The Lessons of Black Saturday

In 1966 the Victorian government published a booklet entitled Summer Peril. On the cover was a terrifying photo of the 1964 Lorne bushfire. The foreword was by the Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, who began: “Over the years our state of Victoria has been plagued by bushfires leading to tragic loss of life and devastation of natural resources, public and private property.”

The booklet offers practical advice to farmers and rural landholders about the precautions they should take to minimise the risk to their property and what to do if bushfires should engulf them. One noteworthy sentence declares: “Anyone who ignores warnings about the fire risk during acute danger periods must be a fool, and a selfish, ignorant and stubborn one at that.”

The report by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Victorian Parliament Inquiry into the Impact of Public Land Management Practices on Bushfires in Victoria, July 2008, lists twenty-three bushfires from 1965 until 2008, resulting in the deaths of 102 people. On February 7, 2009, Black Saturday, 173 people died. Those words from 1966 now have a prophetic ring to them.

On February 9 the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, announced the establishment of a Royal Commission with wide-ranging terms of reference to inquire into the causes of the firestorm and to recommend policies which would mitigate against future disasters. The Premier would have been aware that the appointment of such a body would forestall criticism of his government for failure to act on the recommendations of the parliamentary committee that had reported in July 2008. This committee made very specific recommendations, particularly about the need for fuel reduction activity, which had either been rejected by the government or accepted in principle only. The committee, chaired by former Labor minister John Pandazopoulos, comprised members from both houses and both parties with an independent, Craig Ingram, as deputy chair. Its report is an example of the great benefits that federalism provides. Canberra could not match this document. It is comprehensive in its scope, witnesses of all shades of opinion are quoted at length, there is much historical material woven into the narrative, and much detailed local knowledge is laid out for the reader; but its recommendations, made without dissent, were ignored by the Brumby government.

The Royal Commission has now been established. My deep interest in the proceedings and outcome of this Royal Commission is a consequence of the decision my wife and I made in 1994 to buy a cottage at Marysville. We renovated and extended the cottage, which we rented out to tourists; we constructed two outbuildings, and developed a magnificent garden on three-quarters of an acre. The house and the garden were destroyed on the night of Saturday February 7. The workshop survived.

Paragraph 2 of the Royal Commission’s terms of reference refers inter alia to the “prevention … of bushfire threats and risks”. As far as I am aware no submission or comment following the tragedy of Black Saturday has raised arguments concerning the prevention of bushfires in the future. All the attention so far has focused on what went wrong. The Royal Commission would be doing a much greater service if it inquired into ways in which bushfires in Victoria were to be eradicated.          

The Brumby government ignored the 2008 report for reasons which were wholly political and which go to the heart of the problems we face not only on the bushfire front, but also on water supply issues and on any major development in Victoria which offends the sensitivities of the Greens. The Brumby government, to its credit, stared down the Greens on the Port Phillip channel deepening issue, but that is the only attempt it has made to win a serious confrontation with the political-cum-religious forces which seek to stop economic development in Victoria or, as in the case of the Latrobe Valley brown coal power stations, simply shut them down and thus leave Victoria without electricity.

The takeover by the socialist Left of the environmentalist movement in Australia can be dated from the early seventies, culminating in the 1973 AGM of the Australian Conservation Foundation, an organisation founded by Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Maurice Mawby, funded in part by the McMahon government, and which had as its aim increasing the public awareness of the importance of environmental matters.

By the late 1960s the communist Left was suffering from defections over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, but more significantly from the brutal repression of the Dubcek regime in Prague in 1968. The Communist Party of Australia and its fellow-travelling socialists in the ALP were having doctrinal and morale problems. In a brilliant strategic move, it was decided that the environmentalist movement was a new and promising vehicle for obtaining political influence and power.

The American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in a review article in the American Spectator in 1983:

As an historian, I am obliged by the record of the Western past to see Environmentalism—of the kind espoused by the [Barry] Commoners and the [Paul] Ehrlichs—as the third great wave of redemptive struggle in Western history; the first being Christianity, the second modern socialism.

The appeal of Environmentalism, in its more extreme manifestations at least, becomes irresistible to that permanent cadre of political and social radicals Western society has nurtured ever since the French Revolution. This cadre has never been primarily interested in the protection of nature,but if such a movement carries with it even the possibility of political and social revolution, it is well that the cadre join it; which, starting with the late 1960s, it did.

