Friday, December 30, 2011

The Fire Next Time

AT SOME point in the next few days posting will come to a temporary halt. It is summer, the fish are biting and the Professor is getting all hobbity about hitting the road and heading into the bush, which has not been this verdant in an age. Best to visit now, before the weather heats up and all the rain-fostered grass and undergrowth dries out and burns, which sooner or later it will. If the rain eases and temperatures rise, Victorians could be living atop a bonfire by the end of February. All it will take is a spark and we will see a replay of Black Saturday, which was itself a reprise of Ash Wednesday, Black Friday and the score of other major eruptions of wildfire that have riven this state since Aborigines, their knowledge and their firesticks vanished from the scene.

Amongst people who spend a bit of time in the trees, the burning issue – and that is not a pun – has long been a topic of campfire conversation. The one sensible thing Tim Flannery has ever written dealt with fire and the Australian landscape, his argument being that Aborigines transformed the country via a generational policy of setting things alight. Being Flannery, however, he still managed to come at it from the wrong perspective, as many readers of his Future Eaters will have noted. Forever the green romantic, he regards the changes wrought by both black hands and white ones as being to the detriment of the landscape.  It is as if, in Flanneryworld, there was once a stable and ideal, human-free state of nature and it has been all downhill since our pesky species arrived.

Until now, Flannery’s acknowledgement of fire’s importance has been the handiest argument for those who, like the Professor, see current standards of bush stewardship as a disgrace. If you are unsure just how bad it is, wait until you are almost brought to grief by a 400-pound deer running in front of your vehicle late one night on the Bogong High Plains. The bush is overrun with feral species and noxious imports, from cats to deer to dogs and pigs, not to mention invasive weeds like chinese honeysuckle, blackberries and cape broom. As late as the 1960s, you might have seen the odd native cat in and around Suggan Buggan. Not these days. Foxes and cats have put pay to the lot.

Koalas? We are told their populations are in trouble, but where is it ever stated that they prefer open forests, the sort the First Fleet’s diarists noted as characterising Sydney Cove’s original landscape? In today’s bush, cluttered as it is with tangled, unburned ground cover, the poor little buggers need machetes to reach their next meal – and because the very nature of the bush has changed, those food sources are increasingly scarce. When you see a roadside sign saying “Koalas next 5km”, know that they are braving the bitumen because they cannot find dinner on their side. Know also that if cars don’t get them, dogs just might. Officialdom’s answer to all this has been to install long-drop dunnies in approved camping grounds, whack up signs exhorting visitors to love nature and restrict access to everywhere else. It is as if they do not want people to see just how bad they have allowed things to become.

The good news is that Flannery’s qualified authority need no longer be the touchstone for any conversations about fire. Now, thanks to the historian Bill Gammage, there is a marvellous new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, which all bush buffs should read. Do so, and the cant and academic theorising that passes for wisdom about the care of the bush will seem as empty as the skulls of the ivory tower careerists who promote it. Their influence has been disastrous, and documented as such. After the High Country fires of six-or-so years ago, Victoria’s then-Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin commissioned a voluminous report that examined, amongst other things, if Aboriginal fire models needed to be re-introduced. It concluded that blackfella knowledge was gone forever and that any further discussion would be pointless. Better to leave the academics in charge, and as they generally dislike the very idea of any but the most limited burning, one consequence, to put it bluntly, was the loss of almost 200 lives and immeasurable environmental damage of Black Saturday.

Gammage’s book, which the Rufous Bird slipped into the Professor’s Christmas stocking, has the potential to remedy this sad state of affairs, but only if its wisdom is heeded. His approach was both simple and remarkably obvious: First, he assembled examples of Australia’s landscape as rendered by the first white eyes to see it. The images are of open country dotted with trees, sometimes in lines, and often in mixtures of fire-loving, fire-tolerant and fire-averse plants that could not have occurred naturally. Then he found the spots where the artists set up their easels and surveyed what greets the eye today. Without exception indigenous burning’s cessation has crusted those vistas with a thick, pubic fuzz of incendiary foliage. When it burns, it does so with such an intense heat that all but the most fire-loving species are eliminated, meaning more dry sclerophyll rubbish carpeting places like Gippsland, where red gums once were found in profusion. As Gammage notes, indigenous fire – although not the random blazes of white settlers bent on promoting only pasture – controlled the caterpillars that stripped the red gums’ leaves and killed them off. The next time you happen to drive the Princes Highway near Sale, observe the grey, lopped trunks of red gums dead beside the road and know that it was mismanaged fire regimes which reduced them to that sad state.

