Doomed Planet

The Bushfire-Industrial Complex

It is only November, but 2019/20 is already shaping as Australia’s worst bushfire season since 2009. The horrible fires in NSW have captured the headlines to date, but only the most foolish observer would suggest they will not be followed soon enough by more big, damaging bushfires in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and possibly Western Australia. These follow-on from the roll-call of shocking fires in eastern and south-western Australia over the last 15 years.

Bushfire management in Australia reached its peak of effectiveness and efficency between about 1975-1990. But despite all the technical innovations since then, the huge expenditure on water bombers and the vast armies of firefighters with their wondrous equipment, the bushfire situation (especially in the eastern states) has regressed to the situation that prevailed in the 1950s. Whenever bad fire weather occurs in conjunction with drought, unstoppable fires ravage the bush. In other words, it’s a typical Third World scenario: almost nothing is done about repetitive and wholly predictable disasters … until after they strike.

How this situation has arisen in a naturally bushfire-prone country like Australia is mystifying, Yes, our political leadership has been gutless and ineffective, cow-towing to pressure groups, putting the winning of elections in front of looking after the country. But worse than that is the prevailing community ignorance about bushfire science, the failure to study centuries of history and human experience, and the way in which green ideology has infiltrated our government agencies and poisoned government policies.

See also: What California’s Fire Follies Can Teach Us

In reflecting on all this I remembered how I was once advised by a grizzled public servant of the old school: “If you want to understand any puzzling social or political issue, look for the beneficiaries”.  Who might benefit from the regular occurrence of huge, hot bushfires?

While the correct answer is “no-one” it is not hard to find people to whom ghastly bushfires bring political or financial advantage. The classic example is the environmentalists who portray bushfires as a direct consequence of global warming, which is itself is said to be a consequence of our Western lifestyle. The Greens quite unambiguously assert that the bushfire threat can only be averted if we unquestioningly adopt their political agenda, specifically their agenda to “decarbonise” Australia. This can be shown to be crooked thinking, but it has been an effective line because of the hysteria (constantly promoted by the ABC) about climate change. Clearly environmentalists (well, the inner-city Greens anyway, not so much those who are getting their homes burnt out from under them out in the bush) benefit from the occurrence of nasty bushfires, because they fulfil their apocalyptic vision of society.

The media is also a beneficiary. Horrible bushfires are newsworthy and dramatic, truly front-page or top-of-the-bulletin stuff. Journalists are served up stories of heroism, disaster and controversy on a plate. Bushfires are the TV journalist’s dream. Donning a yellow jacket and hard hat, she can stand against a backdrop of houses and forests going up in flames, swooping waterbombers, farmers shooting burnt sheep, people raking through the charred remnants of their houses picking up twisted trinkets, hillsides of blackened forest. To the media (and of course to viewers and readers), destructive bushfires arouse intense interest and excitement; few things outside war provide more opportunities to exploit the gamut of human emotions or to vicariously experience them.

Then there are the fire chiefs, resplendent in their glamorous uniforms. ‘Bushfire management’ these days has largely morphed into ‘bushfire fighting’, a thrilling battle to be directed by the Emergency Services generals who have been waiting in the wings for this very moment. I am not criticising our top firemen. They are doing the job they are appointed to do and they would all be equally dismayed by the human misery and environmental damage caused by intense bushfires. Nevertheless, when the Big Fire declares war on rural Australia, the fire chiefs have their 15 minutes of fame. Their regiments of firefighters are amassed and despatched; the armada of bombers and helicopters are unleashed; the support and technical units are rushed to the battle. Fire chiefs are nightly seen on the news giving high profile briefings to politicians and the media, dictating the tactics at the front, warning that worse is to come, and commenting that conditions are “unprecedented”. This is war, and war is hell. But war is also the General’s Big Moment, his hour to strut and fret upon the stage.  Moreover, big fires call for big budgets, and “worse is to come” can be translated into bigger budgets to come.

