Victorian bushfire disaster: Lives sacrificed to save money

By Shua Garfield

The official death toll from the Victorian bushfires was 210 by February 23. At least 7500 people have been left homeless by the fires, which began on February 7, after over 2000 houses were destroyed. At least 1500 farm buildings, 25,600 tonnes of stored fodder and grain, nearly 1000 hectares of standing crops, fruit trees and vines, and thousands of sheep, cattle and other livestock were destroyed.

Speaking to a February 22 memorial service in Melbourne, Victorian Premier John Brumby described the fires as “the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history”. However, while fires are a “natural” part of the Australian bush, it is either childishly naive or wilfully dishonest to blame the associated humanitarian disaster on nature. Society has the technical capacity to avoid the vast majority of the casualties caused by these events, but such measures are simply not a capitalist priority. The system prioritises private profits and government “fiscal responsibility” more than human lives. That is as much to blame for this disaster as it was for other disasters similarly blamed on nature, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

‘Stay and defend’

Questions have been raised regarding official advice to households threatened with bushfires — the remarkably vague “stay and defend or leave early”. According to this advice, people faced with an approaching bushfire should either leave their houses “early” (whenever that is) or, if they have a plan to defend their house, stay and implement that plan. Announcing a royal commission into the bushfires on February 9, Brumby admitted: “There is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn’t matter, their house was just incinerated”.

The reasons for this are explained in a scathing criticism of proposals to introduce “stay and defend” in California by Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents 294,000 firefighters and paramedics in the US and Canada. In the January 23 Los Angeles Times, before the Victorian bushfire crisis, Schaitberger wrote that “stay and defend” involves “asking homeowners to pretend that a government education course on fire risk would provide them sufficient training to protect themselves and their property during a wildfire, thereby requiring fewer professional firefighters to be deployed.

“Hearing anyone suggest that homeowners should not get out of harm’s way is appalling. Hearing a public safety professional make the suggestion is shameless. Stay-and-defend is clearly a half-baked idea from people who believe that saving money is more important than saving lives.”

Schaitberger wrote: “Stay-and-defend has had limited success in the Australian bush, where the tactic has been used for some time. But it has also led to disaster …”. The reason for “limited success” in Australia, according to Schaitberger, is the extremely sparse population in large parts of the outback, which “would not translate to a state as populous as California. It would thrust thousands of homeowners in the path of raging wildfires without proper equipment or training ...”

However, large semi-rural parts of Australia surrounding major cities are becoming more like the California that Schaitberger describes: “The state’s population continues to grow … and more residents are staking their claim in rural areas, where wildfires are becoming more frequent and more dangerous”. This expansion of the semi-rural population is largely driven by high property prices in urban centres — a result of property speculation and the failure of capitalist governments to invest in public housing and control housing prices. High prices have forced many working-class people to search for affordable housing on the outer fringes of cities or beyond. Property developers have been keen to cash in on this need, buying up relatively cheap semi-rural property and developing it in the poorly planned and poorly regulated manner typical of capitalist industry.

Climate change

Schaitberger’s statement that in California “wildfires are becoming more frequent and more dangerous” will also increasingly apply to Australia because of climate change — a problem caused by capitalist industrial pollution, not by nature. Again, government policies designed to protect capitalist profits are exacerbating the problem. Peter Marshall, national secretary of the United Firefighters Union (UFU), highlights this in a February 12 open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Brumby: “[W]e are gravely concerned that current Federal and State government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events.

“Consider the recent devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a ‘low global warming scenario’ will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every 5-7 years by 2020, and every 3-4 years by 2050, with up to 50% more extreme danger fire days. However, under a ‘high global warming scenario’, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect an up to 230% increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for up to a massive 221% increase in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted once up to every 8 years. Given the Federal Government’s [commitment to only] 5% greenhouse gas emissions cuts [by 2020], the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.

“… Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge State and Federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

“Unfortunately, however, the scientists are advising that no matter what we do, a ‘low global warming’ scenario is almost inevitable, and so we must be making fire plans accordingly … Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the ‘low global warming’ scenario of a 25% increase in extreme fire days — and catastrophic fire events every 5 years — in major Victorian country locations in just under 12 years’ time. Likewise, when the scientists tell us that under a ‘low warming’ scenario in 2020, Wagga faces ‘very extreme’ events every 2 years warning bells must surely be ringing.”

Official neglect

Marshall notes one of the reasons “existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the ‘low global warming’ scenario”: “As cities expand into formerly rural areas and ‘growth corridors’, many volunteer brigades find their new members have full-time jobs in the city and all the pressures of urban life, and therefore less time to devote to firefighting”.

In rural Victoria, firefighting is the responsibility of the Country Fire Authority — made up almost entirely of volunteers. While the self-sacrifice of volunteer firefighters reflects the best of human solidarity, it is scandalous that the capitalist state does not fund a much larger professional firefighting force outside the urban centres. Even in urban centres — where the capitalists’ need to protect their expensive property and infrastructure means they are willing to fund a sizeable, permanent, professional firefighting force — the Victorian UFU has complained of failures to replace outdated equipment and firefighters waiting for up to five years for new protective clothing.

