California and Australia share a common enemy: overzealous environmental regulation. In both places, the unintended consequences of a radical environmentalist agenda has been massive wildfires.
California suffered from two horrible fire seasons in the last three years, one of which burned down an entire town. Australia has been battling fires for months. More than 135 fires are still burning currently. So far, the fires have scorched 12 million acres, killed 25 people, caused 240,000 Australians to evacuate their homes, burned alive an estimated half a billion animals, and caused $3.4 billion worth of damage.
The big question isn’t necessarily how these wildfires started. In both cases, most of the fires were likely man-made, whether through downed electrical lines in California or arsonists in Australia. The real question, however, is what factors have contributed to making these fires into “mega catastrophes,” or fires that cause over a billion dollars of damage?
Many on the left will name climate change as the bogeyman. For example, a recent opinion article in The New York Times reads, “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide.” Yet more evidence points to failed environmental policies.
This isn’t to say weather or climate doesn’t create dangerous fire conditions. Droughts create drier conditions, and hot air worsens wildfires, but there is even contention over the supposition that Australia is hotter and drier now than in the past. One researcher argues that, with a few exceptions, most of Australia has become wetter since 1910.
Climate alarmists also point to the fact that Walgett, Australia, reached 112 degrees last month as evidence that Australia is getting hotter due to climate change. Admittedly, this is hot, too hot, but for Walgett it isn’t unheard of. For example, in 1903 Walgett reached a record 120 degrees, and in December 1883 the temperature was 118 degrees. So if the weather or the climate hasn’t changed, what has?
Fighting Wildfires Is an Old Art
Western Native Americans knew how to prevent wildfires. They employed a practice known as controlled or prescribed burns. The California Environmental Protection Agency says, “[P]rescribed burning is the intentional use of fire to reduce wildfire hazards, clear downed trees, control plant diseases, improve rangeland and wildlife habitats, and restore natural ecosystems.”
As researcher Charles E. Kay argued in a paper on the topic, not only were low-intensity fires a norm in Western forests prior to European settlements, but it has now been discovered that native people purposely set those fires.
The same thing has been discovered in Australia. In his book “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How the Aborigines Made Australia,” historian Bill Gammage wrote that the Aborigines’ strategy of land management “was active, not passive.” Of their management style, Gammage wrote, “The chief ally was fire.” He argues their burning method was not random or haphazard, but planned and predictable. Fires needed to be spaced appropriately and planned with particular terrain and climate in mind.
Putting Climate Change over Land Management
Yet in the Australia of today, the environmental lobby would prefer to prioritize climate change legislation instead of commonsense land management. According to a recent New York Post article, bureaucratic obstruction is largely to blame for preventing local firefighters from being able to perform prescribed burns to reduce ground fuel.
According to Australian Capital Territory foresters, climate change isn’t to blame for Australia’s fires, but “long unburnt fuels in national parks.” The same could be said of many of California’s recent wildfires, as previously reported here. Not only were prescribed burns foregone for a strategy of fire suppression, but timber removal from national forests sharply declined due to environmental regulations.
As the New York Post reported, the Australian Green Party has been against prioritizing hazard-reduction for decades in favor of what they call “bio-diversity.” Never mind that the initial blaze from a forest fire produces more carbon emissions than 1.1 million cars do in an entire year, according to U.S. Forest Service ecologist Leland Tarnay. Pep Canadell, a lead scientist with Australia’s national research agency, estimates that the fires from Australia have already emitted 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is only 140 million fewer tons than Australia generally emits each year, reports NPR.
Not only did the Australian government neglect the management of public land by not doing enough prescribed burns or removing enough timber from the forests, but it has also, though strict laws and harsh penalties, actively prevented its citizens from taking care of their own private property. According to the Harbinger Daily, “[I]n large parts of Australia, it remains illegal to remove trees from your land even in order to create fire breaks and protect your property.”
Politicians Must Step Up
Examples of the government’s despotic enforcement of unreasonable environmental policies are numerous in Australia. For example, when an electrical authority cleared a 200-foot-wide firebreak to protect high-voltage lines, four government agencies sued the authority and fined it $1 million, the New York Post reported. A year later, when a fire swept through New South Wales, this firebreak was the only safe haven for numerous animals and three forest workers.
Additionally, a Queensland landowner was forced to pay almost AUS$1 million in fines for making his firebreak too wide. One family in Victoria, fined AUS$50,000 in 2009 for making a firebreak, now feels vindicated after their house was one of the few to survive a fire.
The results of these policies and regulations — uncontrollable, devastating fires — have been broadcast on television screens across the world for months. The sad thing is that these fires are neither a surprise nor an inevitability.
In 2015, bushfire scientist David Packham warned that poor forest management would lead to what we are seeing today. In a submission to the state’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management, he argued that if annual fuel reduction were not doubled, there would be a massive fire, yet the government continued to do the bare minimum prescribed burning. He also said forest fuel levels had climbed to their most dangerous level in thousands of years.
Despite common sense, the historic record, and scientific evidence, leftist environmentalists would fight and protest for a utopia we will never see, while the world burns. California and Australia need to rid their land management policies of destructive and cumbersome bureaucratic red-tape, despite the inevitable backlash from environmental ideologues. Politicians should remember it is better to lose an election than not to have a state or a country to govern. After all, what is a king without a kingdom?
Krystina Skurk is a research assistant at Hillsdale College in D.C. She received a Master’s degree in politics from the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. She is a former fellow of the John Jay Institute, a graduate of Regent University, and a former teacher at Archway Cicero, a Great Hearts charter school.
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