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Friday, 17 December 2021 02:43

Firestorm by Greg Mullins

Between July 2003 and January 2017 Greg was Commissioner, Fire and Rescue, NSW. Being a former employee is an advantage when he speaks out publicly because public servants are not so encouraged. He is the person who organised Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), a group of 34 past fire chiefs and experts who implored our Prime Minister to meet with them and understand the predictions for the 2019-20 fire season. Self-funded, they eventually managed a meeting with Ministers Taylor and Littleproud after some adverse media coverage.

This is an exciting adventure story of a local young man fighting fires all around Sydney’s North Shore, until chapter four. He applied for and received a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, as government agencies have no funds for R&D overseas travel, and observed bushfire control in England, France, Spain, Canada and the USA.

Californians do it in style! Within hours a small town would be set up: command units, catering units, shower and toilet bocks, busloads of experienced firefighting prisoners, T-shirts naming the fire for sale; and of course water-bombing aircraft and experts form Alaska, Colorado and Florida. The Oakland Fire Department had a novel prevention strategy, namely, that homeowners with a heavy fuel load could hire a ‘goat man’ to lose his herd of goats to effectively eat the fuel.

Throughout the book Mullins notes changing weather conditions in Australia and around the world. People have to accept that what worked in the past will not suffice in the hotter, drier future. Following the 1994 fires, a fire brigade station officer brought us the community fire units so familiar to us around the suburbs.

Enabling homeowners to wet down the bush, prepare their homes and emerge after the fire to put out small fires and embers, community fire units were decisive in the 2002 fires in Lane Cove in saving houses.

It is not the ‘much-derided so-called greenies who are the real canaries in the coal mine…it’s our farmers and primary producers’ [p145]. They suffer first from climate change. The account of ELCA’s attempts to meet with the Prime Minister from April 2019 made my hair stand on end. The Murdoch press personally attacked Greg Mullins and the former Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner; the federal government held back two tranches of funding until December and January when it was, of course, too late to source additional aircraft from overseas. Even then-current Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, was vocal, and noted that the PM had not warned him of unilaterally calling out army reservists to help fight the fires.

Mullins debunks the five biggest myths promulgated on social and other media destined to deflect attention from worsening climate change: in fact, Greenies never had control of decision-making on hazard reduction burning; we have not had weather conditions like this before; arsonists did not cause those fires; grazing in national parks does not reduce fuel loads - cows don’t eat many branches, twigs, bark, eucalyptus leaves and bark; we have not had worse fires before. Mullins then tells what the experts really said, basically that climate change is exacerbating fire danger.

He gives short, medium and long term directions to save ourselves. Some are as obvious as mandatory smoke alarms; cigarettes that self-extinguish in dry grass; and sprinkler systems in aged care facilities.

Unfortunately the book has no index. However, dates and names are precise; there are 109 references as well as appendices on factors affecting fires, fire dynamics, and finally, a word on how the ANZACs might view our disregard for facts.

Reviewed by Margery Street

Published in STEP Matters 213

There are many books on the environment, as you will see if you scan the shelves of bookshops like Kinokuniya, Abbeys or the Botanic Gardens. Many are well written too, vividly conveying an author's enthusiasm and love of nature though usually with guarded warnings about the future. But I stumbled on one recently that's exceptional. Written by Tony Juniper, long time campaign head and rainforest guru for Friends of the Earth and currently of WWF, it covers a vast spread of information on this precious global asset.

Juniper describes and highlights the enormous diversity of flora and fauna in rainforests both tropical and temperate, of which many people are already aware of course, but what I found compelling were the insights into the negative effects of clearing of rainforest on the mistaken philosophy that rainforest stands in the way of progress. This has effects not only on diversity but also on climate. He highlights research on the cyclical relationship of transpiration and rainfall, pointing to the enormous surface area of foliage available for evaporation – far more than if the same area were covered by water. He also, alarmingly, points to increasing drought in cleared land, and in agricultural land, savanna, and semi desert up to thousands of kilometres from retreating forests. (And yet we still allow tree clearing in this drought-ridden country?)

The diversity of course includes the traditional inhabitants, dismissed as of little consequence or an obstacle by European settlers and governments, from Theodore Roosevelt's ‘tenantless wilderness’ to our very own terra nullius. The chapter on the Amazon Basin is particularly illuminating because it highlights how the original people farmed the fertile flood plains, not by wholesale clearing but by retaining the canopy trees because they protect and enhance the soil and its moisture and fertility. Rainforest crops like cocoa and coffee grow best in protected settings. Wholesale clearing to plant oil palms and soya beans however is already having alarming consequences. (I rummaged through the pantry and fridge to see if we had anything containing palm oil to chuck; and then what about soya products?)

Tony Juniper is a veteran and very effective environmental campaigner and appears to have sufficient people skills to get opposing factions onside, despite being arrested and marched off at gunpoint in Davos. This includes both big business, politicians and land managers, including indigenous ones, and there is hope for the future beginning to dawn, but a lot more progress needs to be made, and soon!

This book is a must-read for politicians and land managers, especially many of the former! Oh, and Prince Charles gets a guernsey for his forest support – a good choice for future king I think!

Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth's most Vital Frontlines by Tony Juniper, Profile Books, London, 2018, 448 pp

John Martyn reckons this is the best environmental book he has ever read!

Published in STEP Matters 197

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