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Opinion

Be prepared for summer fireworks Charles Boyle

Bushfire season is here again, but this year’s high temperatures and drought have the potential to make it one of the worst fire seasons ever. Forget snakes and ticks, bushfires are by far the greatest danger in the Australian bush and have killed at least 800 people since 1851. The 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria alone killed 173 people and destroyed more than 4,000 buildings. The bush keeps burning and people keep dying – and the frequency of catastrophic bushfires is increasing. But it wasn’t always like this. Together with climate and soils, fire shapes the Australian landscape. The bush needs fire management. Aboriginal people knew this and over thousands of generations developed a highly sophisticated method of burning to manage the land for safety and food production. Botanist Joseph Banks noted constant fires and smoke as they sailed up the east coast with Cook in 1770. Cook called it ‘the continent of smoke’. In Sydney Banks saw large trees and between them ‘every place covered with vast quantities of grass’ – the result of Aboriginal fire management. Catastrophic bushfires were unknown under Indigenous fire management of the continent. When European colonists forced Indigenous people off their lands the burning ended, the undergrowth and fuel loads increased and devastating bushfires began. Europeans had no understanding of the subtle interplay between the Australian climate and the bush. The idea that preventing

Fire-fighting hellicopters are set for action this summer.

bushfires will allow ancient Gondwanaland rainforests to regenerate across the land is entirely without scientific basis. Rainforest and eucalypt forests can’t grow on the same soil. Eucalypt forests burn regularly, so the more frequently they burn the healthier their ecosystems are. Fires will always occur. Falling leaves and branches accumulate faster than they decompose in eucalypt forests. Over years this fuel reaches hazardous levels, which causes catastrophic fires. The most practical way to prevent hazardous fuel build-up is to burn regularly in small controlled fires. There is no effective alternative strategy. Decades of poorly advised tree-preservation laws have created a potentially fatal tin-

derbox situation in the northern rivers. Councils have spent millions prosecuting people for legitimate fire-reduction tree clearing, but stopped maintaining fire trails and emergency access to remote rural properties. Many dilapidated creek crossings can’t carry the weight of a fire engine with full water tanks. Yet, despite long-term official disapproval, people still choose to live in the bush – and now they have been left without adequate emergency access and are surrounded by new-growth eucalyptus forests with hazardous fuel loads. In a catastrophic bushfire event there will be fatalities. As local housing prices reach unprecedented highs, even more people are seeking af-

fordable accommodation in the bush. But councils continue to impose environmental conservation zones on rural residents, preventing them from legitimately managing their trees. This is a form of potentially deadly political oppression. When the newcomers arrived in the northern rivers in the early 1970s, much of the land was cleared pasture and degraded banana slopes. The hippies reforested this land, creating the forests we see today, but forests need to be managed: trees thinned, fire trails maintained. Official disapproval of people living in the bush, doesn’t mean they are not there – or that they will conveniently move into the suburbs. The official ‘every tree is sacred’ policy is dangerous and requires review. The approximately 73,200 volunteers in the NSW Rural Fire Service are dedicated people who willingly risk their lives to save yours. But no-one can help you if you’re trapped without emergency access in a catastrophic bushfire. Rural residents are advised to ensure a 60-metre brushfree radiation zone around their dwellings and to have an emergency fire-evacuation plan. Make sure the RFS knows where you’re living, and at the first sign of danger go to the beach. Learn about fire safety and contribute to your local bushfire brigade. If you are trapped by fire in the new environmentally protected, unmanaged regrowth forests of the northern rivers, just hope the RFS can reach you. Remember, buildings can be rebuilt – lives cannot. Be firewise and stay safe.

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The Byron Shire Echo September 12, 2018 15

The Byron Shire Echo – Issue 33.14 – September 12, 2018  

Free, independent weekly newspaper from the Byron Shire in northern NSW, Australia.

The Byron Shire Echo – Issue 33.14 – September 12, 2018  

Free, independent weekly newspaper from the Byron Shire in northern NSW, Australia.