Bushfires in Australia – 2013

I had a small epiphany today, and it was this : when fire runs out of fuel, it stops.

Seems so obvious doesn’t it? That simple fact is behind the theory and practice of firebreaks and containment lines;  take away the fuel in the path of a fire and it will [eventually] stop. Yet despite the obviousness of this fact, we continue to talk about bushfires as if they’re malevolent demons out to get us, while completely ignoring the part we play in our own destruction.

A man died yesterday. I am not saying he was in any way to blame for what happened to him, but his remains were found in the burnt out wreck of his car. I can only assume he was trying to out run the Gippsland bushfire.

The death of this one, unidentified man is a horrific reminder of the 173 who died in the bushfires of Black Saturday. After those fires we had a Royal Commission that recommended all sorts of sensible, practical measures to ensure nothing like that happens again. Coincidentally, we also had a number of years of above average rainfall. That has had consequences.

After eleven years of drought, the rains following Black Saturday were sorely needed, however they triggered a sort of collective amnesia we could have done without. The Bushfires Royal Commission handed down its report, the State Government changed hands, and we all pushed the fear of bushfires onto the back burner. After all, it was raining for godsake!

In the years since Black Saturday, the CFA sounded warnings about how lots of rain also meant lots of new growth, new growth that would dry off over summer and burn, but we largely ignored the warnings, and the fuel load built up.

Now here we are, back in the middle of an unusually dry, hot summer, with bushfires raging in almost every state, and the worst of the fire season still to come [in February].

I look around my own small corner of Victoria and all I see is neglect, and an almost wilful optimism that ‘we’ won’t be affected. Some home-owners have done the right thing, but far too many haven’t. I guess they’re the ones who’ll  leave in a panic and get caught in the bottle-neck of the bridge.

I understand panic, and when we had that fire at Kangaroo Ground recently, I sent the Daughter off without realising that half of Warrandyte would be trying to do the same thing. She was caught in that bottleneck. That won’t happen again, not to her, but I shudder to think how many Warrandyte residents will do the same thing the next time, and pay the price.

Bushfires are incredibly complex phenomena, and no one thing is ever to blame, but there are a few simple facts that we must acknowledge :

– fires need fuel,

– people who do not clear their blocks provide fuel for fires,

– people who do not clear their blocks endanger their own lives because leaving may not be possible, or it may be more dangerous than staying,

– people who do not clear their blocks put all our lives at risk because fires do not stop at the fenceline.

– and Local Councils who budget the barest minimum for fire-mitigation works – because they refuse to acknowledge the part fuel plays in a bushfire –  are culpable and should be tried in a Court of Law for wilful manslaughter.

Too harsh?  Not harsh enough. We can’t change our climate. We can’t change lightning strikes, and we certainly can’t lock up every fire-bug in the country, but we can change attitudes… if we try hard enough, and if there are legal and financial consequences for failure.

I love living in Warrandyte but there are no free lunches here. All that beauty has to be paid for in vigilance and maintenance. Burying your head in the sand won’t save the rest of your body when the fires visit us again. And they will you know, because Warrandyte is a fire-prone area and we’re living on luck, not good management.

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About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

10 responses to “Bushfires in Australia – 2013

  • metan

    We went for a drive up to Olinda yesterday for the first time in years and we were open-mouthed over the lack of mowing up there.

    I know the blocks are steep, and there are too many trees to be able to do too much in the way of fire mitigation, but the roads were lined with high grasses right to the white line. It made me happy to get back to my clearer town, even if the neighbours don’t know how to use a mower…

    Did you see the footage of the man flown back to his Tassie property by a news crew only to find everthing completely burnt out? It was so sad, the poor man and his wife had lost everything. Then he walked out to where their campervan was usually parked and it was completely untouched even though it was standing in a burnt-out paddock. He unlocked the door, turned the key and it started up without a problem. He was in tears of happiness. I nearly cried too!

