February 8th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Sensible environment policies can counter extremists

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bushfires: Never let a good crisis go to waste

CANBERRA OBSERVED Submarine build gives us a sinking feeling

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION Bill Mark II a shade better but still faulty

OBITUARY Wilson Gavin: Requiescat in Pace

WORLD AFFAIRS Central banks move to dictate climate policies

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump impeachment will end with a whimper

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia considers a Magnitsky-type law

SOCIETY The optimist vindicated? Er, no!

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

ASIAN POLITICS Changing of the guard: Taiwan votes

HUMOUR Legal X-clamation points and that

MUSIC Is there a way to virtue via the sublime?

CINEMA The Authentic Mr Rogers: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

BOOK REVIEW How little, low-tech militias stay under the radar of huge, high-tech armies

BOOK REVIEW First novel dips into depths of medical murder-suspense genre



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Coronavirus: China must answer hard questions

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Bushfires: Never let a good crisis go to waste

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, February 8, 2020

Media reports on the recent bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales that at times have immersed Melbourne and Sydney in smoke, have been widely described as the “worst on record”.

The Guardian headlined: “Yes, Australia has always had bushfires: but 2019 is like nothing we’ve seen before.” 7News claimed: “Australians could become ‘climate refugees’ due to rising global temperatures.” And ABC News headlined a firefighter’s statement: “The Blue Mountains bushfires are the worst conditions I’ve ever faced.”

Do any of these statements account for the historic reality?

Much of the information about the history of bushfires in Australia is available online. The Victorian Government’s Bushfire Education website, established after the tragic fires in the state in 2009, contains a volume of information, from which this article draws heavily.

Certainly, in relation to lives lost, the current bushfire season is far from being the worst.

2009 bushfires

Just 11 years ago, wildfires swept through central Victoria, taking 173 lives; 25 lives were lost in the recent bushfires in NSW and Victoria.

The Eyre Peninsula fire in 2005.

Over 90 years ago, 61 lives were lost in February-March 1926 in bushfires that swept through Gippsland, in eastern Victoria. Thirty-one lives were lost in a single day when fire swept through the timber town of Warburton.

In the 1938–39 fire season, over 80 lives were lost in bushfires in Victoria and NSW.

Just five years later, 32 people died when bushfires swept through the Western District in Victoria.

In February 1967, 62 people were killed during the Black Tuesday bushfires in south-eastern Tasmania, around Hobart.

Between September 1968 and January 1969, 36 people died in bushfires in NSW and Victoria. Of these, 17 were trapped in motor cars on the Melbourne-Geelong highway (now the Princes Freeway).

In February 1983, 47 died in Victoria and 28 in South Australia during the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Judged by the land area burned, the recent bushfires, affecting 5 million hectares in Victoria and NSW, cover a smaller area than those in Victoria 170 years ago, when an estimated 5 million hectares were burned in Victoria alone during the Black Thursday bushfires. A million sheep are also believed to have perished.

Early records of area burned in fires are incomplete, so, while the number of recorded deaths is known, areas burned out are less certain.

However, in NSW between November 1951 and January 1952, more than 4 million hectares were burned by bushfires, a comparable area to that lost in the recent bushfires.

From September 1968 to January 1969, around 3 million hectares were burned in Victoria and NSW.

Bushfires in the summer of 1974–75 destroyed large swathes of outback NSW. According to a report by the Australian Institute for Disaster Management, “Approximately 15 per cent of Australia’s physical land mass sustained extensive fire damage. This equates to roughly around 117 million hectares.” That is far more than the 1 per cent laid bare in the recent fires.

From the data, there is no clear trend suggesting that fires are becoming more frequent or more deadly.

Undoubtedly, the use of modern technology in fire fighting has reduced the impact of bushfires in more recent years.

However, this is a double-edged sword.

The improved capacity to fight bushfires has the unintended effect of creating a false sense of security, leaving large areas of state forests and national parks unburnt, making them impossible to protect in the extreme weather conditions that periodically strike the heavily forested areas of the country.

The problem is compounded by the lack of fuel-reduction burns, which can safely be conducted during the cooler months in state forests and national parks.

Both firefighters and residents of bushfire-prone areas complained of the lack of fuel-reduction in areas burned out in the recent fires.

The 2009 Royal Commission into Victoria’s bushfires pointed to the lack of action to reduce forest litter, and highlighted this, along with extreme weather conditions on days of total fire bans, as the two major causes of bushfire intensity.

Nothing can prevent extreme weather conditions in summer, but nothing has been done to deal with the build-up of combustible material that turns bushfires into uncontrollable wildfires.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm