Australia: Bushfires

A disaster worsened by capitalism

The death toll from Victoria’s bushfires, in south eastern Australia, currently stands at 170 and could rise – this is Australia’s worst natural disaster, much worse than the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 when 47 people died.

The dead include retired Channel 9 newsreader Brian Naylor and his wife. Dozens more people are suffering from serious burns and smoke inhalation. On top of the tragic deaths and injuries, more than 750 homes have been destroyed and at least 330,000 hectares of land has been burnt. Residents have compared the scenes to the aftermath of a nuclear war.

The bushfire disaster has shown some of the best examples of human solidarity coupled with some of the worst examples of the failure of a profit driven system. Heroic stories of ordinary people saving the lives of strangers are just starting to emerge. One off duty nurse has told of having to administer first aid to burns victims in a makeshift shelter because help failed to arrive.

Temperatures across eastern Australia soared into the high 40’s (degrees celsius) over the weekend. The heat was unbearable in the urban centres but it was like hell on earth in rural areas where one resident described it as “raining flames”. At one stage more than 400 fires were blazing in every part of Victoria and almost 60 fires were also burning across New South Wales.

The drought of recent years, and higher temperatures due to climate change, has led to a marked increase in the amount of bush fires. Victoria has recorded its lowest rainfall levels on record which has meant that bush undergrowth is bone dry. While there is no doubt that the drought has contributed to the bushfires, it is also true that much of the devastation could have been prevented.

The State and Federal governments have attempted to lay the blame for the fires on arsonists. While a few of the fires may well have been started by ‘fire bugs’ the vast majority were a result of the extreme conditions. The question is did the State and Federal governments do everything in their power to mitigate the worst effects of the fires?

For years rural communities like those in Gippsland, Kinglake and Bendigo have been hit hard by cuts to services. It has not just been cuts to health, education and transport but fire fighting and emergency services budgets have also been slashed. There is a severe shortage of doctors, nurses and emergency services staff in rural areas and this cost people their lives in a time of crisis.

At a national level government spending on bushfire research is less than $2 million a year. In Victoria the Labor State government only allocates a measly $252 million a year for rural fire prevention. For a country covered with bush and prone to extreme weather this is totally inadequate.

Cuts and lack of investment

On top of the cuts and lack of investment in prevention, rural fire fighting relies almost entirely on unpaid volunteers. The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) website states that the “CFA is one of the world’s largest volunteer-based emergency services. There are around 58,000 volunteer members supported by over 400 career fire fighters and officers and more than 700 career support and administrative staff.”

While the work of these volunteers is nothing short of amazing, the idea that less than 2% of those who fight fires in Victoria are full time professionals is a sick joke. There needs to be a massive expansion of full time professional fire fighting staff. These skilled workers need to be paid decent wages to reflect the important work that they do. Those who do the job on a part time or casual basis should also be paid proper wages.

Many of the lives, homes and natural environment that have been lost could have been saved if proper resources were made available. Blaming arsonists is just a diversionary tactic by the government. The main reason that money is not made available is because, at the moment, decisions are being made on the basis of dollars and not sense. A system based on the short term, and geared to profit, is incapable of mitigating the worst effects of bush fires. In fact capitalism has made this disaster far worse than it needed to be.

That is why if we really want to reduce the risk of death and destruction from natural disaster, it is urgent we fight to put an end to the profit driven system of capitalism. We need a system based on human solidarity, co-operation and democracy, the types of qualities that working people have instinctively shown during this disaster.

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February 2009