New South Wales Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has announced the latest fix for our bushfire problems. Unsurprisingly it involves big spending. Our government is literally throwing banknotes on the fire. This will do nothing to restore a healthy and safe landscape. Black Summer was a consequence of the unprecedented accumulation of 3 dimensionally continuous fuel. If you don’t manage the whole landscape, unstoppable firestorms are inevitable in extreme conditions. No amount of firebreaks, reduced fuel zones or technology such as fire engines and waterbombers can make any difference.
Aborigines didn’t need boots or overalls, let alone computers and aircraft. Instead, they had commonsense and practical technology – the firestick. During the Settlement Drought in the early 1790s, the worst in 300 years of proxy records, there were three consecutive extreme fire seasons. Aboriginal fires were constantly burning to the northwest of Sydney for the whole period. European dwellings mostly had thatched or bark roofs. In 1792, one hut in Sydney and one in Parramatta were lost on a day of temperatures over 40C and searing northwesterly gales. Other than that, any fires which reached the European settlements were contained with little damage, using hand tools and green branches.
Now, despite total fire bans, we have mass evacuations during every bad season, because fire engines and waterbombers can’t save modern buildings with steel or tile roofs. The Gospers Mountain fire of half a million hectares set a new world record from a natural ignition by lightning. It incinerated dangerous wilderness which had been safe, well-managed bush two centuries ago. Expenditure on fire control has exploded along with the bush, because the focus has shifted from sensible land management to emergency management/evacuation. This is a consequence of bad advice to governments from academics who are scared of fire.
Since the 1980s, ecological maintenance by mild fire has been increasingly restricted and even prohibited on the basis of silly theories that burning threatens biodiversity. This is lunacy in a continent shaped by the firestick. Academics have never actually learnt to look after country or make friends with fire. They’ve built their empires on interference with sustainable management and ever-increasing funds to research a problem of their own creation. The problem spiralled out of control from 2004.
After the severe fire season in 2003, when even Canberra suburbs were devastated, a parliamentary inquiry heard a consistent message from experienced managers across Australia. The problem is lack of maintenance by mild burning. This answer didn’t suit academics and fire chiefs in the southeast. They set up the 2004 COAG whitewash which has delivered emergency response at the expense of sustainable management. As a result, the now world-famous bushfire research centre at Wollongong was established in 2006.
Inevitably, things got worse in the bush, but not in academia. Renowned Professor Ross Bradstock, at the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, personally supervised 22 PhD Students and 15 staff, publishing more than 120 scientific articles and bringing in research funding of nearly $20 million. In 2018 Matt Kean’s predecessor, environment minister Gabrielle Upton, announced $4 million additional funding to set up a Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.
After our disastrous Black Summer, The NSW Bushfire Inquiry took advice from “a range of fire experts and researchers to gain a better understanding of the extreme weather conditions and unusual fire behaviour that characterised the 2019-20 season”. The Inquiry commissioned 19 projects from the Bushfire Research Hub. Naturally, the final report recommended more research.
Dominic Perrottet has now announced $28 million additional funding for research of technology to respond to entirely preventable megafires. It would be very much cheaper to reinstate the firestick, and it would actually work. I’d be happy to teach the professors, fire chiefs and politicians how to use it, gratis.
Vic Jurskis is a former senior NSW Forestry Commission professional forester. In 2004 he was awarded a Fellowship by the Joseph William Gottstein Memorial Trust to investigate eucalypt decline across Australia. He has published two books, Firestick Ecology, and The Great Koala Scam, both available from Connor Court.
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