Failure to improve firefighting services is only part of a pattern of government neglect in the face of warnings of increased bushfire risk. The “warning bells” that Marshall refers to were ringing years ago. The CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology released joint reports in 2005 and 2007, both predicting increased fire danger due to climate change. Their 2008 joint report warned that what are now classified as exceptionally hot years would become the norm, making drought a permanent part of the Australian environment. Much of south-eastern Australia has already been affected by drought for the past seven years.

Despite these warnings and the recommendations arising from a federal inquiry into Canberra’s 2003 bushfire disaster, little has been done. For example, development of an early-warning telephone alert system — recommended by the 2003 Canberra bushfire inquiry — has stalled. Despite an initial trial in 2005, slow government legislative action and uncertainty over who would pay the costs, estimated at $10-12 million, have prevented implementation.

There is little excuse for these failures. Socialist Alternative writer Andrew Cheeseman pointed out in a recent online article: “What Australia spends on the military in just one week (around $400 million) could easily fund one thousand full time firefighters for a year, plus many new fire brigades and fire trucks. And a mere 2 per cent of the $6.2 billion granted in handouts to the car industry could fund a national early warning system that would see aerial monitoring of fire danger areas during medium and high fire risk periods, and infrastructure built to set off alarms in rural towns when evacuations are recommended.”

There is little excuse for the failure to prepare adequately for the emergency in the weeks leading up to it. Again, the “warning bells” were ringing. Much of Victoria had experienced little or no rain since early January. The record-breaking heat wave, which created the conditions for firestorms, started on January 28 — 10 days before the fires. As early as January 22, the Bureau of Meteorology was warning of serious bushfire risks. By February 5, it was warning that February 7 might see the worst bushfire weather in the history of fire danger ratings. But no preparations were made to evacuate residents or establish safe havens where threatened residents could take refuge.

An example of disaster management

More resources are needed for disaster prevention and management in Australia. However, successful mitigation of disasters is not simply a question of technical resources. Cuba — with around one-tenth the per capita GDP of Australia — has a uniquely efficient and successful program to deal with the increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes it faces. In Cuba, where capitalist power was abolished by the 1959 revolution, saving lives is prioritised over cost-cutting and profiteering. An education system and mass grassroots organisations that embody the values of human solidarity give Cuba the capacity to plan and coordinate large population movements far more effectively than capitalist societies, which condition people to think and act as atomised individuals.

In Cuba, the entire population is educated from an early age about the dangers of hurricanes, how to understand information from the Cuban Institute of Meteorology and how to react in case of an alert. Every year, risk assessments are made in each locality by the Committees in Defence of the Revolution and other mass organisations and evacuation plans are updated with grassroots involvement. Lists of people with limited mobility are compiled so that their evacuation can be planned. At the beginning of each hurricane season there are nationwide two-day training sessions in risk reduction, which include simulation exercises.

As soon as a hurricane alert is activated, the authorities organise evacuation, including public transport, to safe areas. Schools and hospitals are converted into shelters. Television and radio inform the public of any changes in the level of alert. All institutions are mobilised 48 hours before the hurricane is predicted to hit the island.

Because of this mass organisation, Cuba regularly weathers hurricanes that kill hundreds in neighbouring countries with few, if any, deaths. In 1998, the category 4 Hurricane Georges, which killed nearly 600 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, killed only four people in Cuba. The 2004 category 3 Hurricane Charley again killed only four in Cuba while 29 perished in Florida.

Last year, Cuba was hit by two category 4 hurricanes within 10 days, Gustav and Ike. Over the course of the two storms, more than 3 million Cubans were evacuated to safety. Most stayed out of harm’s way with relatives, while the rest were transported to well-stocked government shelters staffed by doctors, nurses, social workers and even veterinarians to care for pets.

Although half a million homes were destroyed or damaged by the two storms, not a single human life was lost in Cuba to Hurricane Gustav, and only seven deaths resulted from Ike. By contrast, an estimated 600 people were killed by the two hurricanes in neighbouring capitalist Haiti, where indiscriminate deforestation by poverty-stricken farmers led to catastrophic flooding. In the US, Hurricane Gustav killed 53 people (despite dropping from category 4 to category 2 between leaving Cuba and arriving at the US coastline) and Hurricane Ike killed 112 people.

A socially just and rapid recovery from the storms has been possible because Cuba’s socialist state guarantees social welfare through public, democratic ownership of most of the country’s wealth and resources. With the help of revolutionary Venezuela, the Cuban government is replacing lost houses with petrocasas — environmentally friendly, hurricane-resistant houses made from by-products of the oil-refining industry. Contrast this to Australia, where people have to wait for payouts from private insurance companies to rebuild their homes or buy new ones — if they have insurance at all (around 20% of those affected don’t, according to a February 23 article in Asia Insurance Review).

Capitalist politicians have attempted to blame the bushfire tragedy on everyone from arsonists to environmentalists. The arsonist scare is being used to erode civil liberties, with police programs such as South Australia’s “Operation Nomad” involving harassment of “suspected arsonists” — including people who have never been convicted. While arson is suspected in some of the fires, others are known to have been started by lightning strikes. Environmentalists are blamed for encouraging increased forest reserves — where fuel for fires may build up — avoiding the blame on the government for failing to organise systematic burnoffs to reduce fuel loads (as was reccomended 70 years ago by a royal commission into the 1939 Ash Wednesday fires). The function of this blame game is to deflect real blame from capitalism — the system that allows natural emergencies to become social disasters through neglect of social welfare and which exacerbates these disasters through climate-altering pollution and irresponsible development.