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Tag Archives: Bushfires

Now is the time, Mr Morrison.

“In this bucket is my house”, Aaron Crowe tells other unquiet Australians rallying in Macquarie St, Sydney, Tuesday. He lifts an organic compost bin, a repurposed twenty-gallon steel red drum with hand-made wooden lid, a homely relic of former peaceful, rural domesticity, now, destroyed forever, aloft.

The 38 year-old-father tips a few charred, remnants of the two-bedroom home he once built, himself, on to the footpath outside NSW’s Parliament. Crowe and his wife, Fiona Lee, journey 323 kilometres, from Warrawillah, near Bobin, SW of Port Macquarie, to call MPs to account; confront them with the truth.

A powerful, personal, rebuke to the spin-doctors and MSM who drown real voices out of public discourse

Crowe’s gesture is eloquent testimony to a terrifying new bushfire season and a call to authorities, especially NSW state politicians in charge of funds and resources that it’s time to get real about climate science. Communicating climate science through our commercial media with its spectacularisation at the expense of underlying issues, its government media drops and its climate denialism is now impossible.

The challenge of communication has been taken up by independent media, social media, conferences, public meetings and personal protests. No wonder our anti-activist PM has these in his sights.

Crowe testifies to how global warming has bred extreme bushfires against which there is no defence.

“We had ample time to prepare and they’re talking about hopes and dreams, thoughts and prayers, miracles and heroes – it’s not realistic. This is not about unicorns and fairies, this is about people’s lives, it’s only going to get worse.” Yet Aaron Crowe’s plea is waived aside by his premier and his PM.

Now is not the time to talk about climate change chorus NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and PM Morrison, Tuesday. Bushfire survivor, Badja Sparks contextualises this for The Guardian Australia.

“Today is not the day to talk about climate change.” No, yesterday was, or the day before, or the month before, or the year before. But it didn’t get a mention.

Now we have the reality, and the mention it gets is: “Don’t talk about it now.”

So the politicians (and the media) turn the talk to hazard reduction burns, or the lack of them, as something else to blame on the “inner-city raving lunatics”.

“We had a bushfire two months ago that burned most of our property. It didn’t matter. It burned again.” Badja attests to a terrifying new type of fire that defies traditional means of control. A crown fire roaring in from the west on a hot afternoon with an 80km/h wind – it wasn’t on the ground. It was a firestorm in the air – raining fire. There was no fuel on the ground; it was already burned.

“Now is not the time” is a tactic the US National Rifle Association (NRA) uses to silence of debate.

NRA “spokespersons” or “public faces” such as Dana Loesch are quick to claim “now is not the time to talk gun control” after so many of the 36,000 plus annual fatal shootings that make USA’s rate of death by firearm the highest in the developed world. Clearly, not talking works – for the gun lobby.

And for the government. Coalition shill, Chris Kenny in The Australian declares, “Climate alarmists are brazen opportunists preying on misery.” Pushing the Morrison government’s political barrow he writes,

“Climate alarmists are using tragic deaths and community pain to push a political barrow. Aided by journalists and others who should know better, they are trying to turn a threat endured on this continent for millennia into a manifestation of their contemporary crusade.”

In “more of the same just more of the same” false equivalence, Kenny’s failure to research any of the characteristics that make the current fires unique does his readers a dangerous disservice.

So, too, does what was once the party of the bush, The Nationals. Now the burnt out people of the bush feel increasingly betrayed by National Party MPs. All MPs. Crikey’s Guy Rundle argues that the Nationals have made themselves the enemy of rural Australia’s survival. Catastrophic fires occur so often now that they are “beginning to wear down the resistant scepticism of large areas of rural Australia”.

When country folk could once pride themselves if not define themselves on the thought that city folk didn’t know what they were talking about, the reality of drought and bushfire has caused a re-think.

Increasingly extreme weather; the lived experience of rural voters tests their dogged loyalty to The National Party and its blind faith in climate science denial. It’s at odds with their own everyday reality.

Undermined is the nub of rural identity which values bush experience and concrete realities over abstract science. Now that rural National voters’ bushfire experience is matching scientists’ warnings, Rundle perceives a weakening of “folk denialism”; traces an awakening of respect for climate science.

It’s complex. Adding to voters’ alienation is the Nationals’ support for mining over farmers. On Channel 10’s The Project, Waleed Ali stumps Michael McCormack in March when he challenges the deputy PM,

“Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interest of miners when they come into conflict?”

Within the network of influence and lobbying which mining holds over the Coalition, Rundle traces a moment when the Nationals as an organisation lost interest in representing their agrarian community.

“Former party leader Anderson became chairman of Eastern Star Gas. His successor in the Nationals, Mark Vaile, now sits on the board at Whitehaven Coal, against which farmers in the Liverpool Plains have staged hundreds of days of blockades. Party scion Larry Anthony was a lobbyist for the Shenhua Watermark mine.”