So Greenpeace was taken over in Canada, its founder, Patrick Moore, was ousted, and in Australia, the Left, having enrolled into the ACF in considerable numbers, ousted the old guard in October 1973, and installed Geoff Mosley, hitherto a recent employee of the ACF, as its new Director. John Blanche, the former head of the organisation, resigned immediately, as did many members of the board.

An example of the attitude of the new regime to the role it envisaged for the ACF is found in 1983-84 Annual Report, written by Geoff Mosley:

Undoubtedly the main issue to attract the Foundation’s attention was peace and disarmament and the related topic of opposition to uranium mining and export.

The worsening arms situation not only threatens annihilation, but by absorbing resources and creating a feeling of doom is rapidly eroding the possibility of dealing with drastic social problems such as land degradation and deforestation.

It is, indeed, difficult to see the arms race and deterioration of the physical and social environment as being in any way separate matters. Any solution will require a global anti-nuclear movement.

The ACF has adhered to a hard Left position on every environmental issue ever since.

In 1982 the Cain Labor government won office in Victoria. Although Rod McKenzie was appointed Minister for Forests in 1982, Joan Kirner was in charge of the political agenda. Kirner was the leader of the Socialist Left faction in the ALP, in effect a medieval baron not beholden to the Premier for her office. In June 1983 Cain announced the creation of a new mega-department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, which subsumed existing departments of Forestry, Crown Lands and Surveying, the Department of Planning and the Department of Conservation. The Victorian Forests Commission was dissolved and the new department came into being in December 1983.

Joan Kirner was the first minister and early in 1985 she fired Ron Grose, a forester with an internationally distinguished reputation, who had been chief of the Forests Commission. She also fired or retrenched the people who had served in the top three layers of the Forests Commission. She appointed as head of the new department Tony Edison, an unknown figure from the UK, who was outspoken in his hostility to foresters and forestry, and he in turn appointed hardline greens as senior officials in the department. From that day to this the department, now officially the Department of Sustainability and Environment but known throughout rural Victoria as the Department of Scorched Earth, has been completely dysfunctional.

The Victorian Forests Commission had a history going back to its establishment in 1918, and had built up a culture of expertise in forest management which made it respected throughout the international forestry community. Its expertise and knowledge of local terrain and silviculture extended deep into the domain of Victoria’s forests. Some of that expertise and knowledge is still to be found in the people, mostly now retired, who once worked for the Forests Commission. Its dissolution at the hands of Joan Kirner was akin to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, but where Henry handed over the vast treasures of the monasteries to his favoured courtiers, Kirner handed over the treasure trove of Victoria’s forests to the Greens.

The cause of the dysfunctionality of the DSE is doctrinal. At the core of Green doctrine is the belief that trees are sacred and that mankind is a pest or a virus on the planet. So the logging and timber industry has been targeted by the Greens for extinction, just as whaling was targeted for extinction in the 1970s. In fact the ban on logging in parts of Western Australia, and the closure of timber communities in those regions, for example, was specifically likened by West Australian Greens to the end of Albany as a whaling town. Trees and whales are either very tall or very large, and both are sacred.

Two characteristic examples of the articulation of Green doctrine, one from 1990 and one from 2007, illustrate this point. Ted Traynor, lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of New South Wales, gave a talk on Robyn Williams’s ABC radio program Ockham’s Razor in May 1990:

For a long time to come, our top national priority in countries like Australia should be to reduce the GNP as fast as possible, because we are grossly over-developed and over-producing and over-consuming and there’s no possibility of all people ever rising to the per capita levels we now have, let alone those we’re determined to grow to.

Often it is obvious that developments that would do wonders for the GNP should be prohibited, such as devoting local land and water to export crops.

There would be far less trade and transporting of goods than there is now. There would have to be many co-operative arrangements; the sharing of tools, many community workshops, orchards, forests, ponds, gardens, and regular community meetings and working bees.

Applying the concept of appropriate development in the over-developed countries would make it possible for most people to live well on only one day’s work for cash per week, because many of the relatively few things they need would come from their own gardens, from barter, from gifts of surpluses and from the many free sources within the neighbourhood.[emphasis added]

Paul Watson, the anti-whaling activist who has been charged with piracy on the open seas, said in an editorial on May 4, 2007:

We are killing our host the planet Earth.

I was once severely criticized for describing human beings as being the “AIDS of the Earth”. I make no apologies for that statement.

No human community should be larger than 20,000 people and separated from other communities by wilderness areas.

We need vast areas of the planet where humans do not live at all and where other species are free to evolve without human interference. We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion.

