Updated: Jan 13
Who is to blame for the bushfires in Australia? When a crisis such as the ongoing one in New South Wales happens, people are desperate for someone to blame. Often that’s a politician, a media personality, or a factor such as climate change and carbon emissions. In this specific case – and particularly on social media and even in the print media – much of the blame has been placed on the Green Party and green campaigners who, it is claimed, have put pressure on communities and landowners to stop them from practising controlled burning. It’s true that activists have protested against burning; just recently, in September 2019, a group protested in East Gippsland, where Forest Fire Management Victoria were about to carry out a planned burn. East Gippsland is currently one of the areas worst affected by the bushfire crisis.
But the Green Party claim that it’s not true that they disagree with controlled burning. In a ‘fact check’ post on their website, they state that: “The Australian Greens support hazard reduction burning (before bushfire season) to reduce the impact of bushfire when guided by the best scientific, ecological and emergency service expertise. Our policy on this is clear and hasn't changed recently.”
As the North Yorkshire Moors Moorland Organisation wrote in their letter to the Yorkshire Post, there are numerous similarities between what is happening in Australia, and what happens on the moorlands of the UK. In both places, the clearing of vegetation through cool burning is a controversial topic. In Australia, it’s clearing the undergrowth of dead leaf litter, which builds up and can help fuel forest fires such as these – although of course, a heavy fuel load is not the reason for the fires, but an exacerbating factor. Here on the moors, rotational controlled burning of heather is practiced, which allows the heather to regenerate and stimulates plant growth and, like in Australia, removes the dead undergrowth which, if wildfires do ever start, provide fuel for the fires.
What is most interesting, however, is that the Australian Greens accept that there is a place for controlled burning within the management of the Australian bush. Here in the UK, this is an conversation that is still very much ongoing. At the end of last year, environment secretary Zac Goldsmith hinted at new legislation regarding heather burning on peatlands. And again, like in Australia where arsonists have been blamed for wasting resources by starting more fires, here in the UK, self-proclaimed ‘moorland monitors’ also waste the time of emergency services, calling out fire engines when they are fully aware that the fires are both organised and fully under control.
Climate change has also been partially blamed for the bushfires; higher temperatures exacerbate the fires, while a former fire commissioner added that “warmer, drier conditions with higher fire danger are preventing…hazard reduction burning – it is often either too wet, or too dry and windy to burn safely”. While we don’t experience temperatures anywhere near those seen in Australia, it’s safe to assume that we will experience similar problems in the UK. Average temperatures are already becoming hotter and drier, leaving heather moorlands more vulnerable to wildfires. Keeping wildfires at bay is likely to become an ever bigger battle, and controlled burning a vital cog in their control.