Why are there still fires burning three weeks after Black Saturday the 7th? Is it because these fires are entrenched in bush country which, despite the vast available fire fighting resources, simply cannot be put out? Or is it wholly or partly because those managing the fires are happy to leave them burning to achieve other objectives like “ecological” and fuel-reduction burning?

On Sunday CFA officers warned of 150 kph winds in tremulous voices on the regional ABC. East Gippslanders who have been subject to years of fires in 2003 and 2006/7 that followed fuel reduction, ecological and asset protection burns were again panicked. The 150kph northerly winds forecast by the ABC for today — but not by the Weather Bureau with the exception of 140kph gusts tipped for Falls Creek — would easily be enough to drag the still burning Dargo fires to Bairnsdale. People have been really scared — again.

The disaster of Black Saturday was in part due to the wrong advice — giving people options to stay and defend their homes and implement their “personal bushfire plan” when the nature of the fire made that all but impossible. They was not enough warning of approaching fire fronts on the day of those fires. There is no talk yet of what is required to give that warning. Is it keeping high altitude planes in the air with infrared detection capacity, using satellites with the same or is it just technologically impossible? And if we knew a fire front was coming, threatening a town — how do we tell the town?

Possibly due to the cost of insurance local councils seem to no longer provide fire refuges. Community based fire plans have been overlooked in favour of each individual being made responsible for their decisions — yet it was co-operative efforts that saved so many in the past and on Saturday the 7th.

Despite the loss of lives on Black Saturday, the message today from the fire services has remained the same — activate your ‘individual’ fire plan and make the decision as to whether you stay or go early. Today however every Victorian (and many Tasmanians) who owned a mobile phone that worked, could read English, had it switched on and had reception received a message warning them of extreme conditions and high winds. Even kids in the city.

In Melbourne today overhead signs on Freeways tell people to tune in to ABC Radio for their bushfire information service. People with rural properties have headed bush to defend them while other people in the bush have fled their homes with elderly folk, pets, stock and valuables.

If this happened even on Black Saturday would it have made a difference? The decision as to whether to stay or go is still and individual one. Is there extra provision for early warnings of specific fire threats? Warnings that would have given people of Churchill, Traralgon, Kinglake and Marysville, Stathewen and elsewhere enough time to save lives?

It is hard to see how his text message would have made a difference.

There is a coming front — a massive fire industry is growing. It is based on organising people to light and put out fires and managing the individual responses of people threatened by them. The spin doctors will be again readying themselves, calling for more and more fuel reduction burning in case there are serious fires today.

According to many of those advocating yet more fire to prevent fire we need to replicate what Aboriginal people used to do with fire. Somehow they survived for millennia without mobile phone text messaging. So did the vast areas of massive ancient forests of giant trees that greeted the first Europeans who arrived here – and made so much money out of felling them and selling them.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.