October 7th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Green energy push has left us blowin' in the wind

EDITORIAL Lessons for Australia in NZ election results

CANBERRA OBSERVED Assurances on religious freedom needed now

ENERGY Peak oil turns out to be another moral panic

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Timor Leste, Australia reach new border treaty

BUSHFIRES Disaster awaits as advice again goes unheeded

GENDER POLITICS Does biological sex matter?

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Intolerance of the 'Yes' campaign for all to see

EUTHANASIA Medical murder: three historical cases

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Gallant Taiwan survives alone in the bitter sea

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Prepare for apologies in a generation's time

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE A reflection on the use and abuse of the thought of the Angelic Doctor

MUSIC Stupendous talent: What to do with all that ego?

CINEMA Trollhunters: Guillermo del Toro's TV fantasy

BOOK REVIEW Debunking the 'harmless' tag


EUTHANASIA Victoria's death bill: questions that need answers

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Disaster awaits as advice again goes unheeded

by Roger Underwood

News Weekly, October 7, 2017

Another summer, another bushfire disaster. In southern Australia these days, one seems to follow the other with a terrible inevitability.

The recent bushfire history in Western Australia, for example, is a story of lost lives, a whole town burned down, hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands of hectares of national parks, forests, and farmland incinerated.

From the farmlands of Esperance to the karri forests near Northcliffe, to the jarrah forests at Boddington and the coastal plains around Waroona and Yarloop, it has been the same story; unstoppable fires defying the best efforts of thousands of firefighters armed with the latest equipment and supported by the most up-to-date technology. The February 2016 Waroona fire killed two people and destroyed the town of Yarloop.

And quite apart from the damage, there are the costs, not just of firefighting but of infrastructure replacement, recovery, rebuilding, regeneration, replanting. These costs are never tallied up, but we know they are stupendous, in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The situation is similar in southern NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Wherever the highly flammable Australian vegetation co-exists with hot, dry, windy summer weather, ghastly bushfires are now coming around each year, as regular as Christmas.

The crisis has been developing year by year over the last 25 years, but is probably close to peaking. We have reached a point where every time there are a few bad fire days, there is a bad fire, one that causes horrible damage and costs millions. And it doesn’t even have to be a bad day. Several of the most damaging bushfires in WA in recent years have occurred on days of relatively mild fire danger.

So, what has gone wrong? Why do we have a bushfire crisis in Australia? Why have bushfires become so difficult to control and do so much damage?

The first reason is that more people and more assets are now found within bushfire-prone areas. The expansion of suburbia into the bush, the new rural subdivisions adjacent to long-unburnt national parks, the “home-among-the-gum-trees” brigade living with flammable vegetation up to the eaves or overtopping the roof: all these add up to a situation where bushfires can cause immense damage, almost without trying.

The second explanation is that our bushfire authorities have adopted a strategy that cannot succeed. In failing to invest in prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation, but relying on suppression forces to control fires after they start, the authorities have chosen an approach that will always fail when needed most. A fire suppression approach is fine for urban fires, but it does not work in the bush. Here the fire grounds must be prepared in advance of a fire ever starting, so as to give firefighters any chance of success.

Preparation of bushland is most effectively and cheaply accomplished using prescribed burns. And here we come to the next reason for the bushfire crisis: the misguided opposition to prescribed burning from environmentalists and academics. This opposition plays out in classrooms, agencies and local governments, and the consequences are disastrous.

Fires in the heavy fuels of long-unburnt bushland rapidly become so intense that no human force can control them.

In my view the bushfire crisis in Australia is the result primarily of mismanagement allied to the failure of landowners who do not or will not prepare their properties in the expectation of fire. Both groups have, in turn, been misled by those who oppose bushfire mitigation programs, including fuel reduction.

The response to the crisis was spelled out by Euan Ferguson in his landmark report after the 2016 Yarloop bushfire. There must be a shift, he said in his June 2016 report, from investing in suppression capability and bushfire recovery, to investment in prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation. When this is done, bushfires will become easier and safer to control, and will do less damage.

Ferguson’s report says: “There is a compelling argument that the state needs to readjust expenditure away from fire response and recovery towards a greater investment in prevention and fuel hazard management.”

In essence, Australia needs to move from a hugely costly bushfire system that does not work, to a relatively inexpensive one that does. This shift will require determined leadership and commitment to cultural change.

Ferguson got it right. The failure to reduce fuels to manageable levels set the conditions for killer bushfires. But is anyone paying attention to the Ferguson Report today? Was Yarloop razed and did its residents die in vain?

Roger Underwood is chairman of the Bushfire Front, an organisation of foresters and firefighting specialists who have worked in bush areas for many years and campaign for improved forest and fire management.

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