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October 22nd 2014 print

Geoff Walker

Why We Burn Again and Again

The Climate Council, where Tim Flannery hangs his hat these days, has issued a "research paper" that insists we can limit bushfires by banning coal mines and slashing CO2 emissions. Well they would say that. After battling greens and distant bureaucrats, a veteran firefighter knows better

bushfire2EDITOR’S NOTE: The Climate Council — formerly the publicly funded PR arm of the Gillard government’s push for a carbon tax, now supported by public subscription — has just issued another example of what it does best: half-baked semi-science in pursuit of political goals. This time global warming is causing bushfires and lots more of them, according to Professor Lesley Hughes. Her solution, in case you can’t guess:

“The trend of increasing global emissions must be halted within the next few years and emissions must be trending downwards by 2020. Investment in renewable, clean energy must therefore increase rapidly. And, critically, most of the known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.”
Those who know a bit about bushfires grasp the rather more immediate cause of catastrophic firestorms, like those which claimed 173 lives in Victoria in February, 2009: green-inspired opposition to preventive burning. Tellingly, of the academic experts Hughes cites in Climate Change and the NSW Bushfire Threat, almost every one opposes the tried, tested and traditional method of fuel reduction — regular, controlled, low-intensity burnoffs.
With summer almost upon us and the fire season about to begin, what follows is one veteran firefighter’s explanation of why we will burn again, and why official policy makes it likely to happen sooner rather than later.
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bushfire family

Flames drove this family into the water, their last refuge from the inferno that swept through Dunalley, Tasmania, in 2013 (ABC photo)

PRESS-GANGED, shanghaied, conscripted – call it what you will – that was how I became a member of a bushfire brigade. In 1980, after taking up a teaching position at the six-teacher school in Lemon Tree Passage, near Port Stephens, the local fire captain and his deputy confronted me. They told me that I was to be the secretary/treasurer of the local bushfire brigade. I wasn’t game to refuse.

Over the following ten years I learned a great deal from these hard-nosed bushmen. Time and again they stressed the need to burn off the scrub in the cooler months. Not one good day was ever wasted as drip torches fired the bush. Greenies hadn’t been invented at this stage and we had total support from the locals.

Fire control officers came under the umbrella of the local council and were there to assist us. They did not dictate. If they got too big for their boots, we could have them carpeted or sacked. And they were!

Things changed. Over time, the emerging green movement started to pressure politicians and slowly the burnoffs faded. In the case of the Lemon Tree Brigade, burnoffs dwindled from an annual average of 15 in the 1970s to nine in the ’80s down to a mere two or three in the decade of the ’90s to just one or two per annum after the turn of the century. Something had to give and it did.

In 1993 we saw uncontrollable firestorms rake the area, with the loss of a house, a factory and the incineration of a 60-strong koala colony. Our mayor, a farmer and a life member of the bushfire brigade, called a community meeting. Failure to reduce fire fuel was seen as the reason for the disaster. We were, however, assured by those in power that an overhaul of the Bushfire Service and the development of management plans would solve the problem. It didn’t. It made things worse and every year the bushfire menace has become greater.

It was with great expectation that we awaited the release of the Draft Management Plan. The burn-off starved volunteers were just itching to fire up their drip torches and get stuck into the scrub. Finally a copy arrived. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! The Draft Plan stated that: ‘…Port Stephens is an insignificant to major bushfire risk area….’(sic)

Over the next three weeks I worked feverishly to get it changed before the document was signed off on. The plan was not changed at all and came into force under the seal of the commissioner. In real terms it guaranteed the catastrophic buildup of fire fuel. This would come back to bite us.

