Bushfire. The savage beast that kills…

Bushfire. The savage beast that kills, maims, destroys everything in its path. A roaring devouring beast that can jump many hundreds of metres fuelled by the eucalyptus oils that the Australian bush gives off when it is hot. It is this blue haze of eucalyptus oils that give the Blue Mountains in New South Wales their name. Bushfires. Fierce fires with the roar of a jet and the speed of an express train. Frightening, terrifying, and often fatal.

Bushfires are not new in Australia, of course. Even disastrous bushfires have been before. The ‘Red Bull’ they called it. It ripped cattle stations apart, and each time they were rebuilt. Friday 13 January 1939 is known as ‘Black Friday’. 79 people died as the firestorm swept across Victoria and South Australia. Many of them were in remote timber milling towns in the heart of the forest and they didn’t stand a chance. Then there was Ash Wednesday in 1983 on February 16 1983, again in Victoria and South Australia, which killed 75 people. Bushfires in Sydney in 2002, and in the Victorian and NSW high country in 2003, which also threatened Canberra and actually destroyed properties in Canberra suburbs, though with only minimal loss of life.

But there has never been a bushfire disaster in Australia in the 200 plus years since European settlement of the magnitude of what happened on Saturday February 7 2009. It was the hottest day on record, with temperatures near Geelong reaching 47.9 and in Melbourne 46.4 degrees Celsius. That is 118.22 and 115.42 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s pretty warm, and combined with the hot wind gusting in from the hot, dry deserts of central Australia, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

We knew it was coming. Weather forecasters had been saying for several days that these extreme weather conditions were coming. They even correctly predicted the day. Saturday the 7th, they said, would bring conditions like we had not seen before. Even the Premier, John Brumby, had publicly warned of the coming extreme conditions and the possibility of a disaster.

There were a lot of things that contributed to the disaster. There was the weather conditions. We can’t do anything about that. But there was also the large amount of fuel in the forest, and we can do something about that. And there was the lack of access for the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and other emergency services vehicles. And there was the lack of appreciation by many of the severity of the expected conditions, and therefore a lack of preparation by both government and by individuals. Then there was the deliberate lighting of fires. Both the CFA and the police believe that many of the fires were deliberately lit, and a number of the destroyed towns have been declared crime scenes.

Ideology prevented the reduction of fuel load in the forest. The necessity of reducing fuel load and the methods by which this can be achieved, have long been understood. As a youngster in Western Australia forty years ago I worked for the then Forests Department which conducted cool control burns on a yearly basis. These burns, when the forest understorey was still green, were ‘cool’, in that the fire because the fuel was still largely green did not get very hot and caused no major damage. But the result was that a large amount of the fuel in the forest – the undergrowth, fallen leaves, fallen branches, weeds, grasses, and so on – was burnt. Which means that when it gets to extreme conditions like Saturday the 7th that fuel is not available to the bushfire to burn and so the fire is so much less severe. If you do not have the cool control burn you will have a much hotter hot burn when the inevitable bushfires come.

So why aren’t these control burns being done? When we know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it, why aren’t we doing it? Is this a culpable neglect of our duty which has so far cost 179 people their lives. That is worse than the Bali bombings!

Phil Cheney, senior principal research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), speaking at the time of the 2002 Sydney bushfires, reckons that:

“A lot of the population is urban-based and don’t understand the role of fire in the natural environment. And there is a natural aversion against fire, longstanding in our heritage, being largely European based.”

“With management and careful planning I believe much more fire can be applied by land management agencies in an ecologically sensible way.”

“I believe that in many areas National Parks can use prescribed fire as part of their park management.”

It is interesting to read his comments after Saturdays disaster, as reported in ‘The Australian‘:

Phil Cheney, formerly head of the CSIRO’s bushfire research unit, said the number of Victorian fatalities “absolutely” would have been lower with more prescribed burning.

Mr Cheney said he was “totally frustrated” at the failure of governments to reduce the forest density after repeated inquiries into fire deaths recommended such a strategy.

“It’s unbelievable how far behind they are,” Mr Cheney said.

Mr Cheney blamed a lack of political will for continued fire deaths, saying Victoria’s national park managers were philosophically opposed to prescribed burning. He said the strategy was limited to “pocket handkerchief-sized” areas that had not offset the risks from vast tracts of neglected forests.

Yet there are many who reckon that control burning is a negative, a technique that should not be used. There are reasons for this. Bill McCormick, writing in a parliamentary briefing entitled Bushfires: Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer? writes that:

Frequent low intensity burning will alter the composition of the understorey plant species in dry sclerophyll forests even if no species is lost. Some plant species require a high intensity fire to regenerate.

Fuel reduction burning on a regular basis will alter the vegetation and affect the animals living there. Studies have shown that frequent controlled burns will adversely affect birds which favour shrubby undergrowth (Golden Whistler) or dense leaf litter (Red-Winged Fairy-wren, Pilot-bird) and where that burning opens up the vegetation, will favour birds that require a relatively open understorey.

So there are environmental reasons for not using cool control burns which have to be offset against environmental and other reasons for using them.

There are also other reasons for not using cool control burns. There is the loss of amenity. Close to areas where people live the smoke from the burns is unpleasant, and that has political implications. Also people who like to visit a national park don’t like to find it all black and burnt when they come for their weekend barbecue! But these considerations also need to be offset against other considerations such as dangers to human life and property.

Aboriginal Australians looked at fire quite differently. They used fire to manage the land. Beth Gott, from Monash University, makes the point that:

“Fire has been used as a resource management tool by Aborigines for many thousands of years … In considering the aims of Aboriginal burning, most observers have accepted that it was to drive animals and have ignored what was a more important goal – the maintenance of plant food resources. “

Because, of course, if you have a hot burn there is not much left. Both plant and animal food resources have been wiped out. Starvation becomes a real possibility. And I don’t think it would have escaped the attention of the Aborigines that a hot fire was likely to wipe them out too!

