Black Saturday lessons ignored, climate change brushed aside

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Guilty as charged. Last issue, I argued that, at the root, the February 2009 fires in Victoria were the result of politicians’ fundamental failure to protect citizens from a well-known risk. That position has been vindicated by the masses of evidence produced at the Bushfire Royal Commission. Expert witnesses revealed a long history of treading lightly around the power companies’ near-total lack of maintenance standards.

We know that most of the fatal fires were originally caused by power infrastructure failures. We know that the deadliest of all, the Kilmore East blaze, was the result of a dereliction of responsibility by the power distribution company that owned the rusted wire with the defective tensioning bracket. We know that the person who inspected it failed a safety audit and was not given remedial training. In any case, the individual was not the issue, because we also know that inspectors were told that a line examination comprised a “quick look” along the spans, but not too closely. We know that after the fires started, many of them were made far worse after they entered private tree farms. Lastly, and tragically, we know that many people died because they were not informed of the dire peril of the fires, and in any case were probably doomed because the only way out was blocked.

Governments and energy companies have done nothing since that awful tragedy. The same type of power line that sparked the Kilmore East fire caused the December 29, 2009 fire at Toodyay in Western Australia, which destroyed 38 homes. Planning and regulation of infrastructure is still completely inadequate, right across the country. In the suburbs just east of Melbourne and in many rural communities, people face catastrophe should the weather and the changed climate combine to repeat the conditions of Black Saturday, when 173 people needlessly lost their lives.

Dead end.

That’s the reality for many people in bushland communities. It is a no-brainer that if there is only one way in and out of a community, and that becomes blocked, then lives are at risk. As a town planning issue, it was demonstrated over 350 years ago in the Great Fire of London. Why, then, was town after town, suburb after suburb, laid out in a manner guaranteed to trap people? And not just in Melbourne – it’s a problem in Sydney and in fire-prone regions around the planet. The answer is clear – increase the cost of essential infrastructure and you decrease the profits of developers and landlords. But where community safety is at stake, that should never be a consideration. Visiting some of the worst-hit communities, like Marysville and Kinglake West, it is obvious that, in the absence of a clear, unmistakable warning message, people in those one-exit streets had precisely zero hope of survival when the firestorm hit. Of course, we also know that neither community was given any warning at all, other than that the fire danger was extreme.

The lack of a warning is just more evidence of government complacency. It’s apparent that, despite all the years of dry weather, the fact of climate change and the conditions in January and February 2009, the authorities were completely unprepared for the diaster. The problem is, they are still unprepared. On the very first extreme weather day of the season, the Country Fire Authority’s website went down and was offline for several critical hours. And there are very few community refuges, because it seems the politicians are concerned more about legal liability than people’s health and safety. So the oval at Marysville is not designated as a refuge, even though it proved to be just that during the worst fire in the area’s history.

Where this lack of escape routes is most urgent is along the main ridge of the Dandenong Ranges. Twenty thousand people live in heavily treed, steep terrain, but the access roads can carry only a few hundred cars per hour. There is no plan to upgrade the roads and no plan to get residents out before they are in clear and present danger. Once again, this is true in many communities, such as those in the Adelaide Hills and in Sydney’s outer suburbs.

Urgent roadwork is needed now throughout the country to give residents an escape route from firestorms. They can be funded by a tax on developers, and any new development with unsafe access should be frozen.

Cut private forests, not native bush.

A lot of anti-environment nonsense has been written about the need to effectively clear fell all the native bushland around residential areas. The government has caved in to this, allowing low vegetation to be slashed for 30 metres around buildings and all trees within ten metres to be cut down. For one thing – this would have done nothing to stop the Black Saturday fires, which caused trees to burn and buildings to ignite dozens of metres in front of the flames. It’s also a death sentence for many woodland birds, mammals and reptiles. However, for the government and agribusiness, it is convenient to take the spotlight off a real source of concern – plantation forests where the trees are packed as tightly as possible to maximise yield and therefore profit. Once again, there is little regulation of this industry. Timber corporations can simply ignore commonsense and the welfare of surrounding communities. Unregulated development also plays its part, as houses are built next to existing tree farms. As one resident told the Royal Commission: “I should never have been allowed to build there.”

Still, this does not take any responsibility away from the government and the tree farmers. The timber industry likes to deny this, but it’s a fact that plantations are significant sources of, and contributors to, deadly wildfires right across the planet. What is needed is the immediate nationalisation of all large tree farms so that they can be properly managed to minimise the risk. Rows need to be thinned and proper firebreaks constructed, to at least the same standard as existing state-owned plantations. Where they encroach into communities, they should be harvested and closed down. Leaf litter and other waste products must be removed. This material feeds fires, and it contributed to the blaze that wiped out Strathewen, killing 15% of the population.

No time to waste

. We are already in the mitigation phase of global warming. That means living with it and adapting to the changed climate. State and federal authorities and big business have been denying the obvious alteration to our planet for way too long. As the recent farce in Copenhagen demonstrated, the world’s current leaders are unwilling to do anything to prepare for the catastrophic effects of a now-certain sharp increase in global average temperatures. For one thing, the inevitable failure in Denmark has doomed many small island nations. That’s reason enough to be rid of the Obamas, Rudds and other defenders of profit over people.

The foot-dragging of the Victorian government is just a small example of why the capitalist market is an obstacle to a sustainable global ecosystem. Communities up and down the east coast are in danger right now if a firestorm comes. The environment is the concern of all of us, and it’s time we got militant about it. Any government that puts lives in peril when that peril can be minimised or avoided needs to be tossed out. We need to get out on the streets – now. Yesterday was too late!

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