Philosophising on Bushfires: A Note from David Ward

FIRE in the landscape, or bushfire, is Australia’s most lethal and costly natural hazard. Big, uncontrollable bushfires can kill millions of trees and wild animals, thousands of farm animals, and sometimes humans too. Apart from deaths, bushfires incinerate property, such as bridges, farm fencing, homes, and even, a few years ago, an astronomical observatory. The cost to the economy is significant. So bushfire management is, for Australians, no trivial matter. Yet, despite many enquiries since the 1930s, we still have serious bushfires, which seem to be increasing in extent and intensity.

Image courtesy of http://bushfirefront.com.au

Image courtesy of http://bushfirefront.com.au

Philosophers may be interested in bushfire epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and ontology. Bushfire epistemology is very diverse, including traditional Aboriginal knowledge; historical records from early European settler diaries, letters, and journals; recent scientific research; economics, politics; law, and even psychology. Logic is needed to pull these together and arrive at rational policy on bushfire.

Although logic may seem to point to a particular solution, we must beware of the paths of false logic. Also, there may be ethical objections to some seemingly logical solutions. For example bulldozing all native vegetation might abolish bushfire, but would not be a good idea from many other points of view. Even aesthetics come into the picture. Many urban Australians, of recent migrant descent, see blackened ground as ugly, but Aborigines see it as beautiful, and describe it as ‘cleaned up’. Although bushfire is no doubt ugly to victims, flames do have a certain beauty, especially when mild and not threatening. Many of us like a campfire. Ontology is always useful, to distinguish between what is real, and what is imaginary.

While local volunteers provide most of the weary fire fighters, they are under the ultimate direction of salaried fire officers, who are public servants, wear white shirts, big hats, many medals, and appear on television, looking worried. Budget and big hats may be central to their thinking. Policy and budget are largely dictated by leading politicians, who may have budgets and metaphorical big hats of their own, and usually appear by helicopter in the aftermath, dispensing sympathy.

It may seem, to some, that Australia has addressed the bushfire bureau-political chain well (especially the hats, medals, helicopters and sympathy), yet there is ongoing dispute over the best way to actually prevent destructive bushfires. Some, including most farmers and volunteer bushfire fighters, with practical bushfire experience, are in favour of simplification, by returning to something like traditional Aboriginal management, where the bush was deliberately lit at short intervals, in a mosaic pattern, so keeping fuels low, and fires mild, even in summer. Local knowledge is essential for this approach. Those in white shirts should play a supporting, not directing role. In other words, let’s make fire our friend, and use fire to fight fire.

There are many historical accounts of this approach, for example the early German explorer Ludwig Leichardt described frequent mild bushfires in New South Wales in the 1840s, lit by Aborigines. He pointed out that such fires, although widespread and common, were not a threat to humans. I suspect there were few big hats and medals in those days. Early European farmers imitated Aboriginal burning, to keep themselves safe. More recent bushfires in New South Wales, often in long unburnt areas such as National Parks, have been unmistakeably menacing, due to heavier fuel. In 2013 bushfires in NSW caused two deaths, and the loss of 248 houses. The cost was put at $94 million.

Some natural scientists say that bushfire history is anecdote; or mythology; that little is known about Aboriginal burning; or even that such burning is impossible; and that frequent, mild fires destroy ‘biodiversity’ (however that slippery word may be defined). They say that history is unreliable, and only natural science can lead to the truth about bushfire. I suspect that the philosopher Robin G. Collingwood might have strongly disagreed with that view, since he saw history as an essential part of human understanding. Scientists should be aware that there is a history of science.

However, one Australian professor of biology, apparently dismissing history, wrote a letter to the prestigious journal Nature, titled “Don’t Fight Fire with Fire”. This may have reinforced his appointment as a bushfire adviser to the New South Wales government, from 1996-2004. In that time there were many uncontrollable bushfires. We should not, of course, allow ourselves to be misled by the old logical error of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, but we can still ponder. That professor now holds an academic appointment in the United Arab Emirates, where I would imagine there are few bushfires. Again, we should avoid assuming that his presence there has brought about that situation.