Important to note is the gulf that separates Gammage from Flannery, who regards all human influence and intervention as a problem. Gammage, noting that Aborigines shaped Australia, argues that human involvement is essential. 

As readers may have gathered, there is little sympathy and less concern at the Billabong for upcoming generations, which deserve all the problems us oldsters bequeath as recompense for the expense, bawling and anxious nights they inflicted as infants, children and teenagers. But denying them the bush, a healthy and ecologically coherent bush, is too much of a punishment.

Gammage has offered part of the solution to restore that legacy. His book needs to be bought and read – and the policymakers it implicitly indicts must be held to account.

A NOTE: In addition to restoring fire’s proper place in eco management, one of the best things the soon-to-be Abbott government might institute would be a national body that formulates and implements a rational war on invasive species. Consider just brumbies, for example. In NSW, where they do immense damage to the Snowies, they are shot. A few miles to the south, where Victoria’s laws hold sway, they are trapped and put up for adoption. Intelligent beasts though they are, horses pay no heed to the cartographer’s line separating the states, meaning that any reduction in numbers in NSW is compensated by fresh arrivals from the south. A coherent federal policy would open the way to eliminating this absurdity. Moreover, the practical considerations demanded by such an exercise would oblige that policy to be removed from the realm of theory and that voices such as Gammage’s be heard.

At the moment they do not get a look-in. And neither, sadly, does the bush.

The first step would be to banish the starry-eyed otherworldiness which talks raptuously of "wildnerness". With the possible exception of a tiny pocket in southern Tasmania, there is not a part of Australia that has not been touched and transformed by man. This needs to be acknowledged and  pragmatic policies embraced. Man has been an agent of change for perhaps 60,000 years. The dominant green piffle, that lock-up-the-bush sentimentality which moistens Fairfax environment writers' bicycles seats, is every bit as dangerous and damaging as a mad ring-barker's axe.


  1. It's said that the aborigines used to gather on the Bogong High Plains for the moths. Well given the dense undergrowth there is today, they would never get there. They must have burned it regularly to be able to make the trip. There are many employees of the parks authority here in Mt Beauty, they drive around in their government supplied vehicles doing god knows what all day. It's certainly not blackberry or other weed control. As for foxes and dogs etc the country around here is full of them, however if you wish to shoot the vermin it's almost impossible to get permission. Why do some people glorify deer? They may be good looking animals but they are everywhere in the mountain areas and there appears to be no attempts at removing them or at least controlling the population.

    As for me, well I'm fishing the Upper West Kiewa next week, if the weather holds.

  2. Let's not forget that one of the reasons for the World Heritage listing of SW Tasmania was prehistoric Aboriginal presence - Kutakina and all that.

  3. JB, Sydney/Shanghai.December 30, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    Well written Bunyip, very well written. This article should be compulsory reading for every addle headed, poorly educated, narrow minded, so called Greeny in Australia.
    Just waiting for all the tears when another massive fire kills a few dozen people.
    As it will.

  4. Hear, hear, and consider the following fact - life forms that tend to proliferate, here the feral brumbies, camels, rabbits, and other "invasive" species, floral comes to mind as well as faunal, indicate a state of superb adaption. Yet we react indignantly and class it as vermin or feral and try to eliminate it to conserve the previous state. But geological history is replete with a continually changing environment, often punctuated by catastrophic destructions mind you, but over all it's been a continual evolution.

    When the Europeans arrived and started constructing water bores and watering points for their stock, that activity also caused a blow out in the numbers of native fauna, especially kangaroos and emus. (Read Durack's Kings in Green Castles and one passage summarising the Aboriginal attitude to white man's water bores showed that even these people were relieved to not have to maintain their scarce water holes anymore).

    The very existence of numerous feral species points to living forms in splendid balance with the natural environment and should be taken advantage of as a natural success, not a natural blight.

  5. On this general theme, Eric Rolls' book A million wild acres (1981) is well worth a look. I'd be suprised if Gammage has not cited it.

  6. Ain't it funny? Humans set about to reduce the human impact on the bush, only to find out that this act destroys the bush more than the actions of previous custodians who were happily managing it. Humans seek to preserve the bush for future generations, only to have it kill many of the present one. We really are a stupid species aren't we!

  7. PhillipGeorge(c)nearly 2012December 30, 2011 at 11:55 AM

    The desalination plant is the 28 billion dollars monument to "religious" ideology gone hopelessly wrong. A Dam is "unnatural". So are humans.
    Humans killing ferals is "inhumane".
    Ferals killing natives is "natural".

