Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Sunday, 10 May 2009 00:10 UK

Bushfire inquiry stirs fierce debate

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Victoria

Fire damage in Kinglake
The fire-ravaged landscape is a reminder of the tragedy

Winter has come to the fire-zone of Victoria. Communities shrouded three months ago in smoke now wake up to mist.

The blackened landscape looks even more haunting and sorrowful.

In the mountain-top community of Kinglake, one of the worst affected, rebuilding is under way.

But plots once occupied by houses are still scattered with mangled metal and burnt-out cars. Large parts of Kinglake look like a rusting junkyard.

Open-air stalls manned by charity workers continue to offer relief. The local cafe is doing a roaring trade in piping-hot pumpkin soup. Over the road, the fire warning sign points to "LOW".

An hour's drive away in the state capital, Melbourne, the Royal Commission set up in the wake of the worst bushfires in Australian history is about to start hearing evidence.

But there's anger that many of the victims have not been allowed to appear in person and have had to make do with written submissions.

Acrimonious debate

This was supposed to be the "People's Royal Commission", according to the Labor state premier, John Brumby, but many feel excluded.

Out in the bush, there's also fear that the commissioners' meeting in Melbourne will be urban-centric.

Liam Sheahan
This green religion is impinging into society everywhere: Green is sacred, everything green must be upheld, you can't touch the bush
Resident Liam Sheahan

There's concern they will not emphasise what many locals see as one of the main causes of the fire: the management of the forest land and the amount of fuel allowed to build up - partly because of the influence of the environmental lobby, or "Greenies" as they are disdainfully known.

In the forefront of this most acrimonious of debates is Liam Sheahan, who has become something of an anti-authoritarian folk hero for many of his fellow bush-dwellers.

In 2002, he decided to chop down 250 of the 30,000 or so trees that surrounded his hilltop property in Reedy Creek, to protect his homestead from bushfires.

The following year, he was fined $A30,000 (£15,000) by Mitchell Shire Council for illegal clearing - a breach of the environmental regulations - and was saddled with another $A70,000 in legal costs.

Now, though, he feels vindicated, since his is the only property that remains standing. His man-made fire break worked. Seven of his neighbours' properties burned down.

Liam Sheahan's house in Kinglake
Liam Sheahan feels vindicated as his house is the only one left standing

"We were the only house standing within a 2km radius," Liam Sheahan told me.

"This green religion, if you'd like to put it that way, is impinging into society everywhere. Green is sacred. Everything green must be upheld. You can't touch the bush. You can't touch this.

"You can't pick up a stick off the side of the road. Because some little bug might be living under it."

David Packham, from Monash University's school of geography and environmental science, believes that the green agenda has been pushed too far, especially on the issue of prescribed burning: safe, controlled blazes designed to remove the fuel, such as dead leaves and pieces of bark, which bushfires feed on.

Ancient lessons

In a letter to his local paper in late January, just weeks before Black Saturday, he predicted that 1,000 to 2,000 properties would be lost and 100 people would lose their lives through high intensity fires. The final death toll was much higher, 173.

Three things determine the intensity of bushfires, says David Packham. The temperature, the wind and the fuel. The only thing that man can control is the fuel.

Here, he says, modern Australians should learn from the ancient custodians of the land, the Aborigines, who have long used fire to fight fire.

Aerial footage of fire devastation in February

"We have thumbed our noses at their practices," David Packham told me.

"They were the stewards of this land for 30-40,000 years, and we have just totally disregarded what their knowledge led them to believe, that you have to have frequent and mild fire in a lot of the Australian bush to ensure that it is healthy and safe."

He said: "We have been effectively in a fire exclusion policy here in south-eastern Australia for about the last 30 years. There's been a belief that now we have technology and helicopters and mobile phones that we can be masters of the fire. We can't."

Without the roadside vegetation many species, especially bird species, would go extinct - so there is a substantial cost
Gavan McFadzean, Wilderness Society

The state of Victoria does conduct fuel reduction burning, but government figures released last month revealed that about a fifth of the bush land targeted over the past decade remained untouched.

Last year, the state government also rejected a recommendation from a parliamentary committee that urged a tripling of annual burn-offs.

Ironically, last year was the most effective year for prescribed burning since the early 1990s, with the state target exceeded by about 20%.

But in 2005-6, the area subject to controlled burns was over 60% below the target. Sometimes the weather conditions simply are not right to safely burn. But is a green agenda also at work?

Environmental groups, like the Wilderness Society, point out that they are not opposed to fuel reduction burning in principle.

But Gavan McFadzean, the society's Victorian co-ordinator, says it has to be used selectively.

"It has to be fire under the right circumstances in the right place at the right time and for certain vegetation types because the impact on biodiversity can be extreme."

Habitat loss

One of the most contentious areas is the subject of roadside fuel.

Many people were killed in their cars as they tried to escape the fire, driving along roads lined with burning trees, leaves and debris.

Had the fuel been cleared, locals contest, lives would have been saved.

"Roadsides are the last areas of habitat that some species have," argues Gavan McFadzean, "and without the roadside vegetation many species, especially bird species, would go extinct. So there is a substantial cost."

He says that protecting lives and protecting biodiversity is a matter of fine balance. But when he appeared in a televised debate in the immediate aftermath of the fires, he was shouted down for living in Melbourne and taking an urban-centric view.

Unquestionably, the public debate is becoming increasingly polarised and antagonistic as the Royal Commission begins its evidence-gathering hearings.

City against country. Bush-dwellers against the "Greenies".

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