October 14th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: COMMONWEALTH-STATE RELATIONS: Will Howard override WA on natural gas?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: an ounce of prevention

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Behind the move to lift cloning ban

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Farmers protests over free trade in Cairns

TRADE POLICY: Why WTO trade talks failed

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The decline of Labor, the fate of Smith Street, Blair's departure and the Regensburg Address

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: T3 sell-off will not end Telstra's woes

HOUSING: Urban planning is destroying the great Australian dream

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: North Korea's nuclear ambitions: is China really powerless?

ANTI-LIFE CAMPAIGN: The selective indignation of Senator Stott Despoja

OPINION: The case for optional preferential voting

BIOTECHNOLOGY: The ascent of Mount Improbable

The debt trap (letter)

The Pope and Islam (letter)

The Ice epidemic (letter)

BOOKS: LONDONISTAN: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, by Melanie Phillips

BOOKS: SCOURGE AND FIRE: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, by Lauro Martines

Books promotion page

Bushfires: an ounce of prevention

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, October 14, 2006
A winter of below-average rainfall across much of eastern Australia, coupled with a dry and warm spring, has triggered early bushfires in New South Wales and Victoria, raising fears that the country is facing another horror summer of tragic bushfires, destroying many lives and property.

In New South Wales, lives have already been lost as bushfires swept through bush land north and south of Sydney. During one warm and windy day in mid-September, Victoria had about 200 fires, including a fire in the Sunset National Park which escaped control lines, burning over 20,000 ha of national park.

The response of the respective state governments has been to increase the number of firefighters. In Victoria, Premier Steve Bracks said the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), which manages fires on public land such as national parks, will recruit 220 firefighters by the end of October, a month earlier than usual.

Further, the Erickson sky crane Elvis will begin operations in Victoria late in November, a month earlier than last year. By midsummer, thousands of Country Fire Authority volunteers will join forces with 1,100 DSE firefighters and 30 firefighting aircraft.

The government has spent nearly $3 million to upgrade support facilities, including transportable kitchens, showers and laundries for firefighters in remote areas, and a further $3 million to improve emergency water supply networks.

Failed strategies

Impressive as these arrangements sound, history shows that they will at best mitigate the disastrous effects of bushfires, because the responsible authorities, including the DSE and Parks Victoria and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales, have failed to implement effective known strategies to reduce the impact of bushfires.

The Victorian Government has just released a new code of practice for fire management, a belated implementation of an inquiry by the Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner into the 2002-3 fires - but there is little sign that the lessons of past fires have been learned. A "debrief" conducted after last year's fire season in Victoria had extensive recommendations on improving liaison between different agencies involved in fire fighting and affected communities, but nothing in the way of long-term planning to reduce fuel loads which fuel bushfires.

In the Grampions, in western Victoria, which bushfires devastated last January, landowners have told the local newspaper that there had been inadequate fuel reduction burns, and they feared another wild fire similar to that which raged unchecked for days early this year. In fact, there have been major bushfires in Victoria every year since 2002, an unprecedented sequence.

The position in New South Wales has been similar. After the 2001 bushfires, a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of the NSW Parliament recommended that "all public and private owners and/or managers of land in bushfire prone areas of New South Wales are made aware of their responsibilities to protect their own and neighbouring properties from bushfire through active implementation of appropriate hazard reduction regimes".

It further recommended that "all state land management agencies should prepare schedules, identifying those areas within their tenures where hazard reduction activity has been planned but postponed in the previous 36 months [and] that all state land management agencies apply the necessary resources to ensure that their annual planned programs of hazard reduction are achieved".

Despite repeated inquiries - by governments and parliaments in both states - which recommended substantial programmed fuel reduction burn-offs from autumn to spring, these have not occurred, principally as a result of resistance from greenies both inside and outside governments.

Greenies claim that fuel reduction burn-offs reduce "biodiversity".

Only in Western Australia has a concerted fire management policy been adopted, and it has prevented the occurrence of wildfires in the state for over forty years.

The policy there has been to assume that bushfires can get out of control if there is sufficient dead wood lying on the ground, and to control the risk, it is necessary that fuel reduction burns should take place every 8-10 years throughout all state forests and national parks, and in bush land on private property.

In that state, a coalition of experienced forestry experts and community leaders formed the Alliance Against Bushfire Damage in Western Australia, to generate public support for a program of regular burn-offs. It says, "Prescribed burning for forest fuel reduction offers the only practical way of reducing forest fuels", and added that the level of prescribed burning required to achieve the level of protection that has been achieved over the period 1963-2000 averaged about 300,000 ha year of the total 2,500,000 ha of forest.

Until similar policies are adopted across the country, bush fires will turn into wildfires, with devastating effects on both people and the environment.

-Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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