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The fire next time

Green philosophy has put Aboriginal forestry techniques to the torch, and the consequences are life-threatening

14 January 2012

12:00 PM

14 January 2012

12:00 PM

In early December, Victoria’s fire authorities marked the unofficial start of summer as they always do, by issuing a series of alerts to the areas where a run of hot days and raging north winds have so often been overtures to disaster. All the predictable spots were there, many on Melbourne’s re-forested suburban outer rim, where Black Saturday’s firestorms claimed 173 lives. The Dandenongs, Plenty Gorge, Warrandyte — there were no surprises in the entries topping the list of likely hotspots.

But a little further down the manifest of peril there were astonishments aplenty — locations in Brunswick, North Fitzroy, even Collingwood and Parkville. For those not overly familiar with the city on the Yarra, these are suburbs surveyed and settled within the first year or so of John Batman’s arrival in 1834. They have been built upon, bulldozed, rebuilt, transected by rail corridors, carved by freeways and shaped by the agendas of governments, developers and urban planners. If there is one piece of Melbourne that should be immune to bushfire, logic would suggest it is the ring of brick and bitumen that encircles the CBD.

Ah, but there you would be wrong, because logic seldom has much to do with fire policies in Victoria, or many other parts of Australia for that matter. Indeed, to find an explanation for this bizarre mindset and its disastrous consequences, one needs to abandon logic altogether and look instead to a particularly virulent species of environmental romanticism. It is the philosophy that helped elect Adam Bandt, Member for Gaia, in whose electorate, oddly enough, several of the latest and most unlikely fire threats are located. It is the mindset that inspires inner-city councils’ ongoing war on cars, commuters and thru traffic.

And worst of all, it is a philosophy that gets people killed, as it most certainly did on 7 February 2009. If this summer’s early warnings are a guide, that same green pall of clouded thought has now introduced the prospect of death by trees to the inner city, a perverse achievement indeed.

To understand the insanity, you could not start with a better guide than historian Bill Gammage’s new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, which is remarkable for two reasons. The first is Gammage’s thorough sifting of hundreds of primary sources to establish what Australia was like when the First Fleet arrived. It was nothing like what we see today, that’s for sure, and Gammage attributes this to meticulous Indigenous stewardship.

Wherever whites arrived, contemporary accounts speak of lightly treed plains covered with lush grass and carpets of flowers — a vista that moved even John Batman, who was no sentimentalist, to raptures. Other colonists knew, just knew, that a landscape so varied and verdant could only have been the work of man. Then they set about ruining it.

Just 16 years after Batman led his party to Port Phillip, with the Aborigines gone and the bush no longer being groomed with firesticks and regular doses of low-intensity flames, the fuel loads grew and Victoria burned. Black Thursday, it was called, the first in the catalogue of red horrors that have stalked Victoria’s summers ever since.

That brings us to Gammage’s second and perhaps more important coup: his systematic demolition of what might be termed the Bushfire Establishment’s most cherished tenet, a perspective summed up by an environmental scientist who informed him, one assumes with no small dash of condescension, ‘if there is a natural explanation, prefer it.’

As Gammage argues, that green frame of mind has blinkered ‘the science’ where it has not outright blinded it. Aborigines have inhabited Australia for perhaps 60,000 years, yet much of the academy prefers to view them as secondary influences at best. It is a view summed up by Flinders University Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Rod Wells. ‘By not putting out camp fires,’ he has said, ‘they probably initially destroyed large areas of vegetation and accidentally stumbled upon the use of fire for concentrating and hunting game.’ To Gammage and anyone who accepts his evidence, the vanished tribes’ primary role in shaping Australia is as obvious as denial of their influence is scandalous.

To make his point, Gammage assembled scores of colonial landscapes, then found the spots where the artists sat. His photographs and their renderings could not make a more clear distinction between then and now. The sketches, paintings and lithographs show open country, often with different varieties of trees growing in clumps, thickets, even straight lines — mixtures and configurations that could be no accidents of nature. Gammage’s modern pictures capture degraded, tangled, overgrown landscapes. They look for all the world as if the gardeners packed up their tools and walked off the job, which in a sense they did.

Eucalypts’ love of fire is no secret. Some species’ seeds will not germinate until they have been scorched, while others are so pyrocentric they also demand exposure to smoke. Fire makes the bush live, and therein lies the problem: the academy is beset with competing and conflicting ideas of how much fire is enough and where and how it needs to be applied.

Consider a report commissioned after mammoth fires swept the High Country in 2003 and 2006 and assembled by Victoria’s then-Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin. Many experts were tapped and all aired their own theories, the consensus — to the extent that there was a consensus — being that controlled burning to reduce fuel loads was difficult, expensive and could in any case be done for only a few weeks of the year. As for Aboriginal burning practices, whose adoption Gammage urges, the report captured the theoreticians’ collective shrug by noting that, as knowledge was so limited and opinion so divided, there would be no real point in further discussion.

The result of all this — one result, anyway — is those fire warnings for inner-city Melbourne. Two decades ago, councils were overcome by a collective mania for native trees, shrubs and grasses. Magnificent oaks, cedars and other ‘exotics’ began to disappear from parks, golf courses, main streets and private homes. This is Australia, the thinking went, so we should revere our eucalypts. Enough with that imperialist foreign foliage, into the chipper with it! In Nillumbik Shire, one of the areas ravaged on Black Saturday, the council not only made it extraordinarily difficult to clear vegetation, it actually paid homeowners to plant a certain variety of ti-tree, which an official pamphlet extolled for attracting butterflies. It is also a magnet for fire, the reason CFA crews have long called it ‘petrol bush’. Geelong Council tried planting its median strips with native tussock grasses, only to see them repeatedly go up in flames.

Now, apparently, the same philosophy has brought the same problem to the inner city, where well-intentioned efforts to green parks and streets have installed a series of pyres awaiting only a heatwave and a spark. Gammage doesn’t mention it, but Parkville, one of the surprising entries on the summer hazards list, is the perfect example.

It was from the suburb’s Royal Park that Burke and Wills organised their expedition, and they did so because the area was open and grassy — a good place to marshal horses, camels, drays and people. There is only one known and surviving photograph of the expedition’s departure, and there is no arguing with what it shows. In the foreground Burke is delivering a speech, but that is not the picture’s fascination. It is the background which catches the eye, for there are just a very few trees and much open space.

There is an ugly monument
on the site today, but no one in their right mind would attempt to coordinate a large party on that spot. The entire park has been ‘revegetated’ so thickly and comprehensively it is impossible to see more than a few metres in most directions.

Revegetated with eucalypts, of course, and sooner or later they will burn because they must. Gammage would urge us to think long and hard about trees, about burning and, most of all, about the pressing need to restore and reclaim Indigenous wisdom. If we don’t, the bush will have less chance than Burke and Wills — and that may apply to a few fashionably green pockets of the inner city too.

Roger Franklin is the author of Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned (Slattery Media Group). Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia is published by Allen & Unwin, price $49.99.

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