Bondi View

Bushfires: the blame game heats up

A hazard reduction burn in Ku-Ring-Gai, Sydney, in April 2018. Photo: Alec Smart

BY ALEC SMART

With catastrophic firestorms still raging across eastern Australia and now threatening South Australia, tragically incinerating almost 600 homes, destroying over 1.5 million hectares of bush, cremating thousands of animals and birds – including whole colonies of endangered koalas – and killing six people, the blame-game for responsibility has gone into overdrive.
And yet, despite fire chiefs and environment professionals explaining the causes and calling for greater forest management and investment in fire-fighting resources, two groups of people have been blamed and pilloried across social media outlets, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. There, the Court of Public Opinion demands a much lower standard of proof than real courts of law to persuade reactionaries, who typically dismiss expert counsel.
To them blame lies not with the closure of fire stations, reduced investment in fire-fighting equipment, extreme temperatures caused by global warming, increased deforestation that dries out vegetation, minimal preparations for drought, chronically understaffed national parks and forestry services, plus cynical arsonists and unregulated back-burners torching where they want. (The latter includes Ebor resident Gavin Gardiner, currently in Armidale Police cells and facing 21 years jail if convicted of lighting a fire that destroyed 15,000 acres, allegedly to divert flames away from his illegal cannabis plantation.)
Instead, like superstitious villagers in medieval times who blamed crop failure and outbreaks of disease on women performing witchcraft, attribution has been diverted to ‘greenies’ and homosexuals.

“God’s Judgement”
Self-appointed gay-tormentor, Israel Folau, the former Wallabies’ rugby union star winger-turned-whinger, delivered a typically incendiary verdict on the bushfires.
During a ten-minute sermon at the Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Kenthurst, on 17 November, the 30-year-old devout Christian, who was dumped by Rugby Australia after repeatedly warning ‘sinning’ homosexuals they were Hell-bound unless they repented, claimed the devastating fires were a “little taste of God’s judgment.”
Folau, a phenomenally talented rugby player, berated Australians for voting to legalise homosexual unions in the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite, insisting bushfires were God’s vengeful wrath.
“Look how rapid these bushfires, these droughts, all these things have come in a short period of time. Do you think it’s a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys. Australia you need to repent and take these laws and turn it back to what is right… The events that have happened here in Australia, in the last couple of years – God’s word says for a man and a woman to be together … they’ve come and changed this law.”
The Pentecostal son of a preacher then recited a verse from the Book of Isaiah in the Bible that included the heart-warming refrain: The Earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.”

Folau’s supporters are probably unaware he once posed for the cover of Sydney’s oldest gay publication, Star Observer magazine (published by City Hub’s owner Alt-Media) to promote the Bingham Cup, an international rugby competition for gays and lesbians.

Folau’s damning diatribe was criticised by another high-profile Pentecostalist, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said, “They were appalling comments and he is a free citizen; he can say whatever he likes. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have regard to the grievous offence this would have caused to people whose homes have been burnt down.” Curiously, Morrison didn’t include homosexuals among those he thought would be grievously offended.
Reverend Peter Kurti, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church of Australia, who insisted Folau’s views should be ‘defended’ despite disagreeing with him, told Sky News: “If God was angry, God’s aim was off. These are outrageous views and they are up there with the religious fanaticism of the Greens.”

The Greens, typically agnostic, also received widespread condemnation for the bushfires because of their perceived opposition to hazard reduction measures.
Hazard reduction includes the removal of fallen trees, creation of ‘fire breaks’ (cleared zones) around infrastructure and housing, and controlled burns through cooler months in forests adjoining homes or areas identified as high-risk for wildfires.
These activities create buffer zones that reduce fuel for advancing bushfires, effectively minimising risks to life and property.

The Green Party, which has never been in government and has a minimal presence in Australian politics (only 1 of 151 ministers in the House of Representatives and 9 of 76 in the Senate are Greens) are accused of introducing layers of ‘green tape’ to inhibit hazard reductions in order to save trees and animals, thus increasing dangers to humans.

