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Erik is a public policy professional and owner of the online training course in democracy and civic action: www.3ptraining.com.au The Blog …explores ways to create a sustainable and just community. Explores how that community can be best protected at all levels including social policy/economics/ military. The Book Erik’s autobiography is a humorous read about serious things. It concerns living in the bush, wilderness, home education, spirituality, and activism. Finding Home is available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble and all good e-book sellers.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Bush Fires - an Indigenous Legacy and the need for cultural change

Bush fire sky - photo credit Robin Roberts Photography

This week a large uncontrolled bushfire came within roughly six kilometres of our home (as the crow flies). It was a sobering experience. Friends evacuated the nearby township of Collinsvale, our youngest loved watching the helicopters flying overhead with their water bags hanging down below, and we packed for a rapid evacuation.

It was a timely reminder that Indigenous people burned this ancient continent for thousands of years. They did so to open up dense forest and scrubland, encourage new growth, and make better conditions for game. This process selected against fire intolerant species and favoured fire adapted ones. As a consequence of this and ongoing climate change, most of the continent has adapted to burn. This burning was not random. Indigenous people used fire to manicure the bush. They were managers not arsonists.

That was 200 years ago. Now we have arsonists, plus in recent decades the southern continent has seen a strong drying trend, and droughts are becoming more frequent. The Aussie dream of a ‘home among the gum trees’ is plain stupid unless you build underground. Our society has yet to accept this fact – even after Ash Wednesday (1983 for you young folk), the Victorian fires, and the latest round of fire in South Easter Australia/Tasmania, [update - now we have catastrophic fires and a state of emergency in New South Wales].

After 200 years we still view fire like Europeans – it’s bad, it destroys property, it needs to be put out. We don’t manage with fire – we fight fire. This won’t work very well in the longer term. As the climate changes, more than ever, we are going to need fire to manage fire. Frequent low intensity burns reduce fuel loads – but there is a balance. Too frequent burning reduces regeneration; too infrequent leads to hotter fires later. There is a lot of science in this, but this science we need to get to grips with. As an aside, Forestry Tasmania still makes the rather bizarre claim that clear-felling and napalming old growth forests somehow mimics Aboriginal burning practices. The only thing thease two burning regimes have in common is that Forestry’s burning regime discriminates against rainforest species and reduces biodiversity. Centuries of Aboriginal fire management had a similar affect over much of the continent.

Bicheno Fire Tasmania - photo credit Hanna Woolley

Bushfire is shaping up as a new wedge in Australia's culture wars. On the one-hand greenies are blamed for restructions on fuel reduction burns and road access into remote country. On the other hand industrialists are blamed for climate change. Fact is that Australia contributes less than two per cent of global CO2 emissions. We can be part of a global trend (which does include China) to address carbon but we cannot actually control our climate. We will just have to adapt to hotter and more frequent fires. We may need to re-think our leafy suburbs, put a stop to urban expansion into bushland, clear 'fire protection' belts around the approaches to our cities, and just stop living permanently in some places.

Our Western Red Cedar house faces onto a bush hillside. That hill hasn’t burned since 1967, it is extremely dry, and fuel loads are high. There should have been several low intensity burns in the last few decades. I can’t afford to get arrested for arson and trespass but the local Chigwell youth did the civic thing and burned their side of the hill a couple of years ago. At some point the rest of that hill will burn. There is no other possibility. It makes a lot more sense to burn it deliberately on a cool spring day than wait for a random bush fire on a 40 degree day with high winds at the height of summer.

Managing and living with fire requires a fundamental change in attitudes, management, laws, and for some people, architecture. Why is it that we don’t build underground? There is no better way to fire proof a structure, yet anyone proposing this would struggle to find a builder, be thought eccentric, and experience great difficulty navigating a maze of council regulations and building standards. Underground building is however the obvious answer to living in a harsh fire prone environment. It intrigues me that much of the new residential construction of large homes in Sydney and Melbourne is concrete slab and glass, basically what office buildings are made out of. It is a cheap, unimaginative and ugly construction method. These buildings are expensive to cool and expensive to heat. Put the same single storey building underground and you have an instant eco-home. Warm in winter, cool in summer, and highly resistant to fire (but not flood!). By ‘underground’ I don’t mean burying it in a hill-side. Simply excavate 1-2m down, leave the windows above ground on one to three sides, slope the roof to the ground at the rear, and cover with 0.5 – 1.0m of dirt. Add some curves and landscaping and your ugly concrete box is now a stylish modern eco-home. Add double glaze for extra efficiency. Modern open plan lay-outs favour light and ventilation and thus lend themselves to underground designs. Add pull down metal shutters and you basically have a bomb shelter.

OK its more expensive than your standard brick veneer with a water tank but that won’t always be an option. It may sound like a hippy rave but one thing the market mechanism does very well is price risk. At some point in the not too distant future the insurance industry is simply going to stop insuring normal homes that are near gum trees. Fortune will favour those who thought ahead.

For a timely discussion from a subject matter expert see here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-21/fire-expert-professor-david-bowman-discusses-the/5036718

 Tag line: bush fires, Tasmanian fires, fire management, Indigenous firestick methods, underground housing, cultural change, climate change and fire, insurance.







1 comment:

  1. Eric its a good informative blog. Have you looked at the Taib Cartel from Sarawak? They own Ta Ann. The ENGOs have been stitched-up. FT will more than likely not get FSC due to the 'conversions'. The ENGOs presided over millions of dollars of useless handouts to people like Gunns. Why did us taxpayers have to pay their debt to FT?