So there are good reasons to use control or fuel reduction burns. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) indicates the fundamental issues of concern in developing and implementing a fuel reduction program:

Our objectives in relation to fire management are first and foremost the protection of life, property and community assets. We also have objectives in relation to the maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity and the protection of cultural heritage which influence our approach to fire management.

As far as I can tell fuel reduction burns are used by all state governments, but to varying degrees. Western Australia uses it most extensively in the Jarrah forest, where the concept was developed in the 1920s, with Victoria and New South Wales using it in a much more limited way. So the question then becomes, are the NSW and Victorian governments using cool burns sufficiently to ‘protect the life and property and community assets’ they are meant to protect? It seems from the results of the last week in Victoria that there is something missing. The nature and ferocity of the fires indicates that there was far too much fuel present.

John Fisher of New South Wales State Forests told the New South Wales Bushfires Inquiry that:

“The opponents of fuel reduction burning fail to realise the operational difficulty of fighting a wildfire in extreme conditions.”

On Saturday the 7th of February we had those extreme conditions and at least 181 people paid the price of their lives because governments had allowed the fuel to build up too much.

Then there is the problem of access into the forest by the emergency services. It seems to me pretty obvious that the more forest tracks and roads that are open and usable the easier it will be for firefighters to get to the places they need to to do their work! But the various departments of natural resources and environment are busily shutting down the various tracks through the bush. Those who love to travel in the bush and enjoy its beauty are being prevented from doing so by people who think that driving through the bush must necessarily harm it. The inevitable by product of this is that tracks that could provide access are closed and become overgrown and impassable.

This seems pretty dumb to me. Both parties involved, the departments and the four wheel drive people who love the bush and want to travel in it have a vested interest in looking after the bush. So why not enlist the aid of the four wheel drive people to keep the tracks open and to maintain and care for the bush? I understand that something of this nature is already working quite well in the Wombat State Forest in central Victoria near Daylesford. The four wheel drive people have cleaned up the bush, taking out more that 80 dead car bodies, and they have mapped weeds so that the department can plan to properly eradicate them. They are having a great time doing it and the forest is benefitting! That four wheel drive people want to look after the environment can be seen by the number of them that serve as fireys in the various fire services.

The Wombat State Forest experience shows that it can work, so why not bring interested users in as part of forest management? The more interested parties working for the betterment of the forest the better.

One of the things that is jumping out at me as I write this is why there were so many people out there in dangerous places. Places that were almost guaranteed to be a death trap if a fire got near them. I mean, given that we had several days notice that explosive conditions were coming people had plenty of time to leave. But they didn’t, not until it was too late.

You can’t fight this kind of fire. You can’t stop it. In those conditions of high heat, combined with strong hot winds and plenty of fuel in the forest, there is just no stopping it. It just comes roaring through at a hundred miles an hour and devours everything in its path. Nothing can stop it.

We knew that. And we knew it was coming. But still many of us stayed. And many of us died. Why?

People want to defend their property. Their home is more than just the place they live. Its almost an extension, an expression of them. If their home is destroyed it is as if part of them is destroyed. These are valid feelings, and hard ones to deal with when your home is threatened. We feel very strongly we want to defend our homes. And also, that is what they were told to do. The CFA had been telling people how to defend their homes against bushfire, how to stay indoors with water at the ready and having made everything wet and staying out of the radiant heat. It was very good advice … for your average bushfire.

But this was not your average bushfire! In these conditions we can’t stay to defend our homes. For homes in bush areas where the fires in these conditions come we are going to lose them, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Once the fires start coming its too late and we need to get out and get safe. There are no options. And I reckon the CFA needs to start advising people when the time has come that you can no longer defend and you need to get out.

There is of course much that we can do to protect our homes. From building design right through to keeping fuel away from the house and other buildings, there are lots of ways for preparing for a fire that can prove to be an effective defense. But once the fires start coming in those extreme conditions there is nothing that we can do. To remain behind armed with are garden hose or something similar can be fatally futile. But people still want to stay – probably because they do not really understand the risk. If they did they would flee in terror!

The last one I want to consider is that deliberately lit fires. As I sit writing this on the Wednesday after Black Saturday I hear news that yet another fire has been deliberately lit in the Gippsland! You’ll note I have avoided calling it arson. I reckon calling it arson tends to minimise it. Its actually pre-meditated murder. It may even be that form of pre-meditated murder we call terrorism. But it is certainly pre-meditated. Whoever lit that fire today knew what the effect of his actions might be, and he went and did it anyway.

So how do we stop it? How can we stop this murder? How can we stop people going out and lighting fires that will put others at risk of dying? Can we have some form of security that will stop it, or at least minimise it? That’s going to be a challenge, with the huge areas involved!

Two things we can do.

We can minimise the effect of deliberately lit fires by effective fuel minimisation practices, as discussed above. Then when the people that want to kill by fire try it they will find that it doesn’t work as well as they thought. This will also help with fires that are not deliberately lit, so there is a double benefit. This is also a national security issue. Deliberately lighting bushfires like this can be a form of terrorism, and we need to take defensive measures against all forms of terrorism. It seems that the death toll will exceed 230, which is more than the terrorist attack that was the Bali bombing.

We can also make the judicial system take this sort of crime more seriously. Start treating deliberately lighting fires in these conditions as multiple murder charges and there will be a greater consideration by those wanting to perpetrate these crimes. At the very least they will have no excuse for not realising the seriousness of their actions! Hopefully it will also have some deterrent value. A side effect of this is that society will be able to see that justice has been done.

© Willem Schultink