All of which makes me wonder about the money, and who gets it. Bushfire fighting in Australia has become horrendously expensive. Unbelievable sums are spent on aircraft, and to a large extent this is wasted. Water bombing is futile against a crown fire in eucalypt forest; you might just as well shovel $100 notes out of the plane. If no more than the sums spent hiring aircraft from overseas was saved, it could be channelled into re-creating the permanent force of land management staff who once occupied the nation’s forest districts and were responsible for the fuel-reduction burning programs. We would not only be financially better off, we would have a superior fire management system. Study after study has demonstrated that a dollar spent on preparedness and damage mitigation saves (at least) $50 to be spent on suppression and recovery. It amazes me that state treasurers are not onto this; instead, they simply sign cheques for a few more million to be squandered on ever-bigger and more expensive water bombers.

It goes without saying that the aviation industry is possibly the greatest beneficiary of the disastrous bushfire situation. Governments and journalists have been transfixed by its propaganda.

Bushfire research also benefits. I would not mind this — if the right sort of research was being funded. Instead, we see academics in Australian universities who are actively undermining effective bushfire management and who are lavishly funded by the federal government either directly, or via the Bushfire CRC. These “bushfire academics”, nearly all of them opposed to fuel reduction, know that large, horrible bushfires will underpin the security of their research grants, guarantee future funding and ensure all those desirable academic side-effects such as overseas conferences, publishable papers, and graduate students.

The climate change industry is also benefitting. Because governments have been taken in by the scam advice that “climate change is causing bushfire disasters”, or because they think that if they give them enough money the climateers will go away, enormous sums are being poured into projects and research studies that, from the bushfire perspective, are a total waste of time. There is no question that the renewable energy industry has been (albeit indirectly) a significant beneficiary of large, damaging bushfires.

Finally, there are the politicians who have learned how to make a name for themselves from a bushfire. They do this by the generous authorisation of huge sums of money for suppression at the very height of the fire, turning up at the control point and shaking the hands of smoke-grimed firefighters, commiserating with people who have lost everything, and looking grave but intelligent in media briefings. After the fire they disperse largesse from the government coffers to compensate those of their constituents who have been burnt-out, and promise even more money for future fire fighting equipment and university research.

It would be going too far to say that these various “beneficiaries” are the cause of the disastrous decline in the standard of bushfire management in eastern Australia over the last 15 years. When it comes to blame, we are all to blame. We elected the wrong people, and the result was inept political leadership and a failure of responsible governance. Rural Australians (including the volunteer firefighters) and the rural environment should be the beneficiary of a responsible and effective bushfire management system. Instead, both have been sacrificed.

Finally, a note of optimism. After the terrible bushfires in 2015 and 2016, the Western Australian government decided to re-adopt the successful bushfire management strategy that applied south-west forests from about the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. A whole new level of investment into fire mitigation and fuel reduction occurred. It is too early yet to see the benefit of this, but experienced bushfire specialists know the benefit will come, and are applauding. The penny has not yet dropped for the governments of Victoria and NSW and possibly Tasmania, but it may do so in the light of this latest disaster and those looming for summer.

22 comments
  • DG

    I’m pleased to say that my in-the-field bushfire firefighting occured between 1974 and 1990, (including the Moolah-Carinya fire, and work in a remote area firefighting team, then I was in communications; much easier, although the back shift was always a challenge.

  • DG

    editor: the link to the California artlce points to The Guardian’s Pell article. I found the California artlce here: https://volunteerfirefighters.org.au/what-californias-fire-follies-can-teach-us

  • Bwana Neusi

    Significant testing has been done on the effectiveness (or not) of water bombers and the results show that crown fires are virtually immune to them. Much of the water (up to 80%) disperses in the wind and never reaches the ground. Convection wind currents especially from crown fires (at 5000 Celsius+) literally vaporise what little liquid reaches the tree tops.
    And yet in the pantomime, the visuals of aircraft attacking make good screening. Add some vivid colour of the retardants and the show is complete.
    It is the firefighter on the ground and dozers cutting firebreaks that are more effective as is judicious clearing of undergrowth and fuel load but this doesn’t rate highly in the MSM spectacular.

  • ianl

    > “We elected the wrong people, and the result was inept political leadership and a failure of responsible governance …”

    It is very rare (an “extreme” event, in fact) to be offered any other choices at elections. Career politicians, independent opportunists, factional deals … nothing at all to do with reducing abuse of power.
    Regional and rural areas supply the food and energy for city populations. In return, green regimes are visited upon these areas in exchange for green city votes.
    Aus demographics are determined by the geology and subsequent geography of the continent. This cannot be changed. One (unhappily, not me) may hope that management will improve as compensation.

