The Victorian Bushfires

Ben O'Neill
Issue CXCVIII - July 4, 2009
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On February 7, 2009, and in the week that followed, bushfires ignited across Victoria, in Australia.[1] The fires raged through many towns, destroying at least 1,834 homes,[2] and killing at least 209 people,[3] more fatalities than any bushfire in Australian history.[4]

Let's compare: in the 1983 "Ash Wednesday" bushfires, seventy-five people died; in the 1939 "Black Friday" bushfires, seventy-one died; in all previous bushfires in Australia, back to data on bushfires in the 17th century, there were a total of 642 fatalities.[5] In short, Australia has just experienced what is far and away the most devastating bushfire in its history.

While the immediate causes of the various bushfires are thought to include arson, discarded cigarette butts, faulty power lines, or lightning strikes, these initial fires transformed into huge infernos and spread uncontrollably across Victoria only because of extremely high fuel loads throughout the state's bushland. The reason? For years, local governments have neglected to manage fire hazards on their land in order to be faithful to the principles of environmentalism — a philosophy that contends that nature has intrinsic value that must be preserved, regardless of any use it has to man.[6] The result has been that people have sacrificed their prosperity and even survival in an attempt to preserve the unspoiled sanctity of nature.

In the case of land management, environmentalists have invoked the alleged intrinsic value of nature to oppose the controlled burning of bushland, the clearing of vegetation and the prevention of excessive fire hazards in government-controlled land and adjacent private property. They have lobbied governments to prohibit the clearing of trees and shrubs and have been eternally hostile to all attempts to reduce the "bounty of nature" that has stoked the deadly fires that have spread across Victoria.

How Environmentalism Contributed to the Bushfires

Under the influence of the philosophy of environmentalism, as well as political pressure from environmentalist groups and an "environmentally conscious" electorate, local councils have refused for years to clear the vegetation that has now served as fuel for lethal infernos. The modus operandi of these bureaucrats and their ecosupporters has been to insist on "rigorous" environmental assessments, which in envirospeak means, assessments that continue until reasons have been found to prevent any interference with the natural state of public land. In addition to perpetually stalling any clearing of trees or vegetation, government councils have also prohibited people from clearing trees and vegetation from their own property, aggressively pursuing those who break environmental-protection laws that place the "welfare" of trees above the property rights and safety of people.

In 2002, Liam Sheahan, a resident of Reedy Creek in Victoria, was prosecuted for disregarding local laws and bulldozing approximately 250 trees on his own property to make a fire break next to his home.[7] Council laws prohibited Mr. Sheahan from clearing trees further than six meters away from his house, but he went ahead with his decision to create a 100 meter fire break. During the resulting prosecution, bushfire expert Dr. Kevin Tolhurst testified on Mr. Sheahan's behalf, telling the court that the clearing had reduced the fire risk to Mr. Sheahan's home from extreme to moderate. According to Mr. Sheahan, "The council stood up in court and made us to look like the worst, wanton environmental vandals on the earth. We've got thousands of trees on our property. We cleared about 247." Mr. Sheahan's prosecution cost him $100,000 in fines and legal fees, but when the bushfires swept through his town in February 2009, his actions were vindicated — his home was the only property left standing in a two-kilometer area, while neighboring properties were destroyed. His disregard for environmental laws saved his home and the lives of his family.

Warwick Spooner was not so lucky. His mother and brother were killed as the bushfires consumed their home in Strathewen in Victoria.[8] He was in no doubt as to why the tragedy had occurred, telling the Nillumbik council, "We've lost two people in my family because you [jerks] won't cut trees down.… We wanted trees cut down on the side of the road, … and you can't even cut the grass for God's sake."[9] He was not the only one to express such frustrations, with another resident complaining to the council that her repeated requests to reduce vegetation growth on public land had been ignored.