Sea transportation should be by sail. The big clippers were the finest ships ever built and sufficient to our needs. Air transportation should   be by solar powered blimps when air transportation is necessary.

Statements of this kind could be multiplied hundreds of times. They are representative of the core Green movement. Although most people who vote for the Green Party in Australia would be horrified if governments enacted legislation to bring about the reduction in population and living standards thought essential by Traynor and Watson, these are the doctrines which illuminate and influence Green decision-making, wherever the Greens have political or administrative power.

Now a department of state which has management responsibilities for forests on Crown land (an area in Victoria comprising one third of the state), but which is staffed at senior levels by officials who believe that trees are sacred, and are there to be worshipped rather than exploited for the use of mankind, cannot manage the forests. Because an explicit avowal of such beliefs would, at this stage of the Green Revolution, be premature, the sacred nature of forests is euphemised by words and phrases such as “old-growth forests”, the incommensurability of “wilderness”, and by appeals to the over-arching importance of biodiversity and the necessity, therefore, of leaving forests untouched and dead trees on the roadside undisturbed. Biodiversity is a magic word which is used to legitimise the expropriation of private property (amongst many other uses).

Green doctrine on trees and forests is pre-Christian and incompatible with Western civilisation. An important example of the clash between the pagan worship of trees, and Christian utilitarianism concerning the use of timber for structures and implements of all kinds, took place in Germany in the early eighth century.

An English boy called Winfrid was born in Devon about 675 AD. He showed great intellectual promise and wished to devote his life to the church. His parents objected but he eventually obtained their permission and was ordained as a priest in about 705. He became a Benedictine monk and eventually received the Pope’s permission to evangelise the German-speaking peoples to the east of the Rhine.

He was later appointed bishop, taking the name of Boniface. In one famous encounter with the environmentalists of his time, and to show the heathens how utterly powerless were the gods in whom they placed their confidence, Boniface felled the oak tree sacred to the thunder-god Thor, at Geismar, near Fritzlar. He had a chapel built out of the wood and dedicated it to the Prince of the Apostles. The local tribesmen were astonished that no thunderbolt from the hand of Thor destroyed the offender, and many were converted. The fall of this oak tree marked the decline of pagan influence in that part of Germany.

Today St Boniface would be prosecuted for cutting down a tree without a permit, although since it was an oak tree he may have escaped the watchful eye of our own Green high-priests who, in a nice blend of paganism and xenophobia, are concerned with worshipping eucalypts and anathematising exotic deciduous trees. This may seem a trivial thing, but it is indicative of the power which the Green movement has seized. It is arguable that environmentalism has become the established religion of the Commonwealth of Australia, in contradiction of Section 116 of the Constitution which prohibits such establishment.

The firestorms of Black Saturday are a stark reminder of the incompatibility of pagan beliefs about trees and the demands of twenty-first-century life. As the Victorian parliament’s report of July 2008 demonstrated, any program of bushfire control in Victoria’s eucalypt forests which has any chance of success must rely upon continual and sustained fuel reduction as the basis of policy. In the absence of more radical changes to property rights in Victorian forests, this requires the end of Green hegemony within a restructured public service charged with responsibility for managing Crown forests.

The most illuminating recent defence of Green doctrines concerning forest management is found in an essay entitled “Thoughts on the Victorian Bushfires”, in February 2009, by Andrew Campbell, who claims to have been a Victorian forester; a bushfire researcher; the founder of the Potter Foundation’s whole-farm planning in early 1980s; one of the initiators of Landcare; CEO of Land & Water Australia until about three years ago; and is now a consultant living in Queanbeyan, close to the corridors of power in Canberra. This essay has not been published but is available on his website and has been widely circulated.

The essential points he makes are as follows:

Claims that more broadscale fuel reduction burning in Victoria’s forests would have prevented these fires … are nonsense … [Extreme weather conditions following] lots of late spring-early summer growth, after a decade of drought, made for an explosive tinderbox …

The crucial point that must be underlined is that under very extreme conditions (Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) above 50—see below), fuel loads are no longer the key driver of fire behaviour, compared with weather (some of which is fire-induced) and topography (especially slope) …

Prof Ross Bradstock … from the University of Wollongong and the Bushfires CRC, has pointed out that the Fire Danger Index (FDI) was over 150 in Melbourne on February 7. The FDI incorporates temperature, wind speed, humidity and a measure of fuel dryness. It was developed in the 1960s and calibrated on a scale from zero (no fire danger) to 100 (“Black Friday” 1939) for both forests and grasslands. Fuel reduction research has mostly involved small-scale experiments at FDIs between 10 and 20. A forest FDI (FFDI) above 50 indicates that, due to fire crowning and spotting behaviour, weather becomes the dominant indicator of fire behaviour, and it becomes impossible to fight a running forest fire front. When eucalypt forests are crowning, fuel reduction at ground level is academic. Recent research suggests that with a drying warming climate we are now seeing unprecedented FDIs, and need to introduce a new fire danger rating above “extreme” called “catastrophic” to more realistically present the   dangers associated with days like 7 February …

The whole planning system should be overhauled, way beyond just building codes and vegetation management. Premier Brumby and his cabinet—and I suspect now Kevin Rudd—appear to understand that business as usual will not do. They also seem to understand the link to climate change in making events such as these (and worse) more likely in future. But they have yet to make the logical jump to the urgency of mitigating climate change, which means setting ambitious targets, and retooling the economy from top to bottom to achieve them. [emphasis added]

I have quoted from this essay at length to illustrate the current state of the Green justification of their stewardship of the forests, and also to illustrate the revolutionary ambitions of the Greens in combining the bushfire tragedies with their faith in anthropogenic global warming, in order to justify “retooling the economy from top to bottom."

Nevertheless Campbell has made an important point about fires in the crowns of eucalypts. The reason why we have had so many bushfires in south-eastern Australia is because eucalypts, after long periods of hot, dry conditions, become equivalent to large fire bombs, containing highly flammable hydro-carbons which are released into the air above the trees as vapours, where they form a fireball when ignited. When our forests are composed entirely of eucalypts, the outbreak of bushfires cannot be prevented, although their severity can be greatly reduced by ensuring the fuel content of the floor of the forest is as close to zero as possible. We know that the eucalypts were not always dominant in Australia; some time in the past eucalypts were restricted to the outskirts of rainforests and various native beech trees (which can still be found in sheltered gullies) were the dominant species.

It is impossible, therefore, to escape the conclusion that if we are to make Victoria free of bushfires, we need to reduce substantially the density of eucalypts in our forests and replace them with other species. On Black Saturday exotic deciduous trees, poplars, elms, oaks and plane trees were in large measure untouched by the fires, particularly if they were at some distance from eucalyptus trees. The Gould Memorial Drive on the Buxton Road approaching Marysville, two glorious rows of Lombardy poplars, provides such testimony; as does the Fernshaw Park Reserve, a haven of elms, plane trees and oaks, halfway up the Black Spur Road from Healesville.

The argument that Victoria has to replace a major portion of its eucalypt forests with exotic trees such as English oaks, poplars, plane trees, and other non-flammable exotic species will be seen as sacrilege of the most egregious kind by the Greens who have ruled the DSE and other departments since the 1980s. But since it is they who must now give an account of how their stewardship of Victoria’s forests resulted in the deaths of more that 170 people on Black Saturday, and the loss of billions of dollars worth of property, they first have to acknowledge that what has been done since the 1980s has been a terrible mistake. If that does not happen then there has to be a reversal of the Kirner revolution of 1983 and new people, untainted by Green pagan doctrine concerning the sacred nature of indigenous trees, have to be appointed to senior positions. More of the same will not survive a serious political backlash.

The greater part by far of Victoria’s forests are never seen by the public except from the air. Whether they comprise eucalypts or other species is a matter only of symbolic value. From a social point of view, the squeeze that has been placed on the logging and timber industries by the Green bureaucracy—a squeeze designed to kill the industry within a politically acceptable framework and timetable—has significantly reduced the number of people living and working in the bush (people with a knowledge of bushfires and firefighting); has reduced road access into the forests; and has exacerbated greatly the damage done in the recent disaster.

The deliberate and systematic throttling of the timber industry has been manifest in the establishment of the Great Otway National Park and the shutting down of the timber industry in the Otway Ranges; the reduction of timber harvesting in the box-ironbark forests to a minimum level; the ending of timber harvesting in the Wombat Forest; and the establishment of new or expanded national and state parks totalling over 100,000 hectares.

These vast areas of forests become wilderness, symbols of Green religious power, in which man is a hostile and unwelcome intruder. They also become sanctuaries where feral animals and noxious plants of all kinds flourish and can spread into neighbouring farms and properties. Above all they become huge reservoirs of stored energy, awaiting the next dry spell and hot weather before turning into raging infernos.

