Victorian bush fires:

Peter Wotton writes: Re. “Tips from a bushfire survivor” (yesterday, item 5). In all the anguish of the bush-fire victims in Victoria, one could very well ask why the building codes allow the construction of inappropriate homes in fire prone areas.

Homes built with steel frames and of solid masonry are less likely to catch fire from the outside than those of lightly built timber design. Smaller windows of tempered glass with heat reflecting films or coatings would prevent internal access of flying embers through shattered thin annealed glass with its low tolerance to thermal radiation. The replacement of roof gutters, with their propensity to collect flammable leaves and bark, with wide eaves and concrete ground trench gutters would do much to stop flames moving into roof cavities.

Additionally, closed metal roofs are unlikely to offer the same level of threat than the more attractive tiled roof alternative. External concrete or ceramic paved decks do not burn, timber decks overlooking gullies are an open fire risk.

People will continue to build affordable attractive and livable homes which comply with the building codes. It would appear that in the case of these horrendous fires in Victoria, the existing codes are deficient!

John Worcester writes: Colin Prasad and Ted Richards (yesterday, comments) made excellent suggestions regarding fire bunkers and underground emergency shelters in backyards. Obviously these must have gone out of fashion.

Back in 1961, when I was appointed as head of a single-teacher bush school, I soon came across what was known locally as “dugouts” — for fire protection of bush workers — a deep trench covered with material (probably boards and iron sheeting) and overtopped with soil, hessian bags covering the entrance at each end. These always made good sense and I resolved if I were ever living in the bush I’d have one dug (have lived in the city mostly since).

I recall that year going out into the bush with a local Roads man, in mid-springtime, lighting small fires to reduce fuel. I also recall a farmer at Wulgulmerang telling me of the cyclic philosophical changes of direction in government environment departments according to which party was in government.

Under Labor, environmental ideologues took over and he was horrified at the end-result, a profusion of blackberry and of foxes in the nearby forests, neither of which was ever of sufficient interest to be reported in metropolitan papers (I wouldn’t dream of mentioning “latte sippers”).

June Carter writes: I was talking to an elderly customer this morning about the Victorian bushfires and he told me that in the “old days” it was customary for people who decided to “go bush” to have a dugout in their backyard for emergencies such as we have just had with people dying due to a lack of consultation or knowledge of their circumstances.

I thought it should be mandatory that everyone who buys or builds in bushfire zones MUST have a dugout and there could be a two year moratorium for those who had already purchased or built (much like smoke alarms) but surely this should be easy to implement?

Gavin E. Greenoak writes: I am seeking some distinction between the wood and the burning trees. When I have a small pile of wood then I have a small fire; when I have a bigger pile of wood then I have a bigger fire. Is it such an outrageous piece of commonsense to seek a reduction of the piles of wood where possible?

As I believe Aboriginal people had done for millennia before the great white arrival. Indeed some clans have “fire men” who are dedicated to the when and where of this reduction on a somewhat more sensitive basis than our brands of politics may allow.

Cathy Bannister writes: Another problem with the blanket advice to “stay and fight, or flee early” is that it doesn’t take account of different housing materials. Canberrans always express amazement that more people didn’t die in the 2003 fires.

Perhaps this is because Canberran houses are predominantly brick, built from 1970 onwards. In contrast, houses in these small, historic Victorian towns tend to be very old, very dry wood. The chances of defending such a building must be much lower.

Karyn Sanders writes: Every year the CFA gives a Fire Safety talk at the top of my street, and points to my house to highlight the danger (if there was a fire) because of the trees near my house. I live in the Macedon Ranges which was devastated by Ash Wednesday, yet I can not remove these trees because of council regulations. Much to the dismay of these good CFA people.

Yet developers, loggers, businesses, etc, remove many trees in the area. We can’t make our own homes safe, on our own land, but the business community is treated very, very differently.

Jackie French writes: Re. Joan Croll (yesterday, comments). Casuarinas flare up like a firecracker. Don’t plant them near the house. Don’t plant anything unless you have tried burning the leaves, bark and seed pods. If they flare, avoid them. Don’t trust anything is “flame retardant” until you’ve tried burning it with a firelighter. If it burns it will burn in a bushfire.

Steve Martin writes: Marty O’Neill (yesterday, comments) wrote: “I get mad about those people who live in ‘forest’ or ‘bush’ areas that refuse to insure their properties and then put out their hands and expect the rest of Australia to replace their houses from them. They won’t get a penny from me.”

