Flat White

The only unprecedented thing about these fires is the hyperbole

12 December 2019

1:00 PM

12 December 2019

1:00 PM

Growing up in what was then the peri-urban fringe of Greater Sydney near the boundary of the Ku-ring-gai National Park, I was no stranger to the imminent threat of bushfire consuming my local neighbourhood. I recall in the long dry, hot summer of 1979 /80 after prolonged drought running around the backyards of neighbours’ houses, with a ragtag militia of willing local inhabitants beating down spot fires with wet blankets provided by the local volunteer fire brigade.  

This was the era of ‘stay and defend’ and at just eight I was old and willing enough to assist in whatever capacity I could. By and large, we saved much of our local community that day, although around 20 houses were destroyed in the local municipality in the wake of the devastating fires that year. Statewide, well over a million hectares were consumed by fire, with almost all local government areas across the state affected in varying degrees.  

The fires of 1979/80 were not a new experience for long term residents who had witnessed in more than half of Ku-ring-gai National Park destroyed by fire just three years earlier. The common folklore among residents attuned to living in this peri-urban environment was a significant fire was likely to lay siege to the National Park approximately every seven years.

In 1974/75, the state of New South Wales as a whole experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. By seasons end nearly four million hectares had been affected, with the largest fire, east of Ivanhoe, growing to well in excess of one million hectares and a perimeter well in excess of 1000km. Some 10 years later in 1984 and, again, on the back of prolonged drought that had helped sweep Bob Hawke into office in 1983, extensive wildfires swept through large tracts of NSW. On this occasion, 3.5 million hectares were scorched and the damage bill approached $50 million (about $150 million in today’s terms). Again in 1990/91, over 200 hundred fires were burning concurrently across the state, with nearly a million hectares affected. Emergency declarations were in place for heavily populated regions of Hornsby Shire, Warringah Shire and Gosford Shire.  

Just three years later, in 1993/94, over 800 fires raged across the state of NSW from Batemans Bay to the Queensland border (sound familiar?) in a three week period from late December of 1993 into mid -January of 1994. At the height of the operation to combat the fires over 20 000 firefighters, many drawn from other countries around the world were deployed concurrently.  

Fast forward to the summer of 2000/01 when, in my capacity as a volunteer firefighter with the RFS, I spent weeks battling a campaign fire that affected and encircled much of greater Sydney. Indeed, the areas that we were deployed to, between Putty and Mangrove Mountain and within Yengo National Park are some of the same areas that are once again alight as this goes to print. The very next year, and Sydney experienced the ‘Black Christmas’ fires, at which time localities within the Sydney suburbia, such as Lane Cove came under threat as fires tore through 750 000ha over a three to four week period. The subsequent year, in 2003, Kosciuszko National Park and surrounds witnessed the deployment of over 4 000 firefighters to combat a wildfire that ultimately consumed nearly two million hectares and 550 homes.  

In light of this history, one may be compelled to ask, ‘so what has changed?’ in the period from the seventies up until the fires that afflict NSW in 2019. And the simple answer based on statistics and the facts is nothing. Except that is, for how our beloved friends in the mainstream media, especially the ABC report the facts and the degree to which people simply buy into the hyperbole without regard to the true history of fire in our landscape. In recent weeks as much of the fires in Northern NSW have petered out to a smoulder with the arrival of some welcome rains, the ABC has been bending over backwards to paint a picture that the metropolis of Sydney itself is under imminent threat in a bid to create as much climate change related hysteria as it can possibly muster. This despite the nearest fire of any significance being well over 120 kilomeres as the crow flies from the city CBD.

As the history above shows, the suburbia of Sydney has been under far greater immediate threat numerous times over recent decades than it is in 2019. Here is how the climate activists at the(ir) ABC reported the fires as recently as this weekend past “NSW ‘mega-fire’ is on Sydney’s doorstep… ‘Worst ever’ and ‘unprecedented’ have become the new norm this bushfire season…”

Except of course neither hyperbolic descriptor is true. As it stands, approximately two million hectares have been burnt across NSW so far this fire season, with likely the worst of it already past. This is, without doubt, a bad fire season for the state, but not unexpected in light of NSW being the epicentre of the current drought. This figure will have to double if it is to emulate the area affected by fires in 1974 and 1984.

But since when is the ABC concerned by facts when it has the opportunity to leverage hyperbole and sow the seeds of panic amongst those foolish enough to believe in its reporting, all in the name of climate hysteria?

In many contexts, purposefully propagating misinformation in order to scare people en masse would be a crime. Maybe it’s about time Auntie was made accountable.  

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