Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saturday Morning Musings - blogs and fires

Photo: Australian fire storm.

Another Saturday morning, another blog catch-up, more musings.

To begin with, it looks as though this blog will cruise through the 19,000 visitor mark some time today or tomorrow.

Looking back, visitor 15,000 arrived on 31 July, visitor 16,000 on 2 September, visitor 17,000 on 16 September (this was helped by a burst of APEC related traffic), visitor 18,000 on 11 October. I really am quite happy with this.

I am especially happy with my small group of regular readers. There were 38 repeat visitors over the last six days. Further, 14 of the last 20 posts attracted a comment. How can I complain about that? I don't! I am just happy that it happens.

There were a couple of things in the blogging world that pleased me during the week. My thanks to Legal Eagle for her compliment to the " inestimable Jim Belshaw". My thanks, too, to Neil for pointing out that I had scooped the Sydney Morning Herald front page with my post on the Great Rudd.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly given just how small Sydney really is, I was chatting to Jacob Taylor last night at the International House candle dinner, another of those handbag events that I go to because Denise is chair of council. Not complaining, mind you. I always enjoy them.

Jacob is from Harden and is doing anthropology. Turns out that he is the video producer's cousin!

Email exchange during the week with Bruce Hoy. Bruce and I were at the Armidale Demonstration School together, and he sent me a whole list of new names to go with our fifth class photo. Now I have some updates to do.

Email exchange also with Rafe, including some very interesting autobiographical material on his part as well as links to some of his writing on Karl Popper. Rafe has also sent me an interesting article on the cultural cringe in Australia. Or was there?

From a personal perspective I found the idea of a cultural cringe very strange indeed at the time. I just did not understand why. I suppose the reality at the time came back to the question as to who you measured yourself against and in what field. I think that this is worth some posts at some point.

A comment on the New England Australia blog from Petering Time led me to a new New England political blog, North Coast Voices. It's still a bit raw, but do have a read.

If you do, you will see that the political stance is a tad different from mine. But I really was very pleased to see it. There are just too few New England blogs in general, political blogs in particular. As I have said before, how can you have a debate on issues if there is no one to debate with?

Neil's Friday poem. I have been letting the side down here in not responding.

California bushfires. Again a post from Neil led me to a post by Kanani. It provides an interesting on the ground account and is well worth a read. However, all the discussion raised a different issue in my mind, a comparison between the US and Australia.

The thing that triggered my interest was the stories of the mass evacuations, apparently a million people. So I assumed that we were dealing with something on a scale that we have never seen, although this did not seem to fit with the small number of firefighters, only 9,000. Large I know, but no more than have been mobilised here at times.

Then I found out that evacuations were mandatory. Now this is completely different to Australia and got me wondering.

The first issue is to try to identify the differences between their fires and our very big fires.

One issue is obviously the much greater population that means more people are affected in an absolute way. This must make it harder to defend property.

A second issue is the fuel. Now here from the little I know I would have thought that there was more fuel in Australia as compared to California. Our gum trees really burn, and there are a lot of them.

Terrain is a third issue. There appear to be a lot of narrow ravines, with many more houses perched at the top. Fire can travel up hills like a rocket because it creates its own draught. But I am not sure that this is a complete answer.

When I look at all this, I come back to three organisational issues.

The first is to get out early or too stay and fight. Your choice. All this comes back to evidence accumulated over time that a house defended in the right way is more likely to survive, and that the peak danger lies in getting out late. Very few people have been killed defending their property simply because houses burn more slowly. Get inside until the fire path passes, and you are likely to be okay.

The second is the mass education that has taken place in bush fire prone areas over many years about what to do to reduce the dangers from fire. I think that the Australian experience has been that from the start of an education program it can take ten years sustained publicity and education before the message really gets across.

The third is collectivism vs individualism and, in the Australian context, the role of the volunteer bush fire brigades and all the other volunteer groups including the SES.

I have the strong impression that in the US people expect the National Guard to sort the problem. By contrast, the Australian volunteer system allows us to quickly mobilise thousands of people in a way that, while centrally coordinated, makes the first line of defence local.

That said, we had better not get too arrogant.

Our present volunteer system faces three problems.

The first is rural de-population, a trend that means that people are simply not there any more to maintain the system on which we depend.

The second is our increasing collective bussyness. Things like the SES or the bushfire brigades require time that is increasingly not there.

The third is the rudeness of some Australians who believe that they have a god-given right to protection and who have been known to attack the volunteers for not protecting their property before all else. If not careful, they will destroy the very thing they depend upon.

I may be wrong in all this. I would be interested in David's comments. By the way, David has a rather nice Italian recipe series running.


Neil Whitfield wrote:

Haven't we had a roaring trade exporting eucalypts? I believe California has heaps of them, and Israel. Apparently this strikes homesick Aussies quite forcibly.

Neil is, of course, correct. This caused me to dig more deeply into California and its wild fires. In turn, this led me to pose a very specific question: are there serious systemic weaknesses in the California approach to wild fires?

This was, of course, a question at the back of my mind raised by this morning's musings. Then Neil's question made me investigate more.

I think that the answer to my question is yes. Here I am not criticising the current response as such, simply saying that it appears to suffer- at least from an Australian perspective - from major weaknesses built into the system itself.

I am now writing another post to explore this issue. In doing so, I am not attacking what has been done, nor am I pretending to detailed knowledge of the US system. I am simply posing a public policy question for discussion.


ninglun said...

Haven't we had a roaring trade exporting eucalypts? I believe California has heaps of them, and Israel. Apparently this strikes homesick Aussies quite focibly.

ninglun said...

Even "forcibly!"

Anonymous said...

Everything we do has consequences. This is a concept that many have forgotten. We express a child's naivity thinking that we can structurally change our world and that everything will be ok.

The US has become a Big Box Economy. High concentrations of everything in small places. This includes retail, agriculture, residential and business. We do all this employing the cheapest short term solution to accomplish the goal in the name of productivity.

Then something happens and strangely enough we are surprised that everything is destroyed or the consequences are great. The fires are just another expression of the same bad judgement that brings us E.coli contamination in the meat supply, Vegetable recalls, lead in paint used on toys, and staph infection now prevalent not only in hospitals but schools and businesses.

Add to this that Reganomics has taken us to eliminate investments in infrastructures and agencies by the government and we have a lottery drawing with some type of disaster everyday.

California is a fire haven yet building codes have not changed to make structures less succeptable to fire (it would cost more to build the stuff) and development designs actually facilitate the damages of droughts or dry seasons (changing the layout would be less efficient and not give the same return on investment).

You note the small number of firefighters, well... All the fire fighters from the State and surrounding States were engaged, including the national guard. You see there are not anymore left to put on the fire...

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, David. I hoped to draw a comment from you.

Dealing with numbers first, is there any US equivalent to our volunteer system? This is central here not just to fires, but to most emergency responses.

Chatting to a US friend a year back, I formed the impression that there was not, that the nearest equivalent was the National Guard, a body that was both the military reserve and somehow expected to act as the first line of defence in every civil emergency.

Just to put the scale in perspective, in NSW the Rural Fire Service has over 2,000 units manned by 70,000 volunteers. So it's much easier to put large numbers in for short term responses.

The point about fire codes is interesting. My impression is that Australian building codes have changed, but it is something that I need to check.

I take the force of your broader comments. We have talked about this before.

Anonymous said...

There are volunteer fire fighters, depending on the area. I am not sure of their numbers but I would think they are pretty high outside of the major cities.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, David. Helpful point.