But is biology the most reliable source of information on bushfire? Biologists usually use statistical induction, which is a useful tool, but can be misused. Logical blunders have been noticed in refereed natural science journals. Could the broader scope of philosophy help us to get closer to the truth? History, and practical experience, can be astringent cross checks on findings by the scientific method, or a version thereof.

The cynic Ambrose Bierce is not widely acclaimed as a philosopher, yet he did have some useful insights. Before the First World War, in his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’, the cunning old codger defined logic as “The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding”. This may dismay learned, studious people like me, who are entranced by our own beamish logic, but we should remember that Ambrose also defined learning as “The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious”.

The perspicacious Ambrose did not stop there. He gave a clear example of a suspect syllogism, in which the statement that sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man (major premise), followed by the statement that one man can dig a post-hole in sixty seconds (minor premise), leads to the unavoidable mathematical conclusion that sixty men can dig a post-hole in one second. Those who have, at one time or another, actually had a shovel in their hands, may find this questionable.

Similarly, those who have, at one time or another, actually had a fire hose in their hands, breathed smoke up their nostrils, felt the enormous radiant heat of fire in long unburnt fuel, heard the roar, and felt the ground shake as a bushfire goes its merry way, may be perturbed at statements by some studious ecologists, apparently supported by statistical evidence, that deliberate, mild burning in cooler weather, to mitigate uncontrollable holocaust bushfires in hot, windy weather, is ineffectual, and harmful to the bush.

Apart from ecology, lawyers have their own philosophy, called jurisprudence. Like Ambrose Bierce, some medieval Scottish lawyers may not be recognised as philosophers, but showed perspicacity in taking the Latin verb reptare (to crawl or creep) and forming the legal terms subreption and obreption. These mean, respectively, to crawl under the truth, and to crawl over it; in other words to mislead by telling less than the whole truth, or by telling more than the whole truth. In bushfire debate, as in courtrooms, we need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The post-hole syllogism is a clear example of subreption, as are some claims made in the bushfire debate. Some news media reports, or papers in refereed journals of ecology, may mislead public, and hence political opinion. As an example, it may be said that vegetation has been destroyed, without a close definition of that word. Although they may appear to be dead, many Australian plants are well adapted to bushfire, have lignotubers, and resprout readily soon after it. They are no more destroyed, by mild fire, than a garden shrub which is pruned. Other Australian plants need fire, or smoke, in order to flower, or germinate from seed. Words can be deceptive, as philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes and Wittgenstein noted.

With regard to the political aspects of bushfire, Ambrose Bierce had it well covered. He defined politics as a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The strife of interests includes winning the votes of urban dwellers who are rarely subject to bushfire, yet may have assorted passionate notions about its ecology, perhaps gleaned from refereed journals. The contest of principles, in this case, is the ethical duty of care to both nature and human society.

As a former loyal public servant, I won’t give Ambrose’s cynical definition of the word politician, but it involves the word eel. We should remember, of course, that dictionaries can be wrong. Let’s hope that philosophy can come to the rescue, and that there are at least some worthy Australian politicians, and public servants, who understand that bushfire is Australia’s most lethal, costly, and urgent natural hazard, and won’t use pseudo-science to wriggle out of their duty of care, or ignore bushfire in the hope that it will go away, or become somebody else’s responsibility. Should a basic grasp of philosophy be a requirement for political office? Plato thought so.

Might governments have a Department of Philosophy, to peer deeply into the claims of tendentious lobbyists, no matter what their academic qualifications in natural science, or the length of their publication lists? There is an opinion that those who publish the most, often have the least to say. It’s a pity that Ambrose Bierce disappeared in 1914, so isn’t here to join the debate on philosophy and bushfire. I hope some from Australia, or other fire prone lands, such as USA, Canada, Africa, and even Europe, will.

