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Political Debate Begins Over Australian Bush Fires - 2002-01-14

As the Christmas bush fire emergency nears its end in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales, the political debate has begun over what can be done to stop it all happening again. The fires destroyed more than 120 homes and blackened 600,000 hectares of farmland and forest around Sydney.

The bush fires that began at Christmas were the worst ever seen in Australia, even in a country where outbreaks are common during the hot, dry summer.

Authorities believe many of the hundred blazes had been deliberately set by arsonists, but are looking at ways to minimize the devastation caused in this fire-prone region.

Attention is being focused on the practice of back-burning. This is where controlled fires are started by emergency teams to burn giant buffer zones between dry bush land and inhabited areas. The aim is to starve the wildfires of fuel to stop their advance.

In 1993 the state government authorized the clearance of about 50,000 hectares of bush land by managed fires. Last year the figure was less than 20,000 hectares. So the question now being ask is: how much back-burning is needed to enhance fire prevention without causing unnecessary environmental damage?

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson says obviously not enough was done and there should have been better management of the bush land to prevent the wild fire crisis. "Let me be really frank about this. The application of some, you know, good, sound bush common sense to the management of things like national parks in some instances could be a good idea. I've knocked around the bush for a long time, I've had 25 or 30 years of people telling me when they live next door to these national parks that their management could be significantly improved by some good bush commonsense," he says.

But New South Wales Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus says the criticism is not founded and Mr. Anderson is playing politics. He says the State Government has made the control of bush fires a priority but there will always be dangers in such a fire-prone region. "It's always possible to do more," he says. "The real point is that we have done much better in protecting property in this bush fire crisis than we did in say 1994. And the fact is that whatever hazard reduction you do, in blow up years like 1994 and now, it doesn't do very much to stop the fire."

Back-burning may be an essential part of Australia's fire fighting armory but it is not always popular. Many residents don't want to be smoked out of their homes every winter and then return to see their prized bush land views reduced to ashes by controlled burn-offs.

Back-burning is also used to contain massive fires once they begin, but the results vary.

A group of farmers in New South Wales plans to sue the authorities, saying that one of the back-burns used during this crisis escaped containment lines and raged out of control, killing hundreds of sheep and cattle. Farmers' leader Mal Young says many businesses have been ruined. Some of these farmers have generations of genetic livestock that have taken a long time to where they want to go. In one fell swoop some of these farmers been wiped out," he says.

The state's fire commissioner, Phil Koperburg, denies any wrongdoing. He say the blaze his crews were fighting was simply so fierce that efforts to stop it with controlled burn-offs had no effect. "The back-burn did not cause the fire to escape. The fire over-ran the back-burn," he says. "All of these fires will be the subject of intensive investigation."

In the aftermath of the fires, the government is trying to determine how much back-burning is needed. Fire fighting authorities here are expected to get new powers to force landowners to burn off bush land in high-risk areas.

A final report is expected in the next six months.