Australia — Save the trees campaigners have been so successful they have beenaccused by two former fire chiefs of contributing to the Victorian bushfirecrisis by stripping the forests of workers.
Athol Hodgson – chief fire officer with the VictorianDepartment of Conservation, Forests and Lands from 1984 to 1986 – warned thatthe state was at risk from feral fires due to flawed policies and blinkeredpolitics.
Mr Hodgson said that in 1985 there were 111 lightning strikes in mountainouscountry that were “remarkably equivalent” to the current bushfirecrisis. But in 1985 there was a different outcome.
“They flared into about 50,000ha in the alpine area and we stopped themat that acreage without the aid of rain,” he said.
“We did it because at that time there was a very significant number ofpeople who worked in the forests and parks earning their daily bread. Thedifference now is that when fires start, that workforce is not there.”
Mr Hodgson said about 3000 people worked in the forests in the early 1980s,in forestry, the electricity commission and saw-milling. It was a condition ofthe saw-milling licences that if a fire broke out, the workers had an obligationto fight it.
“They stomped on fires very quickly and very, very effectively, and thathas all changed.”
Mr Hodgson said firefighters now had to be brought in from outside, causing acatastrophic delay. “Instead of having four or five fires running out ofcontrol, on this occasion they had about 50, and it became too big a job.”
Rod Incoll, chief fire officer for the department responsible for Victorianforests and national parks from 1990 to 1996, says funds have been stripped fromfire management, skilled foresters have virtually disappeared, and the culturethat knew how to manage fire has totally changed.
Mr Incoll said the mountainous country, where many of the fires are nowburning, “has become a wasteland. Nobody is managing it. No money is beingspent on it, nothing is being done in it”.
And he warned there would be worse to come.
“I think we’re going to cop it in the first three months of next year,”Mr Incoll said. “There’s not much we can do about it.”