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Whose Fault Is A Fire?

Bushfire Blame Pinned On Public

More than half the bushfires fought in recent months started on private property but escaped onto public land, according to a "blame sheet" of figures compiled by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

... "While it is difficult to ascertain the causes of the fires which started on other tenures, national parks and reserves were certainly impacted by these fires."

... The president of the NSW Farmers Association, Mal Peters, said grazers and farmers knew best how to manage the land.

... He rejected the argument that drought, high summer temperatures and lightning strikes created ideal conditions for fires.

... Nine farmers [who have filed a lawsuit], whose properties adjoin Goobang National Park, north of Parkes, say that if the parks service had done more hazard reduction and fought the fire more aggressively it would not have escaped the park and damaged their land.

I've quoted a lot to give the context of the conflict, but what I found really interesting was the fourth paragraph above. The government position is a blend of social and natural explanation. They attribute the ignition of the fires that spread from private to public land to the human activity of prescribed burning, but they emphasize the role of nature -- specifically climatic conditions -- in making the resulting fires a serious hazard. The farmers, on the other hand, seem to be opting for a thoroughly social explanation.

The farmers' argument seems to be in part a strategy for rhetorically taking control of the environment. They can emphasize the ability of the members of their group to handle the land, while putting the government at fault. I suspect this is related to a fear of regulation -- in order to argue against interference in their land use practices (by the government), farmers need to be able to assert that their practices are responsible and sufficient for addressing any problems that may occur.

The government, meanwhile, is haunted by its lack of omnipotence. The social contract charges the government with taking care of society, and thus opens it to criticism when society is not taken care of. The problem can be dodged if the blame for the failure can be shifted to an outside factor, such as climate, that's beyond anyone's control. Thus, there's an incentive to play up the natural side of things -- and indeed, in most government reports on fires that I've read, the role of nature takes center stage.


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