If we wallow in the Twittersphere, we would certainly be convinced that the cause of these tragic bushfires is climate change and that if only ScoMo would announce a 100% renewable target, the fires would immediately abate. There is also the view that maybe fuel loads in our forests and national parks are the real problem in which case we need only adopt more traditional methods of land management such as cool burns do them more often and all will be well. Then again, there is the common belief that if only we would remove the legislative and regulatory constraints imposed by 'green' controlled local bodies and state environmental agencies, then bushfires would return to normal – whatever definition you put on that.
Considering for a moment road accidents, were there a cause contributing anything up to 50% of all accidents and fatalities, we would surely know about it. Driving under the influence of drink or drugs is perhaps the most reported cause of road accidents and we certainly have plenty of warnings on the dangers of driving under the influence. Those warnings are backed up by tough penalties in the courts if we offend. There is very strong community awareness on these issues.
Over the past couple of months bushfires have dominated the news and the predominant cause is cited as climate change. There has been no shortage of conflicting advice from all sectors of the community as to what we could do, should or must do and most of that demand for 'action' is directed at federal government. Many say it is 'inaction' by federal government that is the principal cause of bushfires throughout Australia.
And so, the daily debate within political circles, within the community and within the media is all about what government can and cannot do in preventing bushfires.
Our 'firies' do a tremendous job and when we think of them, what comes to mind is these brave people on the front line facing and fighting walls of fire. But one of the lesser known tasks 'firies' have is the time consuming and meticulous forensic review undertaken after any fire event.
They are highly skilled at fighting fires for not only are they well trained, but they work very hard trying to understand fire – how did it spread, what was our response, what conditions were in play and most importantly, what started it.
All of that painstaking research and evaluation is reported and remains a repository of knowledge that underpins the effectiveness of the fire service. Various agencies throughout Australia from CSIRO through academia research bushfires but none is quite as comprehensive on causes of fire as research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (Bryant 2008). This research is based on an extensive analysis of bushfire data collected by Australian fire agencies. Approximately 280,000 vegetation fires from 18 Australian fire and land management agencies were included in the analysis, representing around five years of fire data from each agency.
Quoting from their report:
It was found that the proportion of vegetation fires that were deliberate varies between agencies and regions, as well as across time of day and time of year. However, on average across the country, approximately 13 percent of vegetation fires are recorded as being deliberate and another 37 percent as suspicious. That is, for all vegetation fires for which there is a cause recorded, 50 percent may be lit deliberately.
The research acknowledges:
…. inconsistencies exist between and within agencies in recording data. For example, different agencies may have different thresholds as to when they consider a fire to be deliberate, suspicious or unknown. Despite these uncertainties, it is clear that natural fires are actually quite rare, and that the vast majority of vegetation fires arise from human causes, including deliberate arson.
Over the past two months or more, media coverage of the bushfires has been 'wall to wall'. The topic has dominated conversation throughout the holiday season, and everyone knows we are dealing with tragic circumstances.
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