IT is generally agreed that the worst dust storms since European settlement were during the 1944-1945 period.
In his book Out of the West: A Historical Perspective of the Western Division of NSW, former Western Lands Commissioner, Dick Condon, says there were 34 severe dust storms at Wagga Wagga during the period 1944-45, many so bad that it would have been necessary to turn the lights on in order to see inside the average sized house.
Mr Condon suggests the dust storms during the 1982-83 drought were not as bad as those during the period 1885 to 1945 because of the much improved conditions of the landscape in the semi-arid and arid grazing country in western New South Wales.
In contrast, it is generally agreed that bushfires are getting worse.
In Inferno, The Day Victoria Burned, journalist, Roger Franklin, explains that the bushfires of February 2009, while not without precedent, were worst than earlier fires. For example, Black Friday, 1939, according to Mr Franklin, consumed twice as much countryside, but less than half as many lives. He goes on to suggest that for all the theorizing and inquiring, we are losing ground when it comes to managing fire and that unless the “winds change in the corridors of power” next time will be worse. Much worse.
It seems that we are getting better at managing drought and worst at managing fire.
Landholders certainly learnt the lessons of over-clearing and overgrazing, which left a lot of country bare in the early days of settlement, contributing to intense dust storms.
A lot has changed since 1945: adoption of minimum tillage, wind breaks and, of course, the success of government-sponsored programs to control rabbits.
But when it comes to implementing management practices to reduce the impact of wildfires, well, the efforts of landholders are generally not supported by government policy.
Indeed, while Landcare and other government-sponsored environmental initiatives encourage planting of windbreaks, they prohibit bulldozing of firebreaks.
It seems governments have a myopia of sorts when it comes to land management; an inability to see the bigger picture.
While trees are an important part of many landscapes, there are times and places when many should be sacrificed for the protection of lives and property from fire.
Indeed, if we are to reduce the intensity of wildfires there are lessons to be learnt by government from success in reducing the intensity of dust storms and it is simple: empower landholders.
In particular, give farmers and foresters incentives to improve land management, including not only the right to plant trees, but also to cut them down.
‘Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned’ was available from bookstores nationally on October 1, and is $39.95 hardback.
This note was first published as a column in The Land newspaper on Thursday October 1.