April 5th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq war: will it change everything?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: urgent action needed

Queensland: Beattie follows Canberra on embryo experimentation

Water rights: an emerging political issue in the Murray Darling Basin

Straws in the Wind: Varieties of folly / With us or against us / Cue for a song / Hatred

NSW Election: Bob Carr's next four years

Trade deal: what will Washington do?

Euthanasia: Victorian Tribunal orders death by starvation

Has privatisation been successful?

Letters: The cost of the Victorian bushfires (letter)

How taxation hits families

School students, demonstrations and the New Civics

ASIA: North Korea's nuclear game

SARS: China the epicentre of world flu outbreaks

BOOKS: On Enlightenment, by David Stove

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Bushfires: urgent action needed

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 5, 2003
Some two months after wildfires devastated large parts of north-eastern Victoria, the Bracks Government has established an internal inquiry, headed by the chief of emergency services, into the disaster. In contrast, three separate government inquiries were established within a day of a crash by an unmanned runaway train in Melbourne.

In New South Wales, the Carr Government, which proudly boasted of having established over 300 national parks in the State, has yet to establish an inquiry into the bushfires which began in national parks in New South Wales, before scorching across the ACT border into Canberra in January.

The New South Wales fires occurred only a year after devastating fires burnt through parts of the Blue Mountains and in the national parks south of Sydney.

Why are governments so reluctant to have open and public inquiries into the causes of these tragedies?

The main reason is political. The environmental movement has made the conversion of the Australian bush into wilderness a major national objective. Its influence is spread through the education system and the media, and seen in the two main political parties as well as the Australian Democrats and Greens.

It has become a sacred cow, not to be challenged.

Yet Australia has a wealth of experience in forest management, including bushfire control.

David Packham, a rural fire scientist in eastern Victoria, recently wrote that hazard-reduction burning is essential to both the health of the forests, and to effective fire management.

He said, "For a fuel burning program to achieve both forest health and forest protection, at least 10-15 per cent of the dry areas must be burnt each year."

He added, "The current apologetic burning program is clearly insufficient. To decide not to burn (or to token burn) is in fact to decide to replace regular small mild fires with large high intensity infrequent fires."

He criticised the policies implemented by Parks Victoria, which administers state forests and national parks in the State, saying, "It has not worked in the past, is not working now, and will not work in the future." (Latrobe Valley Express, February 27, 2003)

Interestingly, Don Spriggins, Immediate Past Chairman of the Institute of Foresters WA, expressed similar sentiments.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review on January 22, he said the reason Western Australia had not suffered a major forest wildfire for over 40 years was because of programmed burning of forests every five or six years, meaning that over 15 per cent of all of the state's forests are burned every year.

In contrast, in recent years, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has conducted fuel reduction burns on less than one per cent of its land, meaning that on average, the period between such burns will be 100 years.

Little wonder that, each year for the past three years, parts of the State's national parks and adjoining private land have been devastated by wildfires, despite the heroic efforts of firefighters and high technology firefighting equipment now available to them.

When the NSW Government's fire policy was criticised early this year, the head of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Brian Gilligan, dismissed the idea of setting targets for fuel-reduction burns as "pretty meaningless". Similar sentiments were expressed by Mark Stone, CEO of Parks Victoria. Yet without such targets, the difficult job of managing Australia's vast expanse of national parks will be reduced to crisis fire management.

There are other related issues that need to be addressed in the course of a full and open inquiry into the management of Australia's forests.

These include the role of timber harvesting - currently forbidden in national parks - in reducing the impact of bushfires.

Certainly, the National Association of Forest Industries has argued that current government policy puts too much pressure on state forests, by locking up huge areas of forest which could be used for timber harvesting without adverse long-term environmental effects. By excluding timber harvesting, it has ensured that fire trails in the parks have gradually deteriorated.

This is separate from the argument that forest coups, in which timber harvesting operations are conducted, lead to younger, healthier forests.

As Australia heads towards winter, time is running out for the adoption of policies to avert a repetition of the disastrous fires, which occurred early this year.

The Secretary of the Latrobe Valley's Pulp and Paper Workers Union recently said, "Forest management decisions that lock up forests increase forest fuel and reduce access roads needed for fire fighting. They also reduce jobs in our industry. That leaves fewer trained fire fighters and less equipment in times like these. We are increasing the risks to our fire fighters, our homes, our jobs and our lives."

He added, "It is time the Federal Government acted and held an inquiry into forest management."

In the absence of open public inquiries in the worst affected states, his proposal should be acted upon immediately.

  • Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council

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