I wonder how many Koalas have been burnt in the bushfires raging across Victoria?
I received a letter from Roger Underwood today, he writes, “Arsonists do light fires, but they are not responsible for fires becoming large and damaging, especially forest fires. Blaming them is a convenient way for politicians and land managers to avoid taking responsibility themselves, which they should.”
Roger Underwood has over 40 years experience of bushfire management in Australia and overseas. He was formerly General Manager of The Deparment of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist.
I have been watching TV and reading newspaper reports on the recent (and ongoing) disastrous bushfires in Victoria and Western Australia. One common thread is the attempt to blame “arsonists, thought to be responsible for the fires”.
There are two non-debatable things about arson: (i) it has always been with us and will always be with us, as it is an expression of anti-social, criminal or sick human behaviour; and (ii) since arson-lit fires cannot be prevented, we should expect them to occur and take the necessary measures to minimise their impact, not whinge about them.
The ultimate irony to me was to see our Acting Premier promising large sums of money as a reward for information about the supposed arsonist, when the government in which he is a Minister has overseen a massive decline in the capacity of the State’s bushfire management resources.
Bushfires cannot be prevented.
On the other hand we can predict with great accuracy where and when they will occur and we can put in place very effective measures to minimise the damage they cause, and to increase the ease and safety of their control. In the publicly-owned forest, these measures are relatively simple.
In the first place we need a sound policy, and the strong support of government and agencies – this is a matter of simple, good governance and responsible public service.
In the second place we need a resource of permanent well trained and well equipped staff who can undertake fire management, supported by a well-funded volunteer firefighter force. Third, we need effective programs of green burning in our parks and forests, to reduce fuels and to ensure that fires do not become large, intense and unstoppable. Finally we need rural people, including those living at the interface, to take responsibility for making their own properties less hazardous or vulnerable, and if they won’t do it voluntarilly, they must be forced to do it compulsorily.
None of this is new. But for some reason it does not happen. Worse, we seem to be going backwards. I agree with those who blame the environmentalists for antagonism or fear of green burning – they have very successfully created a generation of young people who do not understand the role of fire in Australian ecosystems – but they are not solely to blame.
The political leaders who show no leadership, or who try to slip out from under by blaming the arsonists are also contemptible, but politicians are politicians, and we cannot expect them to behave out of character. I am also very disappointed with some of the new breed of braided Fire Chiefs who tend to see bushfires as theatre, and whose media popularity would be threatened by a fire management system which resulted in fewer fire disasters. But these people are simply a product of the media-dominated world in which we live,and they won’t go away any more than will the arsonists.
I conclude that the real villains in the piece are our professional land managers – the people who are today in charge of our national parks and State forests. They are well aware of the ecological research, they know about the decline in forest health in areas subjected to fire exclusion, they have staff in the field who are skilled in and enthusiastic about green burning, they have media and communications units, and they are in a position to influence government policy and priorities, to fight for a position which is right, even if it is politically unpopular. But they do not appear to be prepared to fight for good and effective fire management, and the result is an increasing number of large, high intensity fires which do no-one any good, and cause immense environmental damage.
The situation in WA is made more difficult by the fact that our land management agency (CALM) is not responsible for preparing the park and forest management plans which they are required to implement. The government has placed responsibilityfor management planning in the hands of a part-time committee of citizens and academics called The Conservation Commission, not one single member of which has any scientific expertise or professional experience in bushfire management or forest firefighting.
A thousand new arson detectives in every state will not catch every arsonist or potential arsonist, nor will they stop arson occurring in the future. What is needed is a new breed of tough, dedicated professional land managers who accept arson as inevitable, like lightning, and work to put in place a system which ensures that when fires start we can deal with them before people are killed, lovely forests incinerated and farms destroyed. What the government needs to do is to put these people in charge, chop off the influence of committees of well-meaning amateurs, and provide policy and political support.
Will this happen? The Bushfire Front developed a template for Best Practice in Bushfire Management in WA which, in early 2005, we sent to the Premier and the Minister for the Environment, together with an analysis of where WA needed to take steps to halt the decline in the standard of fire management, and to get the whole show back on the road. This submission was the outcome of several months work by experienced bushfire managers and former fire scientists. Neither the Premier nor the Minister replied.
The Bushfire Front WA Inc