Nature fights back against the invaders: Australian dream-builders ignored the power of the elements, with disastrous consequences, writes Robert Milliken

FOR the past five terrifying days, nature has taken its revenge in Australia. The firestorms that have raged for 600 miles along the seaboard of New South Wales have brought urban Australians face to face with a terrible truth about the fragility of the relationship with their ancient, rugged land.

The scale is unprecedented: more than one million acres burnt out, four people killed, hundreds injured, at least 150 homes destroyed, about 100,000 people displaced and Sydney, the country's largest city, on a war footing. As the air swirls with smoke and ash, Australians are asking how such a natural catastrophe could happen.

Even before the British colonised the shores of Sydney harbour in January 1788, fire had played a pivotal role in shaping the dry continent's landscape. For centuries, Aborigines used fire in a controlled way to drive out wildlife and allow their hunting grounds to regenerate. As European settlers expanded their frontiers, they used fire more brutally to clear land for towns and farms. In doing so, they sparked a spreading imbalance in the landscape's delicate equilibrium which has seen fire turn back on the invaders in a ferocious way many times this century.

Australia's heat and drought make it a land prone to fires, something the majority of the population, which lives along the east coast, often understands less than do outback dwellers. The country's indigenous and most predominant tree, the eucalyptus, provides ready- made fuel in the form of oil in bark and leaves that discharges into a vapour, causing explosive infernos that leap from tree to tree.

New South Wales embarked on a fire management strategy in the 1970s that involved controlled burning of selected forest areas during cooler months. In the Eighties, this was wound down after protests over smoke pollution in residential areas and objections from conservationists, who argued that the survival of some native plants and animals was threatened. So when the fires struck last week, there was a massive accumulation of unburnt fuel lining the floors of forests and national parks.

Sydney, more than any other comparable city, is built around corridors of such parks and bushland, some of which have survived largely intact since early settlement. Many of Sydney's 4 million citizens have built their great Australian dream homes in these leafy suburbs in the north and south of the city, providing a curious co-existence of humans and native wildlife in the heart of the metropolitan area.

All that was shattered last week. Freak weather, small brushfires, some started by careless humans, fuel overload and haphazard land management: once again, the clash of man and nature became a recipe for disaster. In the past few days, I have driven through fire-ravaged zones around Sydney and its inner northern suburbs.

The horrifying smoke palls over the F3 freeway north of Sydney, the 10-mile queue of stranded motorists rushing to protect their houses on the Central Coast, the bewildered faces of families evacuating their homes just six miles from the skyscrapers of Sydney's commercial centre all told the same story: the fire is always waiting to take charge if the rules are broken.

The eucalyptus trees, which have adapted to survive fires, will start sending out green shoots again from charred ruins within a fortnight. For the people, the recovery will take much longer.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk