Australia's fires


THE SHEER horror and devastation of the forest fires in the Australian state of Victoria is contained in news that over 300 people probably died in the blazes, thousands were injured and some 7,000 are homeless. An estimated 865,000 acres were affected and nearly 1,000 homes destroyed in four towns and dozens of villages. Attention is now turning to why this happened and what should be done in future to prevent it recurring.

Climate change, hazard reduction burning, stay or go policies, local planning and arson are but some of the issues involved. South Australia is vulnerable to such disasters at this time of year when hot winds and cold fronts combine, as they have done several times before with major loss of life. But this is the most damaging disaster ever, coming after a prolonged drought and record temperatures, so it is only to be expected that climatic factors should be put in the foreground.

Australia is one of the world’s worst coal polluters and former prime minister John Howard was one of its most notorious climate change sceptics, so his successor Kevin Rudd has found it difficult to do more than commit it to a mere 5 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020. While these fires cannot be blamed directly on global warming it would be foolish indeed to ignore the linkage.

Ecological factors are also involved in the debate over reducing fire threats by regular preventive burning around houses, villages and towns. If that is done every five years or so biodiversity is certainly affected – many say unacceptably. And without careful education it may not be effective in such a major disaster. Planning issues come into this too. How sensible is it to allow dispersed development in fire-prone areas, given the costs of servicing, infrastructure and fire-fighting facilities? Should settlements not be in more easily defended larger towns? The commission already announced into the disaster will have to examine these issues carefully.

Another question requiring detailed analysis is the “stay or go” policy pioneered after previous Australian fires. Research has shown it can be safer for residents to stay and fight, or take refuge, than flee. Many deaths on this occasion happened because people left it too late to escape and were burned unexpectedly as winds changed and fires surged over huge distances.

Compared with these environmental and planning issues arson is more easily identified as a murderous act, even though it cannot solely explain such a huge event.