From an economic point of view the closing down of that substantial portion of the timber industry based on Crown forests has resulted in timber shortages, increasing dependence on imported timber, and above all, the substitution of steel for timber in the domestic building industry. If steel were to replace timber as the consequence of competition between alternative materials on a level playing field, which culminated in a cheaper product of equal or superior quality, that would be one thing. But when an industry is deliberately choked to death by government fiat, that is another.

In order to protect Victoria from a repeat of the tragedy of Black Saturday, the logging industry must be given a new charter which will provide confidence for revival, growth, new investment and the development of new technologies and processes which will restore timber’s competitiveness with steel. Such a charter requires the transformation of the Crown forests, however they are designated, into ninety-nine-year leaseholds which can be auctioned in appropriate sizes together with covenants requiring the replacement of eucalypts with exotic non-flammable trees (excluding pine trees, which burn readily), up to a certain proportion, within a reasonable period.

Once secure property rights were established for the forests, investors and entrepreneurs would not only see opportunities in developing the logging and timber industry but also in investing in eco-tourism and recreation. Above all, these proprietors would have an overwhelming interest in securing their assets from the destruction of bushfires, and in ensuring they were not liable for damages to neighbouring property caused by their own negligence. The government could then withdraw from the business of forest management, confident that the interests of proprietors and the public alike were in alignment.

We know from the Soviet tragedy that communal farming and the absence of property rights in the farming industry produced chronic famine and shortages. The absence of property rights in the Victorian forests sector has produced the same sort of result. It is no coincidence that the radical students of today proclaim themselves as activists in the green-red coalition.

Many of the deaths on Black Saturday were caused by the transformation of roads under firestorm conditions into “channels of death”. Roger Underwood, an experienced forester from Western Australia, came to Victoria after Black Saturday and was taken through many of the regions devastated by fire. He subsequently wrote:

I was shocked to observe kilometres of long-unburnt road reserves running through semi-cleared and agricultural landscapes. These are more like tunnels than roads, with a narrow strip of bitumen winding between overhanging trees and bush right at the road edge which had clearly not been burned for over 20 years and carried a fuel load of about 35 tonnes to the hectare. These roads are potential death traps, not escape routes.

Currently the clearing of fallen logs and other debris from roadsides is prohibited. This prohibition is another example of Green Power in action. People should not only be allowed, but should be encouraged, to obtain firewood from the roadside and to keep the road verges clear of debris.

The capture by the Greens of a number of shire councils and the regulations such councils imposed on new housing certainly aggravated the damage and arguably caused increased loss of life on Black Saturday. This issue has received considerable attention in the media but there has been no comment on how a small group of people, admittedly passionate in the religion which gives meaning and purpose to their lives, can capture a council and impose regulations which are not only dreadful in their consequences but are also regarded as lunatic by most people living in the shire.

Following the changes made to local government by the Kennett government, in which a large number of small shires were amalgamated into fewer, much larger entities, local government became too big to be responsive to local opinion and knowledge, and too small to be taken seriously by most people. This enabled small groups of zealots, through commitment and political skill, to capture these bodies. They had the advantage that a high proportion of Greens are childless (most Greens are against children) and many are well off in secure jobs. They therefore had the time, energy and resources to devote to political activity. The Nillumbik Shire Council on the north-eastern edge of Melbourne is perhaps the best-known example of this phenomenon, but other rural shires on the outskirts of the metropolis have the same problem in varying degrees.

The answer to this serious problem is a return to local government. In other words, shire councils should represent real communities, not conglomerations of towns and hamlets extending over hundreds of square kilometres. If, for example, Marysville had its own shire council, then local government would be representative of Marysville and its immediate surrounding district, and local knowledge of the district would be brought to bear in every discussion on council. The argument that there are economies of scale in local government, and that amalgamations would lead to reduced costs, is belied by the substantial increases in rates that have occurred since the Kennett “reforms”.

The same arguments apply with equal force to Kinglake and Flowerdale, two other towns destroyed on Black Saturday.

It may be said that the Greens are too entrenched both politically and in the bureaucracy for any arguments made here to gain any support. However, the next Victorian government will find, as in 1992, that Victoria is deep in debt and radical measures are necessary to restore the financial viability of the state. Turning the Crown forests into private leaseholds would bring in a very large sum of money, and it would demonstrate to everyone that the new government is prepared to take desperate measures in desperate times and, in particular, is resolved to ensure that bushfires of the kind we have experienced so often in recent years become a thing of the past.

This article is based on the Ray Evans’s submission to the Royal Commission. His request to appear before the commission was declined.

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