John Anderson pops up like the White Rabbit on ABC’s The Drum last Friday to falsely claim that “the scientists cannot directly link extreme weather events with climate change”. But they can. And do. And our leaders – must heed them. The Australia Institute economist, Richard Dennis sums up,

Climate change makes bushfires worse. Even if we catch an arsonist who lights a fire, the fact is the fires they light will burn further and faster than they would have if the world had burned less coal, and the temperature was lower than we have made it.

We can manage fuel loads; cut firebreaks, but a fire lit by an arsonist will spread further today. Embers from hotter fires, race across drier ground; spark new fires further from the fire front than ever before.

First the women, younger folk and community leaders are sceptical of the Nationals’ bush mythology. Now, Rundle believes Nationals’ voters’ crisis of faith may harden into one final act of resistance before it cracks irrevocably. Attacking The Greens is one last populist move to regain a show of leadership.

On Monday’s RN Breakfast, McCormack is stung by Greens MP Adam Bandt’s claim that Morrison’s coal-promotion makes him complicit in the suffering of those currently being burnt out by extreme bushfires.

What people need now, the Deputy PM says, is real practical assistance, not “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies”.

To Mid-Coast Councillor, Claire Pontin, McCormack is “just saying silly things”. He and Joyce may have missed this pivotal change in their own constituencies, notes The Saturday Paper’s Paul Bongiorno drily.

The best real, practical assistance McCormack could offer would be to embrace the science. Then he might ask NSW’s premier to reinstate the tens of millions the NSW has cut from state fire services.

Denial, downplaying and disinformation costs lives – especially the myth of false equivalence which holds that both sides are too blame for inaction on climate change, a term which is itself spin-doctored because it’s a neutral substitute for global warming. In fact, it’s pretty much all the Coalition’s own work.

And much of that work was achieved by one man. Tony Abbott seized a personal political chance in 2009, writes The Monthly Today’s Paddy Manning, “sold the truth down the river” and in 2014, pre-figured Trump in becoming world’s first political leader to repeal a carbon price. Abbott then agitated against the NEG, creating waves of instability that helped Morrison topple Turnbull. Not only did Abbott put the nation back at least a decade, his legacy continues in Morrison’s lack of energy policy.

To adapt Katharine Murphy’s phrase, no wonder Morrison’s government doesn’t want anyone to talk about climate science, its own record is one of unmitigated shame and ignominious failure.

Yet McCormack insists we shouldn’t be talking about climate change. “Australia’s always burned”, he says. Nothing to see here. Just bushfires that come earlier, stay longer, burn hotter, higher and spread faster; evolving into a threat, unlike anything we’ve had to deal with before.

The deputy PM follows up with NRA tactic stage two: shift the blame. If only greenies weren’t locking up our state forests for ecotourism, we could get in and cut the fuel load. Yet only nine per cent of NSW is “locked”. Only Queensland is lower with a shameful eight per cent.

Greenies, moreover, have no issue with hazard reduction. It’s climate change itself which increasingly restricts burning off. As the fire season extends, south-east Australia dries out. Opportunities to use controllable, low-intensity fire to burn off the litter become fewer.

Above all, not all forest types are amenable to hazard reduction. Wet sclerophyll and rainforest, for example, are not fire-adapted and most of the time are too moist to ignite. When they are dry enough to burn, it is too dangerous to burn them explains Brendan Mackey, director of the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University.

This is what the ecological and climate emergency looks like,” says Fiona Lee. It’s a young couple’s way of calling out the Morrison government for recently voting down an Opposition move to declare a state of climate emergency. Dismissing Labor’s bill as “symbolic” and impractical, Energy Minister, Angus Taylor says its “emotive language” ignores everyday Australians’ practical needs. He would know.

Taylor belongs to a government that wilfully ignores practical needs. 23 former emergency service chiefs wrote to Scott Morrison, in April, seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the serious threats facing communities this fire season due to climate change. In September, they wrote again. All were rebuffed while federal MPs rubbish any attempt to have a national state of climate emergency declared.

A hyper-partisan, Morrison government irretrievably stuck in campaign mode politicises the issue:

Labor is making a huge song and dance about declaring a climate emergency, but refuses to commit to a single policy in this area from the last election,” jeers Taylor.

Meanwhile, a ferocious new fire burns across the land, defying all traditional forms of management and causing the NSW government to declare a state of emergency, Monday. 500 homes are destroyed in one week. The fires are unprecedented in length, extent and intensity.

62 fires are burning across NSW, 56 of which have not been contained, ahead of a heatwave predicted for Tuesday which could see temperatures reach the mid-40s.

A “once in a century fire” is burning for the third time in ten years, a frequency which threatens even the false complacency nurtured by National Party retail politicians, such as Barnaby Joyce whose mantra is that bushfires and drought are just a feature of life in the bush, or that someone or something else is to blame. This week it’s The Greens again and or the sun’s magnetic field and or bad hazard reduction.