We are indeed fortunate in this country that the vast majority of our fellow citizens rally to help those who are in desperate need of assistance, and volunteer their time, goods and money to those in need. Apart from the lack of compassion displayed by Marty O’Neill he begs the question as to whether those suffering in this terrible tragedy are in fact un-insured.

Even when you are insured the losses that you suffer are never compensated in full by insurance, for example a car is compensated for market value only. And how do you compensate for loss of earnings, injury and loss of loved ones?

Mark Heydon writes: I have some sympathy for Marty O’Neill’s position that property owners should insure their property, however this is unduly harsh. For a start, insurers (with some exceptions) will not tell you how much to insure your property for — it’s a number you have to provide. It is very easy to get this number wrong and be in the position of not having enough insurance to rebuild your house.

There are also many risks that can’t be insured, for example, what about people living in rented property and working in the towns affected — these people have lost the roof over their head and very likely their livelihood.

Beyond this, surely it is Australia’s ethos to help people in need, regardless of whether they made some contribution to their own position — if for no other reason than the selfish one that one day it might be you that needs the help.

Stimulating the economy:

Greg Samuelson writes: Re. “Ask the Economists: stimulation needed now” (Yesterday, item 23). Associate Professor Steve Keen said on the question of whether the Rudd Government’s proposed stimulus package should go ahead: “The short answer is yes, the Senate should pass the stimulus package, but it won’t stop the crisis … the Japanese tried stimulating the economy for 15 years and the government’s debt-to-GDP ratio went from 50% to 175%.”

Pardon me, but did I just hear an associate professor of economics recommend throwing good money after bad?

An alternative (and I believe highly workable) solution to the economic crisis would run along the lines of the following: all economists should have their mouths sewn shut for 15 years and allow the economy to be run by intelligent people. The economists could be fed via a tube up their nose and put to work rebuilding bushfire devastated towns or sweeping streets, although they might need to be shown which end of the broom to use.

After said 15 years, the stitching could be removed on a case by case basis based on the economist’s usefulness to society in that period.

Garth Longhurst writes: Rudd talks about nation building, but let’s do it smart. Let’s learn from the mistakes of poor planning, lets build model homes with all the latest thinking regarding town planning and sustainability. Dig a hole and put the electricity and telephones underground, rebuild towns in the bushfire zone with wide streets, escape routes and concrete bunkers.

Where are the water pipes for when it floods up north to bring the water south? Humans built a few canals between continents, pipe oil in snow, put man on a moon. All who had the idea were laughed out. Yes, the costs ran way over budget.

Communities could be reborn, The Murray River could have water in it, the farmers could have water to grow crops, country towns could have growing populations again. Firefighters could have enough water to dose any bush fire.

I’d say there’s $40 billion. It’s nothing new. What would be new is someone saying: “Yes we will!”. The result: nation building.

The global financial crisis:

Julian Gillespie writes: Re. “Kohler: US finance is one big Ponzi scheme” (Yesterday, item 26). I had been expecting the US markets to tank on Treasury’s “announcement” overnight — bang-on they nose dived due to the lack of detail — but a point I believe needing more discussion, as far as the markets are concerned, is how they will react when (and if) the banks finally open up their balance sheets in order to implement any Treasury plan.

No matter which valuation formula you barrack for, with respect to the crappy assets they have been holding onto that got us into this mess, their balance sheets will look more than toxic. They’ll just simply look very, very bad from any accountant’s point of view. These money pit banks will be exposed as holding onto mountains of triple junk grade investments.

CNBC interrogated Treasury Secretary Geithner after his woeful announcement of intention, where the interviewer revisited the trillion dollar issue: “How is it we still don’t know the true state of affairs with the banks?”

Geithner immediately acknowledged that this “is the core of the problem” then very quickly diverted away from this, the core issue of a lack of true disclosure by US banks, onto other irrelevant gump, bump, bells and whistles.

So it is one thing to get happy about Treasury finally providing a detailed plan, but it will be an entirely other thing to see how the markets will react (where I’m punting on shock, then awe, then everyone bolting for the doors) once the regulators are armed with powers to expose the true state of affairs within the balance sheets of the US banks.

It can only be damn ugly given the secrecy to date, if that’s correct, then at the moment this market is floating on puffed-up symbolism that is cloaking an illusion of sound fundamentals “somewhere” supporting everyone’s investments.

Once the Wizards of Oz’s Wall St are outed for the phonies they are, and reality finally settles in, then many current US banks should finally be nationalised out of existence to allow for some new, and hopefully less toxic kids, on to the block.

