In January 1994 there were four fire related deaths, hundreds of thousands of hectares burnt and fingers of fire crept into the city of Sydney. Parliament, the cabinet and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons, causes of the death and the possible means of avoiding the same problems in the future.
On Christmas Day 2001, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales were realised - in full measure. The lead-up to summer conditions had been drier than normal. December 25, 2001 was hot with temperatures well over 30C; worse still there was very low humidity of less than 15 per cent; and worst of all, the winds were from the west - from the dry interior of our desert continent.
These bush fires burnt nearly 700,000ha, with 115 houses and many other buildings destroyed and scores of others damaged. Dramatic pictures of fires approaching houses, which were less than 16km from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, were shown daily, along with thousands of people evacuated from homes. There were hundreds of firefighters from other Australian states and a centre-stage spot for a large helicopter known as Elvis, which dropped large amounts of water and was credited with much, but perhaps should not have been.
And Parliament and the coroner held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes …
Then in January 2003, the concerns of fire authorities in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT were realised - in full measure. Leading up to the summer, conditions had been drier than normal …
And Parliament, the coroner and the Council of Australian Governments held inquiries and released reports on the reasons and the causes …
These same two paragraphs, with minor variations could be repeated for the fire seasons of 1897, 1912, 1926, 1933, 1939, 1944, 1949, 1951, 1957, 1960, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1977, 1980 and 1983.
These events are not unprecedented, can be foreseen and are within repeated recent memory. At this stage there is every reason they will be with us again. Why?
While the fires of 1994, 2001 and 2003 burnt, the familiar debates also began to rage. Across the internet, among civil society and politicians and in the media, they all asked pointed questions of our national and state political leaders and heads of agencies.
Everyone senses that there are key questions but there seem to be few people who know what they might be. The “pointed” inquiries from various actors are sharpened by a sense that there is something not quite right and that someone is not making that clear. Tragically the debate tends to polarise along conventional environmental or political battle lines and the underlying factors in the 1994, Black Christmas fires of 2001 and January 2003 are blurred, buried or lost in a flurry of repeated rhetoric, age-old antagonisms and basic confusion.
Efforts to deal with the “landscape-sized” requirements to address bushfires and management of natural and human assets, and at the same time the efforts to incorporate smaller scale concerns to do with the protection of a particular species or habitat are not trivial. In many years and most fire seasons, the uneasy relationship between scale, scope, management ethos and political processes goes unnoticed.
Bushfire impacts, however, cannot be avoided and will be noticed. Australia is a fire-formed continent in many ways and fire is part of our landscape. The place and role of the invaders - people, plants, buildings and animals – must be mediated with the needs of our fire-formed landscapes for this uneasy relationship to be better managed.