© DR DAVID WARD 2014
David Ward has a PhD in Landscape Ecology, was formerly a Senior Research Scientist with the West Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management, and also a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia. He has been involved in research into bushfire behaviour, bushfire ecology, and bushfire history for over forty five years. He has also occasionally held a fire hose in his hands, and is writing a book called ‘Our Dangerous Friend: Bushfire Philosophy in South-West Australia’. His email is mumpnpop at iinet.net.au

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19 Responses to Philosophising on Bushfires: A Note from David Ward

  1. John Sayers July 17, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    When I was in the Kimberly my partner and I had created a new camp and we’d carefully cleared all the ground, prepared a fireplace etc and were very happy with it. Our Aboriginal friends Scotty and Jennifer came out to see our new site and I suddenly noticed Jennifer had immediately put a match to it! We freaked but to her, she was cleaning it just as David said.

  2. Larry Fields July 17, 2014 at 5:16 am #

    Hi David,
    Your post-hole analogy reminds me of a famous old saying.

    The First Law of Holes:
    When you find yourself in one, stop digging! 🙂

  3. Ian Thomson July 17, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    Marvelously written
    The white shirts and big hats and no, hands on, knowledge bit came to the fore on Black Saturday, when the biggest hat couldn’t let some mundane fire get in the road of a good nosh.
    The fact that this topic was the most reported finding at the resultant inquiry is a bit of subreption, for sure .
    The assuaging of public fears by promising to send everybody a text message is surely obreption.
    The irony of the fact that text messages require phone towers , powered by electricity and electricity line failure caused fires, is pure political obfuscation.

    On the bright side, the NSW Forest Industries Taskforce chair, Mr Colless, met with local forest experts in Deniliquin yesterday, with regard to doing productive thinning and forest management in the huge National Redgum Parks.
    He stated openly that he is well aware of the fire danger building in them, since they were locked up.
    Unfortunately , he has to somehow bypass City ignorance, to get anywhere.
    From attitudes openly expressed, in places like Mathoura and Barmah, ( bushfire timebombs), if the tripods turn up again things will get extremely messy

  4. spangled drongo July 17, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    A couple of points always seem to be overlooked when considering the reasons for much of the Aboriginal fire “regime”.

    Aboriginals didn’t have matches and with a nomadic existence they needed to keep their firesticks alight or be forced to go through the often impossible ritual of making fire from what was at hand.

    This entailed relighting parts of the country as they went. So this was simply a day to day practice. Even when they were long-time camped, if it looked like rain it was necessary to build the fire to huge proportions to keep it alight.

    These practices alone caused many unintended bushfires.

    Probably no Aboriginals exist today that had to sleep naked with infestations of the deadly Ixodes holocyclus but those that did had a strong dislike for rainforest and were determined to reduce it as much as possible.

    The northern pygmy aboriginals, of course, learnt to live with, and immunised themselves from, those scrub ticks in rain forest and that protected them from invasion from dry-land Aboriginals, much as those same scrub ticks are protecting our native animals today.

    By burning dry forest into wet forest over millennia, eucalypts have spread at the expense of more fire proof rainforest. SEA has dried considerably and this has added to our bushfire problems.

    Today, with the disappearing small farmer and the advent of tree-changers, eucalyptus regrowth is creating very difficult problems.

    But the best solution I have always found is to burn early and burn often.

    And replant where possible with rainforest natives which can adapt to dry country quite well.

  5. Bill Johnston July 17, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    Hi David, There is kind of postscript to the story. Up to about 2005, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service had a well-supported research arm of about 100 people.

    I understand they were busy in the areas of fire and biodiversity. All that work was wrapped-up, meaning tossed out when ‘science’ in NSW was re-designed under the influence of the Wentworth Group; which itself was funded by Robert Purves, President of WWF (Australia).

    (We did not want good research to get in the way of bad (green) policy did we??)

    The second change that occurred was the NSW Government’s dance with ‘risk management’. Changes to legislation effectively shifted ‘risk’ from NPWS and Ministers, onto communities and individuals. NPWS reduced/stopped pro-active hazard reduction. Insurance premiums increased.

    There have been several NSW Parliamentary Library Service reports/briefing papers on bushfires, and report 5/02 (by Stewart Smith) gives a reasoned overview. Of importance is the comment near the bottom of Page 26, where it is noted that people gave up on hazard reduction because the (green) bureaucratic process involved was too difficult.

