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31.7.06

Blaming Environmentalists For Fires

The idea that environmentalism is responsible for bad wildfires has become one of the central rhetorical devices of contemporary green-bashing. Usually there's at least a semblance of an explanation -- environmentalism is said to have led to abandoning controlled burning and other fire control measures, so that fires easily got out of control. I don't entirely agree with that argument*, but at least it's an argument.

However, it seems that to some people have gotten to the point where saying anything about wildfires constitutes proof that environmentalism is wrong. Take this article by Miranda Devine. She attempts to use the 2003 Canberra fires as proof that environmentalists are wrong (as well as self-righteous and pushy) on the uranium mining issue. But in reading her description of the Canberra fires, it's clear that the blame for deaths in those fires lies with a flawed public communication effort by the firefighting authorities (which I think is true, though I haven't followed the investigation into these fires as closely as I could). Last I heard, poor public communication is not a central tenet of environmentalism.

* It's more true of Australia than the US (since in the US environmentalists were among the people fighting against the militarized "all fires are bad" ideology), but in both countries the picture is far more complex. I think the biggest factor in both countries is the expansion of exurban settlement, which is missed by the "blame greenies" storyline. Exurbanization 1) puts more people in danger zones, 2) fragments ecosystems and exposes them to increased ignition sources, 3) expands and spreads out the assets to be defended, complicating fire prevention and firefighting, 4) puts heavy reliance on homeowners to keep their own property in order -- but through ignorance, naivete, entitlement, and differing values they don't, and 5) leads to meddling by homeowners in fire control projects on adjacent lands because of concern over smoke, the risk of escaped controlled burns, and the aesthetic disamenities of mechanical treatment or controlled burning.

I also suspect -- though I don't have clear evidence of this -- that there are a pair of vicious cycles going on among fire authorities. On the one hand, they assume that environmentalists are against them, so they don't bother to create fire control plans that meet safety objectives as well as satisfying environmental concerns, thus provoking environmentalists to oppose those plans. On the other hand, the "environmentalists cause bad fires" storyline creates a powerful temptation to slap a fire control justification on projects that primarily serve other purposes, creating additional points of seeming fire safety vs environmentalism conflict.

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