Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Victorian bushfire commentary

Organised and united, ordinary people are the strongest force on Earth

(The following commentary on the horrific Victorian bushfires was posted on the website of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) on February 11).

The tremendous community response to the devastation of the ferocious bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales, and the floods in Northern Queensland, have once again demonstrated that ordinary people will pull together to endure every hardship and sacrifice to defend their communities in the face of disasters. Unity and practical organisation give ordinary people the confidence and power to do extraordinary things.

In the bushfires that have raged across the state of Victoria during days of record high temperatures over 40o C, 181 deaths have so far been confirmed, while hundreds more have suffered burns and other injuries.

The townships of Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Flowerdale, Wandong and Callignee have been virtually wiped out and more than a thousand houses and farm buildings lost. 450,000 hectares of native forest, plantations, scrub and grasslands have been burned out, along with power transmission lines, schools,telephone exchanges, communication towers, shops, community centres and other vital infrastructure. Farm animals, livestock and native wildlife have perished. It is the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the Australian people.
Courage and decency

Even though the state emergency services were alert and prepared for a busy “bushfire season”, the 4,000 fire-fighters and emergency workers were initially overwhelmed by the intensity, speed and extent of many fires which sent 15 metre flames racing across the countryside, fanned by howling winds. The fire-crews, some working 18 hour shifts, showed great discipline, humanity and courage in stalling the fire-fronts long enough for many people to escape to relative safety. Even though many lives were lost, many thousands more have been saved by the heroic teams battling to contain the infernos.

Unlike many other countries, Australia relies on a system of trained, volunteer fire-fighters, organised around a core of professional officers, with trucks and equipment in the country towns. Many volunteers are ordinary workers who put themselves at great risk out of their sense of care for their communities, families and friends.

Along with helicopter crews, police and other emergency services, they have stayed on the line for days on end. Some had even lost their own houses, or had no idea if their own families were safe, but they kept at it.

Behind this human wall of protection, ordinary people in the townships, the city and communities have quickly organised support networks, feeding and sheltering the homeless, caring for the injured, collecting clothing, looking after children and lost pets. They have assisted search teams and offered their houses, vehicles and energies to the arriving medical teams and welfare agencies. Finally, belatedly perhaps, the army has been called in, bringing heavy equipment to clear the roads and erecting tents for the homeless.

The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) decided to call off planned state-wide industrial action against the Telstra monopoly, in order to allow hundreds of their workers to carry out urgent repair work on damaged and unsafe power lines and transmission towers in the fire zones.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier John Brumby offered words of support for the victims and quickly implemented assistance funds for the homeless and injured. But, in calling for the banks and insurance companies to be compassionate, Kevin Rudd was probably being over-optimistic.

Away from the disaster areas, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people of Australia have responded generously to the tragedy, raising millions of dollars in donations, lining up to donate blood for burns victims, donating food, clothing, toys and all sorts of services freely. The response to the call for donations was so overwhelming that many donations of food and clothing had to be turned away.

In these tragic events, there is much sadness, but also something to celebrate. We get some sense of the great power of humanity when ordinary people band together and work collectively and selflessly together with a clear objective in mind, supporting each other in a common cause. The petty things that divide people become trivial and irrelevant and the common decency that unites people comes to the fore.

Climate warming

There will be a Royal Commission to review all aspects of these fearful fires; the warning system, weather forecasting, communications, the management of resources and the decisions taken at the time.

Already, some are pointing to climate warming as a key factor. Australians have always lived with bushfires, but these fires have occurred in conditions of record high temperatures, record low humidity, months of virtually no rainfall, and gale force winds – the most extreme conditions imaginable.
Scientists are saying that climate warming will bring these conditions to Australia more frequently, as average temperatures rise and average rainfall decreases.

As climate warming triggers more extreme weather conditions around the world, such as the recent severe freeze in Britain, people everywhere will become increasingly insistent on better precautions against natural disasters, fires and floods.

They will demand an end to preventable man-made disasters such as greenhouse gas emissions, logging of native forests, soil degradation and erosion, the death of river systems and water catchments and the plundering of fish stocks. They want to live in harmony with nature, not at war.

As the bushfire tragedy demonstrates, when the power of ordinary people is mobilised and organised, it can overcome all difficulties and setbacks. When such power becomes a conscious political force, a new and better world can be built.

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