Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bushfire Cycle

Flowerdale after the February 2009 bushfires.

Reported in the media over the last week has been the release of the Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor Progress Report. As it's title clearly suggests, it serves as an audit on the implementation of the recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Comission. Its release in the media has been not particularly all-encompassing, but the reports have generally been of the following nature.

"The Bushfire Royal Commissioner Implementation Monitor (BRCIM) report says, despite a minimal bushfire threat in Victoria during the 2010/11 season, anecdotal evidence has emerged suggesting public complacency on issues of fire preparation and planning..."
- 'Worrying' public apathy: bushfire report, Sydney Morning Herald, July 29th 2011

"'Moving towards another fire season and the third anniversary of the 2009 bushfires, the state must not be complacent and lose momentum in implementing the required actions within the agreed timelines,' the 179-page report states..."
- Bushfire apathy 'worrying', The Age, July 30th, 2011

Doesn't bode well, does it? Interesting to observe, though, is the following. Back in 2004, the Council of Australian Governments released the following graph in their National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management.

They called it "The Bushfire Cycle":

Their explanation:

"The bushfire cycle occurs principally in southern Australia. It proceeds until the next major event and can extend over 20 to 50 years... The question is whether the cycle is inevitable or whether there is an opportunity to influence outcomes and mitigate the impact of the various elements. Although ... bushfires are inevitable and Australians must learn to live with the exposure, the Inquiry concluded that some community and government action can be taken to reduce the impact of, or even eliminate altogether, elements of the cycle."

What the authors didn't envisage in 2004 was of course the February 2009 fires, which, with their similar distribution to the 1939 Black Friday fires, would have increased their estimated cycle length from 50 to as much as 80 years. This question has been brought up previously on this blog, and can be summarised in the language of the Bushfire Cycle in the following way - "how do you explain a cycle to someone when it may very well last longer than their lives?"

Furthermore - the 2004 report went on:

"While individuals need to be held accountable for their decisions and the public needs to be satisfied that all matters of concern have been investigated, bushfire mitigation and management will not progress if blame dominates over learning."


It's a fair cop, Christine (and society ain't to blame) - Sydney Morning Herald, July 31st, 2011

It can be quite disturbing when reality mirrors, so closely, a graph obviously made with minimal effort in Microsoft Powerpoint. And even less comforting is when journalists seem so content in lending a hand in leading the public in vicious circles.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"We have still not lived long enough": Fire and history

… Try, at every step, to expose the lie of terra nullius, and so move towards a post-colonial Australia that is truly at home with its environment and history, where the Aboriginal and the Asian and the White Australian can believe in the truth of history, and the justness of a future, that is so much more than a beautiful lie.
- Tim Flannery,
in the concluding line to his 2003 Quarterly Essay
Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia

Two brown paper packages arrived on my desk at work a fair few months ago now. In the first, the 1986 first edition print of Joan Webster’s Complete Australian Bushfire Book; in the latter, three heavy volumes of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report. Two texts, different in design and style, but more or less charged with the same unenviable task of answering that plaintive question asked after one surveys the scorched earth, the smouldered homes, the vacated family Christmas seats and names stricken from the community listings – “why?” Why did these fires, these apocalyptic fires, happen? Or, perhaps more tellingly – why did we let them happen?

It was around a week and a half after the February 7th Bushfires of 2009 that Tom Griffiths, a Professor of History at the Australian National University penned an award-winning article entitled We have still not lived long enough. His title was inspired by a phrase uttered by the 1939 Black Friday fires Royal Commission Judge Leonard Stretton – that they, the people who lived and died in the forests that were hellishly consumed on Friday the 13th January, 1939, had not lived long enough.

As Griffiths points out, Stretton was not so much commenting on the youthfulness of the dead, but rather lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of both the victims and survivors – “the innocence of European immigrants in a land whose natural rhythms they did not yet understand”, and “the fragility and brevity of a human lifetime in forests where life cycles and fire regimes had the periodicity and ferocity of centuries.”