  • Ian MacDougall

    ianl: “It is very rare (an “extreme” event, in fact) to be offered any other choices at elections. Career politicians, independent opportunists, factional deals … nothing at all to do with reducing abuse of power.”
    Oh, I dunno. You could always become a candidate yourself.
    From Bloomberg:
    “It’s emblematic of the government downplaying climate concerns amid criticism of its support for coal mining and perceived lack of action on reducing carbon emissions. It risks being out of step with businesses and voters who increasingly say climate change must be tackled with urgency. The deepening political divide is fast becoming a defining issue in Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent.
    “A survey released in September shows that 77% of Australians believe climate change is occurring, up from 66% when the conservatives came to power in 2013. Even while the nation still generates the bulk of its electricity from coal, only 18% of respondents listed it in their top three preferred energy sources, with solar (76%) and wind (58%) seen as far more desirable than fossil fuels.”

  • Geoffrey Luck

    Notice that the fire generals, not content with commanding armies of volunteers as fire fodder in hopeless hosing of flaming trees, and recognising that their incredibly ineffective four-engined airliners have a turnaround time of hours, have now extended their powers to controlling people’s lives. Unable to control the fires, the Rural Fire Service now categorises them ever more sensationally, and on that basis orders homeowners to stay or go, fight or flee, watch and wait. Slowly, subtly, these uniformed controllers have taken unto themselves responsibility for the lives in every district, but can they be held responsible for the advice they enforce with police powers? All much easier (and more fun) than facing the real issues that Roger Underwood explains above.

  • Doubting Thomas

    You really are a piece of work, Ian. Is there no depth to which you will not sink to push your anti-coal fantasy.

    Whatever the effect of Australia’s trivial carbon dioxide emissions might be, there is no credible evidence that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is in any significant way the cause of drought. There is no evidence whatsoever that ACC is the cause of catastrophic fuel accumulation in our national parks. There is endless evidence that Green extremists have colonised local government and some state governments to the detriment of rational environment management, eg the over-declaration and closure of national parks, and the deliberate destruction of fire trails. This together with the deliberate failure to conduct adequate controlled burning in forests ought to be punished as the criminal negligence it so frequently is.

    As for Bloomberg’s dodgy survey, only a total idiot could argue that such opinion surveys have any relevance to the rational consideration of matters of fact that good governance demands.

    Finally, it is no surprise that, like DiNatale, Brant and other Green fanatics, you would seek to use people’s tragic experiences to push your pathetic little barrow. You’re all beyond the pale.

  • Alistair

    As they used to say – Follow the money.
    I comment here as a life member of the SA CFS Ive seen a few fires.
    If you have District Councils who allow people to build “life-style” houses in thick scrub, and a fire service with a policy of evacuate the house before the fire arrives – you are going to get a lot of house burnt down. A good friend of mine lived in one such undefendable house and I thought it proper to warn him. He said he didnt care – first puff of smoke Im out of here. The house is insured. Its all too easy.
    Also as a volunteer I got sick of being sent to houses that were undefendable – and houses that were quite defendable but the home owners had cut and run. It then fell to the volunteers to do the general work that they could quite easily have done themselves while leaving their own homes at risk.
    One thing that really troubled me was the number of volunteers who has made CFS volunteering a major focus of their lives. They weren’t just interested in putting out fires but would enthusiastically go anywhere in the country to put out fires. They certainly had an unexpected “ïnterest” in a long and dangerous fire season. One might think that the paid fire services bureaucrats had an interest in big fires and often to elevate their status, but some of the volunteers seemed just as keen to exploit the situation rather than consider being exploited themselves.

  • STJOHNOFGRAFTON

    Kowtow

  • Tezza

    All well argued and evidence, Roger.

    For a federation, Australia is remarkable in not learning from (or even studying) state and territory differences. The WA situation is interesting in this regard, and accepting your point that it is too soon to expect results from recent improvements, I wonder whether we do not have one simple Key Performance Indicator staring us in the face: annual percentage of bush subject to hazard reduction burns. I understand the WA figure is edging up towards 8% a year, that is the entire bushfire prone area treated about every 12 years.