As it destroys life, property and virgin natural bushland, however, the terrible new fire threatens one of the bastions of climate change denialism itself, The National Party of the bush which is also under siege from drought and double-digit unemployment is losing credibility as its constituents experience first- hand the conditions climate scientists predicted. Will it also be the death of the National Party? If so, reflects Crikey’s Guy Rundle it will be the only death that is deserved.

“The pressure is now on Scott Morrison to resolve the fierce resistance in his own government’s ranks and respond with policies that persuade voters – thousands of them victims of this week’s inferno – that the federal Liberals and Nationals get it.” Paul Bongiorno notes.

Eastern NSW is ablaze. Bush fires, bigger and more ferocious than any Australia’s experienced before, include crown fire, an eighty kilometre an hour aerial firestorm – there’s no fuel left on the ground – raze a million hectares; cut a swathe of destruction already equal to that of the last three fire seasons combined. Areas burn at an intensity and in a season never seen before, says ecologist, Mark Graham.

A million hectares burn in NSW alone. Queensland and other states face the biggest fire front in Australia’s history. Catastrophic conditions are forecast for Sunday in four WA regions: east Pilbara coast, west Pilbara coast, east Pilbara inland and Ashburton Inland.

Catastrophic fire conditions is a recent forecast category which arose from the inquest into Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday Fires in which 173 people died.

“It’s a treacherous combination of gusty winds, high temperatures, low humidity and extreme dryness. Any fire that ignites will quickly reach intensities and move at speeds that place properties and lives in imminent danger,” writes Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, ARC Future Fellow in the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of NSW. Her definition could be a summary of global warming’s role.

So far in NSW, six people have died, nearly 500 homes have been destroyed, reports the Rural Fire Service (RFS). That’s more than double the previous most severe bushfire season in 2013-14, when 248 homes were lost. More than 1,650,000 hectares have been burnt across the state — more land than during the past three bushfire seasons combined. And the fires could rage for weeks.

“It is likely that the fire threat in Northern NSW and South East Queensland will continue for weeks unless significant rainfall occurs assisting fire fighters to extinguish blazes,” says Andrew Gissing emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

Up in smoke goes any hope that our nation’s leaders may provide for or protect us. Instead, state and federal MPs rush to hide their blame; circling their wagons to defend their own shameful record of wilful neglect, climate reality denial and how their loyalty to big donors in mining eclipses any civic duty.

Avoidance is the Morrison government’s default position on issues which might involve taking responsibility; facing the fact that anthropogenic climate change is creating droughts, floods and fires.

More alarming is the censorship attempted by the NSW government when it tells its public servants attending a conference on adapting to climate change not to make any link between climate and fire.

It’s all too much for Morrison who vanishes Tuesday afternoon only to bob up Friday in praise of model corporate citizen QANTAS’ 99th birthday and to greet George Brandis returning on the Dreamliner which makes an historic nineteen hour nineteen minute non-stop flight London to Sydney. That’s at least 300,000 litres of fuel return.

The IPCC estimates that aviation is responsible for around 3.5 percent of anthropogenic climate change, a figure which includes both CO2 and non-CO2 induced effects. Luckily MPs have scapegoats.

Joyce adds to the myth that the latest bushfires are caused by The Greens’ curbing back-burning and fire-hazard reduction despite the fact that climate change has made back-burning too dangerous.

Ever the conservationist, Barnaby recycles the voice of disinformation, populist shock-jock and LNP parrot Alan Jones who blames the fires on The Greens, falsely claiming they had prevented controlled burns. In fact, it’s global warming itself which is preventing controlled burning. Such measures are impossible due to the unique nature of the drought and the very dry conditions.

“Honestly, not today” calls NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian as a reporter, who had previously been speaking to couple asks Scott Morrison about climate change. ABC News interrupts Morrison’s response.

“In this bucket is my house,” Crowe tells the crowd. “When’s the time to talk about climate change then, if I’m standing in the wreckage of my own house?”

“The time is definitely right for talking about climate change – for me, there has never been a better time to talk about climate change,” his wife tells the crowd outside.

Morrison’s absence for most of last week is an indictment of his failure to lead – as are the comments of his ministers, McCormack and Taylor. What is urgently needed is an embargo on the spin-doctors and a willingness to accept the facts; confront the reality that global warming means a terrible new type of bushfire that demands all of our resources not more of the Federal Coalition’s division and scapegoating.

Above all it means heeding reality; the stories of people like Aaron and Fiona have much to tell us. We cannot afford to brush them aside any more than we can ignore their cries for help.

As veteran firefighters have told Morrison, we will need to put in a lot more resources if we are to deal with the new levels of devastation, the new fires are bringing. His government and all state governments need to start listening. Act on expert advice. Twenty years ago would have been good but now is the next best time.

 

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Thoughts And Prayers Have Been Sent So Let’s Not Get Political!

You know the way it goes: SIEV X sinks and hundreds of people drown, but we shouldn’t get political about it because it would be wrong to blame John Howard, because making political capital out of personal tragedy is just offensive opportunism. Fast forward a few years and Labor are responsible for all the drownings at sea and there’s no problem.

