War 1 Generals, these bushfires and their outcomes speak of incompetent leadership and of failed imaginations. Most unforgivable of all, they demonstrate the inability of people in powerful and influential positions to profit from the lessons of history and to heed the wisdom of experience.
But just a minute, I can hear some of you thinking. Is this fellow going too far here? What about the malignant influence of global warming on bushfire conditions, making things impossible for firefighters? What about the unprecedented weather conditions on the day, making the fires of February 2009 “unstoppable”. What about the years of drought making the bush super-ready to burn? Does he not realise that conditions beyond human understanding have now arisen in Victoria, making killer bushfires inevitable? And what about the promises of technology, the super-aerial tankers and so forth, that will give the initiative to our firefighters for once and for all?
I have thought long and hard about all these issues. I am well aware of the drought, of the terrible conditions on the days of the fires, and of the view from some quarters that all of this is a result of global warming. I accept that drought and bad fire weather increase the risk of serious bushfires. What I do not accept is that “unstoppable” bushfires are the inevitable consequence. And while I will always welcome improved firefighting technology, I know from experience and from an understanding of the simple physics of bushfire behaviour, that technology can never be a substitute for good land management.
The serious bushfire is like a disease that is incubated over many years; good land management is the preventative medicine that ensures the disease does not become a killer epidemic.
To me, the epidemic of recent killer bushfires in Victoria are not an indicator of what is inevitable in the future. To me, they are an indicator of the inevitable consequences of what has happened in the past. To me, these fires toll like bells: they toll for failed leadership, failed governance and failed land management.
The issues of leadership and of good governance are central to my position. What these terrible fires point to is that the leaders of our society, Victoria’s politicians and senior bureaucrats, have palpably failed to do the most fundamental thing expected of them: to safeguard Victorian lives and the Victorian environment in the face of an obvious threat. They have failed to discharge their duty of care. Just as we now look back with incredulity at the amateurish strategies of the Generals in The Great War of 1914-1918, so will future Australians look back on the work of those responsible for land and bushfire management in this country (our bushfire Generals) in the years leading up to The Great Fires of 2003-2009.
The toll of the 2009 Victorian fires is shocking. Over 200 lives – lost. Thousands of homes – destroyed. Millions of dollars worth of social and economic infrastructure – reduced to ashes. The work of generations, the farmlands, stock, fences, woolsheds, yards and pastures – dead and gone. Native animals and birds – killed in their millions.
Beautiful forests – cooked, in some cases stone dead. Catchments – eroding. The costs – multi-millions of dollars. Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the equivalent of a year’s supply for the whole of Australia. Psychological damage to children and families – uncountable.
Our bushfire Generals……. those Premiers, Ministers and senior bushfire bureaucrats in whom the people of Victoria put their trust….. can have no excuses. They cannot say they didn’t know we have serious bushfires in Australia. This is no soft, green island where no bushfire ever burns. Australians have not arrived only recently in this hot, dry sclerophyllous land. Even if we overlook for a moment the fire management experience of Aboriginal people, accumulated over 40,000 years or so, non-Aboriginal Australians have been here for over 200 years, with 200 fire seasons, thousands of hot, dry and windy days, dozens of prolonged droughts, tens of thousands of thunderstorms, millions of lightning strikes, and hundreds of thousands of bushfires. This is no new or unique phenomenon.
Read the full article by Roger Underwood by clicking on the above PDF link “Australian Wild Fires.pdf”
Web Link: http://bushfirefront.com.au/