In 2003, bushfire experts Rod Incoll and David Packham argued against planning regulations proposed to the council by environmentalist groups. These regulations, which were passed by the council, included restrictions against the removal of vegetation "and worse still, the requirement for planting vegetation around and almost over houses, as part of any planning permit to build a house in the shire of Nillumbik, so it gave the appearance from the outside of being a forest."[10]

Two weeks before the bushfires, Mr. Packham alerted Victorian residents to the critical fire conditions in the Victorian bush, warning them that bushfires could destroy between 1,000 and 2,000 homes and kill 100 people.[11] This frightening prediction may have sounded alarmist until hundreds were burned to death weeks later. During the fires, Mr. Packham followed up his predictions with an explanation of the carnage. He explained that fuel levels in public land had been allowed to reach dangerous levels due to environmentalist hostility to vegetation removal and controlled burning.

It has been a difficult lesson for me to accept that despite the severe damage to our forests and even a fatal fire in our nation's capital [the Canberra bushfires in 2003], the political decision has been to do nothing that will change the extreme threat to which our forests and rural lands are exposed.… It is hard for me to see this perversion of public policy and to accept that the folk of the bush have lost their battle to live a safe life in a cared-for rural and forest environment, all because of the environmental fantasies of outraged extremists and latte conservationists.[12]

Mr. Packham later branded environmentalists as "eco-terrorists waging a jihad" against prescribed burning, explaining that "[t]he green movement is directly responsible for the severity of these fires through their opposition to prescribed burning."[13]

As these incidents make clear, the negligent and authoritarian actions of local councils have contributed substantially to the severity of the Victorian bushfires. But they are the predictable consequence of a political atmosphere saturated with environmentalist philosophy, environmentalist lobby groups, and an electorate that views the Greens party (Australia's third-largest political party) as a benign protest vote, ideal for showing their disaffection with the major political parties. Under such pressure, local councils are faithfully implementing the philosophy of environmentalism, which requires them to reduce humanity's "footprint" on nature, and tells them that the inherent value of nonconscious entities like trees and shrubs is more important than the desires of those rapacious human beings who plunder nature for their own selfish gain.

Response to The Bushfires by Government and Environmentalist Groups

Having failed to achieve damage control in the bushfires through proper land management, the response from government officials has been a predictable game of public-relations damage control. Councils have responded to fierce criticism of their aversion to land clearance and controlled burning with promises that they will reassess their planning and environmental policies. Such promises would sound more genuine if not for the fact that problems of insufficient fuel reduction and controlled burning on public land have been well known for decades. These problems having been highlighted extensively in previous bushfire inquiries, which are a recurring event in a country as prone to bushfires as Australia.[14] For Warwick Spooner, this latest promise of review was little comfort. He told Nillumbik Mayor Bo Bendtsen, "It's too late now mate. We've lost families, we've lost people."[15]

Any attempts to increase land clearing and controlled burning to prevent bushfire damage may also face greater constraints from federal environmental laws in the near future. The Department of Environment confirmed that they have received a public submission calling for controlled burning to be listed under federal law as a "key threatening process,"[16] defined as a process that "threatens, or may threaten, the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community."[17] Listing would require the minister to consider a threat-abatement plan for controlled burning, to find the most "feasible, effective and efficient way to abate the process."[18] Already listed as a key threatening process is land clearance, including "clearance of native vegetation for crops, improved, [sic] pasture, plantations, gardens, houses, mines, buildings and roads."[19]

Meanwhile, there is no sign of any self-examination by environmentalist groups. Rather than reconsider their cherished environmental-preservation laws, which have helped fuel the fires, environmentalists have taken the bushfires as an opportunity to selectively find evidence of human-induced global warming.[20]

Proponents of this theory have been eagerly pointing out that the bushfires occurred during a heat wave across southeast Australia that has caused record-high temperatures during the summer.

Referring to Australia's especially hot weather in the last twelve years, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong assured the public that "[a]ll of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen."[21] For obvious reasons, she did not comment on whether the simultaneous record low temperatures in other parts of the world — such as the United States,[22],[23] Canada,[24] England,[25] France, Italy, Germany,[26] and India[27] — are also "what scientists told us would happen."

Rather than simply removing coercive restrictions that have prevented private landowners from clearing trees on their own property, the government is set to respond to the bushfires by imposing new coercive restrictions. This time, private landowners will be prevented from having trees too close to their property.[28] Thus, having already seized sole power to remove trees and vegetation on private property (on the assumption that property owners are too evil or stupid to be trusted with these decisions) and having thereby forced Victorian residents into a disastrous inferno through their previous regulations, the government is convinced that it is the proper decision-making body to decide when property owners can plant trees.

