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Feb 10, 2009

Rundle: What has Black Saturday taught us?

Without surrendering the notion that we can dramatically improve our reaction to fire, a little circumspection about easy answers might be the least we owe to the dead, writes Guy Rundle.

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However inured one is to the havoc wreaked by bushfires, to the horror and waste of life, to how things could have been otherwise, the “Black Saturday” fires can cut through any amount of world-weariness — from the burnt out collided cars on the road, to the stories of young girls going back for their horses, to the man handing his one daughter over to others as the skin fell off him … it is obvious that something of quite another order has happened in the country.

When the Ash Wednesday bushfires took eighty lives in 1983, it had been forty four years since an occurrence of similar magnitude, the “Black Friday” fires of 1939, an event buried under the war that immediately followed it, lost to history. In the inquiry that followed the ’39 fires, it became clear that the whole practice of fire and land management were so chaotic that the fires had been a disaster waiting to happen. One problem testified to was that Victorian farmers were ready to burn-off at the drop of a hat, in conditions where fire could quickly get out of control.

Whether the improved practices did anything to stave off a large-scale disaster for two generations or whether it was just luck, we can never really know. The previous big fires had been 1851, 1898, and 1926. In the last analysis, what looks from the ground like a reign of death is also, in the last analysis a weather system, and weather systems are chaotic in the literal sense. Without surrendering the notion that we can dramatically improve our reaction to fire, a little circumspection about easy answers might be the least we owe to the dead.

Not according to sections of the right it would seem. With the embers still flying the fire has been put into service as yet another item in the culture wars and the endless attempt to paint anyone of a greenish hue as a social fifth column. And it all depends on a few twigs.

For fire management specialists, the issue of forest fuel — the detritus that accumulates on the forest floor — is one of the most contentious and complex aspects of land and fire management. As summarised by Bill McCormack in a 2002 report numerous bushfire commissions and inquiries have considered the issue of reducing the amount of forest fuel. It would seem obvious that this would reduce the intensity and occurrence of bushfires, but the issue is more complex.

For a start, the back burning required to reduce forest fuel is best done under the same conditions — dry and hot — that maximise fire danger in the first place, a fact which turned out to be one of the causes of the 1939 disaster. Secondly in an ecosystem where fire plays an important role in regeneration, a level of burning back will cause a successively more dense regeneration of material. As Claire Miller and John Schauble found in a 2003 report for The Age, most experts found a bewildering series of arguments for and against burning off forest fuel, with no one clear guideline as to whether or nor burning off should occur in any given condition.

But comes the hour, comes the mendacity. The Australian managed to find an expert who was less interested in ambiguity. David Packham regards forest fuel levels as the determinant of catastrophic bushfires, despite the fact that virtually identical fires have occurred across vastly different land clearing regimes from 1851 to the present. Why are we ignoring this plain common sense? Because some dastardly people want “high-intensity fires” with “resulting mudslides” that “spread nutrients”, because these “secure uninformed city votes” of “latte conservationists”. Oh come on, you remember the great mudslide debates of the last decade don’t you? It was all the talk at the film festival.

Packham’s article seems to be setting a few academic scores and has about the same measure of probity as Wilson Tuckey’s intervention, the iron-barred one arguing that a lack of roads and development in national forest areas had contributed to the spread of the fire. Given that the bulk of these fires have occurred in working, developed land and that the one picture dominating the media is the place where the fire has shown roads to be no barrier — ie where people have died in their cars — you would think that even Tuckey would be circumspect.

But in any case Packham’s argument was good enough for The Oz which went way further in an editorial, tsking the Packham thesis as given and painting anyone who thinks that fuel management is not the be all and end all as supporting the “the misguided goal of agglomerating pristine-like bushland that is largely excluded from interventions such as bushfire management — just so we think forest in pre-human conditions is there”.

Forest fuel levels have nothing to do with the severity of fires like on Black Saturday, which had sufficient force to blast through all forest burnt back and unburnt alike. In 2002, the least burnt back part of the state burnt up in bushfires — the fatalities? None. The main killer in this week’s fires was the extreme speed. The effect of fuel on fire-speed? Zero.

One can only agree with The Oz‘s urge that everything has to be re-examined. But they have no real interest in that. They’re primed with a single oversimplified idea — that Greens are anti-human and the root of all suffering — and they bang it out like a bunch of shopworn Stalinists on every occasion. Even the dead do not shame them into a deal more circumspection. It would be pathetic if it were not so malign.

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17 thoughts on “Rundle: What has Black Saturday taught us?

  1. The Shropshire lad wants to have it both ways here. Condemn those who wish to look into the causes of the tragedy and yet at the same time enter into arguments about the matter. By all means attack the blinkered ideological approach of the Australian but don’t vilify the desire to know, and speculate about, why bad things occur.

    If you trip and skin your knee you immediately want to know why it happened – it’s an innate response and nothing to be ashamed of. The attempt to stop the discussion smells of sanctimoniousness and a desire to conspicuously exhibit one’s ‘special’ sensitivity.

