It has happened again — another fuel-reduction burn has got out of control, this time in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park in Western Australia. Homes have been lost, lives put at risk and there will be yet another government inquiry.

The deliberate lighting of fires in national parks began in the mid-1980s — they were called “ecological burns” — and have been strongly advocated for by botanists to promote plant biodiversity. The effects on mammals, insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians remain devastating, poorly studied and will likely lead to more extinctions.

After the 2009 Black Saturday fires in which so many people dies in Victoria, blame was levelled at greenies for preventing fuel-reduction burning. No evidence was required, with so many dead and such an emotionally charged atmosphere. Announced while fires were still being lit and back-burnt, a poor quality Royal Commission, in which all the agencies and bodies shared a single law firm, was established. The Brumby government did its best to limit the scope of commission and, predictably, responsibility for the fires was awkwardly slated to a few individuals.

In response to its recommendations, fuel-reduction burning was ramped up to cover 6% of the Victoria annually without distinguishing between woodlands, coastal heaths and wet forests, etc. NSW and Western Australia are under pressure to follow suit. Subsequently, a “fire prevention industry” through the use of fire grew even bigger.

Now the Western Australian government has announced an inquiry into the latest fires and already the press has named the people in charge as responsible. The responsibility for these fires and the thousands of deliberately lit fires over the past 200 years cannot be slated home to individuals. We all share it. This was confirmed in research on historic fire frequency over 70,000 years, published last year. It is also in the careful reading of the history of Australian settlement in which fire was the only tool available to open up vast areas of forest and woodland. Grazing kept these areas open as they were burnt and re-burnt for green pick for cattle and sheep long before the development of pasture.

By early 2009 in Victoria, the media was full of people saying that the state was going to burn after two of the hottest days on record. By the time the third day arrived, it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. The media-driven hysteria increased the risk of people lighting fires — and they did.

The damage from fire is routinely underestimated. Water catchments are compromised and polluted, national international publicity reduces tourism, burnt landscapes are vulnerable to landslips and erosion from rain, which can do millions of dollars worth of damage to roads and infrastructure. Historic buildings and homesteads are lost along with farm fences, power and phone lines.

Tens of thousands of people who did not lose homes, spent days, even weeks, in continual states of stress and at times terror, not knowing or understanding where fires were or whether or they were in danger. The impact on people beyond “fire victims” has never been acknowledged.

Families were split, people had breakdowns, and when they lost their homes were forced, by difficult insurance claims and changing building regulations, to live in caravans. The now national “Stay or Go” policy adds to the burden and the confusion, when all people want is for someone or a siren, now banned, to tell them when to go. The CO2 emissions from these fires nationally pales the likely impact of the carbon tax into insignificance.

There is now clear evidence that it is the Europeans that increased the rate of fire in the landscape many times over compared to Aboriginal people. There is also evidence that not all bush burns as hot, or as easily.

The small islands of old forests in Wilson’s Promontory National Park, Tarra Bulga Park and scattered throughout East Gippsland remain unburnt after bearing the brunt and showering embers of successive fires.  As the smoke clears from the Western Australian fires it is time to closely examine what did not burn and why.

Is it possible, even now, to objectively look at the bush to see what we can do better to manage the  bush and  protect bush communities? The answers will upset people. Hard choices may include abandoning logging  water supply catchments.  Research published this year shows that such logging will increase the fire hazard that the bush presents to surrounding communities. Any compensation to the timber industry will be likely more than offset by maintaining stream flow and water quality.

Jobs would be changed from lighting fires to putting them out and re-vegetating with local fire-retardant species along road reserves and around towns. This would mean only using back-burns right at the fire front to save lives and property.

Peter Fray

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