Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bushfire Questions Must Be Answered

The devastating bushfires haven’t even all been put out yet and already the cavalcade of expert and not so expert opinion is becoming an avalanche. It’s only natural that human beings look for answers in time of tragedy in an effort to find some sort of meaning behind seemingly senseless events. When the forces of nature remind us all that we are so much less powerful than we sometimes think we are it’s only natural to seek reassurance, even to attempt to reassert ourselves as having some sort of command over our own destiny. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

In time the Royal Commission which has been ordered by Victorian Premier John Brumby will address many of the questions and concerns which are now becoming a part of public debate. Was there something more or better we could have done to prevent the tragedy? Have “green” environmental policies led to higher risks as a result of abandoning hazard reduction measures? Is the “stay and defend” policy the appropriate response in the face of such extreme conditions? And just what exactly can be done to deal with arsonists who have quite justifiably been described as mass-murders and terrorists?

I can’t answer all of those questions, and I doubt that many of us can, but like most of us I find that the emotions involved in these events produce an urge to make the attempt to find those answers. While I can’t offer a scientific opinion, others can, such as David Packham from the Monash University climatology group who has made a study of bushfires. He and others have repeatedly pointed to the need for a return to hazard reduction strategies. Mr. Packham points out that reducing forest density and removing the fine fuel of twigs and undergrowth produces an exponential reduction in the intensity of any fire. His figures indicate that hazard reduction can and does make the difference between a fire which can be fought and survived and a fire which is impossible to survive.

On that basis alone it would seem that years of conservationist policies have been misguided, both in causing increased fire risk and at the same time failing to conserve the environment. Surely common sense would tell us that hazard reduction means a reduction in both the risk and the severity of any fire. Although there are those who seem to believe that environmental preservation can only mean refraining from interfering with it in any way, I fail to see why genuine environmental preservation should not involve active management of natural landscapes to provide for both fire safety and heritage protection.

It should also be a matter of common sense that building codes for forested areas should require dwellings to be built in a fire resistant manner and provide both the type of structures and the appropriate means to implement a “stay and defend” policy. Why have such a policy at all if the nature of the construction and the landscaping as well as the lack of safe refuge areas are all working against the success of that policy? These recommendations are not new, and they are not mine. They have emerged from several inquiries and investigations after previous bushfire disasters, and many of them have already been put into place in New South Wales, while for some reason in Victoria they have not.

As for how to deal with arsonists, I am sure there is no shortage of opinions on that. With the Prime Minister describing such an act as mass-murder, and the Federal Attorney General calling for any culprits to be charged accordingly, I think it’s safe to suppose that we all feel the same way.

Of course, these are all matters that will and must be dealt with in due course in the weeks and months ahead. Right now the priority remains assisting those most in need. And even on that score, more and more people are coming forward with suggestions. Some have suggested that the huge lotto jackpots up for grabs this week could have a proportion donated to the cause. Others have suggested that when Kevin Rudd’s $950 bonuses are handed out many people might choose to donate those. All good suggestions, but the important thing is that we are all doing whatever we can.

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