  2. As a former Victorian now living in the Adelaide Hills, two initial thoughts. 1. Shock and horror – I have been a regular vistor to Marysville for over 30 years, two weekends last winter. 2. There but for pure luck went SA. It was a godawful day but luckily, no fires started in SA. If they had, the outcome would have been identical.

    I don’t know anything about forest fuel reduction, nor do I have an opinion. But when we went to a CFS bushfire information session, we were taught that fires that get into the crowns of gum trees are very very dangerous. We were advised trimming all lower branches to not less than 3 metres off the ground to help minimise the spread into tree crowns. So if control burning results in a thicker and more dense understory, I might be missing something, but wouldn’t this seem to be a bad thing?

    Finally, can someone tell me why SA water reduced the volume of water being pumped down the Onkaparinga by a metre of river height on Friday night and Saturday? It was back to normal on Sunday however. Extraordinary good luck there was no fire, because there was also now limited water on the one day it would have been needed.


  3. What is this bloke Guy Rundle claptrapping about ground fuel not a major contributor to the Victorian bush fires? Of course it is. A fire requires: fuel, oxygen and heat. A fire generates it’s own wind thus increasing the amount of oxygen thus creating more heat. The fuel is already accumulated on the ground and in the trees. So periodic hazard reduction by way of burning the ground fuel is absolutely necessary. That would certainly reduce the intensity of a bush fire and idiots like Guy Rundle and the Greens cannot convince me otherwise. Bless the poor animals that cannot escape.

  4. Lives could be saved if in or next to each house in fire prone areas there is somewhere to shelter from the fire as it passes. This could be in a pool or under ground. Perhaps a small shipping container buried underground with steps down to its door. This would allow people to fight to protest their properties to the very last minute then reemerge to continue when the danger has passed.

  5. As reported in The Sun (London) and some US papers but not in ours. US Intelligence monitored messages in which a fundamentalist group spoke of “forest jihad”. A web site told muslims in Europe,US and Australia “scholars have justified chopping and burning infidels forests when they do the same to our lands”. If these reports are true the mainstream media has let us Aussie’s down. I INVITE ALL TO READ THE SUN’S REPORT AND MAKE YOUR OWN MIND UP IT’S A REAL EYE OPENER.

  6. Thank you for taking this line.

    I have been distressed and dismayed that, even while the horror of Saturday was unfolding, people were already laying blame and touting their ideologically-based stance – whatever that may have been, even though they clearly were not in possession of any facts.

    I sincerely hope that in the subsequent reviews and Royal Commission there will be sufficient people in decision-making roles who will truly open their minds, suspending their own personal viewpoints while all the facts and research is put on the table for consideration.

    This should not be viewed as an opportunity to blindly pursue long-held beliefs because we ‘know we are right’. Rather we will need to be hard-nosed and systematic in our investigation of what took place and try to develop better ways of managing horrendous days like last Saturday in the event the unbelievable and unprecedented weather conditions are repeated in the future.

  7. David Sanderson “don’t vilify the desire to know, and speculate about, why bad things occur” those are your words that i quote. The supposed revalations are easily found by typing “forest jihad” and remember “don’t vilify the desire to know, and speculate about, why bad things occur ” quote. Hypocrite.

  8. Hazard burns will do very little in these conditions. When hot weather and wind combine, the fire will move through the crowns a lot faster than on the ground. Fire authorities can’t hazard reduce the crown because the trees will die. More than anything bad fires happen because of the flukes of weather.

  9. Unfortunately, houses which don’t burn down are not news stories. The Victorian fires have filled the news, for good and understandable reasons. The lack of fires in South Australia has hardly rated a mention, despite the same record heat-wave and fire potential. I believe thist is highly significant. The local police and fire authorities have had a long term activity – Project Nomad – targeting known and suspected arsonists and keeping them under surveillance. The idea is to prevent them from lighting fires, and as it seems that most such fires in Victoria were deliberately lit, the South Australian strategy would appear to have been effective.

    Unfortunately, preventing crime is nowhere near as sexy and attractive to the news media as an actual crime which has had devastating effects. Of course, if you have our weather and fuel loads, there will be fires, but if you can minimise the cause of most of them, and arson is such a cause, this is likely to be more effective in saving life and property than any action taken to fight or survive fires once they have occurred.

    To those quiet achievers of Project Nomad -well done!

  10. Bill V: no one is suggesting that ground fuel plays no role in the intensity of a fire – and the disputes haven’t been about whether to burn off or not. Everyone agrees there should be burning off. The dispute centres around a) the risk inherent in doing it, since the 1939 fires were caused in part by burning off, b) whether excessive burning off makes things worth by promoting regrowth and c) whether burning off makes any difference to mega-fires such as the most recent ones, which burn through burnt off land anyway. Read the reports I hyperlink to, and you’ll see that the issues are debated by bushfire experts, although I suppose they can be dismissed as pointy-headed intelelctuals if that’s what you’re really interested in.