    The Blue Mountains fire in October last year was a tragic circus. TV crews were tripping over each other. Many of the blazes they showed were of whipstick regrowth right up to property boundaries, not old trees.

    It turned out NPWS had not serviced their fire trails for 20 years or so; people had been barred from touching any bush outside their boundaries; NPWS did not do it either; it was not climate change, it was the army, and the earliness of the fires were not unprecedented. The fire at Olympic Park at that same time, which destroyed 50 cars was in easy reach of the fire control HQ!!

    The e-brief 09/2014 summarising changes to the NSW Vegetation clearing bill belies belief.

    Again, all process, nothing easy. When another El Nino system hits, it will all go-up again. Again it will be more talking-heads; hats, white-shirts and medals; and media-clowns running about in their yellow raincoats flapping and pointing at the helicopters.

    Hope they keep a bucket handy at Olympic Park, and they’ve all done a course on how to use it. (They could mistake it for a hat you know!)

    Good luck with your book.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  6. David Jefford Ward (aka Green Davey) July 17, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Thanks for the information, SD. I once lived in Africa, where the villagers burnt every year to get rid of ticks, and promote fresh grass growth. Converting thornbush to grassland also reduces tsetse fly. This ‘folk ecology’ on fire is often beyond the intellect of some ignis nullius artists, with long academic publication lists. One such clown once told me that Aboriginal fire information is ‘mythology’, presumably because it contradicted his blinkered ideas.

  7. Robert July 17, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    Reading the accounts of early Europeans around Sydney, you start to realise that they were moving through the bush in ways we could not do now. Is relatively clear understory the reason the awful drought and heat conditions of the early and late 1790s did not result in disastrous fire?

    I don’t know how much aboriginal activity had been curbed by 1851 and I don’t have much experience of southern crown fire country, but one really wonders if Black Thursday could have occurred with such severity in 1751. All interesting stuff to know.

    Thanks David.

  8. spangled drongo July 17, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    Now that the Carbon Tax has just been repealed maybe we can burn more ☺

  9. spangled drongo July 17, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    Green Davey, that’s interesting about the tsetse fly. Also when you’re trying to hunt with boomerang and spear, thick, vine forest is not your friend. Australian Aboriginals never had bows and arrows which would have made a big difference to their bushfire philosophy.

  10. hunter July 17, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Congratulations and kudos to Australia for the repeal of the Carbon tax.
    It is long past time for the real progressives- those who are committed to rational and effective policies that actually work- to have the stronger voice.
    Repealing the senseless harmful and insider rewarding carbon tax is a good step by the people of Australia in this regards.
    Best wishes. May the rest of the countries hostage to CO2 obsessed fanatics break free soon as well.

  11. David Jefford Ward (aka Green Davey) July 17, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Thanks Bill,

    You obviously have the sort of deep inside information that some academics and bureaucrats lack. But then, they might quickly label it as mythology, or anecdote. A bucket would certainly be handy.

    Thanks to Robert too, for his open mind on historical information. We swim in an ocean of history. Those who ignore this fact are likely to drown.

    Your insight on lack of bows and arrows is interesting, Spanglo. Such is the stuff of real ecology, as opposed to the pseudo-science produced by those suffering from a weird combination of hubris and physics envy.

    Dave

  12. Robert July 17, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    When people were making out that spring fire is a rarity in NSW – even along the suicidal Springwood-Winmalee ridge! – I recalled how bad spring conditions following the regrowth of the ’70s resulted in that massive blaze on Sydney’s fringe in early Nov 1980. Maybe a million hectares?

    When asked for my fave bit of bush I answer that it is the regularly trashed and quasi-suburban Royal National Park. It may seem an odd choice, but I have never found such variety anywhere else in such a compact space. Swamp, high heath, littoral rainforest, sandstone forest, beaches, soaring cliffs. Got the lot. My pick of it would be Uloola Swamp, where the firefighters lost their lives.

    The lives lost in the Waterfall fire are the big thing, but the I was unable to go back after it happened because I could not stand to look at the black desert which was left.

    Well, we’ve had some good growth years again in NSW. After a dry winter in many parts there’s the chance of a dry spring dominated by westerlies. The black man ended his maintenance a couple of centuries back. Burning off is tricky, invasive and expensive – and a bit of an art. But do we have any choice whatsoever?

