An article about the current wildfire crisis in Australia brought back echoes of recent comments about the same issue in the USA.
It is very obvious who the people are who should be held accountable for the current mess.
At the top of the list are the premiers and ministers responsible for land management, such as it is, and bushfire policy, and the public servants in their departments with jurisdiction over forests and national parks. State governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have palpably failed to do the most important job they were elected to do: protect the lives and livelihoods of their citizens and the health of their environment. And their public servants have failed to do the job they are being paid to do: serve the public.
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Local government authorities are also high on the list of those accountable — and here again state governments bear responsibility, as they should never have allowed them to get away with the nonsenses we have seen coming out of town halls over recent years with respect to vegetation clearing and building approvals. Some premier or minister should have cracked down hard on this foolishness, and cracked down hard.
Of all the things that perplex me about the current mess the most significant is this: the blatant ignoring by premiers, ministers and agency bureaucrats of the warnings of bushfire scientists that a disaster was imminent and, on top of that, their failure to study bushfire history. Our climate, even the ‘pre-climate-change climate’, our vegetation and the abundant sources of ignition mean that we are inherently a bushfire-prone country. And even on top of all that, our governments and bureaucrats have been provided, over and over and over again, with evidence that killer bushfires will occur in Australia unless pre-emptive action is taken. Not just here, but in California, Canada, Greece and Portugal — anywhere in the world with hot dry summers, periodic droughts and flammable vegetation.
Yet despite the science, the evidence presented by bushmen, the dramatic history of this continent’s relationship with fire, and the findings of numerous inquiries, successive governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria over the last 25 years have consistently failed to prepare potential firegrounds in the expectation of the inevitable. Not only this, they seem to have actually go out of their way to make things worse: the cut-backs to fuel reduction burning, the closure of access roads and trails in national parks, the decimation of professional forestry and fire management expertise, the turning of the blind eye to the creation of residential subdivisions in capable of being defended, the funding of “research” in the universities that is aimed at making the job of the firefighter more difficult, and the erection of a complex bureaucratic edifices that hinder sensible bushfire preparedness and make fuel-reduction burning almost impossible.
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And what of the greenies and the ivory tower academics from Murdoch, Curtin and Wollongong universities? The anti-fuel reduction burning academics have no understanding of practical bushfire management. They are misguided, misinformed and, by my reckoning, dangerously mischievous. But they have not been running the show. The premiers, ministers and senior public servants overseeing the land-management agencies could have, and should have, simply rejected the academics’ green ideology and its foolish precepts. Bitter experience should by now have made it blindingly obvious that the green approach to bushfire management can end only in tears. Instead, those who shirked their responsibility to protect their communities kowtowed and pandered. They played political games — Greens preferences in inner-city electorates can make or break governments, don’t you know — so they swallowed the utter bilge of academic theorists, people who have never in their lives had to fight a fire, let alone take responsibility for the design and implementation of an entire fire-management system. In genuflecting before the intelligentsia (the word is used advisedly), our governments knowingly sacrificed the community and the bush. The phrase “criminal negligence” comes to mind.
There’s more at the link. It’s sickening reading, from an author who’s an expert on the subject.
Sadly, one wonders whether the Australian powers that be will pay any attention to his expertise. If one is to take anything from California’s example, one suspects not.
[Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation] recalls that as a freshman California assemblyman in 2005, he visited forest product industry professionals in Northern California. They told him of a “worrisome trend” that had begun many years before, where “both federal and state regulators were making it more and more difficult for them to do their jobs.” Mainly, the problem was that “[a]s timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges multiplied, the people who earned a living felling and planting trees looked for other lines of work.” As the “timber industry gradually collapsed,” the “combustible fuel load in the forest predictably soared,” because forest management professionals stopped “clearing brush and thinning trees.”
The process of clearing forests in California had begun long before industrialization, with the native populations in California prior to the Gold Rush — but for different reasons then. Photographic evidence of the Sierra landscape in the 1850s and 1860s presents “open fields of grass punctuated by isolated pine stands and scattered oak trees,” largely because the natives “shaped this landscape with fire to encourage the grasslands and boost the game animal population.”
When the Gold Rush took hold and California grew, forests were a vital resource for both construction and fuel. “The landscape filled with trees,” DeVore writes, “but the trees were harvested every 30 to 50 years.” Increasing federal and state regulation “disrupted” that cycle in the 1990s, however, “especially on the almost 60% of California forest land owned by the federal government.”
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The reason for the regulations curtailing logging and the use of biofuels as an energy source is predicated upon environmental concerns. Specifically, “wood doesn’t burn as cleanly as natural gas,” and the “wood waste from timber operations” that used to be burned in biomass generators became scarcer. As such, there have been mass closures in recent decades of the biomass generators that once provided readily available and affordable energy. “What used to be burned safely in power generators is now burned in catastrophic fires,” DeVore writes.
Again, more at the link.
Governments also skew local markets, forcing the providers of certain services to provide them whether or not it makes sense to do so – because they’re pandering to the voters, not addressing reality. Fire insurance is a good example.
It’s not that fires are more devastating in the natural sense. The problem is that human beings insist on putting their property in places where fires have long destroyed the landscape, over and over again.
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The Los Angeles Times editorial board, for example, complains that “Land-use decisions are made by local elected officials and they’ve proven themselves unwilling to say no to dangerous sprawl development …”
But government prohibitions aren’t necessary. If people insist on building and selling homes in fire-prone areas, let them be the ones to cover all the costs. This includes the cost of fire mitigation and rebuilding after fire. This in itself would limit development in these areas.
And yet, while California pundits are complaining that policymakers aren’t doing enough, California politicians are actively taking steps to keep the market from correcting the excessive building in fire-prone areas … California regulators prohibited insurance companies from dropping the homeowners’ insurance policies of homeowners in fire prone areas.
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By stepping in to force insurance companies to cover these homeowners, California politicians are doing two things:
They’re continuing the cycle of encouraging homebuyers to buy homes in areas likely to fall victim to wildfires. At the same time, regulators are increasing the costs incurred by insurance companies, and this will likely have the effect of driving up the price of fire insurance for homeowners who more prudently declined to purchase a house in fire-prone areas.
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In a more sane political environment, however, those who insist on living in the way of wildfires would have to assume the risk of doing so, rather than demanding politicians force the cost on insurance companies and taxpayers.
To me, the answer is simple. Learn from history; do what’s worked in the past; and ignore fake science and quasi-religious ideological shibboleths that simply don’t address the real problem. Furthermore, if an area is prone to natural disasters – be it fire, flood, storm, earthquake or whatever – let those who choose to live there bear the risk, and the cost, of replacing their losses. Let them pay realistic, market-related insurance premiums, rather than state-dictated, artificially subsidized rates that jack up everybody else’s premiums as well, even those living in safer areas. Pain in the wallet will rapidly bring people to their senses.
On the other hand, I don’t mind putting modern technology to work in helping to resolve the situation. For example, an Israeli company has come up with a new water-bombing technology that should enable firefighting aircraft to operate more safely at night. Here’s a publicity video describing it.
The extra altitude allowed by this system should keep water-bomber pilots a whole lot safer – and that’s a good thing for everybody. More such inventions, please!
Meanwhile, I suppose it’s unrealistic to say we should elect politicians with more sense. That never seems to work, does it?