It is only February, but 2006/7 is already shaping as one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons. The extraordinary fires in Victoria have captured the headlines, but there have also been big, intense and damaging bushfires in Tasmania, West Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. These succeed the shocking fires in eastern and south-western Australia every summer over the last 5 years.
There are many interesting issues relating to this new prevalence of big, nasty bushfires. Bushfire management in Australia reached its peak between about 1975-1990. But despite all the technical innovations since then, the huge expenditure on aerial water bombers and the vast armies of fire fighters with their wondrous equipment, bushfire management in Australia has regressed to the situation that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, whenever bad fire weather occurs, unstoppable fires ravage the bush.
It is also curious how the recent disasters have come to be accompanied by a spirit of defeatism amongst our leaders. Bushfires, it seems, are an Act of God, a natural phenomenon which cannot be prevented. Lie back and think of England!
This line of thinking is not just an example of gutless leadership, it is logically flawed and flies in the face of decades of research into bushfire science and centuries of human experience. What is going on?
I was once advised by a grizzled public servant of the old school “if you want to understand any puzzling social or political issue, look for the beneficiaries.” Who on earth might benefit from the regular occurrence of huge, hot bushfires?
While the correct answer is “no-one” it is not hard to find people who use the big hot fire to their political or financial advantage. For example I have heard environmentalists portraying the recent fires in Victoria and WA as a direct consequence of global warming. They quite unambiguously assert that unless we unquestioningly adopt their political agenda on climate change, there will be more horrible bushfires. This can easily be shown to be crooked thinking, but it is an effective line because of the current hysteria about global warming.
The media can be seen as a beneficiary of big nasty bushfires as these provide highly newsworthy, truly front page or top-of-the-bulletin stuff. Journalists are served up with wonderful hero stories, disaster stories and controversy stories on a plate. Bushfires are tremendous drama, complete with cataclysmic vision of houses and forests going up in flames, farmers shooting burnt sheep, sad people raking through the remnants of their houses picking up twisted trinkets, hillsides of blackened forest. To the media (and of course to their clients the viewers and readers), big hot fires arouse intense interest and excitement; few things outside war provide more opportunities to exploit the gamut of human emotions or to experience them vicariously.
Then there are the Fire Chiefs, resplendent in their American World War 2 General’s uniform. “Bushfire management” these days has largely morphed into “bushfire fighting”, a thrilling battle to be fought by Emergency Services staff who have been waiting in the wings for this very moment. I am not criticising our top Firemen. They are doing the job they are appointed to do and all would be equally dismayed by the human misery and environmental damage caused by intense bushfires. Nevertheless, when the Big Fire declares war, their 15 minutes of fame arrives. The regiments of firefighters are amassed and despatched; the squadrons of bombers and helicopters are unleashed; the support and technical units are rushed to the battle. Fire Chiefs are nightly seen on the news giving high profile briefings to politicians and the media, planning strategies and dictating the tactics at the front. This is war, and war is hell. But war is also The General’s Big Moment, his hour upon centre stage.
I also wonder about the money, and who gets it. Bushfire fighting in Australia has become horrendously expensive. In particular, unbelievable sums are spent hiring aerial equipment and firefighters from overseas. I am convinced that if the money spent hiring overseas equipment and importing (and paying) inexperienced overseas firefighters was channelled instead into re-creating the permanent force of firefighters who once occupied the nation’s forest districts, we would be financially better off and have a superior fire management system.
Bushfire research is another interesting and complex issue. There is a considerable band of academics in Australian universities who are associated with and at least partly funded by the Bushfire CRC. None of these people like to see people and houses being burnt, but they all know that every big, nasty fire helps to underpin the security of their research grants, guarantee future funding and ensure desirable academic side-effects such as overseas conferences, publishable papers, and graduate students.
Finally there are those politicians who have learned how to make a name for themselves from a bushfire. They do this by the generous authorisation of huge sums of money for suppression at the very height of the fire, turning up at the control point and shaking the hands of smoke-grimed firefighters, commiserating with people who have lost everything, and looking grave but intelligent in a media briefing. After the fire they disperse largess from the government coffers to compensate those of their constituents who have been burnt-out, and promise more money for fire fighting equipment and research.
I am by no means saying that these “beneficiaries” are the cause of the disastrous decline in the standard of bushfire management in Australia over the last 15 years. We are all to blame for the inept political leadership and government dysfunction which are at the root of the problem.
What really worries me is that while God and Global Warming are cast as the villains, nothing will change. It just means that sensible investment in programs of bushfire prevention and preparedness, damage mitigation and community education continue to be set aside in favour of a self-fulfilling prophecy of apocalypse. Those who support (for example) an effective level of prescribed burning in the national parks, can safely be ignored. God and Western Civilisation are ordaining killer bushfires and we can do nothing about it! The fire and brimstone prophets of the Old Testament are back on the job.
by Roger Underwood
Perth, Western Australia
Roger is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.