It wasn’t climate change which killed as many as 300 people in Victoria last weekend. It wasn’t arsonists. It was the unstoppable intensity of a bushfire, turbo-charged by huge quantities of ground fuel which had been allowed to accumulate over years of drought. It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.
So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.
Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of “prescribed burning”. Also known as “hazard reduction”, it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.
In July 2007 Scott Gentle, the Victorian manager of Timber Communities Australia, who lives in Healesville where two fires were still burning yesterday, gave testimony to a Victorian parliamentary bushfire inquiry so prescient it sends a chill down your spine.
“Living in an area like Healesville, whether because of dumb luck or whatever, we have not experienced a fire … since … about 1963. God help us if we ever do, because it will make Ash Wednesday look like a picnic.” God help him, he was right.
Gentle complained of obstruction from green local government authorities of any type of fire mitigation strategies. He told of green interference at Kinglake – at the epicentre of Saturday’s disaster, where at least 147 people died – during a smaller fire there in 2007.
“The contractors were out working on the fire lines. They put in containment lines and cleared off some of the fire trails. Two weeks later that fire broke out, but unfortunately those trails had been blocked up again [by greens] to turn it back to its natural state … Instances like that are just too numerous to mention. Governments … have been in too much of a rush to appease green idealism … This thing about locking up forests is just not working.”
The Kinglake area was a nature-loving community of tree-changers, organic farmers and artists to the north of Melbourne. A council committed to reducing carbon emissions dominates the Nillumbik shire, a so-called “green wedge” area, where restrictions on removing vegetation around houses reportedly added to the dangers. In nearby St Andrews, where more than 20 people are believed to have died, surviving residents have spoken angrily of “greenies” who prevented them from cutting back trees near their property, including in one case, a tea tree that went “whoomp”. Dr Phil Cheney, the former head of the CSIRO’s bushfire research unit and one of the pioneers of prescribed burning, said yesterday if the fire-ravaged Victorian areas had been hazard-reduced, the flames would not have been as intense.
Kinglake and Maryville, now crime scenes, are built among tall forests of messmate stringy bark trees which pose a special fire hazard, with peeling bark creating firebrands that carry fire five kilometres out. “The only way to reduce the flammability of the bark is by prescribed burning” every five to seven years, Cheney said. He estimates between 35 and 50 tonnes a hectare of dry fuel were waiting to be gobbled up by Saturday’s inferno.
Fuel loads above about eight tonnes a hectare are considered a fire hazard. A federal parliamentary inquiry into bushfires in 2003 heard that a fourfold increase in ground fuel leads to a 13-fold increase in the heat generated by a fire.
Things are no better in NSW, although we don’t quite have Victoria’s perfect storm of winds and forest types. Near Dubbo two years ago, as a bushfire raged through the Goonoo Community Conservation Area, volunteer firefighters bulldozing a control line were obstructed by National Parks and Wildlife Service employees who had driven from Sydney to stop vegetation being damaged.
The poor management of national parks and state forests in Victoria is highlighted by the interactive fire map on the website of the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Yesterday it showed that, of 148 fires started since mid-January, 120 started in state forests, national parks, or other public land, and just 21 on private property.
Only seven months ago, the Victorian Parliament’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee tabled its report into the impact of public land management on bushfires, with five recommendations to enhance prescribed burning. This included tripling the amount of land to be hazard-reduced from 130,000 to 385,000 hectares a year. There has been little but lip service from the Government in response. Teary politicians might pepper their talking points with opportunistic intimations of “climate change” and “unprecedented” weather, but they are only diverting the blame. With yes-minister fudging and craven inclusion of green lobbyists in decision-making, they have greatly exacerbated this tragedy.
There is an opening now in Victoria for a predatory legal firm with a taste for David v Goliath class actions.