    What are the corresponding percentages in other states? My guess they are all at Californian levels, around a few percent and so, requiring 40-50 years to reduce hazard over an entire bushfire prone area.

    Surely a report on hazard reduction percentages by State and Territory would be a useful guide as to how much poor policy is bamboozling us.

    Of course the Green-left, ABC and others will argue ‘fires are starting earlier’, which seems to be untrue, from material on Jo Nova’s site: Spring-summer was always the fire season in Qld and NSW. But even if true, that would only mean hazard reduction should start earlier and be more intensive.

    None of this is to downgrade the case for better zoning and building regulations, better land management, and so on.

  • T B LYNCH

    I have diligently spent 3 years studying the geology, biology, physics and chemistry of planetary climate. I conclude global warming has nothing to do with real science. Global warming, which changes its name as often as HIV or Influenza changes its coat, is actually false pseudo-true information just like the genes in a virus.
    Many viruses have stolen their genes from the cells that they infect. Smallpox has stolen enough human immune genes to produce an immunological firestorm, which is how it kills. [the rash is not lethal]. Once a virus uses its keys to enter a cell, the cell becomes a zombie entirely devoted to replicating the dangerous viral information thousands of times.
    Global warming dogma similarly enters a human brain and likewise turns that brain into a zombie, dedicated to reproducing its dangerous message.

  • rod.stuart

    Over on the Catallaxy files, Justinian the Great makes a superb case for the fact that this fire season is proof positive that the ‘global carbon action ‘ is a miserable failure.
    After spending a kin’s ransom on useless windmills and solar panels, needlessly destroying perfectly good power stations, and making foreign rent seekers filthy rich, the bush still burns, just like it has for thousands of years.
    http://catallaxyfiles.com/2019/11/14/bushfires-proof-that-global-carbon-action-has-failed/
    “If only the coalition had a spine” and grew a pair, the government could point out that is now proved that solar panels and windmills don’t prevent fires.

  • Ian MacDougall

    DT:
    “Whatever the effect of Australia’s trivial carbon dioxide emissions might be, there is no credible evidence that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is in any significant way the cause of drought. There is no evidence whatsoever that ACC is the cause of catastrophic fuel accumulation in our national parks. There is endless evidence that Green extremists have colonised local government and some state governments to the detriment of rational environment management, … this together with the deliberate failure to conduct adequate controlled burning in forests ought to be punished as the criminal negligence it so frequently is.”
    I put it to you that CO2 is a heat trapping gas, and its rise in atmospheric concentration heads us on Earth towards more extreme weather cycles and a Venusian future, Curry or no Curry; Aitkin or no Aitkin. More extreme weather as a result of AGW is mainstream science today, and supported by 198 scientific organisations worldwide, including the CSIRO, the AAAS and the Royal Society.
    Curry is a dissenter, and like some such in the history of science could possibly be right. Sometimes happens, in which case the mainstream adjusts pretty quickly.((Vide Lavoisier.) But don’t bet your house on it.
    David Bowman is professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania. Have a look his piece at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-12/cause-of-bushfires-is-complex-but-climate-change-is-part-of-it/11692176
    CAUTION!!!! It’s at the (choke! caaargh! splutter! hawk! spit!*) ABC.!!!

    I have long supported controlled burning, and some years back nearly lost my house to a fire that should have been prevented by a controlled burn. I have encountered people who argue against it, and who you would probably classify as ‘green’. I tell them that they only have 2 choices: a hot out-of-control fire or a slow controlled one. No third way. Not in Australia.
    The Australian bush consists largely of pyrophytic plants which have evolved to burn. Fire is not only part of their own life cycles, it clears away non-pyrophtic competition. Acacias and eucalypts are classic pyrophytes. Not a new discovery; it has been around since 1928 to my knowledge.
    As for Bloomberg’s dodgy survey, only a total idiot could argue that such opinion surveys have any relevance to the rational consideration of matters of fact that good governance demands.
    That last statement of yours is an argument for cancelling all future elections. Or restricting voting to those of whom you and your co-thinkers and cronies approve. If that is what you want, then Sieg Hell(!!); and go to blazes.
    Democracy is always a bit messy.