While this kind of thinking demonstrates the government's boundless arrogance and insatiable desire for control, the danger posed to human life from public-land mismanagement runs much deeper than the specific environmental laws and policies currently in place, or even the laws to come. The root of the problem is the philosophy of environmentalism, which permeates all land-management decisions, guaranteeing hostility to any attempts to interfere with "the balance of nature." Despite having the legal power to undertake controlled burning on its land, the Yarra Ranges Shire in Victoria refused to do this for years before it was hit by the bushfires, instead calling for "rigorous" environmental assessments to determine the breeding seasons of local flora and fauna and the effect on endangered Leadbeater's possums.[29] So long as such considerations remain above concern for human life and liberty, there is little prospect of reducing the impact of natural disasters.

How Private Land Ownership Would Reduce Bushfire Risk

Because private ownership entails the right to control one's own property, and because some people may not wish to sacrifice their lives to prevent interference with local possums, environmentalists seek to achieve their goals through government ownership of land — land socialism. In this endeavor, they have been very successful. State forests, national parks, and other Crown land in Victoria make up approximately one third of the state but contributed four-fifths of the February 2009 bushfires.[30] And as with all examples of land socialism, the situation in Victoria has created an incentive structure that has destroyed accountability, thereby exacerbating the disaster.

As mere caretakers of public land, bureaucrats and local politicians are not liable for any loss caused by their mismanagement. Nor do they have any personal stake in its capital value. When property is destroyed due to their ineptitude and their enslavement to the philosophy of environmentalism, their savings are not in danger. If anyone is required to pay for compensation, it is taxpayers who have had nothing to do with the whole mess. For the local councilor or the state or federal politician, what matters is getting the green vote, showing how "environmentally conscious" they are, and placating all those green lobby groups and media darlings that might say nasty things about them if they don't toe the line.

Had the bushland areas in Victoria been private property, the owner of the land would be subject to a duty of care to his neighbors under tort laws and would be liable for any damage caused to his neighbors' properties by his own negligence. He certainly would not be able to claim as a defense the fact that his own environmental policies make it difficult for him clear vegetation or conduct controlled burning. And as a result, he would have a strong incentive to ensure that the land is properly managed, neither plundered of vegetation to the point that it loses its capital value, nor allowed to overgrow into a dangerous fire hazard.

Had these bushland areas been regarded as unowned land, ripe for homesteading, then adjacent property owners would have been able to clear fire breaks to their hearts' content, homesteading as much land as necessary for a safe buffer between themselves and the bushlands beyond.

Had the areas of private property adjacent to these bushlands been treated as genuine private property — unconstrained by coercive regulation — then adjacent property owners would have been able to clear trees and vegetation on their own land, and build facilities to cope with bushfires, without groveling for permission from their political masters. They would not have been inhibited by mountains of regulations and armies of bureaucrats who frustrated their attempts at safety. They certainly would not have been prohibited from clearing vegetation before the fire has burned them out and then prohibited from planting trees after the damage had already been done.

The danger of bushfires and other natural disasters is ever present, but it is not a danger that we must accept passively as an immutable act of nature. It is a danger that can be managed or exacerbated. And it is a danger that is currently exacerbated by the philosophy of environmentalism and the land socialism that is used to implement this philosophy. In describing the California bushfires in 2003, Lew Rockwell diagnoses the problem:

What went wrong? The problem is in the theory of environmentalism. Under it, ownership is the enemy. Nature is an end in itself. So it must be owned publicly, that is, by the state. The state, in its management of this land, must not do anything to it. There must not be controlled burning, brush clearing, clear cutting, or even tourism. We can admire it from afar, but the work of human hands must never intervene.

Then the brush begins to gather. It piles higher and higher. Old growth rots. Uncontrolled growing leads to crowding. When the weather gets hot the stuff combusts. Then the winds blow and the fires spread. It's been the same story for several decades now, ever since the loony theory that nature should be left alone took hold.[31]

So long as governments remain under the sway of environmentalist philosophy and arrogate massive tracts of land to their own inept control, no amount of legal tinkering will prevent the next bushfire. How many more will die then?

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA Statement of Policy.

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