On 11 November, former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce led the accusations Greens were responsible for the catastrophic fires ravaging the east coast in an interview with The Australian.
“The problems we have got have been created by the Greens. We haven’t had the capacity to easily access (hazard) reduction burns because of all of the paperwork that is part of green policy.
“We don’t have access to dams because they have been decommissioned on national parks because of green policy. We have trees that have fallen over vehicles and block roads, so people cannot either get access to fight a fire or to get away from fires. And we can’t knock over the trees because of Greens policy. So many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it have been stymied by the Greens…”

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack also weighed in on the Green-bashing, condemning the “disgraceful, disgusting.. raving inner-city lunatics” for daring to link climate change – such as unseasonably high temperatures and months of prolonged drought – with the catastrophic bushfires. Interviewed on ABC Radio, McCormack insisted homeowners facing the fires “..don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they’re trying to save their homes.”
Green MP Adam Bandt responded by calling the Deputy Prime Minister a “dangerous fool,” and, in reference to the Prime Minister’s offers of praying for those affected by the fires, said: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough, we need science and action too. They’ve done everything in their power to make these catastrophic fires more likely.”

Climate Change main contributor
Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and Order of Australia recipient, has no doubt climate change is the leading factor igniting the rampant bushfires, and not The Greens’ influence on policies.
Broadcaster Steve Price challenged Mullins on this during an appearance on TV’s The Project on 11 Nov: “It’s this five to ten years’ worth of growth we haven’t had any fuel reduction, largely due to Green policies. Wouldn’t we be better off having a strong positive debate about that rather than going on about climate change?”
Mullins replied: “That’s a fallacy and it’s always trotted out at times like this. The environmental laws are fairly strict because there was indiscriminate burning many years ago. It’s not impossible to get hazard reductions done through the process. Problem is, it’s drier and hotter…
“These fires have covered almost half a million hectares, so of course they are going into areas where there are heavy fuels. You’ve got rainforests burning that have never burned before…. Every time there’s major fires the furphy about Greenies and fuel reduction comes out. Yes, we do need to do more fuel reduction, if only we had the windows like we used to… Any fire service will tell you that the windows for hazard reduction through winter are getting narrower and narrower…”

NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, contradicted his government’s suggestion Greens inhibited hazard reduction when he told Guardian Australia on 12 Nov that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), which undertakes 75% of all hazard reduction in the state, exceeded their target of 135,000 hectares of hazard reduction activities in 2018 and 2019.
Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, added: “Hazard reduction work has increased because of increased funding to the Rural Fire Service and to national parks. There has been more carried out in recent years than in previous decades.”

On 14 Nov Greg Mullins gave a press conference in the grounds of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, accompanied by fire experts.
“We’re here today to talk about the current bushfire emergency gripping Australia,” he announced, “but underlying that is a climate emergency. We’ve been trying to call upon the Prime Minister and the government since April this year to meet because we could see what was happening… [We’re] also concerned by the temperature increases, reductions in rainfall, the more severe droughts, the stronger winds, the lower humidity. We knew that a bushfire crisis was coming. We asked to see the Prime Minister and the government to warn what was coming…” Scott Morrison ignored them.
“Some people want the debate gagged because they don’t have any answers. It’s okay to say it’s arsonists’ fault, or that the ‘Greenies’ are stopping hazard reduction burning, which simply isn’t true, but you’re not allowed to talk about climate change. Well, we are, because we know what’s happening…
“Had we spoken back in April, one of the things we would have said was try to get more aircraft on lease from the northern hemisphere.”

Future tactics
Former NSW Deputy Fire and Rescue commissioner Ken Thompson has suggested Australia should invest in more large-scale planes that can access difficult and dangerous terrain relatively quickly and drop high volumes of water or fire retardant. Only 160 aircraft are currently available nationwide to combat bushfires, including small planes, helicopters and larger planes. Australia’s largest aircraft is a converted Boeing 737, which carries 15,000 litres. A DC10 air tanker leased from USA holds 35,000 litres.
However, It costs about $2.5 million a year to lease a large fixed-wing airtanker and about $2.2 to lease large helicopters, whereas a permanent fleet owned by the fire service and available to respond to national events would be significantly more cost-effective.

In terms of hazard reduction, many indigenous leaders are calling for a re-introduction of ‘fire practitioners’ and a return to centuries-old methods that involve more frequent and focussed control burns. Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen from Cape York and organisations like Firesticks Alliance believe incorporating Aborigines’ traditional burning practices into existing forest management systems would result in more effective prevention of bushfires during the hotter summer months.
On this The Greens agree. One of The Greens’ key bushfire management policies states: Bush fire risk management should be informed by the knowledge of Indigenous Australians

Meanwhile, 10,000 people have signed an online petition at Change.org calling for the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks to be cancelled and the money diverted to bushfire and drought relief efforts.
Declaring last year’s New Year’s Eve fireworks cost $5.8million, the petition requests: “give the money to farmers and firefighters” by asking Lord Mayor Clover Moore to “donate the budget or percentage of profits from Sydney NYE Fireworks to the bushfire appeal.”