A burning issue

roadside verges 0118 Greg Gibson

Summers in Australia are made of many memories: holiday food comas, cricket on the radio, long days by the beach or the pool, pink zinc, late afternoon thunderstorms.

They’re also punctuated by all sorts of warnings: road safety, slip slop slap, snake bite treatments, shark bite risks, how to recognise a rip, keeping safe during fireworks – the list seems endless.

Bushfires have been top of the list of summer risks for generations – but we’re now seeing fires occurring earlier and earlier each year. Dry seasons exacerbate the dangers of fires, and the past year has been one of the driest on record for many parts of our wide, brown land. Even though officially it is still only spring, we can’t be complacent, as over recent weeks bushfires have been reported across the country. Overseas,  TV news has been filled with coverage of catastrophic fires burning in California.

As we move into the summer months, we should all be remembering the summer of 2013 when a wild and windy 40C scorcher fanned fires that burned through 120,000 hectares and 170 buildings around Dunalley and on the Tasman Peninsula, with many other fires burning across the state.

Experts have confirmed that 2017 was globally one the three hottest years on record. In Australia, we experienced the hottest summer and winter seasons since 1910 when national records began. And the statistics for 2018 look likely to show a continuation of those trends.

Bushfires are a fact of life in Australia. Climate change, drier soils, and an abundance of vegetation dictate fire seasons are going to start earlier and continue longer each year. And no-one is exempt. Fires can reach into the middle of cities as well as devastate rural communities. So we all have a responsibility to be prepared.

At the start of every summer, we should all be looking at the potential hazards in and around our properties, minimising the risks wherever possible, and preparing a plan of action in case a fire blows our way.

Frustratingly, though, complacency is all too common – and, as a community, we remain frighteningly unprepared for these all-too-predictable risks.

The situation is actually worse in Tasmania than in most other states.  Well over half of the state is now owned by local and state governments – whether that be national parks, public reserves, or road verges. And these governments therefore need to understand and commit to their roles as responsible land owners – just like the rest of us.

Governments must undertake the same sort of activities as any other land-owner would to ensure fires don’t start on their property and, if they do, that there are control measures in place to minimise impacts on adjoining neighbours.

I’m not just talking now about the risks that come from unmanaged bush and forest. Although these are severe, the risk is often to farms and rural communities, and can to some extent be disregarded as ’out of sight, out of mind’. We’ve gone beyond that and lack of good management practices by governments can – and most likely will – impact on us all.

Anyone who has been for a drive lately will have seen what I mean. All across the state, road verges are overgrown, with dried vegetation just waiting for a spark to start a conflagration. Even where there has been some maintenance, it is often limited to mowing just a few metres on the edge of the road.

We all have a duty to support measures that protect our community from the ravages of bushfires and the inevitable heartache it brings. We all have a duty to minimise the risk we present to ourselves and to our neighbours.

Both state and local governments must also be held to account to meet basic land owner responsibilities – just as would be the case for any other land owner in any other situation.  This has to include management of vegetation on roadside and boundary environments, and commitment to meeting shared fencing and other rehabilitation costs.

Coming together in the face of disaster is an underpinning strength of our community. This requires recognition of shared obligations and a shared trust that everyone will do their bit. Sadly, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that point.

And that is simply not good enough.

Photo courtesy of Greg Gibson – taken on the Bass Highway.

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