We are often the worst fire threat
We needed no reminder of the risks our firefighters face, but we witnessed one anyway on Monday afternoon, just across the ACT border. A NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer, one of the first to arrive to battle a grassfire in Gunning, was overwhelmed as the fast-moving flames engulfed and badly damaged his tanker. Fortunately, he survived, though with severe burns to his hands and face.
With much of Australia now exposed to extreme heat, and thousands of firefighters called up to contain blazes throughout the country, it's sadly likely that more of these people – most of whom are volunteers – will be injured in the coming days. Nonetheless, they remain willing to brave this risk, and to be away from their families, to protect their communities. We are indebted to our professional and volunteer firefighters, especially in threatening times such as these. On a dry, fire-prone continent such as Australia, we simply could not function as a society without them.
Yet it's wrong to assume that preventing bushfires is solely the domain of emergency services. We must each make a contribution. For many of us, that will mean removing inflammable debris from our properties and preparing emergency kits in case our homes lose power. It may also mean checking on the welfare of our neighbours and of those too old to care adequately for themselves.
But while many of us will take personal responsibility for the safety of ourselves and our community, others won't. A disturbing truth about bushfires in this country is that as many as half, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, are caused by humans, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes, the cause may be a relatively innocent act, such as campers believing they had put out a fire when they had left it smouldering. Other fires are the result of careless idiocy: smokers who flick cigarette butts from car windows into dry, roadside grass; louts who leave broken bottles for others to pick up, allowing the glass shards to magnify the sun's rays. There are darker causes, too: those damaged souls, arsonists, who gain pleasure from watching fire wreak havoc.
Our warming climate is becoming less forgiving of such acts of stupidity and criminality. This week, a national average maximum temperature record was set. It is a glimpse of our future. Extreme heatwaves such as this week's will be more common, increasing our exposure to the threat of bushfires. This imposes a greater responsibility on all of us to stamp out behaviour that imperils our community. What some may dismiss as mere litter could be the spark that destroys a home, even a life.
In the meantime, we hope Australia escapes this crisis without further harm and loss of property. We hope, too, even if against probability, that none of this week's damaging blazes were the result of a deliberately harmful act by a fellow citizen.