Those of us busting a gut to protect the lives of Australians and their assets from killer bushfires are forced to defend ourselves from a range of critics. Over the years these have included wilderness fanatics, people who do not like smoke, grape growers, the fabled doctor’s wives from the affluent suburbs, green journalists and the academic ideologists who inhabit the leafy campuses of our universities.
The thing that unites these disparate groups is their distaste for fuel-reduction burning and their capacity to get in the way of burning programs and prevent them from being carried out. This is important because fuel reduction is the single measure that gives firefighters a chance of controlling high intensity fires in eucalypt forests. Ironically, it is also the only measure that will protect the very values admired by those who oppose it.
Apart from the fact that they oppose fuel reduction there is another factor that sets the anti-burners apart from firefighters and land managers: We are accountable for bushfire outcomes, our opponents are not. They can make the silliest of assertions (for example, the classic from Murdoch University professors Neal Enright and Joe Fontaine that “there is no evidence that fuel-reduction burning has any value in controlling bushfires”) but they are never held to account. You never see them in the witness box at a coronial inquest into bushfire deaths, nor are they crucified on the front page of the paper when yet another high intensity fire sweeps through some beautiful bushland, a direct outcome of their policies.
Of all the half-baked advice on bushfire science or operations, however, the most lamentable comes from the global warmists. Their view is always opportunist (they trot it out after every fire) and is laughably simplistic. It goes like this: “We know what is causing bushfires and how to fix it”. Their philosophy is summed up as follows:
- Due to human emissions of CO2 (known as “carbon pollution”), the earth is heating dangerously;
- As a result of this, we are getting less rainfall, more heatwaves, higher fire dangers, a longer fire season, and more, hotter and more damaging bushfires.
- The solution is for Australia to reduce its “carbon” emissions.
- This will reverse global warming and ensure no more damaging bushfires.
It is a seductively attractive scenario, especially beloved by greens and their supporters in academia. As recently as last week, the flames having not yet subsided in the ghastly bushfires near Esperance, the Climate Council rushed into print with the standard mantra: rising CO2 was heating the earth to danger point, and this was the direct cause of the fires. Even more ludicrously, I recall then-Greens leader Bob Brown actually blaming the Queensland coal industry for a bushfire in eastern Victoria. His successor Christine Milne took a similar line after fires in the Blue Mountains.
“Stop the Carbon and Stop the Bushfires!” is the cry. Despite this being a concept of kindergarten-level simplicity, the journalists at the ABC have been totally sucked in, and they can usually be depended upon to run it as a lead item on the news after every bushfire. No countervailing opinion is ever broached.
I am not sucked in. There are three cogent issues that need to be considered:
- First, although rainfall has declined since the 1970s, there is no evidence of a dramatic upswing in temperatures in the southwest of WA. There has been a small and steady increase over the last century, but a sudden dangerous acceleration of heat has not occurred. Certainly there was no unprecedented extreme of temperature to which recent fires might be attributed. The monster fires in the south-west last February actually occurred during a period of relatively mild summer weather.
- Second, there have been droughts in the past, well before “carbon pollution”, such as the droughts of the 1890s and during World War I. Drought is a feature of the Australian climate. We know that drought exacerbates bushfire conditions, and it should always be taken into account in bushfire planning. But anyone who regards it as something shockingly new and unexpected has not studied the history of Australian bushfires or bushfire weather.
- Third, even if Australia reduced its CO2 emissions to zero, the impact on levels of global atmospheric CO2 would be non-detectably low, thanks to ever-increasing emissions from India and China. Any economic or life-style sacrifices made by Australians would not significantly reduce the bushfire threat facing us this summer or next. The “emission control bushfire solution”, even if it worked, would take decades to cut in. Presumably this leaves us fighting for our lives in the meantime as bushfires engulf the land.
Even if those who believe in looming global warming are correct and CO2 emissions are indeed causing the hot weather/drought/bushfire disaster scenario, nothing would be more irresponsible than to fail to take effective steps to reduce the problem at the fire grounds themselves. The suggestion from the Climate Institute that what is needed is more firefighters and bigger water bombers is palpably stupid. The largest force of firefighters and water bombers ever assembled in WA were completely powerless in the face of the Northcliffe fire last summer. Mankind, no matter how well equipped, cannot put out a fire burning with the intensity of a nuclear explosion, as will always happen when there is a combination of heavy fuels and conducive weather.
In fact, what is needed is a major restructuring of the way bushfire management is approached in Australia right now. This is needed quite irrespective of present or possible future climate change.
Consider the facts:
- Never before in Australian history have so many people lived in, or been surrounded by bushfire-prone bushland, mostly in subdivisions and houses that were not designed to be bushfire-resilient;
- Never before in Australian history has bushfire fuels management fallen to such a low level that the bulk of the countryside is classified as having “dangerous” fuel levels;
- Never before in Australian history have our bushfire authorities placed such heavy reliance on firefighting as the answer to the bushfire threat, eschewing the “preventative medicine” approach that was successful in the past, and ignoring the fact that the suppression approach always fails when most needed;
- Never, in the last 50 years, have professionally trained land managers, who could manage a bushfire prevention program, been so thin on the ground; and
- Never before have our human, community and environmental assets been so exposed to bushfire damage, even under quite moderate weather conditions.
None of this is the result of global warming and none of it will be fixed by reducing CO2 emissions.
It is the result of flawed governance and bad decisions by government officials who are serving special interest groups rather than serving the Australian community or our environment. Practical bushfire wisdom and experience has been discarded. A cheap system of bushfire management that worked has been replaced by an obscenely expensive one that does not. Premiers, ministers, shire councils and senior bureaucrats are in thrall to environmental activists who have never fought a bushfire and are running a political, not a social agenda.
It will be a big job to reverse this parlous situation. A good start would be new leadership, reconstructed agencies, a clear mission, focused research and public officers who are prepared to invest in bushfire preparedness and damage-mitigation as well as in tankers and helicopters. This would lead to a restitution of the fuel management programs in bushland that once provided the community and biodiversity with protection from bushfire damage. If all of this was commenced tomorrow, the benefits would begin to be felt immediately, probably by next summer. No need to wait until 2030, when an emissions-reduction strategy might (theoretically) cut in.
Those blaming bushfire calamities on global warming have one final charge to answer. In promoting this fallacy, they are providing politicians and bureaucrats with an excuse for incompetence and mismanagement. “It’s not our fault” the pollies and the civil servants can say, “it’s all the fault of the coal miners, the farmers, the electricity generators, the city people driving their cars, the airlines and the truckies ..and so on. It’s not our fault!” Accountability is shovelled off onto someone else.
In the meantime, the country burns … and not just our houses, settlements, farms and national parks, but all those “fragile ecosystems” so beloved by the environmentalists and their supporters in academia. Who remembers now how the former system of regular, mild-intensity burning protected the fire-sensitive species and their refugia? Who will admit now that by abandoning this system, the threat to the most needy of our biota has suddenly got worse?
The contemporary bushfire mess across southern Australia is not due to global warming. Nor is it simply a matter of bad government or the triumph of inhumanity. It is gutlessness. Our leaders have not had the courage to face down those who are prepared to see our community, our landscapes and our biodiversity suffer on the basis of a flawed ideology. I have nothing but contempt for those who push the idea that bushfire disasters are due to global warming and who oppose a sensible, effective bushfire management system. They are doing everyone a disservice.
Roger Underwood is a retired forester with over 50 years practical experience in bushfire prevention and management in Australia.