Efforts to find out who wrote this drivel hit a brick wall. Neither the local council nor the commissioner would tell us. Some city-based, green-leaning academics were suspected, as the document rattled on about Aboriginal artifacts, rare plants and threatened species. To my eyes, it was a political statement, more designed to capture the vote of the ‘cravat-and-corduroy set of urban greens. In my mind, the newly formed Rural Fire Service was being used to garner votes and the time honoured principles of fire management were being swept away. The protocols required before a burn-off could be done were just so complex and exhaustive it was very nearly impossible to light a match, let alone turn a drip torch on the accumulating fuel loads.

What to do? I’d given away teaching in 1983 and had worked in mine rehabilitation. My job was to run a native plant nursery, collect seed, burn off the windrows and replant the strip-mined sand dunes. To do my job I learned the importance of fire in regeneration. I used an oven to crack the banksia seed pods. Wattle seed needed to be boiled to trigger germination and flannel flower seed had to be smoked before it could be grown. Grass tree seed was obtained by firing the parent plant. It was only then that the seed-bearing stalk would shoot skywards.

I decided to go public in the hope of getting bushfire management back on track. Lives and homes would be lost if we continued to ignore the massive fire-fuel accumulation.

I wrote articles for the newspapers, letters to their editors and more letters to the politicians and a book, ‘White Overall Days’, which warned of impending disaster. I even offered to support council and state government candidates if they were sympathetic to the cause.

Something then happened which drove the media to my doorstep.

Soon after the book’s release and a day or two after an article I wrote appeared in a regional newspaper, Canberra went up in flames. Four died and some 500 homes were lost. Everything I had predicted (unfortunately) had come true.

It gets very lonely when you take an opposing view to that of the establishment, but I was greatly heartened when contacted by like-minded people. They, too, saw fire mitigation, as opposed to reactive suppression, as the key to bushfire management – but more of them later.

One particular individual was in a position of power and tried to help. Steve Tucker, our newly elected shire councilor, got himself, along with two Indigenous representatives onto the local Bushfire Management Committee. They gave up in despair as their calls for fuel-reduction burns fell on deaf ears.

Where to go next? Perhaps a bushfire conference might be the vehicle for change. All other avenues had run into dead ends, so why not give it a go?

It was a big event. Around 300 turned up to the conference at the Lemon Tree Passage Bowling Club. Among the speakers were myself; Phil Cheney, the former head of CSIRO’s bushfire research; Peter Cannon, the President of the Volunteer Fife Fighters Association (VFFA), and Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg. All stressed the need to focus on fuel reduction– except for the Commissioner, who took a different tack. He promised a 500 man-hour audit of the area’s fuel loading and called his own meeting to give the results. Sadly, only 40 souls turned up. Nobody wanted audits. They wanted the bush burnt off.

Determined to get control of the agenda, the RFS turned on a road show. Amid a blaze of publicity, around 35 RFS personnel rocked into town one Saturday and set up at five different sites. The locals ignored them. Five individuals attended one performance and two another. The spruikers talked to thin air. A week after they left, Mother Nature did her own audit when a firestorm gobbled up Oyster Cove.

The RFS was not the only one playing a comical role. An all-in brawl amongst the greenie groups took place when a Japanese official turned up waving a cheque for just under  $1,000,000! Film footage of burnt Port Stephens koalas had sparked an appeal in Japan. The Japanese gentleman was looking for someone to accept that cash, which mostly went to a Queensland-based mob. Another lone greenie was found in burnt out scrub divining for koalas with a bit of bent wire and some koala fur attached to the end!

My prime reason for becoming passionate about bushfire management was to save lives. It was no easy journey, with the RFS trying to kill my credibility with newspaper editors. They also directed grassroots firies not to speak to me. I was even hunted away when I tried to take pictures of a burn-off!  On top of this, the local greenies were always after my blood.

What heartened me along the way were the contacts I made with fellow travellers – people who thought the same way as I did – and they were nobody’s fools.

