The burning issue that divides Australia

Wildfires are a fact of life in the outback. But when a 'controlled burn' started by the state government destroyed dozens of homes, it fanned the flames of an increasingly bitter argument. Kathy Marks meets the families who lost everything
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Leading the way through the charred ruins of his family home near Margaret River, in Western Australia, Tim Moore pauses by a pile of charcoal. "This was a beef curry I'd just made," he says, nudging it with his boot. "It was in the fridge, along with a week's worth of bolognese."

When Mr Moore, originally from Perth, moved here 20 years ago, he knew the area was prone to bush fires. What angers him about the blaze that destroyed his house is that it was started deliberately – and not by arsonists, but by the state government's fire protection agency.

The fire started out as a "controlled burn" – a procedure aimed at incinerating the dry undergrowth which can fuel a bush fire. Lit in a national park six miles north of Gnarabup, a coastal township where Mr Moore lives with his two children, it "escaped" on an unseasonably hot spring day and roared down the coast, burning down 41 properties.

Although no one was killed, the disaster revived a long-standing controversy in Australia, the world's most flammable continent, about the wisdom of fighting fire with fire. A public inquiry into the blaze concluded in December that the agency responsible, the state's Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), had underestimated the risks involved.

Mr Moore, a civil and structural engineer, was away on the day of the blaze, but his 16-year-old daughter, Amber, was at home. As he dashed back to town, she joined a convoy of residents being evacuated by police. Approaching Gnarabup, he was stopped at a police roadblock and, to his frustration, prevented from entering the township. Like many Australians who live in fire-prone areas, the 50-year-old is experienced at fighting bush fires, and believes he could have saved his home. "I've got stacks of expertise," he laments. "My house was very easily defendable."

In his former home, molten lumps – a hairdryer, a bicycle frame – hint at snuffed-out domesticity.

"This was my computer," Mr Moore says, crouching in the rubble. "I was waiting for a technician to come and pick it up and give it a service."

One of his neighbours, Chris Selby, was luckier; his airy house overlooking the ocean was saved, Mr Selby believes, by water-bomber aircraft. However, as the flames bore down on Gnabarup, he and other residents were forced to seek refuge on the beach, where they huddled under the boat jetty, wet towels over their heads. The fire raced past them, just feet away. "You could feel the intense heat, and the smoke was almost overwhelming," he recalls.

Controlled burning is supposed to emulate the frequent, low-intensity fires which were lit by Aborigines in order to stimulate edible plants, flush out prey such as kangaroos and reduce the wildfire risk. However, critics say that modern practice – which involves torching vast tracts of landscape by dropping incendiary pellets from a helicopter – is very different from ancient practices.

Some scientists question whether it significantly reduces the risk of catastrophic fires, such as those which ravaged Victoria in 2009, killing 173 people. And although Australian plants and animals have evolved with fire, environmentalists argue that many species cannot tolerate being burnt so often.

One of Australia's leading fire scientists, Kevin Tolhurst, believes that fire-control agencies rely too much on "fuel reduction", which he describes as "over-hyped as to what it can achieve".

Dr Tolhurst, a lecturer in fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne, says that the effects of controlled burning are mainly seen in mild weather, rather than in the extremely hot, dry, windy conditions associated with mega-fires. He also warns that an over-emphasis on burning can distract from the need for better planning, house design and communications.

However, others disagree, and after the Victoria bush fires the finger was pointed at environmentalists, who were described by David Packham, former bush-fire scientist with the CSIRO, the federal government's scientific agency, as "eco-terrorists waging jihad" against controlled burning.

A Royal Commission into the 2009 fires urged the state to burn far more of its national parks, state forests and conservation areas – a call applauded by Mr Packham, who insists that controlled burning is "the only effective way of managing fire".

A lobby group called the Bush Fire Front, which was set up by a group of retired foresters in western Australia, is also predicting dire consequences unless the burning programme is "greatly expanded". The Front's chairman, Roger Underwood, deplores a backlash against DEC's staff, who have stopped wearing uniforms after being hissed at and abused in the Margaret River shops.

"DEC has been looking after their fire safety for years, doing all the dirty work," says Mr Underwood. "They make one mistake and are crucified for it."

However, as locals point out, it was not just one mistake. On the day of the fire, another controlled burn escaped near Nannup, east of Margaret River, incinerating 125,000 acres of national park and state forest, and damaging a farm part-owned by Stewart and Alison Scott. Mr Scott was about to start the afternoon's milking when he saw flames sweeping towards his property. He dashed over to warn his family, but the smoke was so thick that one of his farmhands – who had leapt on a quad bike – collided with a car. The man suffered head injuries and spent months in Royal Perth Hospital.

The Scotts, whose four children were home that day, were dismayed that no one warned them the fire was heading their way. "It came in so hot and fast, we got out just in time. We could quite easily have been roasted right there," said Mr Scott, 49, who lost up to A$300,000 ( £200,000)-worth of vehicles and machinery. The fire also wiped out prime forest habitat for three endangered cockatoo species. Environmentalists such as Peter Robertson, campaign co-ordinator at the Wilderness Society, says even controlled burns can destroy young trees such as the karri, a eucalypt native to Western Australia,

Both sides of the debate call for stricter planning controls to reduce the bush-fire risk. David Bowman, professor of forest ecology at the University of Tasmania, says of the Australian bush: "These are flame forests. Do you really want to live there?"

Fighting fire with fire: controlled burns

Ever since Europeans colonised Australia, they have been arguing about how to live safely alongside fire. The prevalence of fire in the Australian landscape was noted by Charles Darwin in 1836. He wrote in his diary: "I scarcely saw a place, without the marks of fire. Whether these may be more or less recent is the greatest change which breaks the universal monotony." Early foresters tried to extinguish every blaze. But since the 1960s, the principal strategy, inspired by the low-intensity fires lit by Aborigines, has been controlled burning – lighting regular, mild fires to remove shrubs and leaf litter, in an effort to curb the intensity of wildfires.