    Is it safe for me to assume that the Daughter is now going to be either confined to quarters or sent away the night before?

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    • acflory

      I haven’t been up to the Dandenongs in a couple of years but I can imagine how bad it is. 😦 The CFA has to work miracles with one hand tied behind its back. The council must know how heavy the fuel load is yet they clearly have done nothing about it. My guess is that like Nillumbik, their budget was full of more important things. -drips with sarcasm- I know Nillumbik spent a pittance on fire prevention but I believe they’ve put in some new toilets somewhere.

      I didn’t see that bit of news but it says a lot about what’s happening when a campervan can cause joy just because someone has lost everything else. 😦

      And yes, no more half measures with the Daughter. I’ve also started drilling her on how to do everything here at home in case she is ever home alone when a fire comes through. 😦 Getting stuck in the bottleneck has worked wonders for her motivation. And mine. A small silver lining I guess. Roll on autumn!

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  • Jim Sellers

    We have a similar situation in Western Canada. Years ago I did a series of training videos for fire departments (mostly volunteer) focussing on the interface areas where forested land mixes with residential properties. There were many problems, not the least of which were questions of jurisdiction and the ability of different fire services (provincial, municipal and national parks) to work together and even communicate by radio. Some improvements have been made but every year we have another massive fire season, last year a major portion of a town burn giving them minutes to get out before it hit.
    I hope things turn around for you folks in Australia. I would like to see the place some day.

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    • acflory

      Hi Jim. Sadly we still have the same jurisdictional issues/problems. That was one of the problems highlighted in the Royal Commission. Some in-roads have been made but we won’t really know if they work as advertised until something really, really bad happens.

      Forgive me ignorance but why do you have bushfires in Western Canada? I assume it’s heavily forested. Pines maybe? They burn as well as our eucalypts.

      We only have tiny pockets where we get snow, sometimes, so you might miss the cold but I think you’d like the rest of Australia. 🙂

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      • Jim Sellers

        I should check my messages more often, sorry. I should have said forest fires although we get a lot of brush fires in the agricultural areas around here. Western Canada is mountainous and we get all the challenges nature can throw at us but the drought we experienced, similar to yours, lasted for many years until recently when we started getting some rain. We also were hit with an infestation of Pine Beatles, little pin sized buggers that can kill a whole forest. The frost usually kills them off but it hasn’t been happening lately so they travel further into the heavier forests. Add industry and idiots that like to start fires and we have an annual forest fire season.
        Anyway, I hope you get some rain soon.

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        • acflory

          Thanks for dropping back Jim. And would you believe we’re getting a shower right this instant? The cool change came through just a short time ago. Unfortunately we’re not likely to get a long soaking rain but anything is welcome.

          We call all wildfires bushfires but it’s the crown fires we fear the most – the eucalypt forests just explode – so I can imagine how well pines would burn as well. 😦

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  • lorddavidprosser

    Lets hope that the luck doesn’t run out before the Council of Warrandyte vote in sensible measures to put in fire breaks of the type you mention. Maybe hose that don’t clean their blocks should be fined. Money often concentrates the mind well, just look at me when my wife needs new clothes, I make concentrating on money an Olympic event.
    I know you’ve done the right thing and taken all the precautions, it’s up to the council or some kind of housing committee to make sure the other residents do the same -or else.

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    • acflory

      Someone from the Council goes around and checks front yards. If the grass is high they send out a notice to please cut. As far as I can tell, that someone only looks at properties on the main roads, not the ones on unmade roads that are at most risk. Implementation and motivation : lacking.

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  • candy korman

    The entire phenomenon of wild fires is terribly frightening. I’m very glad to hear that you are taking all the sensible precautions and promoting the idea that others do the same. It seems like every region as its scary weather — earthquakes in California, hurricanes on the east coast of the U.S., tsunamis in Asia, etc.

    People have to take the existing threats seriously and guard against the growing threats caused by changes in the planet’s climate. Tough stuff!

    Like

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