SYDNEY — The worst natural disaster in Australian history has killed at least 200 people, destroyed 7,000 houses and a dozen villages, and left a nation agonizing over the question — why did we let this happen?
Fireball fires, the curse of vast stretches of the Australian “bushland,” have again wreaked vengeance on those who try to tame “the bush.” Weeks after a record heat wave set off alarms, weary fire fighters are still finding charred bodies in a blackened wasteland the size of many countries.
Devastation in the southern state of Victoria is so vast that losses in property will run into billions of dollars and in social costs that may yet bring down politicians who have ignored warnings of world climate change and local evidence of unsafe “reforms” by Green movement advocates.
Drought, that other curse of the Australian inland, set the stage for this summer shock. Heat that topped 46 C provided the second ingredient. Sparks caused by lightning and, incredibly, mischief-making arsonists opened the way for unstoppable fires.
Volunteer firefighters quickly rallied from all states and many overseas countries with mobile tanks and water-dropping planes. But fires whipped by gale-force winds soon spread across tree tops in near-impenetrable forests. From the brush-fire danger zone of California fire researchers arrived to assess how such a phenomenon can be prevented in future. But nothing could stop a series of fresh outbreaks in Victoria, burning people as they tried to flee. Some died trying to rescue farm animals. The loss of wild life, including koalas and kangaroos, not to mention rare plant species, may never be known.
As researchers sift through the ashes they are finding evidence that must galvanize a shocked nation. Could this disaster have been prevented? people are demanding to know. Yes, say the experts in bushfire control.
Before Greenies — the green movement is politically powerful at state and federal levels of government — get roasted in public outrage, however, these experts are cautioning against casting the first stone. Tough Australian conditions are fairly unique in global ecology. The dominant tree, the eucalyptus, has evolved over millions of years to survive fire. In fact, it thrives on it.
Eucalyptuses, known as gum trees, drop vast amounts of highly flammable leaf litter. Stringy-bark gums shed long tongues of bark that contain volatile compounds. Once lit, the bark spreads fire at lightning speed.
Every Australian knows this from recent history. At least, they should. Fires killed 71 Victorians in 1939. Four years ago in Canberra, not far from Parliament House, fires destroyed 500 properties. After numerous government inquiry committees wrote thousands of rousing words advising how to prevent future blazes little of use seems to have been done.
Now former Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague has been appointed in Canberra to investigate how this fire got out of hand and how to prevent the next fireball that will surely come.
“Eco-terrorists waging jihad against prescribed burning” is who Melbourne-based fire control expert David Packham blames for the increasing danger. “The green movement is directly responsible.”
Germaine Greer, Australia’s most outspoken expatriate and critic, decreed from her Oxford University base that the tragedy shows a failure to manage a unique environment: “For 40 or maybe 60 millennia, Aboriginal peoples managed fire proactively. Bushland not burned regularly turns into a powder keg.”
Naturally, Green leader Sen. Bob Brown was incensed: “Our policy supports the ecologically appropriate use of fire. Controlled, careful burning is an important tool in protecting lives and property as well as being a natural part of the bush life cycle.” Brown predicted: “Global warning will make this sort of event happen 50 percent more often. The whole world needs to act.”
Words do not match deeds, however, at government level. State-owned land covers one-third of Victoria but contributed four-fifths of this summer’s fires. Also, government building codes still allow dangerous designs and building materials to go into houses.
The few residents of burned homes who survived the flames say their house sprinklers or escape bunkers kept them alive. Others, like Penelope Chambers, 21, and sister Malanie, 22, died trying to save their horses.
Flee or fight? The controversy rages on whether home owners should leave early for safety or stay and hose their houses. Even the experts disagree. Too many Victorians left it too late and burned in their cars.
Generosity and evil are being reported in the sad aftermath. Donations are pouring in from around the world. Few individual gifts can match that of Australia’s Hollywood star Nicole Kidman’s A$500,000. Meanwhile, a man has been arrested for starting a fire that killed 25 people. More arrests of suspected arsonists are pending.
Such is public grief at this time that when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a national day of mourning most Australians heaved a collective sigh. They are taking comfort in communal prayer and praying governments will quickly implement remedial action.
Rudd has just announced a $42 billion package to rescue a national economy hit by the global recession. Controversy has started over how much of it should go to help fire victims.
Federal Treasury forecasts put this year’s growth in gross domestic product at 1 percent and next year at 0.75 percent. Unemployment is estimated to rise to 7 percent by June next year when the stimulus package is fully implemented.
How Rudd handles the economy in the wake of the fire setback will determine if he gets a second term of office. Nobody blames him for the fire disaster, though right now in the minds of Australian voters all politicians are in bad odor.
Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.
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