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The following article was written for The Australian newspaper back in 2009.

The author, David Packham, a bushfire scientist for more than 50 years, said that “it has been a difficult lesson for me to accept that despite the severe damage to our forests and even a fatal fire in our nation’s capital, the political decision has been to do nothing that will change the extreme threat to which our forests and rural lands are exposed”.

Seven year later and nothing has changed… Is anyone listening…


the_australian

By David Packham – Feb 10, 2009

VICTORIA has suffered the most tragic bushfire disaster to have occurred on this continent throughout its period of human habitation.

The deaths, loss of homes and businesses and the blow to our feeling of security will take decades to fade into history. The trauma will live with the victims, who, to a greater or lesser extent, are all of us.

How could this happen when we have been told in a withering, continuous barrage of public relations that with technology and well-polished uniforms, we can cope with the unleashing of huge forces of nature.

I have been a bushfire scientist for more than 50 years, dealing with all aspects of bushfires, from prescribed burning to flame chemistry, and serving as supervisor of fire weather services for Australia. We need to understand what has happened so that we can accept or prevent future fire disasters.

That this disaster was about to happen became clear when the weather bureau issued an accurate fire weather forecast last Wednesday, which prompted me, as a private citizen, to raise the alarm through a memo distributed to concerned residents.

The science is simple. A fire disaster of this nature requires a combination of hot, dry, windy weather in drought conditions. It also requires a source of ignition. In the past, this purpose has been served by lightning. In this disaster, lightning has not played a big part, and for this Victorians should be grateful. But other sources of ignition are ever-present. When the temperature and wind increase to extreme levels, small events — perhaps the scrape of metal across a rock, a transformer overheating or sparks from a diesel engine — are capable of starting a fire that can in minutes become unstoppable if the fuel is present.

The third and only controllable factor in this deadly triangle is fuel: the dead leaves, pieces of bark and grass that become the gas that feeds the 50m high flames that roar through the bush with the sound of jet engines.

Fuels build up year after year at an approximate rate of one tonne a hectare a year, up to a maximum of about 30 tonnes a hectare. If the fuels exceed about eight tonnes a hectare, disastrous fires can and will occur. Every objective analysis of the dynamics of fuel and fire concludes that unless the fuels are maintained at near the levels that our indigenous stewards of the land achieved, then we will have unhealthy and unsafe forests that from time to time will generate disasters such as the one that erupted on saturday.

It has been a difficult lesson for me to accept that despite the severe damage to our forests and even a fatal fire in our nation’s capital, the political decision has been to do nothing that will change the extreme threat to which our forests and rural lands are exposed.

The decision to ignore the threat has been encouraged by some shocking pseudo-science from a few academics who use arguments that may have a place in political discourse but should have no place in managing our environment and protecting it and us from the bushfire threat.

The conclusion of these academics is that high intensity fires are good for the environment and that the resulting mudslides after rains are merely localised and serve to redistribute nutrients. The purpose of this failed policy is to secure uninformed city votes.

Only a few expert retired fire managers, experienced bushies and some courageous politicians are prepared to buck the decision to lock up our bush and leave it to burn.

The politicians who willingly accept this rubbish use it to justify the perpetuation of the greatest threat to our forests, water supplies, homes and lives in order to secure a minority green vote. They continue to throw millions (and no doubt soon billions) at ineffective suppression toys, while the few foresters and bush people who know how to manage our public lands are starved of the resources they need to reduce fuel loads.

It is hard for me to see this perversion of public policy and to accept that the folk of the bush have lost their battle to live a safe life in a cared-for rural and forest environment, all because of the environmental fantasies of outraged extremists and latte conservationists.

In a letter to my local paper, the Weekly Times, on January 25, I predicted we were facing a very critical situation in which 1000 to 2000 homes could be lost in the Yarra catchment, the Otways and/or the Strezleckies; that 100 souls could be lost in a most horrible and violent way; and that there was even a threat to Melbourne’s water supply, which could be rendered unusable by the ash and debris. Horrifically, much of this has come to pass, and it is not yet the end of the bushfire season.

In the face of this inferno, the perpetrators of this obscenity should have the decency to stand up and say they were wrong. Southeast Australia is the worst place in the world for bushfires, and we must not waste any time in getting down to the task of making our bush healthy and safe.

But don’t hold your breath. Do you hear that lovely sound the warbling pigs make as they fly by?

David Packham OAM is an honorary senior research fellow at Monash University’s school of geography and environmental science.

Click HERE or on the logo (above) to read the original newspaper article

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