BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Chinese Vietnamese Burmese Thai Indonesian
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
    You are in: Asia-Pacific  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
LANGUAGES
EDITIONS
 Friday, 24 January, 2003, 01:27 GMT
Why Australia's on fire
Burning building
Fire in Canberra destroyed hundreds of homes
Phil Mercer

Every year Australia faces the menace of bushfires.

The hot, dry summertime climate in the south-eastern states has combined with devastating effect with one of the worst droughts on record.

Add human error into this volatile mix, and a dangerous situation can become uncontrollable.

There are claims that mismanagement, inexperience and a lack of preparation by the authorities contributed to the scale of the recent disaster in Canberra.

The community is entitled to be outraged by the handling of the firestorm

Mike Cochrane, Canberra Firefighters' Union

The leader of the city's fire fighters union, Mike Cochrane, said: "The community is entitled to be outraged by the handling of the firestorm".

Eight years ago, the authorities in the Australian capital were warned in an especially commissioned report of the urgent need to reduce the fire hazards around the city.

It appears nothing was done.

Emergency road access into national parks was not established and strategic burning of undergrowth and trees was not undertaken.

Fire expert Phil Cheney said public pressure had prevented the emergency services carrying out the necessary precautions.

"The main restriction was probably concern about the smoke and perhaps the residents disliking having the bush burnt on a regular basis around them," he said.

Some politicians have blamed forestry officials for the crisis.

Hazard reduction is not some magic panacea, some magic wand that's suddenly going to take away the fire risk

Brian Gilligan
New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service

But Brian Gilligan from the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service said no amount of preparation would have saved parts of Canberra from the most ferocious firestorm seen in 100 years.

"Periodically we have extreme fire seasons and they occur regardless of land tenure or detailed land management. Hazard reduction is not some magic panacea, some magic wand that's suddenly going to take away the fire risk," he said.

Perfect conditions

One official said the conditions around Canberra had created "the perfect fire".

Flames up to 100 metres high tore through suburban streets.

The capital's Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, has defended the emergency response and said that even if the city had "fire trucks queuing up bumper to bumper" the disaster would not have been averted.

The enormity of Canberra's wildfire crisis - four people dead and more than 500 homes reduced to ash - will lead to a major rethink of Australia's relationship with the bush and how homes can be safely woven into the delicate fabric of the forests and scrubland.

A young boy looks through the rubble of his home
Salvaging the remains of a family home

Many of Australia's native plants burn easily. The eucalypts' high oil content makes them particularly fire prone.

Vast swathes of dry grass - common in mid-to-late summer - are also extremely flammable.

Urban design

Urban design expert Dr Danny O'Hare told Sydney's Daily Telegraph that it is time Australia learned to live sensibly - and securely - in the bush.

"After the disastrous fires in Melbourne in the 1980s, people rebuilt with the same kinds of houses using the same sorts of materials. We should be learning," he said.

Fire has shaped the Australian landscape.

It is essential for the regeneration of many plant species and was the most powerful tool used by Australia's Aborigines to manage the land before European colonisation.

Recent history is littered with death and devastation caused by forest fires.

In February 1983, more than 70 people were killed in South Australia and Victoria. 2000 houses were lost.

Two decades later, Australia is one of the world's most fire-prone countries and is still at the mercy of the wildfires.

Prime Minister John Howard has warned that the bushfire threat may never be conquered.

"Nobody can give an absolute guarantee about the ravages of nature", he said.


Key stories

TALKING POINT
See also:

23 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jan 03 | Science/Nature
20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


 E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes