Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 32 - No 2 Contents 38 POLICY • Vol. 32 No. 2 • Winter 2016
GROUNDHOG DAY IN THE BUSH
heart of the city. This allowed the 2003 fire access
to more homes. Elsewhere, local efforts to reduce
fire risk through hazard reduction burns come
second to complaints about smoke pollution. We
thus create sitting ducks for the next fire event
with inevitable destruction of the environment,
loss of property and even human life.
To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, in recent
decades a massive shift in land management
has taken place in high fire risk areas. We have
been engaged in creating vast fuel factories
called National Parks. There are now over 700
National Parks totalling more than 34 million
hectares. With other publicly protected areas, they
represent about 18% of the area of Australia.9
In New South Wales the increase has been from
about one million hectares in 1970 to around six
million hectares now. There is continuing political
pressure to add to the system.
These under-resourced areas are subject to similar
burning controls as private landowners. Their
pitifully small staffs are expected to control fire
over millions of hectares along with programs
to control soil erosion, noxious weeds, feral pigs,
dogs, cattle, horses, camels and goats. With fuel
accumulating continually, the probability of
more major fires in and adjacent to Parks must be
Many Parks were originally State forests where
the record of fire management was generally
more active. In NSW, through the 1990s, State
Forests effected three times the hazard reduction
undertaken in Parks.
The arguments against
State forestry and limited logging tend to lose
credibility when we recall that the 2002-2003
fires consumed three million hectares compared
with 60,000 hectares logged annually at
And a major fire can have a far deeper
environmental impact than logging.
This is not sustainable land management. Yet we
appear incapable of learning despite the heavy cost
of continuing to do what we have always done.
Is there another way?
A good start would be to ask how the landscape
before 1788 came about. The answer is that
the land was privately managed by myriads of
Aboriginal tribes. They acted independently but
within a profoundly traditional framework and
set of practices. Their omnipresence ensured wide
coverage of their land management practices, which
centred on the systematic use of fire according
to seasonal, annual and longer cycles. This use of
fire seems to have been determined by the need to
create open space, principally to influence the
movement and presence of game. But it was
consistent with their knowledge that most native
Australian plants need or tolerate regular mild fire.
Regular clearance of grass and ‘underwood’
through low-intensity ‘cool burns’ resulted in
a largely open landscape described by the first
European explorers as ‘park-like’ and painted as
such by early European artists. There used to be
a cultural cringe that criticised these artists for
sentimentally attempting to reproduce European-
looking landscapes instead of what they saw. Yet
the contemporary written descriptions of the
landscape actually tally with the paintings.
Aboriginal people were not practising ‘hazard
This is a human-centred concept
designed to protect lives and property. It treats
fire as the enemy. For Aboriginal people, fire was
None of this is a revelation. The story has been
told many times by explorers, farmers, historians
and Aboriginal people. A recent classic on the
subject is Bill Gammage’s 2011 book The Biggest
Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia.
Two facts emerge. First, our landscape was almost
certainly actively fire-managed by humans for tens
of thousands of years prior to 1788. Second, it was
managed sustainably for humans, fauna and flora.
With regular and widespread mild burning, massive
fuel loads would not accumulate across entire
landscapes. ‘Cool burns’ clear the on-ground fuel
and undergrowth before it accumulates to dangerous
levels. They permit landscape regeneration. The
possibility of a three million hectare inferno, with
crown fires in the treetops and destruction of plant
life to a metre below ground and all animal life
above, would be unlikely to arise.
With fuel accumulating continually,
the probability of more major fires in and
adjacent to Parks must be about 100%.
Links Archive Policy Vol 32 - No 1 Policy Vol 32 - No 3 Navigation Previous Page Next Page