Federal Politics


Burning question lingers in memory of dark day

SMOKE drifting in from fires on the coast sparked a minor panic in Canberra last week. Emergency services were so inundated with calls from the public they issued a statement explaining that the smoke in the city was not coming from local blazes, but had been brought in with the afternoon winds.

Combined with Tuesday's and Saturday's potentially catastrophic weather conditions, it was a timely warning as Canberra nears the 10th anniversary of the 2003 bushfires that, like the ocean, we should never turn our backs on the threat.

While it seems from early reports that our fire crews have excelled under challenging conditions, it appears that around the country, governments are again being blamed for not keeping fuel loads under control through regular backburning.

In Tasmania, one senior firefighter pointed out 80 per cent of the burnt area was private property - and therefore the responsibility of the land owners to manage.

For a jurisdiction like the ACT with a major nature park on the city's flanks, the government is responsible for managing a significant fuel load in challenging terrain. Unfortunately, it is a task that is sometimes made more difficult by a lack of understanding by some small sections of the community.

One issue to have emerged this January from firefighters, scientists and land managers, is the public reaction to backburning. Every time authorities conduct a significant burn the phones start ringing with complaints from those who don't like the smoke.


Those with health problems obviously have a legitimate concern to raise, but the rest of us need to make a choice - we either accept some inconvenience in the quieter months of autumn and winter, or accept that we will simply run the risk of major burns reaching the suburbs if we choose not to backburn.

Our firefighters may have achieved great success in recent weeks, but there is only so much that a suppression force can achieve before being overwhelmed, as they were in 2003.

It is not fair to criticise our authorities every time they attempt to reduce the fire risk by burning, and then expect them to perform miracles when conditions turn catastrophic.

As the anniversary of our darkest day draws near this week, now is as good a time as any to restart the public debate about how much burning we as a community are prepared to accept, and what level of risk we want to place our communities at.