As I saddle up to the keyboard to write this piece, over 100 homes have just gone up in smoke along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. The tragedy of this blaze and previous fires is that they are preventable — or, at the very least, their impact can be vastly reduced. To carry on reacting to fires instead of addressing the root cause – fuel buildup – we are guaranteeing more of the same. It will happen again and again and again.
After every major fire event, there are inquiries and recommendations, but nothing changes and there is a reason for this. You see, fire authorities, politicians, National Parks people and climate change academics have cozy little empires. They ferociously guard their dung hills and refuse to bow to common sense for the greater good.
Let me lead you through my attempt to get a small patch of scrub burnt off and you will see just how many self-interested, empire-building bureaucrats sought to get their fingers into the pie. This process is duplicated nationwide. In microcosm, this is the reason why the fire-fuel levels have risen from the catastrophic, through stratospheric, to apocalyptic levels.
First, dear reader, we must backtrack some 30 years, to what now seems the golden age of local preventative bushfire control. Unlike today, it was an era when common sense and tradition prevailed. Back then I was an active bushfire brigade member, and we never wasted a good burn-off day. The patch of scrub I referred to was half the size of a football field, so I’d get a drip torch off the fire truck, put it in my car and drive down to the reserve, run a fire line along the downwind side and go away. In the evening I’d return and fire up the windward side. All done and dusted.
Some twenty years later I actually asked the shire council to get it burnt off, since my fire fighting days were over. They insisted on three separate environmental impact studies of the local reserves. Some 23,000 words later they recommended rotational burning with a three year cycle. When it didn’t happen, I asked why. They replied saying that it was now officially classified as a ‘riparian zone’, which is a fancy way of saying it was too close to a watercourse. It couldn’t be burnt off and, what’s more, it wasn’t a fire hazard. Meanwhile the undergrowth became a dense thicket which choked out the native plants. The absence of regenerative cool burns meant that no new trees or native understorey could seed and take root.
After more complaints, the Rural Fire Service inspected it and agreed with the council.
Imagine our disbelief when a young couple started to build their new home across the road and were told that they had to spend some $40,000 to ‘fireproof’ their property against the threat of land that, officially, was not deemed a threat in the first place!
More letters and inspections later, an independent fuel-loading measurement by a renowned researcher, plus intervention by the shire president and the young couple saved $25,000. Sadly, they had already wasted $15,000. On and on and on the idiocy goes. The RFS has reclassified the plotand recommended a cool burn. But as I write it still hasn’t been done!
It will take a national or state leader to see through the smoke screen of self-interested lobbyists and legislate the change from reactive firefighting to preventative fuel reduction. This means off-season cool burning. Of course, it involves a certain degree of risk — but it is a minimal risk and bears no comparison with the certainty — the absolute certainty — of further repeats of the massive damage to both property and nature we now see almost every summer. By dismantling the expensive empires and once again empowering the local grass roots experts can we achieve this. Indeed, we must achieve this if Australians are to be safe and the bush is to thrive..
Geoff Walker is a former deputy captain of the Lemon Tree Passage Bushfire brigade, a journalist and author of ‘White Overall Days’ (a bushfire memoir).