Riki Lane reports from Melbourne
“Black Saturday”, 7 February 2009, was Australia’s greatest fire disaster. Unstoppable fires at over 1200C, driven by winds of up to 100 km/h on a 46ºC day, wiped small communities off the map. At least 210 people died. 2000 houses were burned down, another 2000 made uninhabitable, 7000 people made homeless.
In the immediate aftermath, a tremendous outpouring of sympathy, donations and assistance overtook business-as- usual capitalism. Shops, vets, pharmacists etc. that luckily escaped the fires in the affected areas didn’t charge people for their goods and services. Relief agencies and local councils were overwhelmed by donated goods, services and people’s labour.
Bushfires are nothing new in the south eastern state of Victoria — nowhere on the planet is more prone to loss of life through wildfire. Many people in the hinterland of Melbourne (population 3.8 million) live close to the “bush” — grasslands and heavily forested parks and plantations. The vegetation, especially the highly flammable eucalypts, has a life cycle adapted to fire. Controlled patchwork burning was widely practiced by indigenous peoples prior to the European invasion, but is more difficult with capitalist agricultural and industrial use of the land. Hilly terrain, changeable gusty winds, days of extreme heat, and wide variation in annual rainfall mean that enormous conflagrations have been recorded every 20-40 years since European colonisation.
The most deadly were 6 February 1851 — “Black Thursday”, when a quarter of the State (5 million hectares) burnt; 13 January 1939 — “Black Friday”, 2 million hectares burnt and 71 died; and 16 February 1983 — “Ash Wednesday”, 350,000 hectares burnt and 75 died.
Then and in this tragedy, the fires moved extremely quickly and resemble the “firestorms” of the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One fire researcher estimated the total energy released on “Black Saturday” as equivalent to 660 Hiroshima bombs.
However, the fire weather conditions were the worst seen since European colonisation and there are strong indications that climate change is making these extreme weather events more frequent. While other parts of Australia are flooded, Victoria is gripped by a decade long drought.
January saw a dribble of rain – 0.8 mm against an average of 44 mm, while February has seen little more. The week before the fire saw an unprecedented heatwave in Melbourne — three consecutive days of 43°, 44° and 45° C, completely drying out the State. The 46° C on 7 February was the hottest temperature ever recorded for Melbourne. Climate scientists predicted these high temperatures over a decade ago, and that such extreme weather events may occur every 5-10 years instead of 20-40 years previously.
This “drought” may be our new climate. “El Nino” and “La Nina”, variations in the sea water temperature in the Pacific Ocean, once had a strong correlation with Victorian rainfall. But that link appears to have weakened, so the rain buckets down in Queensland, Sydney has average rainfall, while Melbourne is parched.
The outpouring of sympathy and solidarity is inspiring and points to how a socialist economy of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” could function. Over time this became less viable, as people have to survive in a capitalist economy. My partner, who works for one of the affected councils, volunteered for shifts as manager of a relief centre — during work time and on her own time. They soon had trouble getting enough volunteers to run the centre, as the pressures of the normal workload and family responsibilities take their toll.
Other aspects of the response are less inspiring. There is understandable anger towards arsonists who may have deliberately lit fires that caused dozens of deaths. Some media — eg Murdoch’s tabloids — tried to whip up a lynch mob atmosphere. Calls were made for anti-terror laws to apply to arsonists.
Connections with climate change had some reportage in the “serious” media, but little in the tabloid press. Instead fingers were pointed at Green policies, opposed to cattle grazing in parks and tree clearing on private property, and allegedly opposing controlled burning off in forests.
One tabloid commentator said that lynchings should be directed at Green politicians, not arsonists! These are red herrings — cattle grazing minimally reduces fire loads; clearing vegetation has some impact on survivability, but only at the margin; and the Greens support controlled burns. However, the prolonged drought means there are fewer days when controlled burns are safe.
National and State Labor governments have committed to rebuild the communities, but avoid asking whether climate change makes some districts too unsafe for residents. The State government has brought forward new rules about house construction in bushfire zones and has called a Royal Commission into the fires with broad terms of reference.
One issue is the three separate fire fighting bodies — paid staff in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade for the cities; paid State government staff for parks and government land; mostly volunteers in the Country Fire Authority for private rural land. The Fire Fighters’ Union says many of their members were sitting in their fire stations during the fire and not being called in when they volunteered for unpaid shifts.
Another issue is the policy of advising people to make a fire plan and “leave early if you are going to leave; or stay and fight the fire”. Many well prepared and experienced people died defending their homes.
While the policy has been effective for years, it breaks down under the extreme conditions which create a firestorm. As these conditions are now much more likely, different policies are needed.
While warnings issued before the fires said “tomorrow will have the worst fire conditions the State has ever seen”, there was no established policy for a higher level of warning to deal with these unprecedented conditions. A system for mass recorded message phone calls to people in areas of risk has been trialled, but bureaucratic and technical obstacles stopped it being implemented.
Socialists are inspired by the self organisation and disregard for capitalist normality that came through in the crisis. Governments need to better resource fire fighting and controlled burning groups and organise their cooperation more effectively. Stronger building codes, revised policies on when to leave, better notification systems are all needed.
For socialists our focus is clear — tackling climate change by reducining greenhouse gas emissions is the only long term answer to increased bushfire risk.