    The Australian bush can’t change it’s nature. What’s to come if we don’t change?

  13. DaveW July 17, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Hi David,

    Thanks for a thoughtful and entertaining essay. Unfortunately, the hats and medals in western North America seem even more clueless than here and every bit as ready to use CAGW as an excuse for a failed fire policy. This is one of the many problems that derive from an increasingly urban population without real experience in the bush, a non-functional politic, and an over-obsession with theory (often driven by politics) over data.

    Spangled Drongo probably has a lot more experience in the bush than I do, but my experience with Paralysis Tick (Ixodes holocyclus) is different. I’ve never found it a problem in subtropical to tropical rainforest in Queensland, only in rainforest margins and more open forests. Paralysis Tick needs small to medium sized mammals and birds to do well (e.g. pademelons, bandicoots, Brush Turkey) and these are rainforest margin animals. The closed canopy rainforest itself is pretty barren on the forest floor. If holocyclus is present in the rainforest then it is probably in the canopy (I only ever found Ixodes cf tasmaniensis in canopy samples, but I was never really looking for them). Leeches rule on the rainforest floor and are even more loathsome than ticks (but allegedly not disease vectors – not that there is actually any data to support this claim).

    Burning to reduce ticks should work in rainforest margin and more open forests though.

    Cheers,

    Dave

  14. spangled drongo July 17, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Dave W, you are probably right about scrub ticks being more prolific in the periphery of rain forests than in the centres but it is the moisture of those centres that provides the moist periphery necessary for them and their hosts to survive. And as you point out there are other annoying parasites in those rainforests such as leeches and one of the worst is the dreaded scrub itch which nothing seems to cure. How the naked ape could live in the rain forest is beyond me.

    If you read early explorers journals, they indicate that scrub ticks were much more widely spread 200 years ago. Aridification from mainly burning has reduced their numbers and we should be doing all we can to preserve them.

    They are one of the few parasites that are hosted by the native prey that attacks the feral predator thus protecting these natives. If we could breed a scrub tick equivalent that would survive in dry country that would reduce one of the problems of excess burning.

    Green Davey, interesting article that suggests our evolution has improved thanks to environment and climate change thanks to Greenie Watch:

    http://smithsonianscience.org/2014/07/human-evolution-rewritten-flexible-response-climate-change/

  15. hunter July 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    AGW is the excuse of the century for politicians who have squandered public treasure on useless spending at the expense of good infrastructure and sane policies.
    It is the secular equivalent of “the devil did it”.

  16. Farmer Gez July 20, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Pollen records show us that burning spread Eucalypts at the expense of less tolerant species. The problem with eucalypts is that they impoverish the soil and add to soil erosion.
    Casuarina species suffered badly from burning, which is a pity as their tough leaf litter protected the soil and lead to gentle prolonged runoff from our rising country, rather than the gushes produced from Eucalypt forests.
    We need to manage our environment and not pay homage to past practises that were designed for human benefit just as they are now. On our farm we have locked away one hundred acres of Casuarinas for over twenty years and the soil is the most notable beneficiary. The natural fungi in the topsoil is a sight to behold.
    I enjoy your blog Jennifer, lots of good thoughtful discussion rather than environmental cant which I have endured over the years in catchment management.

  17. Robert July 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    Gez, I find your hundred acres of casuarina exciting. Do you weed out the eucs and more aggro species?

    We talk of the role of wattles but the casuarinas are forgotten beauties. Fantastic litter. I find my bamboo kicks on well around black wattles and lantana (and bunya pine for some reason), doesn’t like the company of tea tree. Wish I had more casuarina to see how it goes as a companion (though the moso would eventually overwhelm it).

    Interesting article on standing up to that enviro cant:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10978678/Owen-Paterson-Im-proud-of-standing-up-to-the-green-lobby.html

  18. Farmer Gez July 20, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Thanks Robert. The main issues are perennial weeds, kangaroos, rabbits, hares, foxes and wild cats. Feral fauna is as big of a problem as flora.

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