Or when people die installing the pink batts, it’s brought up at every opportunity by the Liberals because they argue that the scheme should have had better planning and more oversight… This was, of course, at the same time as they were arguing for a reduction in red-tape because such things just slow down projects. We never hear of all the workplace deaths that this may have caused because death shouldn’t be used for political reasons.

And so, we have the current fires raging in NSW and Queensland but, hey, don’t mention climate change because we’ve always had droughts and flooding rains, and it’s not the time. Just like in the United States when there’s another shooting, it’s not the time for a discussion on gun control. It’s a time for thoughts and prayers.

If you don’t believe me, just check out the Prime Minister’s tweet.

So let’s not politicise things. Let’s not talk about how the NSW government cut funding to fire services. Let’s follow the lead of Campbell Newman who contradicted someone by tweeting that there have been worse bushfires in the past and then posted a link to a story from last century about a number of bushfires that covered almost as much territory as the current ones, in much the same way that I’m nearly as tall as the tallest man in the world when you compare us to a wombat. This is not being political this is just being factual with alternative facts.

And certainly, let’s not have a look at this from last week’s “The Guardian”:

Mr Mullins is one of 23 former senior emergency figures trying to get the Australian Government to listen to their concerns about climate change and the missing capacity to fight fires in a new era.

“It’s up to the retired fire chiefs who are unconstrained to tell it like it is and say this is really dangerous,” he said.

However, his written requests for a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison have failed.

“We were fobbed off to Minister [Angus] Taylor who is not the right minister to speak to,” Mr Mullins said.

“We wanted to speak to the Natural Disasters Minister and the PM. We asked for help with that, we never got a reply.

“You had 23 experts willing to sit down with a PM and come up with solutions, but he’s just fobbed us off.

“What does it take to wake these people up in Canberra? I don’t know.”

No, let’s do what the meme on Facebook says and ask those protestors why they’re not out fighting the fires. After all, isn’t it better to deal with a problem after it’s happened than to suggest remedies to prevent it happening in the first place? Complaining about these protestors is ok, because they’re the ones who are making things political with their constant whining about the government’s lack of meaningful action.

Let’s say that this is not unprecedented and that Australia has always had droughts and flooding rains because the poem tells us so and don’t you love Australia and its wide brown land? And let’s pretend that it’s just bad manners to even say the words “climate change” in the midst of such unprecedented disaster because we should be thinking about the victims and hey, how good is the government response, with the army reserve on standby and the coordination and no, we don’t need help from overseas and that’s not because they have none to spare because their fighting their own fires.

How good are thoughts and prayers?

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Suffer in Ya Jocks! Turnbull Scoffs at Disaster Funding

A natural disaster has hit Rockhampton every two years since 2008. When a Prime Minister thinks natural disasters are not a national issue, he needs to go.

The Prime Minister has made another attempt to divide Australians and pit state against state. Frustratingly, he has turned his back on Queensland by refusing to assist with Disaster Funding. Explicitly, the Prime Minister does not see disaster mitigation as a national issue. In other words, Turnbull believes that if bushfires rage through NSW, that is a problem for NSW. Similarly, if floods and cyclones hit Queensland, therefore, it is a problem for Queensland.

Clearly, Turnbull’s leadership on this issue is pathetic. The People’s Prime Minister he is not!

Disaster Mitigation

Fires, Cyclones and Floods happen in Rockhampton, Central QLD. They aren’t just words on a screen. In essence, they are terrifying and destructive natural disasters that can leave families stranded, with no shelter, food, power and water. The frail and elderly in dire need of help. For some, it is complete devastation as they lose everything. Also, businesses close or are on the brink of closure.

I think everyone agrees that preventing death, destruction and massive blows to the local economy are all in the national interest.

Turnbull seems to believe that the free market will just always sort things out. However, Turnbull’s free market doesn’t help in in a disaster. Turnbull’s free market’s role is for you, the pensioner, the unemployed, the worker, the small business owner to dig deep into your own pocket and donate after every disaster.

In short, Turnbull doesn’t want to do a thing to prevent natural disasters.

Do we want a Prime Minister who will step up and help prevent the death of innocent people, the frail and elderly stranded in their homes without power, businesses copping massive losses as they shut their doors in times of disaster or one who does nothing and then cries into the camera in the face of the aftermath and then tells you to pull out your wallet?

Regional Towns in Central Queensland need urgent assistance to mitigate the impact of future natural disasters. Rockhampton has faced fires, cyclones and floods, every two years for the last ten years. It feels as if we just get over one disaster and another is knocking on our door.

Mitigation saves lives. Queensland needs this funding now.

Category D Funding Application

The Palaszczuk Government submitted an application for joint funding with the Commonwealth to fund infrastructure and mitigation projects in regional Queensland.

