Governments have reduced off-season fuel-reduction burns, under political pressure from greenies.
Wide areas of Australia are bracing for another disastrous bushfire season, following a month in which wildfires raged across parts of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, causing loss of life and heavy economic damage.
In recent years, bushfires have become a growing problem in most parts of Australia. Although environmentalists have blamed global warming, there is strong evidence that bushfires themselves are the largest single cause of what they regard as greenhouse gas emissions.
“Fires make a significant contribution to the greenhouse effect – perhaps accounting for 40 per cent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr Dean Graetz of the CSIRO’s Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Canberra said in 1999.
Successive inquiries in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT have all pointed to a different cause of bushfires: the massive build-up of combustible fuels on the floor of state forests and national parks as a result of government policy.
Political pressure from greenies
Governments have reduced off-season fuel-reduction burns, under political pressure from greenies who oppose prescribed burning in state forests or national parks, and local government bodies which have imposed severe restrictions on burning under the influence of residents concerned about smoke, a burnt landscape, and other issues.
As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
After severe bushfires in New South Wales in 2001-2, a NSW parliamentary select committee recommended that a program of fuel-reduction burning be established across the state.
Despite opposition from greenies and some academics, the committee recommended that “all state land management agencies apply the necessary resources to ensure that their annual planned programs of hazard reduction are achieved in each reserve or, where planned hazard reduction by means of controlled burning is postponed more than twice in any reporting year, that contingency/catch-up plans are developed and implemented within a reasonable time-frame to be negotiated with the appropriate Bushfire Management Planning Committee.”
However, it just did not happen, owing to entrenched opposition within the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and from lobby groups such as the National Parks Association.
Huge bushfires racked NSW again in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Similar inaction followed the Victorian inquiry, conducted by Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin, into the 2002-3 bushfires in south-eastern Australia.
Western Australia has had a better record of limiting the damage done by bushfires. This was prompted by the recommendations of a Royal Commission which followed wildfires that in 1961 destroyed several country towns causing many deaths.
The WA Government subsequently introduced a program of fuel-reduction burns so that, every eight years or so, native forests faced a low-intensity fire. A result was that, for many years, the bushfire problem was contained.
But, with the passage of time, and Perth’s growing population, the lessons of the 1960s faded, and the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) became less committed to achieving its targets.
As Don Spriggins of the Association Against Bushfire Damage in WA commented, “What has happened in recent years is that the Government has laid less and less emphasis on fuel-reduction burning to minimise the effects of bushfires, but has laid more emphasis on fire-suppression operations.”
He said, “We have moved toward an American-style ‘throw everything at ’em’ approach, with increasing reliance on water bombers, both fixed-wing and helicopters.
“While they can be very useful in slowing down a wildfire while it is small, they are not a substitute for ground forces. They are extremely expensive, especially large helicopters, and probably would not stand up well in a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
“However, they do make good media copy and they do enable politicians to grandstand that they are doing something aggressive about bushfires. Such people lose sight of the fact that under severe weather conditions, when fire disasters do occur, aircraft are ineffective. During the  Canberra firestorm, all aircraft were grounded by smoke and high winds.”
Until governments are determined to deal with causes rather than effects, wildfires will exact an increasing toll in Australia.
As Dr Graetz said in December 2003, the current bushfire strategy is essentially reactive: “We do the most about fires only when they occur. Moreover, we fight fires with fire-fighters – trained, dedicated and brave professionals and volunteers.”
While a fire-fighting capacity will always be necessary, he said, a reactive strategy should not be the first line of bushfire management.
“There is another way, a better way, long known. It is a proactive strategy of pre-emptive burning – of fuel reduction – that lowers the probability of destructive fires.” (ABC Rural’s Bush Telegraph, December 15, 2003).
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council