Australian Bushfires

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Australian Bushfires

Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review

IN the early months of most years, nature reminds Australians of just how fragile is their hold on the land. The brutal reminders can come in the form of floods, tropical storms, strong winds and bushfires. In some years several disasters are simultaneously buffeting different parts of the vast continent (almost equivalent to the area of the continental United States minus Alaska). (1)

Australia is the world's worst continent for bushfires. In early 2009 Australia attracted international attention because of a collection of particularly bad bushfires in the southern state of Victoria. Foreign media found it hard to believe that a developed country like Australia could sustain such a tragedy. (2) Not only was there an extensive loss of human life, but about 2,030 homes were also destroyed. The fires were among the worst disasters in Australia's two centuries or so of recorded history.

This article begins with an examination of some of the major controversies caused by the 2009 bushfires. It then broadens out the enquiry to look at how fires have shaped Australia, the impact of fires and humans and fires and animals, and then the pioneering development of fire fighting. It concludes with a note on Australia's ambivalence towards the environment.

First, there has been the usual problem of most disasters: determining the precise number of victims. The March 30, 2009 figure of 173 is a reduction from the earlier 210 figure for the total killed on 'Black Saturday': February 7. The grisly job of determining victims means that specialists had to sift through wreckage of homes and vehicles as well as rugged bushland seeking victims. Some of the original calculations may have accidentally included the bodies of animals.

Second, what caused the fires? Certainly February 7 was the hottest day on record for the state. Therefore a bad day was expected - though no-one accurately predicted just how bad. To what extent did arson contribute to the fires? Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - as adept at handling the media as his predecessor John Howard - joined the chorus of media commentators by calling this 'mass murder'. But the Victorian Police may be able to bring only a few (if any) charges of 'murder' (manslaughter may be easier to prove). Arson is often more difficult to detect in rural settings than with a city building, where a 'torch' is employed. For example, a destroyed city building may be worth more in insurance payouts than when currently used. Additionally, a building may be under an historical preservation order, while a developer may want it demolished so that (say) an inner city apartment block can be built. Criminals can therefore play a role in city redevelopment.

About 30,000 bushfires are deliberately lit each year in Australia. (3) The total number of bushfires is about 60,000 and so arson is responsible for about half of them. Bushfires cost about A$1.6 billion (about US$1.2 billion) per year. Few arsonists are ever caught and even fewer are convicted. The average offender is a twenty-eight-year-old male, with limited education and social skills. Their motives are unclear. Criminologists are hesitant about making too many generalizations because so few people are ever convicted that the survey sample may be too small for proper analysis.

Third, is this further evidence of 'climate change'? The current Labor Government - as distinct from its conservative predecessor - has explicitly accepted that climate change is underway and that dramatic action needs to be taken. Indeed, the aggressive climate change policy promises made in the November 2007 general election helped Labor achieve a dramatic result; even the Prime Minister, John Howard, lost his seat [see Contemporary Review Spring 2008]. The bushfires will add pressure on the government to introduce stiff climate change policies.

The irony, of course, is that Australia - though a heavy polluter on a per capita basis - represents only about 1 per cent of the global gross national product.

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