Fire Damage in Australia Leaves Questions Behind

IN a quiet, leafy cul-du-sac just north of Sydney that was caught in bush fires over the weekend, piles of burned furniture line the curbside. Utility trucks, working to restore power, roar past the crumpled silver-and-black remains of a boat. A line of orange plastic cones, guarded by a group of neighborhood children, keep ``stickybeaks'' (nosy onlookers) out of the street.

Of the 187 houses destroyed in the tumultuous blazes that swept through parts of New South Wales over the last week, four were destroyed on this street; several others sustained damage. Peter Cheeseman's garage is now a pile of burned bricks and twisted metal, but the house was saved because ``we're used to dealing with fire on this street,'' he says. ``My son and I stayed with the house and used pumps to draw water from the pool.''

The blackened ravine that the fire roared up is behind his house. This junction of urban dwellings and bushland is fueling a major public debate over how best to manage Australia's land so as to limit fire damage. Some people in support of hazard-reduction burning say the practice means less fuel for the fire.

``The authorities will have to become more responsible,'' Mr. Cheeseman says. ``We've urged the authorities to do more burning off. They promised to do some last spring, but that day it rained. They never did it.''

Bob Laurence, president of the Chatswood West Ward Progress Association of Willoughby Council, says, ``A lot of people want to talk to the Willoughby Council about why they've succumbed to `Greenie' pressure.... I've been talking to people with a couple of decades experience who say that there's a lot less hazard reduction being done.''

Local councils are taking the heat for ``tree protection orders'' that don't allow residents to cut trees without permission and for cutting previous levels of hazard reduction. Councils say they are caught between the conflicting needs of their residents: When they do controlled burns, residents complain of respiratory problems and air pollution. And in the winter months, when it makes sense to burn, they are forbidden to burn because of Sydney's inversion layer that traps the smoke.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is facing a firestorm of criticism that they've let fire trails become overgrown.

``The criticism isn't justified,'' says Chris Hartcher, Minister of the Environment. ``The National Parks and Wildlife Service has 5 percent of the state's hectares, but conducts 40 percent of the hazard-reduction burning.''

Stuart Cohen, spokesman for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, says, ``Three-quarters of the fires started outside the parks. And the number of hectares burned for hazard reduction has more than doubled since 1982 to 81,000.'' Others argue that is not much hazard reduction for a 10-million-acre area.

``The fire trails are pretty useless when you've got fires that leap a six-lane highway and a river,'' Mr. Cohen says. ``Fire burned through areas we hazard-reduced only last August. It's ludicrous to suggest that if we'd done more, we wouldn't have had these fires.''

Wilderness Society spokesman Rod Knight says the group supports fire management ``in tune with what the environment needs to survive.''

Both groups say merely more controlled burning is not a guarantee against major fires in the future. While extreme weather conditions made it a once-in-50-years event, fire is cyclical in Australia. Also, early figures indicate that arson was a factor in an estimated 70 percent of the current fires, Mr. Knight says.

Both Cohen and Knight say the criticism is being driven by a small, conservative group that does not want the government to create more wilderness areas.

Many people, including Prime Minister Paul Keating, are calling for a fire-management review in urban areas.

``Where you had problems is where you had houses on ridge lines in bushland,'' Knight says. ``You can't get a more fire-prone situation in Australia. The Janalli fire [which burned 87 homes] ran up creeks and gullies to a dry area in a new suburb. Because of the way it was planned, it appears to have been somewhat at risk.''

Despite the disaster, Cheeseman plans to stay where he is. ``Living here has its risks, but we love it here,'' he says.

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