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.

Peter Fray

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