Monday, February 16, 2009

To tree or not to tree

We are a society that won’t readily accept defeat, even when the fight ends like an Ali/Liston bout. We grew up on David and Goliath and The Guns of Navarone. The plucky little chap with the slingshot is supposed to knock down the big bad guy. And we aren’t able to easily comprehend violence, even when it’s the kind that nature flings at us in its caprice. A tsunami, an avalanche, or a bushfire are the kind of furies that no one with any sense would expect to demur to our rules and reason; yet we do expect precisely that. We demand Queensbury conformity from nature – like it should put up its dukes and pronounce en guard clearly and precisely before pouncing.

In Australia we are unused to killer events. Our mountains don’t explode and our earth doesn’t crack open. Individual lives are highly priced and our risk-averse population is conditioned to believe that accidental and disastrous death is not only preventable but unforgivable. In our arrogance, we assert that we can and must control all the elements in our living sphere. We don’t believe the horrific fire events that destroyed great swathes of Victoria last week and snatched around two hundred of our precious citizens should have been allowed to happen. Someone should have prevented, or at the very least stopped it before lives were lost. By this logic, someone must be to blame. Our belief system broke down and the recriminations have already begun even before all of the dead have been identified. The hunt is on for the person or persons on which to pin the ‘why?’

There were a lot of very brave but scared fire fighters out there on the ground last weekend risking their lives to save others and there were also some brave but scared commanders in control rooms flying as blind as tyros in a snowstorm. None of the systems they’d been trained to rely on were adequate for the scale of the challenge facing them. Communications towers melted severing vital links between command centres and operative crews. It was too dangerous to send reconnaissance planes up and satellite images showed only vast clouds of smoke so no accurate overview was possible. I affixed myself to ABC Gippsland all last weekend and heard the frustration coming from people who couldn’t get crucial information and those who’d tried and failed to get authorities’ attention about imminent threats. With the plethora of personal communications tools available to us, it ought to be within our capacity to develop a more effective and cohesive warning system and that should be a priority. Having said that, the most sophisticated communications systems imaginable would not have saved the towns of Maryville, Kinglake or Strathewen that were set upon and engulfed in minutes.

While blame is levelled at civil authorities by the media for a perceived lack of preparedness and mishandling on the day, anger is building against green leaning policy makers and city escapees who like to live our in the countryside surrounded by untamed flora. There’s a history of friction between the hands-off environmentalists and professional foresters on the question of how Australians can live safely and responsibly in a country so obviously hostile to being customised to House and Garden templates. Environmentalists take a kind of free market view of bushland – that it ought to be left alone to self-correct by spontaneously burning off at whim. But they reckon without the deep human intervention that has already irreversibly altered the land’s characteristics in compound ways.

Foresters are fundamentally managers and like all managers, they’d ideally like all elements within their sphere to conform and not cause them any bother. Tree-hugging folk think of them as vandals and the vassals of evil timber barons who would turn every tree into a fitted kitchen if they had their way, a reputation not entirely unwarranted as they often appear to be siding with corporate interests. The division is mirrored in the general population with traditional country people taking the forester view that land must be strictly managed and the newer, tree change and city fringe expansion settlers advocating for total non-intervention. Both have good and unselfish reasons. The price of a bushfire for farmers might be their entire livelihood. They could lose hundreds of animals who would die horribly. Widespread losses of pastoral land threaten food supplies. Tree changers are not only concerned with their own lifestyles and vistas. They want to see the habitats of native species protected. At an individual level, we've got one householder gloating because he was hit with a $100,000 fine for ripping out trees but his house survived and others blaming local authorities' refusual to let them clear land for the loss of their property. Both sides are right and wrong in the same ways.

The governing fault is in the rigidity of these opposing points of view and the short-tempered and impatient way in which they are argued. The two sides have to make peace, cease calling each other names and surrender the contested moral high ground in favour of a common sense approach to a concrete problem. Human development’s contribution of synthetic systems and products has irretrievably altered the forest’s pristine state. Human intervention is a done deal. Some fires are deliberately lit and others ignite because of the presence of introduced flammable materials. And then you have to factor in climate change. Whatever the sceptics say, temperatures in the mid to high forties centigrade are a recent phenomenon in Victoria and the hotter the day the higher the risk. Even if global warming isn’t yet a verifiable factor, we know it soon will be because there’s no great rush to do anything to halt it.

Policy-makers must deal in actuality. People live where they live, regardless of whether some opinion holds they shouldn’t. And we’re not just talking about a few remote settlements here. Hundreds of thousands of Australians live in rural towns and cities and on the leafy metropolitan rims. There is talk of forced evacuations. In Victoria the police don’t have powers to force people from their homes so that would require a legislative change. Besides, you can’t evacuate a whole state which is the scenario disaster planners would have been presented with on that blistering Saturday. If they had evacuated any one of the risk areas, chances are they might have sent a crawling convoy of families into a direction-shifting fire front. Almost every even vaguely rural area was vulnerable to fire outbreak on that day. Fire authorities rely on residents extinguishing the flying embers that spread fires. Of course there are sad tales of people who wouldn’t budge even when the home defence battle was lost but most people did not die from stubbornness but because they had no time to react to the threat. We can all learn more about managing fire risk and no doubt we will have to but we can’t stop the sort of catastrophe that visited us last week any more than we could prevent a volcano from erupting.

Although it makes no sense, retribution is demanded. One arsonist has already been caught and he currently has the life expectancy of a housefly. The hunt for official rolling heads has already thrown up a seemingly willing victim. You have to feel for the obviously traumatised Russell Rees, chief officer of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, whose despair translated into a pitiful combination of anger and self-reproachment following his weekend in the disaster command centre. Here he’s quoted in The Australian (14/2),

‘Fundamentally, our community is choosing to live in a way I can’t, and our people can’t, guarantee their survival. Why do we choose a system of civilisation that puts itself at so much risk?’

Almost everything about that statement is misguided but it provides a useful insight into the boardroom assumptions authorities make about their duty to the public and the reciprocal expectations of which the public remain largely unaware until there is a disaster. Yet practically, when it comes to doing their human best, the people they’ve trained and deployed to save lives and property in an emergency, perform superlatively. No one expects their survival to be guaranteed as if it were an electrical item. Quite the opposite occurs in a real life-threatening situation. People expect to die and view their survival as a miraculous event and their rescuers as angels. Even sadder is this,

‘If we choose to live in this way, then who do we blame? My fear is that people will say the fire service failed (last Saturday) and I will go to my grave saying we fought our guts out.’

I just want to say to him ‘relax Russ, you’re not the head of Enron. No one thinks you did wrong. In fact the opposite is true. We rightly worship the fire fighters. So please get over yourself quickly so we can move on to helping the people who need it. Then we can talk about what’s doable in terms of managing future risk while discharging our duty to nature.’

Readers who’d like to donate some money can do so through This money goes directly to victims. Over 7,000 homes were destroyed so there are a lot of people out there who need cash urgently.