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Australians at odds over how to control wildfires

A controlled burn that got out of control has revived a long-standing controversy in Australia about the policy of fighting fire with fire.

A wildfire near a home in the Margaret River area in November. The same month, a fire started by the state's fire protection agency got out of control and burnt down 41 houses.
A wildfire near a home in the Margaret River area in November. The same month, a fire started by the state's fire protection agency got out of control and burnt down 41 houses.

MARGARET RIVER, AUSTRALIA // A jumble of charred, rubble-strewn rooms is all that remains of Tim Moore's house in Gnarabup, a coastal township in Western Australia. But what really irks him is that the blaze which destroyed his family home was lit deliberately - not by an arsonist, but by the government's fire protection agency.

The fire was a "controlled burn", carried out in in a national park north of Gnarabup last November and aimed at incinerating the shrubs and leaf litter which could fuel a wildfire.

However, the fire escaped, and burnt down 41 properties in the Margaret River area, including Mr Moore's house. No one was killed or injured. The disaster revived a long-standing controversy in Australia, the world's most flammable continent, about the policy of fighting fire with fire.

This month, a public inquiry into the Margaret River blaze concluded that the agency responsible - the state's Department of Environment and Conservation (Dec) - had underestimated the risks involved.

Ever since Europeans colonised Australia, they have been arguing about how to live safely alongside fire. Since the 1960s, controlled burning - lighting regular, mild fires to remove the forest undergrowth - has been a principal strategy.

However, some fire ecologists question whether it significantly reduces the danger of catastrophic wildfires, such as those that ravaged Victoria in 2009, killing 173 people.

Australian plants and animals have evolved with fire, and fire regenerates the landscape, but environmentalists believe some species are harmed by too frequent burning.

Mr Moore's teenage daughter, Amber, was at home on the day of the Gnarabup fire, but joined a convoy of residents evacuated by police. Rushing back to town, Mr Moore, who had been away at meetings, was stopped at a roadblock and - to his frustration - prevented from returning home.

"I've got stacks of fire knowledge, and my house was very easily defendable," he said.

The civil and structural engineer led the way through his former home, where molten lumps - a hairdryer, a bicycle frame - hinted at snuffed-out domesticity. "This was my computer," he said, pointing to one object. "I was waiting for a technician to come and pick it up and give it a service."

He crunched across his scorched back lawn. "That was a passion fruit and tomato plant. The passion fruit was just starting to climb the trellis."

One of Mr Moore's neighbours, Chris Selby, was forced to seek refuge on the beach, along with 50 or so other residents. As they huddled under the boat ramp, wet towels over their heads, the fire roared past them just metres away, singeing the dunes.

"You could feel the intense heat, and the smoke was quite overwhelming," said Mr Selby, whose house was saved, he believes, by water-bombing aircraft.

While controlled burns rarely escape quite so spectacularly, some scientists question whether the practice greatly reduces the wildfire risk.

Kevin Tolhurst, senior lecturer in fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne, says that eliminating fuel can curb fires which start in mild weather, but is less effective in the severe conditions characteristic of "mega-fires".

Mr Tolhurst also warns that an overemphasis on burning can distract from the need for better planning, house design and emergency communications. A controlled burn is "overhyped as to what it can achieve".

Others disagree, and after the Victorian fires the finger was pointed at environmentalists, with one scientist describing them as "eco-terrorists waging jihad" against controlled burning. A royal commission into the fires recommended that Victoria burn its forests far more extensively.

In Margaret River, Dec staff have stopped wearing their uniforms after being hissed at and abused in the shops. Roger Underwood, a retired forester who is chairman of the Bush Fire Front, a group lobbying for a greatly expanded burning programme, is horrified. "Dec has been looking after their fire safety for years, doing all the dirty work," he said. "They make one mistake and are crucified for it."

However, as locals point out, it was not just one mistake. On the day of the fire, another controlled burn escaped east of Margaret River, destroying 55,000 hectares of national park and state forest. A farmworker who leapt on a quad bike collided with a car in thick smoke and suffered head injuries.

The accident happened on a farm run by Stewart Scott, who was about to start the afternoon's milking when he saw flames. He and his family escaped unharmed, but they were unhappy that they were not warned the fire was heading their way.

"It came in so hot and fast, we got out just in time. We could quite easily have been roasted right there," said Mr Scott, 49, who lost up to 300,000 Australian dollars (Dh1.17m) worth of vehicles and machinery.

Many scientists advocate stricter controls to prevent houses being built in fire-prone areas. David Bowman, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Tasmania, says of the Australian bush: "These are flame forests. Do you really want to live there?"

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae