Friday, 20 February 2009

Post#115 A Needless Dying (Black Saturday: 2009 Victorian Bushfires)

I haven't had much experience of the sort of lifestyle that people prefer in the forested hinterlands around Australian cities. My only contact with it has been brief visits to relations who have operated hobby-farms in Western Australia and New South Wales. Both families had experiences of bushfires approaching and menacing their homes and I read their stories in occasional letters and Christmas cards and saw some photographs of the efforts of country fire service units confronting these blazes. When I first heard these yarns in childhood and teenage years I thought it was just a manageable nuisance that came round every year and I wasn't all that concerned by it. I knew nothing of the various famous episodes of catastrophic and fatal bushfires. If they were mentioned they went over my head as just part of the dreary tapestry of the distant past (i.e. more than twenty years ago).

I woke up to the fact that these lethal events were contemporary in 1983 when the Ash Wednesday fires dominated the public fora of the day. I then sat up and took serious notice of what was happening. I couldn't understand how this could be happening in modern times. How could people die in a bushfire when they were in their own homes or in a vehicle on a road? My puzzlement was due to two factors: The first was that I had no idea of the power of such fires. In fact, I don't think there was much in the way of film footage of fires of this degree of intensity and I couldn't visualise it for myself. I'd never personally seen any fire in open country. The second was that I had no idea of the lunatic practices that facilitated the destructive effect of the fires.

I was greatly enlightened by the sights which were available to be seen once the media took up the issue of modern forest-dwellers and their environs. Once I caught on to the way in which eucalypts give up flammable vapour and the speed and volume of the waves of fire this produces, I was amazed to see the proximity in which housing was built to them. Throughout Victoria and New South Wales there were enormous districts in which a helicopter-borne camera could reveal the roofs of thousands of houses built in dense forest. Forest which bustled around and loomed over the buildings. A majority of the houses had large trees abutting them; the trunks pressed up right against the walls of the houses. This explained very simply the peril faced by these residents.

It didn't explain their being subjected to this situation. The next phase of my education was to discover that the authorities insist that people may not remove trees from the vicinity of their properties and that strong penalties are applicable to those who defy them. This seemed to me to be Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity. I've never had reason to reconsider that response. Some of the very residents at most risk from these crackpot policies are resistant to preventive clearing. They're apparently prepared to expose themselves and others to a potential horrible death for the sake of preserving their forest surrounds.

There is a simple solution to this problem. Like all such things, it will be grievously unpalatable to most who have a vested interest. The governments with planning control power must decide whether any particular forest area is to be allowed to be used for habitation. If it is, a decision must then be made as to what density of settlement will be allowed. It's really a matter of deciding how much of the forest one will tolerate seeing felled. If the answer is none, there can be no housing. If there is an acceptable loss, you allow as many houses as can be safely built within the sacrificed proportion of land, subject to these provisos:

1. A completely cleared area of 100 metres radius should be around each dwelling. 2. Building with inflammable materials should be restricted; the exteriors of buildings should be composed of brick, ceramic, stone or metal. 3. An approved shelter must be built within 10 meters of the house, accessible both from a direct entrance and from an access tunnel from the house.

That will do for starters. Here are some more ideas:

A water tank on a platform adjacent to and higher than the house would allow gravity feed of water so pumps would be unnecessary. The tank could be filled from a tanker truck operated by the fire service and checked/topped up twice a year. Obviously, it would be of a sealed type which would not allow evaporation. It would be filled through a feed pipe from ground level which would would have a return valve where it entered the tank. A ventilation valve would open when the water was to be drawn for use in sprinklers or hoses.

Every house could be fitted with a roof-mounted reflective curtain wich could drop down over the house. This could be made of a very light material which would be drawn up into a container above the roof until it was deployed.

And what about all those people already living in large numbers in dense forest? Once an acceptable proportion of clearing is determined, some of them, perhaps most of them in some areas, will have to be removed. I can hear the roars of fury already. Let 'em roar. No-one would baulk at prohibiting settlement on the rim of an active volcano or on a mountain slope known for periodic massive mudslides or rock avalanches. The time has come to crush the idiot brigade beneath the boots of common sense. If that means dealing with ferocious protests and paying thousands of millions in relocation compensation, so be it. It took a massacre to bring a little improvement in the gun control laws and this is the massacre that should bring reality to bear upon forest settlement practices. At this time of writing the death toll has reached 208. Some of these are children. Most of these people did not die of smoke inhalation. They burned while alive and conscious.

The craziness has gone far enough. There are too many timber houses built on slopes covered in trees; too many of them have massive glass facings which provide no protection and allow radiant energy to ignite the contents of the houses. I recently saw some lunatic architect's work in the field of treehouses being praised in the Weekend Australian Magazine. What a great idea. Let's not just have the fuel-trees adjacent to the house or growing in a central courtyard; let's mount dwellings on top of them! That'll make for a nice cozy fire, won't it?

We've had Ash Wednesday, Black Friday and now, Black Saturday. How many more days of the week have to be racked up with portentous names as memorials to stupidity?

A final point. Would-be social engineers keep singing to us the praises of high-density dwelling. Whatever arguments are mustered for it, most people don't want a bar of it. That's why the population keeps seeking sea-changes and tree-changes. It's one more weight in the scale that supports the argument that we need to contain our population and immigration should cease as a first step. We're being confronted by environmental stress and peril on multiple fronts and most of it would alleviate if we simply reduced the poulation of the country by a couple of million. We could knock down some of these new-minted "infill" slums in our cities and create managed parkland estates that would remove the impetus to push ever-outward into the perilous hinterland.


Michael said...

Some good points there. I used to be amazed driving between Healesville and Pakenham, seeing how many houses there were close to forests where the Ash Wednesday fire had blazed.

Planners need to insist on controls that will minimise fire risk and authorities need to reduce fire danger through controlled burns.

There was a story in The Age today about a house that survived the Marysville fire because it was built of special fire-resistant bricks and contained no timber frames.

Vulnerable areas need prescribed burning and possibly dugouts, which saved many people from the 1939 fire including my Uncle Jim.

Retarius said...

We all have ideas on this topic at this time, Michael. Unfortunately, I think it is all seed which will fall on barren ground.

The perennial pattern is an outburst of controversy followed by a slippage back into complacency.

What is needed is not a Royal Commission but a group of citizens who have had a gutful and will push the issue.