The proposed funding includes:

  • $135 million Recovery to Resilience – Local Council Package to help the hardest hit local government areas undertake key infrastructure projects that will generate employment, boost the local economy, drive community recovery and build resilience.
  • $60m Recovery to Resilience – infrastructure package (Betterment) to enable important infrastructure that has been damaged by STC Debbie to be rebuilt to a stronger more disaster resilient state.
  • $15m Recovery to Resilience – environmental package to ensure the recovery of impacted environmental areas, recognising the important contribution our unique environment makes to the Queensland and Australian tourism industry.
  • $10m Recovery to Resilience – economic package, to support the recovery of industry and businesses in and around impacted areas that experienced significant disruption and damage.

Queensland Short Changed

The Palaszczuk proposed the package of $220 million. With the Federal Government proposed to meet half the funding of $110 million. On the 14th July, the Turnbull Government announced it will only fund $29 million.

That is a shortfall of $81 million dollars. I propose the Prime Minister stops dissing mathematics because that is a very large shortfall.

Christensen Vs. Landry

landry christensen

Turnbull, backed by Capricornia LNP MP Michelle Landry has refused to assist the QLD Government with category D funding, post cyclone Debbie.

Controversial LNP MP George Christensen, who recently crossed the party room floor on penalty rates, has voiced his disappointment with Turnbull’s decision and will fly his regional Mayors to Canberra to insist on more funding.

Federal Member for Dawson George Christensen, whose own government signed off on the funding, was also “gutted” at the size of the kitty.

 

 

Michelle Landry, MP, has turned her back on her community. Landry, who holds her seat by 1,111 votes appears more concerned with gauging what locals think of the flood levee. The community has had a divided opinion regarding the flood levee for a variety of reasons.

Landry has bled every last political drop in every natural disaster since she was a candidate in the 2013 election. This includes blaming councils for fraudulent disaster funding claims and constantly blaming the State Labor Government.

Peak Flood Level? Peak Level Stupidity!

Landry’s argument is that Category D Funding is not for new infrastructure. Landry’s rationale is that if Rockhampton already had a flood levee, then money could be used to fix it. However, Landry is opposed to money building a new levee to prevent the extensive damage flooding causes in the first place.

“The State Government know very well that under Category D that there’s no new infrastructure built. If we had an existing levee and it was damaged, the money would fix it up. (Michelle Landry Daily Mercury 13/05/17)

Landry might want to ask George Christensen where she can find some leadership and insist on this funding to keep people safe and businesses open. The temporary flood levee in Rockhampton recently saved many homes, which would have previously been inundated.

In 2015, Tony Abbott provided a meagre amount of funding under category D post cyclone Marcia. The basic idea which underpins category D for funding such as the QLD Betterment fund is:

The intent of betterment is to increase the resilience of Australian communities to natural disasters, while at the same time reducing future expenditure on asset restoration, reducing incidents, injuries and fatalities during and after natural disasters, and improving asset utility during and after natural disasters.

To insist that councils can only use this funding to rebuild an asset that has been destroyed and not build modern infrastructure to prevent further assets being destroyed by the next disaster; is most certainly a hair’s breadth away from reaching the level of peak stupidity.

Barnaby says Yes – Turnbull says No!

Barnaby Joyce backed the Rockhampton flood levee. However, Turnbull said No! Clearly, Turnbull simply does not understand regional Queensland. Why didn’t Michelle Landry say no to the disaster funding during this media opportunity?

Suffer in Ya Jocks

The Abbott-Turnbull Liberal Government have fought against helping regional Queenslanders post disaster in every disaster. They have cut assistance to individuals and families by removing Labor’s clauses for assistance criteria.

Sure Landry, O’Dowd, Barnaby, Canavan and Turnbull like to strut around town post disaster, like the lacklustre five. Their cowboy hats on and their concerned game face on point. However, that is where their hands stay – on their hats. Indeed, they find it too difficult to reach into their pockets to provide funding to actually help. Their postured concerned frowns and faux empathy we can do without.

In short, Rockhampton has experienced a natural disaster ever two years since 2008. If the Liberal National Government does not understand we need this funding because the recovery time between disasters is short lived, and we barely get back on our feet before the next one, then clearly they are completely out of touch with Queensland.

I imagine Turnbull lazing around in his Sydney mansion, pouring expensive champagne, raising his glass to the chandelier and with a smirk he says – “Queensland – Suffer in ya jocks!”

To Turnbull and Landry, I say

Rockhampton Flood Disaster

A Look Back at the Natural Disasters in Rockhampton
since 2008

2008 Floods Rockhampton


2009 Rockhampton Bushfires

2010-11 Floods Rockhampton

2013 Floods – Rockhampton

2015 Cyclone Marcia

2017 – Floods post Cyclone Debbie

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Fire: what have we learned from the devastation?

Some of the lessons learned from decades of studying major fires have been learned, and then forgotten, in a drive to simplify the message to the public, writes Graham Parton.

Every major Australian bushfire is inevitably followed by an enquiry into what went wrong and an attempt to find out how future disasters could be avoided.