    David S: try reading the article. I didn’t say that people should stop arguing about the causes of the fires. I suggested that cheap and easy stories about who’s to blame – such as the Australian delights in – have nothing to do with learning from the experience. They’re about finding easy social enemies to blame, to make us feel better about the horror.

  11. Good article Guy, and your observations jell with my own knowledge of the area. I know Kinglake West well. Kinglake West is paddocks and open, recently burnt, bush. Fuel reduction was not an issue, at least in that area. If you have the conditions we had on Saturday, no number of firebreaks, no number of fuel reduction burns are going to save you. What made this fire so deadly were the speed it moved and the long hotspell we had just gone through which completely dried out Southern Victoria. The Australian can try and blame the greenies for that, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch.

  12. Lives could be saved if in or next to each house in fire prone areas there is somewhere to shelter from the fire as it passes. This could be in a pool or under ground. Perhaps a small shipping container buried underground with steps down to its door. This would allow people to fight to protect their properties to the very last minute then reemerge to continue when the danger has passed.

  13. As an eye witness to the Ash Wednesday fires along the west coast, I have seen the unbelievable and cowered in the face of overwhelming natural forces. I defy any fire break or forest litter reduction program to in any way minimise what I observed – a howling, illogical runaway fire train of such ferocity that you couldn’t imagine anyone or anything surviving. If this fire had occurred during a weekend / holiday and not along the sea – a natural and close point of refuge – we would have seen a catastrophe. Nature conspired again , and a series of record temperatures put everyone on edge and hunkered down. Clearly there are lessons to be learnt – and relearnt -, especially in these emerging semi rural communities, and science methodology cannot be ignored. The micro science of fuel reduction and protection strategies, as well as the larger picture – climate change. I can understand, and in many ways concur with the vehement tone of David Packham’s article in The Australian but I can’t excuse it’s odious self importance. We all knew that this summer would be dire – record low rains in Spring, no rain in January, unprecedented temperatures – and we must insist that no stone is left unturned to make sure that this tragedy was not in vain. But to rail against your fellow citizens with tired and shallow pejoratives does not help your cause to make ” our bush healthy and safe.” From my experience, “safe’ is a relative word as the bush is a tectonic force that possibly tolerates our presence but punishes any hubris. My feeling is that the ‘stand and fight’ message was misplaced and encouraged a ‘macho’ attitude to firefighting, which became a roll of the dice. An upside to these experiences is a rekindling of community and a connection to the Anzac spirit – mateship in the face of unmitigated disaster.

  14. Guy, it is usually inevitable when when you argue for a point of view that there is an attack, explicit or otherwise, on the views that some others are expressing. The writers for the Australian are entitled to make such an attack, just as you are. There may also be an attack, explicit or otherwise, on the motivations of those holding opposing views – that is also quite normal and your article is a good example. You provide no evidence that those writing for the Australian are not principally motivated by a desire to put forward a view about the causes of the fires. Your premise, that the writers are principally driven by a desire to vilify the greens, went entirely unproven in your article – it was a given that readers were expected to just accept on your say so. The talk about a green “fifth column” suggests that the Australian writers have a lock-em-up, concentration camp mentality – another completely unsupported opinion.Your final comment about “a deal more circumspection” suggests, as I argued previously, that you believe that they should shut up altogether out of respect for the dead.

    The writers for the Australian are entitled to put their views, just as those who, like me, believe that the fires are a nail in the coffin of climate change denialism, are entitled to put theirs.

  15. As one called to the 1994 Parliamentary Inquiry and Coronial Inquiry here in NSW as state campaign co-ordinator for The Wilderness Society, and released with in effect ‘no case to answer’ a few words if I may.

    May those poor victims rest in peace. The best of British to the injured with their recovery.

    Secondly Rundle is on the right track. Let me add some pieces to the jigsaw. NSW is well known to lead the regulatory pack in Australia:

    A. You can’t physically hazard reduce (it’s not “a backburn” which is done during the fire threat) all the forested land scape. IT”S NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. There isn’t enough favourable days in the winter and spring and autumn. So you have to hazard reduce strategically for buffer zones.

    That’s why Phil Koperberg elected to parliament here in NSW after 20 years stirling service particularly as Bushfire Commissioner said this:

    1/1/02…Koperberg dismisses burn-off, Sydney Morning Herald, copy here http://www.sydneyalternativemedia.com/id39.html

    and see

    1/1/2002… Fire reduction burn offs useless: Daily Telegraph, copy here

    B. I caution allies of the logging industry trying cheap gutless shots at greens like me, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, see the picture here

    Jan/Feb 2000…Serious forest fires in the Otways are started by careless logging practices
    at …… http://www.oren.org.au/issues/water/report/16firelogging.htm

    13/5/02…Clearfell logging is making the wet forests of the Otways drier and more fire prone

    Patchy, rare fire occurrence in wet forests of Otways, Vic

    1997….scientific refutation of the ‘burn lots and burn often’ simplistic approach allegedly used by pre European Aboriginal society
    at ……http://www.sydneyalternativemedia.com/id42.html

    More at my blog on the patchworking of the high humidity closed canopy forest.