Climate change:

Mark Byrne writes: Tamas Calderwood (Monday, comments) was asked a simple question: “By Tamas’ definition how many times has global warming stopped in the last 30 years? Did it stop in 1981? Then again in 1991? What test is used to check if warming has likely stopped this time given the long-term trend and the physical measurable mechanism of heat trapping GHGs?”

Instead of addressing this question Tamas (Tuesday, comments) employs the strawman-dodge, pretending that I asked him for an alternative hypothesis.

Given Tamas’ agility for moving away from the fact, I should not be surprised that he says “I don’t see any evidence that man-made CO2 [is] the primary factor.”

To be clear this “no seeing” is not because the evidence has not been offered.

Tamas Calderwood writes: Stephen Luntz (yesterday, comments) is right and I am wrong: January 2009 was 0.322C above the 30 year average as measured by RSS. January 1983 was only 0.185C above the average, so Jan 2009 is a full 0.137C warmer than 1983. Mind you, it was hotter in December 1987 (+.351C) and January 1998 (+.55C) while January 2008 was 0.07 below the 30 year average. Therefore I’m not sure I believe a temperature increase of 0.137C since January 1983 is responsible for our bushfires Stephen.

Finally, Matt Hardin (yesterday, comments) insists that the burden of proof for global warming is on the skeptics — a standard set in no other area of science (or the law). His logic is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, humans produce this gas and so we must be warming up the world.

Yes Matt, but what about water vapour (95% of greenhouse gasses), changes in Earth’s orbit, changes in its axis of rotation, cosmic rays, ocean currents, solar cycles, plate tectonics, volcanic activity, etc, etc? I guess we just assume that all those things remain perfectly equal while we hypothesize that the increase of a trace gas from 0.00035 to 0.00038 of our atmosphere is responsible for the coming apocalypse, right?

The Uniting Church:

Rob Gerrand writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (Monday, item 8). Your anonymous correspondent is being misleading. The Uniting Church will be swapping its current headquarter in an old building for four floors in a new one — plus getting money from the development to help maintain our historic Wesley church, thereby freeing up funds for our pastoral work. The project will not add extra costs to the Church, but save money.

Get Up:

GetUp’s Meredith Turnbull and Simon Sheikh write: Re. “GetUp’s bogus survey good enough for Grattan” (Tuesday, item 9). We’re glad last year’s poll of GetUp members in Sydney, Grayndler and Melbourne is still making waves months down the track, at a time when the strength of the Government’s response to climate change is rightly coming under question.

We’d like to clear up a few misunderstandings that seem to have informed this piece.

For those who came in late, in October 2008 GetUp polled its members in three inner-city electorates to find out how many GetUp members who identified as traditional Labor voters would change their vote if the Rudd Government failed to deliver strong climate change action.

Andrew Crook incorrectly claims GetUp construed that these poll results were representative of the general public. In fact the polling report stated “All respondents have elected to receive emails from GetUp; they are not a representative section of the broader community and have not been weighted to reflect Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS) data”.

To be clear: we’re not saying that based on these survey results we can predict broader trends in the voting intentions of the Australian public. We are saying that within the GetUp community in these electorates, there are enough people to influence the outcome of the next election.

GetUp members are politically significant. That’s why politicians want to know their thoughts, their concerns and ultimately, their many and varied voting intentions. In the electorate of Melbourne, for example, there are 17,150 GetUp members — that is a meaningful number in itself without suggesting these trends apply to the broader public. At the last election, only 8,249 votes stood between Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and the Greens candidate in Melbourne.

Both our press release and The Age article used as evidence to support the claims in yesterday’s piece make the point that this was a poll of GetUp members, not the general public. In fact, Andrew Crook helpfully republishes that explicit statement in his article.

This should be a wake up call for the Government. And it should help inform the Coalition’s response to the climate debate this year. Climate change is not an abstract consternation over remote biodiversity loss or melting ice sheets — it’s about lives and livelihoods under threat. The thousands of Australians who can and will have a very real political impact at the next election are demanding action.

It’s unfortunate that Mr Crook did not include any comment from us to clarify any of the assertions he has made. As we have said in previous responses, we’d warmly welcome any opportunity to comment should he like to write about GetUp in the future.

Send your comments, corrections, clarifications and c*ck-ups to [email protected]. Preference will be given to comments that are short and succinct: maximum length is 200 words (we reserve the right to edit comments for length). Please include your full name — we won’t publish comments anonymously unless there is a very good reason.

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