With the eastern seaboard currently ravaged by bushfires, what sort of an idiot would actually cheer when one worked its way down the peninsular where he lived? I did, and there were a lot of others who did the same.
To understand why, we must go back over more than a year when a winter bushfire got going to the west of the town. It did for us what the volunteer firies couldn’t: it got rid of the ground fuel with minimal canopy scorch. No lives or property were lost. Had this ‘good’ bushfire not happened, the peninsular would have been obliterated this summer when a firestorm with winds gusting to 100kph came our way.
No fire fuel meant that it burned and went out. Simple as that. Today, as thousands of Australians confront the bushfire threat, we on the Tilligerry peninsular are safe. With only one year of fuel build-up we have little to worry about.
When bushfire management passed from local control to government bureaucracies, the political influence of the green movement virtually stopped the off-season burnoffs. This traditional practice dated back to the black man and his firestick management of the landscape. The European settlers adopted it, as did farmers and local grassroots volunteer firefighters.
In researching my bushfire book White Overall Days, I found that our local brigade averaged some 15 burnoffs per year in the decade of the 1970s; nine in the ’80s, a mere two or three in the ’90s and similar numbers ever since.
The reason for this dramatic fall-off in burnoffs was the complex web of rules and procedures dumped on the local captains to comply with before they could do anything. They simply gave up. It was all too hard.
It was NSW Premier Bob Carr who proclaimed vast areas of the state of NSW as national parks. The problem was that they were not fire-managed and have now been devastated by uncontrollable firestorms. Lives and property have been lost as they roared out of the forests into adjoining farmland and rural communities.
Several things have emerged from the current crisis. Green zealots are blaming coal mining and climate change for the fires. They refuse to concede that the green-leaning management policies caused the fires in the first place by ensuring catastrophic fuel build-up. On the other hand, the vast number of ordinary, sensible people now realize that cool burning delivers a far better environmental outcome than raging wildfires. From what I hear, even some of the self-serving bureaucrats are starting to talk mitigation rather than reactive suppression.
To continue down the current pathway of reactive firefighting means more of the same. There will always be bushfires. They are an integral part of the Australian environment. We either manage them by controlled burning or suffer the consequences.
It was early December when I wrote this piece and the height of the bushfire season had not yet engulfed so much of Australia, from Perth to Penrith. With dire weather predictions, what it would be like a month or two down the track did not bear thinking about.
Now we know.
Geoff Walker is the former deputy captain Lemon Tree Passage volunteer fire brigade and author of White Overall Days. He last wrote of the national fire-management debacle for Quadrant Online in 2014, Why We Burn Again and Again