January 20th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Bushfire crisis: a state of denial

AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION: High Court strikes blow against states' rights

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd - a more formidable Opposition leader?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Government's challenges over AWB-Iraq saga

QUARANTINE: Government to permit NZ apples into Australia

SCHOOLS: Trojan horse in Classical Studies curriculum

STRAWS IN THE WIND: South Pacific blues / Diamonds are an African's worst friend / Modern Madama Melbas / Putin's gambit / The Balibo Five and all that

FILM CLASSIFICATION: Australia's pornography industry suffers setback

ABORTION: Suffering in silence no more

CINEMA: Faithful re-telling of the Christmas story

Pope's back-flip on Turkey (letter)

Lack of Darfur coverage (letter)

Discarding safeguards to pursue human cloning (letter)

BOOKS: GENOCIDE: A History, by William D. Rubinstein


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Bushfire crisis: a state of denial

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 20, 2007
Authorities will not take the necessary measures to prevent bush fires for fear of offending radical environmentalists.

With dismaying predictability, bushfires in south-eastern Australia have devastated some of the country's state forests and national parks, put at risk the lives of thousands of firefighters who have heroically sought to contain them, and caused substantial loss of property, particularly in Victoria and Tasmania.

What is most alarming about the recent outbreaks is that they come at the beginning of summer, and their intensity can only be expected to grow as the weather gets hotter, drier and more windy.

Undoubtedly, the current drought has aggravated the problem; but the almost total absence of fuel-reduction burns - now part of the policy pursued by bodies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales and the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria - has contributed to the crisis.

In Victoria, bushfires consumed over 300,000 hectares early in December. For the first time in living memory, the fire-fighting organisations, the Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, conceded that they could not put the fires out, and they would burn for weeks until rain extinguished them.

Fire-reduction strategy

By contrast, the Department of Sustainability's Chief Fire Officer admitted that only 7,000 hectares was burned between last autumn and spring in low-intensity fires designed to get rid of the forest litter which turns bushfires into wildfires. (SBS News, December 8, 2006).

This is just one thousandth of the 8 million hectares of forest land which the department has responsibility to manage. They might as well have stayed at home.

According to the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, this compares to a yearly average of 225,000 hectares burnt in fuel-reduction burns in the decade from 1974-75 to 1983-84. Until about five years ago, the figure had averaged just 80,000 hectares, which fell to 40,000 hectares by 2003, still over five times the area subject to controlled burn-offs this year.

The reason why government departments have effectively abandoned fuel reduction strategies is that they have accepted the greenies' argument that their job is to minimise human activity (particularly logging) and preserve "biodiversity". They have accepted the greenies' claim that periodic low-intensity burn-offs reduce biodiversity.

In fact, low-intensity fires are far kinder to both flora and fauna than wildfires which inevitably devastate everything in their path and put human lives in grave danger.

It is curious that environmental groups, so vociferous about the effect of CO2 on climate change, have remained completely silent over the millions of tonnes of CO2 released by the bushfires which have cut a swathe through south-eastern Australia in recent weeks.

Peter Garrett, newly appointed shadow minister for climate change, has said nothing on the issue, nor has the environmental group Greenpeace, which has opposed fuel-reduction burn-offs and staged several spectacular stunts in an effort to save "ancient forests" threatened by logging.

The Wilderness Society, which first grabbed the spotlight 30 years ago in its campaign to save the Franklin River, and still raises money on the basis that it is saving the forests, has also been silent as some of Australia's old growth forests have literally gone up in smoke.

The Australian Greens, who led the campaign to prevent the timber industry getting access to timber from native forests, have also remained completely silent in the face of the bushfire crisis.

Since 2002, Australia has faced an escalating problem from bushfires, owing to an unwillingness by governments to take the necessary actions to minimise the bushfire threat.

After every forest conflagration, there have been state and federal inquiries into the causes of the bushfires, and what needs to be done to address them.

Every one of these inquiries has recommended - sometimes in muted language, for fear of offending radical environmentalists who have set the agenda for forest policy - a program of what are sometimes called "cold fires", fuel-reduction burn-offs through bush land in the wetter months of the year, to get rid of dead trees, branches and leaf litter which fuel forest fires.

It has been known for many years that such fires, if carried out every six to eight years, prevent the build-up of forest litter which turns bushfires into wildfires.

In Western Australia, the only state where successive governments rigorously conducted widespread fuel-reduction burns until recent years, there have been no comparable disasters. Studies conducted in Western Australia have shown that regular burn-offs of 10-15 per cent of forests reduce the amount of forest litter to a level where bushfires can be controlled, and do not develop into wildfires.

Until governments introduce mandatory legislated targets for fuel-reduction burns in both National Parks and State Forests, as a means of preventing further wildfires, the present problems will simply get worse.

- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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