Jon Stanhope came under fire (pun vaguely intended) yesterday as the ACT Coroner released a report highly critical of the handling of the 2003 ACT bushfires by fire authorities. Unavailable for interview with SBS news last night, he sent in emergency services minister Simon Corbell to cop an old-fashioned bollocking from new anchor Stan Grant on the issue instead.

In addition to other findings, the coroner reportedly noted that heavy fuel loads fed the fires that eventually destroyed more than 400 homes and killed four people. The parliamentary inquiry into the 2003 bushfires noted similar criticism that “… there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long”.

A similar chorus is now being heard as fires burn out of control in north-eastern Victoria and parts of NSW and Tasmania.

The issue of fuel reduction management is a controversial one, and not surprisingly: along with parts of southern France and California, south-eastern Australia is among the most flammable regions on the planet. It also happens to be where much of Australia’s population, its largest catchment, and some of its more productive agricultural lands are located. Sometimes a home among the readily combustible gum trees isn’t all John Williamson cracked it up to be.

Fire is an integral feature of almost all of Australia’s diverse ecosystems and landscapes, and its occurrence throughout much of the country correlated highly with the dry El-Niño phases of ENSO. In this context, the threat of bushfire is something that can be managed more or less effectively, but never extinguished.

But the preferred approach, depending on who you ask, seems to depend on considerations not only of risk to human life and property, but also of what the proper ecological fire role and regime “should” be, another controversial topic that goes back to the question of pre-European indigenous burning practices and beyond.

In any case, fire management agencies seemingly face a choice – between burning more often and facing the occasional fire jumping containment, or burning less often and risking precisely the sort of periodic conflagration that’s currently occurring. For their part, they claim that fuel reduction targets have been impossible to meet because dry conditions in recent years have often made prescribed burning too risky, a rationale rejected by critics, among them rural land owners in high risk areas.

The situation is only likely to be exacerbated by climate change. The south-east has become hotter and drier in the past 50 years, and CSIRO projections have that trend continuing into the future. The result of that is an almost inevitable increase in bushfire risk.

A 2005 CSIRO report widely quoted in the media over the past few weeks used projections of future climate to assess changes in fire danger in south-eastern Australia. The authors concluded that, depending on location and climate scenario, the number of high or extreme fire danger days in the south-east is projected to rise by 15-70% by 2050.

During a visit to fire affected communities last week, the PM ran his newly found global warming colours up the mast, telling locals and the media that “the country should prepare for a continuation of what we are now experiencing.”

That’s quite a change. With his treasurer recently reciting a Midnight Oil song for the sake of a bit of parliamentary point scoring against the shiny new opposition environment front bencher, the PM must be gambling that some other Garrett lyrics will prove prophetic among the voters: “Short memory, must have a…”

It would make my Christmas if the PM followed Mr Costello’s lead and did the dance steps, too.

Peter Fray

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