Peter Cannon is a farmer, a 48-year veteran firefighter and an area RFS Group Captain. The declaration of vast areas of NSW as national parks had him worried. Unmanaged, with their fuel loads permitted to reach catastrophic levels, these parks would see wildfires roaring out and destroying farms, homesteads, stock and fences. He called a meeting of volunteers at Orange and formed the VFFA. To force change, they refused to fight fires in unmanaged national parks. The ‘Canobolas Plan’ was developed but, sadly has not been enacted. The devastating Coonabarabran fires are the direct result of massive and unchecked fire-fuel accumulation in our national parks.

Peter and the VFFA continue to lobby for a firefighting structure controlled and directed by local communities, with the emphasis on mitigation, not reactive suppression. They also publish a magazine, The Volunteer Firefighter,  where volunteers tell it like it is without fear of censure by the RFS.

Another was former chief CSIRO bushfire researcher Phil Cheney. His constant warnings about fuel buildup and our dwindling ability to burn it off saw him rprominent in the media, particularly his turn as a star witness at the investigations of the Canberra holocaust.

Noeline Franklin occupied the unique position of having been a CSIRO researcher. She was also a member of a farming family which had grazed their cattle in the High Country south of Canberra for over 150 years. On top of this she had a property adjoining a national park and suffered great personal losses when her prize-winning flock of sheep was obliterated by dingoes. With their national park habitat destroyed by wildfire, these native dogs sought refuge in the farmland below, as all fencing had been swept away by the firestorms.

During her lifetime Noeline had seen fire management of the alpine areas by the mountain cattlemen cease. Their summer grazing and mosaic burning had kept fuel levels low, but the greenies drove them from the country that their forebears opened up and in the 1830s and which has remained key ever since to a unique culture.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service stopped these practices. The end result was un-managed fire fuel buildup and total destruction of the entire ecosystem by un-fightable firestorms.

Christine Finlay is drawing on her PhD thesis to write a book, ‘Whistleblower.’ She is the only Australian to have been awarded a doctorate in bushfire management. She even joined a bushfire brigade to get hands-on experience. Her outspoken views about the lack of fuel management have resonated around the halls of both state and federal parliaments, as well as within the RFS and its Victorian counterpart, the Country fire Authority, and in the media.

One of her most astute observations came after a horseback trail ride through the ghostly, burnt-out mountain ash forests of the NSW Alps. “The steamy, mist shrouded forests once attracted condensation and rain,” she recalled. “The former micro-climate no longer exists. The barren, lunar landscape these days has created a rain shadow. Without a return to proven fire management, it will never recover its pristine glory.”

I could go on and on and on with observations from independent observers appalled at the abrogation of common sense and experience driving the march toward bushfire disasters, more lost lives, ruined eco-systems and huge property losses. Perhaps it’s best to finish with a brief summing up by legendary bushfire figure Val Jeffery.

It was jeffrey who ignored the dithering, empire-building fire-control bureaucrats and backburned around his beloved Tharwa. This heroic action saved it from the firestorms which swept out of the Brindabellas and into the heart of our nation’s capital. Looking to the future, he has this to say:

“It has become obvious that bushfire management is now an industry thriving and growing on mega fires. No longer is the name of the game based firstly on prevention then [on] operational integrity to minimize the damage. We have lost sight of the main reason for the existence of bushfire management agencies: the minimizing of damage to lives and property.”

Some time back Peter Cannon and other fire captains travelled to Sydney to try to convince the NSW minister for emergency services to repeal the native vegetation and bushfire legislation. This would get rid of the complex web of red tape which so frustrates local brigades in their efforts to burn off. The minister seemed little interested.

In a news-grab on ABCTV recently, the same minister was all smiles as one of the two imported sky-crane helicopters was put through its paces.

“This fire season we will have an angel looking down to protect us,” he said.

It won’t. Divine intervention is no substitute for widespread off-season controlled burns.

Geoff Walker is a former President and Deputy Captain of the Lemon Tree Passage and District Volunteer Bushfire Brigade. He is the author of the book ‘White Overall Days’– a bushfire memoir.