I have an apology to make to [Quadrant Online editor] Roger Franklin because I disrupted his birthday celebrations with ‘umbrage’. My initial irritation was quashed by his jocular sense of mischief and my dawning embarrassment about intruding on his celebrations. So I wish him many happy returns and I’ll be brief.
Roger said of our research efforts that
“When it comes to making communities safe, your modern bushfire academics understand that only taxes and the redistribution of wealth will stop that gum tree burning.”
What can I do but smile now that I have a better sense of the man. Yes, ho ho. Axe it, don’t tax it.
No, I’m not pushing an activist’s barrow, as I think scientific method transcends politics. (Feel free; you’re welcome, Roger.) That deliberate or reckless fire-setting has a basis in social ecology comes from criminological work exploring interactions between genetics, neurology, life history, personal circumstances, wealth, poverty and other factors, including how social factors interact with strategies like reducing fuel load. Pressures applied to communities living on the urban fringes close to bushland must perforce include socioeconomic pressures, whether in Australia, California or the Congo.
As to statistics, Roger and I are in furious agreement. When I say half of Australian bushfires are deliberately lit I’m not referring to arson alone. Arson is a legal term, it’s not useful in teasing out the split between human and natural causes (I would prefer other terms, but mass media has limited space for clarification). We can split bushfires from human causes (85%) into reckless and accidental (35%) versus deliberate or suspicious (50%); only by officially finding a motivation to cause damage is arson truly confirmed. As every fire investigator knows, the grey area resides in three-quarters of bushfires being suspiciously or accidentally caused by deliberate ignition, such that estimates can range up to 65% depending on the definitions, data collection and sources.
Roger would also know from researching his own book on the subject (I hope sales spike when Roger drums up some controversy) that only a tiny percentage of arsonists are ever caught and a single arsonist can cause multiple fires over many years. Deliberate effort is also more likely to build bigger and connected fires compared with natural ignition. So the problem of ‘arson’ remains, and efforts to prevent this source of ignition are worthy of attention. Further on point to this, suggesting I’m ‘making a career out of the study of arsonists’ is clever wording but the implication is incorrect insofar as it suggests I’m profiting from it. You’ll find most people working in this area of bushfire prevention have little or no funding – it’s mostly unpaid and voluntary community service. (We can compare tax returns, if Roger would like to.) At least as a source of ignition, arson and reckless fire-lighting is something we can fight to protect our communities against; whereas there’s not much we can do about lightning strikes. In both cases, and contrary to Roger’s assumption that I’m resistant to ‘old school’ burning programs, reducing fuel load is appropriate as long as risks are balanced with other, sometimes ‘modern’ considerations.
Science, for all its equivocation and clarification, transcends politics, left, right, old school or new. The door is always open and the only barrier to entry is scientific realism. So we can all look back on this in the future to see what worked. In the meantime, I have to do some paid work to feed the kids. Please forgive my intrusion on your birthday, old chum, and apologies in advance for not replying to what I imagine will be a witty riposte. I do, however, promise to send you a card with best wishes for the coming year.