Flat White

Memo MPs: how have you forgotten 60,000 years of bushfire prevention?

22 November 2019

1:00 PM

22 November 2019

1:00 PM

The current weather and wildfire situation is neither unprecedented nor unexpected. These latest holocausts are a direct consequence of the unprecedented accumulation of 3D continuous fuels as a result of green influence on politics. Ironically, 3D fuels also choke out biodiversity. Twenty four small mammals became extinct in the Western Division of New South Wales, where there was virtually no forest and no clearing or logging, because scrub obliterated their open grassy habitats. When Aborigines still managed the bush surrounding Sydney, fires were controllable even in extreme weather. For example, in December 1792, with temperatures in the mid-40s and searing northwesterly gales, settlers were able to control fires around Sydney and Parramatta with green branches, losing only one hut and a few gardens and fences in Sydney, and a hut, outbuildings and a stack of wheatsheaves at Parramatta. Under the same weather conditions in January 1994, four human lives were lost with hundreds of houses, when 800,000 hectares burnt in NSW despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters with fire engines and waterbombers.

It’s all about fuel, not climate. Half a century ago, Athol Hodgson, who later became Chief Fire Officer of Victoria, explained the simple physics:

Doubling the available fuel usually doubles the rate of spread of the fire and increases its intensity fourfold. Control is made extremely difficult by mass short-distance spotting from stringybark fuel and spectacular long-distance spotting from candlebark fuels. Control burning over large areas … cheaply and effectively reduces the incidence of high intensity wildfires and minimizes damage.

Firebreaks, so-called asset protection zones and waterbombers don’t work because of long-distance delivery of ember showers by firestorms exploding in 3D fuels during extreme weather.

In autumn 1968, Phil Cheney of the CSIRO carried out NSW’s second only aerial burn in rough country northwest of Bega. It saved the town and surrounding farms from extensive wildfires during horrific conditions in the following spring/summer, when 14 people were killed, hundreds of homes were lost and more than a million hectares were burnt. Fifty years later, the Yankee’s Gap fire started in this by now long unburnt wilderness during winter. NSW Rural Fire Service worked on it for a month with ground crews and water bombing, then evacuated when bad weather was predicted. Property and stock were lost on the first day of severe weather in spring.

Our national capital was part-incinerated in 2003 and our nation charred after fire spotted over many miles of bare paddocks. The House of Representatives inquiry received evidence from experienced land managers right across Australia and rediscovered the simple answer that we need to restore mild fire across the landscape. However, the land management and emergency services bureaucracies in some eastern states boycotted the inquiry, and the Green member put in a dissenting report. This set the scene for the COAG inquiry whereby the emergency services bureaucrats and junk scientists swept traditional knowledge, history, commonsense and pragmatic science under the table. They put ‘education’, disaster warnings and evacuations in place of sensible management. This paved the way for ongoing disasters and ever-increasing funding of their bailiwicks.

The High Court’s Mabo decision should have set the scene for responsible land management in Australia. Instead, you – our elected representatives – pay lip service to Aboriginal elders past and present, while effectively denying their monumental work, across geological epochs, to maintain healthy and safe landscapes. Wherever you look today, in our once great and beautiful country, you will see either dying eucalypts and booming scrub or dying trees and flaming scrub. How many more people and animals have to die or suffer? How many more inquiries and royal Commissions do we need, to wake up to what Aboriginal people learnt 60,000 years ago, European explorers learnt two centuries ago and foresters relearnt 50 years ago?

Instead of wasting billions of dollars on ineffective waterbombers, silly computer models and hugely expensive emergency bureaucracies which are rewarded with increased funding after every disaster, we need only spend a minuscule fraction on reinstating frequent mild fire and safe and healthy landscapes.

Vic Jurskis is the author of Firestick Ecology: fair dinkum science in plain English, published by Connor Court.

Illustration: Joseph Lycett, “Drawings of Aborigines and scenery”, 1820, National Library of Australia.

This article originally appeared in On Line Opinion.

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