  • T B LYNCH

    Re Ian MacDougall:-
    You terrify us talking of Venus. Venus has 200,000 times as much CO2 as Earth.
    Earth solved the problem of CO2 billions of years ago when life invented RUBISCO, the commonest protein on Earth [there is none on Venus]. Rubisco turns CO2 into sugar for us all to eat and oxygen for us all to breathe. Rubisco made all the O2 in Earths atmosphere [there is none on Venus].
    700 million years ago Snowball Earth was covered in Ice from pole to pole. Fortunately volcanoes pumped atmospheric CO2 up to 13% which was just enough to melt the Ice. Out of hibernation, RUBISCO reduced CO2 to its present level of 0.04 %. So stop worrying and keep breathing out your kilogram of CO2 each day.

  • Ian MacDougall

    TB LYNCH:
    Then rubisco should be preventing the atmospheric CO2 concentration from rising. But it clearly ain’t.

    https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/24/graphic-the-relentless-rise-of-carbon-dioxide/

  • T B LYNCH

    Re Ian MacDougal:-
    You have turned into a global warmer Zombie.
    Rubisco prefers a CO2 level of 5,000 parts per million = 0.5%, and is happy for Earth to achieve that level, which is the level maintained in nuclear submarines.
    To say that RUBISCO should maintain CO2 @ 0.03% is as stupid as saying insulin should keep your glucose on 36mg/dl. [2 in European units].

  • Ian MacDougall

    TBL:
    Rubisco may be ‘happy’ to achieve 5,000 ppm, inside or outside of a nuclear submarine. But I doubt even Judith Curry would be happy with an atmospheric concentration even 10% of that. Still, I might be wrong.
    If we are going to continually burn fossil carbon, then it goes with the territory: CO2 cannot be any possible danger. In fact plant food, etc, etc, etc.
    The fact that it is a heat-trapping gas, and passes its absorbed energy to surrounding atmospheric species, (forget saturation effects) thus warming the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, etc, has to be dismissed or somehow explained away.
    Thus mainstream climatologists are only interested in research grants, and will each prostitute themselves intellectually as far as needed in order to get their grubby little hands on one. So anything they say about anthropogenic global warming can be dismissed. QED.

  • Ian MacDougall

    TBL: Ah well. “You have turned into a global warmer Zombie”. Sorry. Argument by label might have got you somewhere in some of the innocent circles you perhaps move in. It is water off a duck’s back to me.
    “Earth solved the problem of CO2 billions of years ago when life invented RUBISCO.” Now you say rubisco is no answer to AGW (which you don’t believe is happening anyway.)
    If vending rubisco is a dud, you might try, say, used cars.
    😉

  • T B LYNCH

    For the benefit of normal citizens [Zombies are beyond hope] I say take the trouble to study the kinetics of Rubisco.
    Every enzyme has a Michaelis-Menten constant, the concentration of [in this case] carbon dioxide at which it achieves half maximum velocity. [Michaelis upset his dumb boss and got fired around 1913].
    The Michaelis-Menten constant tells us what Rubisco was designed to do, and just what its natural environment is = 5000 parts per million of CO2. It knows what it is doing – it made all our oxygen.
    Just like a car does 100 Km/hr and a jet does 450 knots.. [Just try operating a car @ 450 knots or a jet @ 100 km/hr].

  • T B LYNCH

    I am qualified to diagnose a Zombie. I was heavily involved in discovering the Cures [not just treatment] for not one, but two, totally fatal, worldwide Brain Diseases. One of these was a virus, cured 21st century style, by a mutated frame shifted receptor. The other was an amoeba, done the 20th century way, with a pore forming antibiotic.
    A zombie idea has to be fought just the way a unicellular organism fights a bacteriophage – with its mother given genes including restriction enzymes and CRISPER. [qv]. There are no white cells to help.

  • Ian MacDougall

    TBL: “I am qualified to diagnose a Zombie.”
    I am sure you are. But are you qualified to detect when you are in the process of winding yourself up? My layman’s cautionary word here: you could finish up in a self-inflicted frenzy.
    I am definitely not a qualified zombie-ologist. But I have a good crap detector, and can spot a snow-job from miles off. No blowfly in Creation has a better crap-detector than the one I have.

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