The burning issue: native gardens a killer on our doorstep
A liquid amber sapling untouched by fire amid burned eucalypts and pines in Marysville in 2009. Photo: Katherine Seppings
T igers are native to India. Do Indians keep tigers in their gardens? Or allow them to roam their streets? No. They could kill someone. So why do we Australians feel a compulsion to surround our houses with native plants; grow them in suburban streets? They can kill people.
This is the key to the tragedies that devastate Australia every summer; the killer, highly flammable, native vegetation that we encourage close to our homes, dominating our gardens and streets.
It is arguably the main reason Canberra suburbs burned in 2003, why bush-hugging Kinglake in Victoria was devastated in 2009, why in Tasmania, with its fine, shrubby, quickly flaring coastal vegetation set like kindling against houses, so many were destroyed during bushfires this month.
The fashion, the compulsion, the fallacy that we are advancing environmental conservation by encouraging dangerous species into our immediate surrounds is helping to destroy the homes, towns, and lives they are believed to enhance.
The danger to Canberra lives and homes in 2003 wasn't predominantly the much-blamed pine plantation. It was the highly flammable gardens and street trees, and the equally flammable mulch used on garden beds, nature strips and as a lawn substitute.
Mulch generated the bulk of the massive ember shower that destroyed 400 houses in Duffy and Chapman: burning chunks of bark chips, straw and sawdust blown by 60-70km/h winds. Along with dung pats, this fine mulch can stay alight for 15 minutes; embers of heavy wood chips can stay alight for more than 30.
Each ember-ignited, burning house added its own to the bombardment and ignited in turn other homes.
Most property losses weren't caused by the bushfire - by fire from burning bush - but by the very houses, gardens and streetscapes themselves.
We cannot prevent the bush from burning. Australia was meant to burn, will burn and should burn.
But it should not, and need not, have intense destructive wildfires raging through townships and suburbs.
It is 100 years since the first survey peg was driven by federal minister King O'Malley into the land chosen to become Canberra. Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion had designed it in the colonial style with wide tree-lined boulevards planted with exotic species such as European deciduous trees.
But in a new age, when new districts sprouted on the western outskirts in the 1960s-70s, the fashion for indigenous gardens and indigenous streetscapes had taken hold in Australian suburbia.
And with it came that great boost to the woodchip industry: the urge to mulch, mulch, mulch with pine bark.
This trend to ''go native'', which began as an environmental virtue (helping to cool the earth), has become such a threat to lives, livelihoods, health and the environment itself (through bushfire's side-products of CO2 and destruction of carbon-soaking foliage), that we must rethink the benefits of this fashion. And learn from its hazards.
We don't live in native dwellings; we don't plant native crops or eat native food. Why then the compulsion to have native gardens?
We live in European houses, grow European crops, eat European food, wear European clothes, live European lifestyles. Why not have benign, protective European trees in our gardens and streets? Many of these are supremely averse to ignition.
Even on Black Saturday, trees such as oak and ash did not ignite in Marysville. Sparks and embers landing in them can die out; they drop fewer leaves in summer. They are protective.
With the fashion for indigenous trees in our gardens, we in effect stack kindling around our houses. Build them within a pyre. Ready for a sacrificial burn.
Do residents of any country erect lone dwellings in the middle of a wild animal-infested jungle? Without at least a strong palisade and other measures to keep them out? They'd be crazy.
Australians do the equivalent. We build homes in the middle of wildfire engendering forest. Nestled within highly flammable indigenous vegetation without protective features that could ward off ember attacks and keep killer flames at bay.
If there is anything to learn from past bushfires it is that we live in a highly volatile land. We love the bush; but we must respect its summer potential. And keep it apart from our home sites.
Before 1939's January 13 Black Friday fires, timber loggers' families lived in densely forested settlements beside the mill. After so many died that terrible day, inner bush living was banned. We need to rethink the tree-change trend.
In interviews after Canberra's fires, people blamed everything from the failure of federal police computers to the ''fickleness'' of the fire. Everything but the possibility of failure from their own lack of preparation and knowledge. We need to learn about bushfire behaviour, analyse our reactions to it, and question official assumptions.
We need to unlearn the post-2009 catechism that it is always safer to flee through a ''tiger''-infested forest to escape attack. Appropriate shelter can be wiser.
In their 2010 review of fatalities in the February 7, 2009 bushfires, bushfire scientists Professor John Handmer, Damien Killalea and Saffron O'Neil found that 69 per cent of Black Saturday fatalities occurred while people were sheltering inappropriately. Rural and urban fringe dwellers must learn how to do so safely.
We need to question the indoctrination that in extreme bushfire weather ''under no circumstances will it be safe to stay and defend'', and learn from both the experts and the evidence.
The 2010 research found that of those who died trying to defend their homes, only 6.8 per cent were even minimally ''well prepared''.
We must learn to acknowledge contributory negligence.
Victorian Joan Webster is the author of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips. She blogs at bushfiresafety.blogspot.com.au