Black Saturday’s firestorm generated a propaganda wordstorm. Ideology masqueraded as analysis. Each faction claimed to speak for the dead but spruiked their own agenda. We who actually live in the bush just want to survive a firestorm and manage the bush safely. Instead of practical advice, we got messianic lectures from environment warriors and cynical pitches from interest groups. The Punch and Judy commentariat, knowing nothing of bushfire, hitched up their prejudices and belted their enemies.
The first salvo, fired with unseemly haste by Senator Bob Brown, demanded action on global warming, as if firestorms weren’t endemic to Australia. Tim Flannery followed, suggesting that the drought was caused by coal emissions, as if drought wasn’t endemic here. The “mountain cattlemen” insisted forests be “opened up”. In sodden Cambridgeshire, Germaine Greer regurgitated half-digested nostrums. Online rants raged: either the greens were “directly responsible for the deaths of innocents” or we were doomed to the hellfires of global warming.
Fire scientist David Packham blasted the greens, saying they were “…eco-terrorists waging jihad against prescribed burning”. The Wilderness Society shot back, accusing the “anti-parks, pro-logging lobby” of opportunism, while murmuring that they really quite liked controlled burning.
Foreigners offered unique insights. Natalie Bennett in the Guardian “shuddered” when she heard people were going to rebuild in the bush. “The geography is clearly unsuitable,” she pontificated, possibly meaning topography. Never fear, Bennett recommends “a small bark humpy that could be replaced in a few hours, or even a caravan that could be hitched up and whipped away.”
Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, lamented the lack of “back-burning”. Back-burning is a defensive technique used against wildfire. He meant prescribed burning.
Commentators mourned the lost wisdom of aborigines who burned the land for millennia, as if that didn’t encourage pyrogenic plants. Nor did Australia’s extinct grazing megafauna regard aborigines as benevolent park rangers.
Freya Mathews, an “ecological philosopher”, announced a “whole new order of fires” because of our new, “desiccated” climate in The Age. Far from being able to predict climate, Mathews bungled the weather. She was sure “many more towns… would have been engulfed” if we’d had a three day heatwave after Black Saturday instead of a cool change. Sheer meteorological fiction. The ferocious wind funnel occurs because desert winds are drawn south against an advancing cold front. The damage is done in a few hours.
The commentariat is floundering. Fire scientists have been vexed for years by the lack of public or journalistic interest in wildfire. Remember the eerie media silence before the firestorm? The forecast was early and accurate. In the aftermath, few have rigorously questioned the fire authorities or government. We need long-term independent criticism of fire science and fire bureaucracy.
Since the fires, the code word has been “unprecedented”. If the firestorm was unprecedented, then the authorities were not to blame. “Unprecedented” also made extremism legitimate, whether redneck or green. But of course Black Saturday was not unprecedented. It’s just one of a long series of firestorms, some bigger than this one. Fire chief Russell Rees said that climate change caused these “freak” fires. The firestorm was no freak, and to attribute it to climate change is irrelevant. Rees himself correctly predicted Ash Wednesday conditions for Saturday.
Fire authorities and fire scientists failed abysmally to conceptualise firestorm. Neither learned from history that firestorms are inevitable and quite different from the 50,000 routine bushfires we have annually. Firestorms need radical treatment.
“Unprecedented” was a dog whistle blown by both global warmists and their opponents. To the greens it meant our wicked carbon ways must change. To the Packhamites, evangelical greens have forced a deadly accumulation of fuel which must be burned off. How similar they are. Both predict a fiery Armageddon for which the other is to blame.
Simplistic solutions are seductive. They create a false sense of security, and we’ve just seen where that leads.
There’s a double irony here. First, the axe-grinders are not seriously addressing the catastrophe itself. Second, both extremes can be accommodated in the solution.
Everyone knows bushfire policy must change right now. If global warming occurs, there will be more firestorms. We’ll just have to apply better policies faster. And firestorms will occur regardless of whether carbon emissions are lowered or “fuel reduction” burning is increased. The utility of prescribed burning of forests is fiercely disputed among scientists. Water runoff is greatly reduced in burnt forests and understorey vegetation flourishes, if you can manage to burn at all. In any case, prescribed burning is but one modest tool among many.
The only way to guarantee survival in a firestorm is an oxygen-supplied bunker. Modernise the old Aussie dugout. By all means toughen building regulations to make houses fire-resistant, but what can withstand a tsunami of fire and 1000 degree heat? Clear a defensible space and remove flammable plants, but build that bunker.
The CFA’s advice is bizarre. They hint at a culprit, but dare not speak its name:
“There is no such thing as a ‘fire retardant’ or ‘hard to burn’ plant.”
But avoid plants with the following characteristics: “lots of dry, dead debris during the fire season loose flaky bark masses of very fine leaves… a very low moisture content” (Living in the Bush, CFA 2008)
Remind you of anyone? Mr Gum perhaps?
They also tell us radiant heat lasts “only 10-15 minutes”, and if you’ve mowed the grass, picked up leaves and stayed calm, “you have a very good chance of saving your home and surviving…” In an ember blizzard similar to that which destroyed 500 houses in Canberra in 2003, driven by superheated gases and radiant heat, defending your house on Black Saturday was all but impossible. Trained firefighters are not permitted to fight a rampant fire front, so how can untrained, ill-equipped householders? We know that even well-prepared defenders died on Black Saturday.
CFA officers were asked by residents on 23 February at Warburton how many houses were defensible. “None” was the answer, preceded by a chuckle. The CFA’s “stay and defend” advice for both severe and catastrophic fire conditions should be withdrawn immediately.
We can do many things to mitigate the effects of firestorm. Disregard demagogues, ecogogues and celebrity dilettantes. Let’s get the facts.