    Mad mad world prof.

    But I'm slightly gladdened you wrote "perhaps" 60,000 years.

    As an academic exercise try to identify your favourite single geological features; know that they were underwater recently and bent into disconformities while still moist. There is no other reasonable explanation.

    The flood was a bloody violent affair in real history.

    And while many reader would want to dismiss me as the creationist nutter - I would have built you a 2 billion dollar dam rather than a 28 billion dollars desal electricity sucker. I'd also, burn generously, issue bounties on feral animals, and give every farmer free licenses to hunt them.

    But the greens hold the balance, not us creationist nutters! have a good drive.

  8. An interesting topic. Here in North America the Indians did the same thing. Every fall they burned the place to the ground so that there would be meadows and forage for the wild game in the spring. When the British first arrived in the 1600's in New England, the forests were open enough that they could drive a coach and four through them without a problem. It would be impossible today, in fact, you can hardly make your way through most forests on foot because of the heavy underbrush. The Prarie Indians did the same, lighting the grass on fire and generating brush fires that covered hundreds of square miles and lasted for days. Yosemite Valley, in the National Park, was savannah when the Indians ran the place. It's dense forest today. Los Angeles was known as the land of smokes by the Indians since there was always a fire somewhere.

  9. Good reading Professor.

    Have had the experience of a pair of red deer (stag and hind) trot across the front of the car in the Grampians.

  10. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.December 30, 2011 at 10:35 PM

    I love the old settled areas that have landscapes of full-grown European deciduous trees. I love American Jacarandas and other exotics too. I hate the highly flammable unihorticultural look of 'weed' trees being imposed everywhere now by the rabid 'naturalising' Greenies. In the same vein, I adore the European cold climate gardens and the planting vartieties introduced by earlier settlers which Greenie Councils are now trying to ban. This Green Banning Disease is everywhere, regardless of climate or preference and with little understanding of history or ecological processes. Gamage's book sounds like a necessary corrective to some of the Green lunacy about undergrowth clearing that has led to so many deaths. All power to it, and to others who critique the 'natural' thesis that leaves no room for human choice and intervention.

    The word 'landscape' comes from the original Dutch meaning 'land shaped'. By people. People have pollarded and shaped and harvested and burned and organised trees and vistas to their particular desires for aeons. Please let us take back our landscapes, our flora and fauna. We can debate exactly how we wish to do that. Currently we have impositions without discussion.

    Sorry Prof to be a bit verbose here; words running away with me tonight I fear.

  11. I suspect it will take a generation or so for people to realise the Green councils, which rule the bushland to the north and east of Melbourne with a zombie's iron fist, are effectively running a zero defence against fire. That is, you must plan as a property owner for your property to be destroyed every 10 years or so. A steep depopulation will occur. When rateable values eventually fall so far the municipal authority faces bankruptcy, the Greens will be thrown out and commonsense government will be restored. But the return to sanity may not begin for another decade. The mad green religion is as powerful as Haitian voodoo. A symbolic exorcism will be required after another deadly fire in Whittlesea, Nillumbik and/or Yarra Ranges shire/s. Clown Hall at the Surf Coast Shire will also need a clean-out.

  12. The Aboriginals in the Top End still burn off regularly. If one should visit the place and take a drive south from Darwin will be immediately struck by the ever present smoke in the distance and eagles swirling over head.

    Maybe National Parks could provide them with jobs down south to perform the same service.

  13. No wait, what am I talking about? You've already got the type in Vic. That bloke celebrating outside Bolt's trial with the raccoon on his head. He looks just the type, well, certainly portrayed himself as one.

    Sure looked like he knew a thing or two about starting and finishing fires. One of the Burn'em Burn'em people I'm told.

  14. I suspect that the 60,000 year time frame is stretching things, our indigenous population has been here for less than 4,000 years IMHO. The Australian Aboriginal has a mixed African / Indian ancestry, and the Phoenicians took their slaves from around Sudan and the Indus Valley to work their mining and smelting operations in Australia between 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

  15. "there is little sympathy and less concern at the Billabong for upcoming generations". This a bit late to post, but you might be intrigued Prof to learn that around 1917 a young Mao Tse-tung opined that "I don't know about the past, and I don't know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality about for history. I don't believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself. ... I have my desire and act on it." (Quotes as recorded in Chang and Halliday, Mao, (Vintage, 1977) at 16.

  16. Need to be careful basing an historical assumption on artwork. The early European-Australian artists were well known for painting Australia to look like Europe.