Among the most notable bushfires of the last fifty years has been the Tasmanian “Black Tuesday” fire of February 1967, which at the time was the single most significant loss of life and property ever experienced in post settlement Australia.

The official Government enquiry into the disaster closely examined the causes of death, and noted that in about half of the cases where people died close to their home, their homes did not catch fire. The Chambers and Brettingham-Moore report concluded that “In a few cases it may be said that if they had stayed inside they would have had a reasonable chance of survival’.

Alan McArther and Phil Cheney from the CSIRO’s Forest Research Institute also reported on the Tasmanian fire and noted the large number of people who were unable to either get away from the fire, or to defend themselves when it arrived. Their report was among the first to explicitly suggest that staying and defending property could be preferable to a last minute evacuation and it was their research that planted the seeds for the subsequent policy of “prepare, stay and defend or leave early”, sometimes abbreviated to the “stay or go” policy.

This approach gains some support from more research that followed the Tasmanian fire. Katharine Haynes, Amalia Tibbits and Thomas Lowe, writing in the insurance industries Quarterly Newsletter examined what people where doing immediately before their deaths in the Tasmanian fire and confirmed the official findings that both defending property from outside and late evacuations were the main cases of death. As an aside they also found that the people killed defending were almost exclusively male, and the people killed in late evacuations were almost exclusively female.

fire2

Nearly fifty years later that policy is now starting to shift, with the main message downplaying the “prepare, stay and defend” parts and almost exclusively emphasising the “leave early” part. Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley notes on the CFA web site:

“We are urging all Victorians to plan and prepare now. Don’t wait and see or hold off until the weather warms up or when a fire starts and it’s too late. The key is to be prepared – know your trigger for leaving early, what you will do in the event of an emergency and where you can find more information.”

 

The main message, reinforced in social media and on television is the same; if in doubt – leave early.

Television images of smoke on the distant horizon while families consider whether or not it is serious enough to evacuate are now routine and lead the viewer to the conclusion that early evacuation is the only sensible option.

The CFA web site contains some details about how to defend your property but the banner headline over this advice is “Defending your home is risky – you could be seriously injured, suffer psychological trauma or die. The safest option is to be well away from the threat.” Further down the same page is the message “Defending your home is extremely hard work and requires significant resources. It may take hours and sometimes days of extreme effort”. Once again the steering towards the early evacuation option is less than subtle.

However Justin Leonard of the CSIRO’s Bushfire Urban Design team noted that “once you can see smoke it’s already too late, unless you have an exit route worked out and a whole lot of other information about what the fire is doing.”

Added to this are the additional problems caused by too many people leaving at once and the risk of traffic jams and accidents, any of which could make the act of evacuating more dangerous.

In many cases the safest option would be actively patrolling your own house, ideally from indoors, and tending to stay in rooms with multiple exits. Many people take shelter and die in their baths, but bathrooms are particularly dangerous mainly because they usually only have one exit and are difficult places to monitor the fire from. Justin Leonard notes that “Houses aren’t always dangerous places, they are a reliable temporary measure.”

Professor Drew Dawson has conducted research into human behaviour and planning around fires notes that planning to leave early doesn’t mean you don’t also need a plan to stay and defend. “Leaving early is ok, but not once you’ve seen smoke. Simplistic solutions very attractive to policy makers but they are not the best solutions.” He noted that homeowners need a set of plans for different scenarios. He reinforced the conclusion reached by the recent Victorian Royal Commission into the 2009 “Black Saturday” fires that there is no “one size fits all” model for evacuations.

David Bruce, a spokesman for the Bushfire CRC, said, research with communities after major fires suggests that “people can panic and fail to execute their plans as intended, or the plan does not cover all of the possibilities. We need to ensure people have a plan B, C and D as well.”

The problem is that fires are complicated, planning for them is complicated, and the Government doesn’t want complicated emergency messages.

The complications come from the number of variables that impact on fire behaviour and the general ignorance across the community about what these are. Basic precautions like removing fuel from near houses and having adequate sprinkler systems, fire pumps and protective clothing is usually sufficient for low level and local fires – exactly the ones that most fire brigades can be expected to respond to.

However conditions like those that preceded all of our major fires (high temperatures for many days before the fires, high fuel loads, strong winds, low humidity) can cause large fast moving fires that make an otherwise defendable house a much greater risk.

Homeowners planning on defending their homes need to understand this, plus the more specific details about their own property and how factors like fuel types, slope, vegetation, or prevailing winds are going to affect their own fire.

It’s hardly surprising that emergency services prefer the much simpler option of just leaving.

Another essential ingredient in fire protection is community involvement. The overwhelming message from the fire authorities is that planning should not only be focused on how early to leave, but that it be done at a family / household level, rather than a street or neighbourhood level.

The result is hundreds of uncoordinated plans about how to respond to a fire. When Mum and Dad pack the children and pets into the car and head off, they are not expected to consider what the family next door is doing, and while one family might not feel safe enough to defend their house, three families might be much better able to defend three houses by pooling their resources.

Fire ecologist Nick Gellie assists communities to prepare for fires but he is disappointed with both the level of community awareness and the government response. He sees the fundamental problem as being that:

“People don’t know the fire environment or fire behaviour. They don’t know the scenarios they might encounter, where the fire might come from, how it will behave. They often don’t even know the rudimentary stuff like where the nearest safer place is.

It’s like military intelligence; you need to know your enemy.“

From his experience working in Victorian rural communities Nic Gellie believes that years ago landowners had a much greater knowledge about their properties. While much of this knowledge is lost, an opportunity to replace it with knowledge shared on social networks is not being pursued and it is a dangerous gap. Nic Gellie believes that social networks are the key to communities being better organised and prepared.

Victorian fire expert Kevin Tolhurst notes that “We’re pretty good at putting red trucks out on the road and doing the water and suppression thing and we’re good at the planning and we’re good at providing information but what we haven’t been so good at is really getting that social interaction going.”

The Victorian CFA supports the “community fireguard” program but Nic Gellie is concerned that compared to other firefighting activities this is underfunded. Local fire brigades tend not to have much to do with community fireguard programs and there is no real attempt to educate communities about fire behaviour.

Drew Dawson agrees and notes that the emergency services model needs to be updated. The community needs to see its self as part of the fire fighting effort, not the “we are going to be rescued” model. Local brigades need to be more involved in preparations.

During and after a fire communities are sometimes quite vocal about the quality and quantity of information being supplied to them from the fire authorities, but Kevin Tolhurst cautions against expecting too much on the day. “We spent 18 months working out what happened in the Black Saturday fire. Even firefighters don’t always have good information.”

Some technical solutions are complex too. When asked about the practice of sending text messages to people in fire affected areas he noted that the information is not always accurate, and if people get too many false alarms they may start ignoring the messages.

It’s also not simply a matter of the community learning from fire experts – sometimes the knowledge exchange is a two way street.

Tom Griffiths of the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University, Canberra in his essay “The Language of Catastrophe” also notes a significant gap between local knowledge and professional opinion:

People who live in Victoria’s ash ranges have developed special words and phrases for the extreme fire behaviour they have witnessed. But many fire scholars and professionals forgot the force of fire in tall, wet forests and began to doubt what people said they saw in 1851 or 1926 or 1939 or 1983. According to this view the unrehearsed narratives of survivors were actually exaggerated fictions or ‘myths’ that needed to be dispelled by calm professional education, fire science and ‘the laws of physics’.

As recently as 2008 thoughtful fire officers – drawing on the science of grassfires! – argued that there were no such phenomena as ‘exploding houses’ or ‘firestorms’ or ‘fireballs’, and that these were just the delirious words of people unfamiliar with fire. And they suggested that such untutored and emotive words also falsely implied that ‘bushfire is something beyond human control’. Nothing shows the psychological blinkers of the Stay or Go policy more powerfully than this professional disparagement of eyewitness accounts of fire in a distinctive forest. Dugouts and ‘fireballs’ were material and verbal evidence of local cultural adaptation, and yet both were abandoned and disparaged by authorities seeking universal solutions and national policies.

Now more than ever before we face an increasing risk caused by longer hotter summers, an increasing population in rural areas and urban fringes, and an ageing volunteer cohort joining fire brigades. At the same time we have a new network of social connections and an increasing number of people connected to social media that could increase our awareness of how to respond as communities to fires.

Graham Parton is a freelance environmental journalist who has worked in environmental management, public sector policy and as a sustainable house builder. He can be contacted on g.parton@icloud.com

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Why the Adelaide Hills weren’t as relaxing as I’d planned!

Ok, the people I was staying with had only moved into the area in the past few months, so not all the names that were being listed as in danger from the fire were familiar, but the smoke was ominous and they were implementing their fire plan, so I decided to spend Saturday night down by the coast.

Of course, times like this bring out the best in people. On the radio, offers of help were pouring in, including offers of accommodation, and I couldn’t help but think how strange the human psyche is. In a disaster, most of us help the less fortunate, but when that “disaster” is something that happens in the normal course of things, most of the community turns its back. If someone loses their home because of a fire, we help, but if they’re homeless because of economic reasons, we tend to think of it as their own fault. If someone was trapped in a natural disaster, we wouldn’t weigh up the costs of sending in a rescue helicopter, yet we’re frequently told that the government doesn’t have the money to “save” some groups of people.

Someone commented that we hadn’t heard from Tony Abbott about the bushfires in the Adelaide Hills. The next day the reason became clear: He was in Iraq, telling the troops how valuable they are, even if the pay rise was only 1.5%. Not only that, but he was giving the Iraqi Government five million dollars – who says he’s not a generous man?

And this also explains why he hasn’t visited South Australia or Victoria in his fireman uniform because we know how much that boosts everyone’s morale.

So will Tony Abbott feel it’s necessary to visit when he gets back, or will Queensland be his first port of call given the potential disaster there, once Newman calls the election.

PS: The PM has just announced that he doesn’t rule out committing more troops to Iraq even though he said he had no intention of committing ground troops just a couple of months ago. But he underestimated the strength of the surge in support for the Labor Party.

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Crap, Hogwash, Wikipedia and Other Strong Evidence

Abbott

“I mean in the end this whole thing is a question of fact, not faith, or it should be a question of fact not faith and we can discover whether the planet is warming or not by measurement. And it seems that notwithstanding the dramatic increases in man made CO2 emissions over the last decade, the world’s warming has stopped. Now admittedly we are still pretty warm by recent historical standards but there doesn’t appear to have been any appreciable warming since the late 1990s.”

Tony Abbott: A REALIST’S APPROACH TO CLIMATE CHANGE Speech – July, 2009

From Abbott’s Interview with Andrew Bolt:

Bolt: (Volunteering to fight) the fires. Was there an element of running away from the office?

PM: Ha! Mate, I got up to the station at 4pm Saturday and I got back to the station at 10 Sunday morning. So there’s no question of running away from the office, because the office is closed then. The office is closed.

AB: I’ve been struck by the insanity of the reaction in the media and outside, particularly linking the fires to global warming and blaming you for making them worse potentially by scrapping the carbon tax.

PM: I suppose, you might say, that they are desperate to find anything that they think might pass as ammunition for their cause, but this idea that every time we have a fire or a flood it proves that climate change is real is bizarre, ’cause since the earliest days of European settlement in Australia, we’ve had fires and floods, and we’ve had worse fires and worse floods in the past than the ones we are currently experiencing. And the thing is that at some point in the future, every record will be broken, but that doesn’t prove anything about climate change. It just proves that the longer the period of time, the more possibility of extreme events … The one in 500 year flood is always a bigger flood than the one in 100 year flood.

Bolt: The ABC, though, has run on almost every current affairs show an almost constant barrage of stuff linking climate change to these fires.

Abbott: That is complete hogwash.

Bolt: It is time to really question the bias of the ABC?

Abbott: But people are always questioning the “bias” of the ABC.

Later in the same interview:

PM: I would say that there tends to be an ABC view of the world, and it’s not a view of the world that I find myself in total sympathy with. But, others would say that there’s a News Limited view of the world.

From “The most depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever”

“In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.

Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?

The answer, basically, is no. When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.”

And just in case you missed it at the time:

“I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.” (Tony Abbott, quoted on the “ABC 7.30 Report” (27 July 2009).

People are entitled to their own point of view. We all accept that. It’s a free country, after all. I’m sure that Andrew Bolt would agree that we’re all entitled to express a point of view. Even if it’s demonstrably wrong. For goodness sake, if Bolt had to rely on facts for his point of view, he wouldn’t have a column.

The trouble with the exchange of opinions is that it very rarely goes beyond, “You’re wrong and I’m right, therefore nothing you have to say could change my mind.”

And so I find our beloved leader’s comments – the ones I highlighted – in the Bolt interview disturbing. Tony Abbott seems to be saying that extreme events aren’t evidence of anything, and it doesn’t matter how many we have, that’s just the nature of things. Records are made to be broken, after all.

This is fairly consistent with the way in which climate deniers view things. One extreme weather event is just the exception. Two is just coincidence. Three, well, that’s the norm – we have weather like this all the time.

Now, I think that there is a discussion to be had about how much of a link can be drawn between climate change and the current bushfires. And I have some sympathy for the view that maybe Adam Bandt could have timed his comments a little more sensitively. I can accept that we’ve always had large bushfires and that, in the distant past, some of them even occured in October.

However, I think that we need to actually look very closely at the evidence – even if it means hours on the computer looking up Wikipedia. To say, as one person wrote in response to the Climate Council’s Bushfires and Climate Change in Australia – The Facts (which suggested that bushfires in the last thirty years had been more frequent), that we had large bushfires in the past too. The person then went on to talk of three over the space of sixty years prior to 1983.

It’s difficult to argue about climate change when people like Bolt and Abbott seem to suggest that every event can be taken in isolation and therefore nothing is part of any pattern. Bolt may be right. There may be no significant warming. But he is no more of less qualified to assert his position than the bloke down at the pub who tells me that Greater Western Sydney will make next year’s Grand Final. He is not an expert and lacks formal training in the area – something that he is quick to point out about those he disagrees with. After arguing for years that the climate is actually cooling, Bolt jumped on the IPCC report which suggested the planet wasn’t WARMING as fast as they predicted, completely ignoring the fact that this went against his contention.

So, records are always being broken, according to the Prime Minister. Linking the fires to climate change is “complete hogwash”. We don’t need a Climate Commission to look at evidence. We know these things. Who needs a Science Minister? It’s either part of trade, or something you do at school. Science, itself, what’s that?

As for the Audit Commission, who thinks that they may recommend delaying or scaling back the Liberal’s Direct Action initiatives?

 

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