Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stage Three: roll out specialist climate deniers

For reasons I can't grasp, but I suspect is set down as bringing “balance” to the debate, the Canberra Times has wheeled out climate denier John McLean to browbeat anyone who links increased severity and frequency of bushfires to climate change.

The article is the usual combination of cherry-picking, straw-men, and ad-hominiem arguments.

“It seems that every time there's a major bushfire in Australia there's also a queue of people who try to blame it on man-made warming. They easily forget that our history of fires dates from long before the rise in temperatures, and they seem ignorant about science in general and meteorology in particular.”

“Our history of fires dates from long before the rise in temperatures” is true but entirely ignores the increasing frequency of major bushfire events.

And of course there's the mysterious and invisible “they”, a pasture full of straw men, who are ignorant.

"In its latest report the IPCC claims that it is "likely" that heatwaves have increased in Australia, "likely" being just one step away from "as likely as not". Two of the three cited papers in the report appear to have a co-author who is also a lead author of that chapter of the IPCC report, which might be fortuitous."

The IPCC report is either biased or wrong because of the work of one author: an ad-hominiem argument.

“A close check of the easiest obtained of the three references tells a less clear picture.” 

Of course, however, McLean doesn't provide us with the citation he cherry-picks. And of course, he picks one that fortuitously supports his position.

Skipping down, we find this gem: “This would lead to early drying of vegetation, although this seems not without precedent because major NSW bushfires have previously occurred in October and November.” 

This is a complete red herring: the statement that “major bushfires will increase in frequency and severity as a result of climate change” is not disproven by “major bushfires have happened before”.

There's a strange kind of meta-wrongness in the argument McLean presents, and which is present in the denialist “you can't blame this fire on global warming” argument.

If the circumstances of one fire don't prove that climate change exists (a statement I agree with), then neither do the circumstances of one fire disprove climate change.

However, it's pretty much stage three of a denialist strategy which went to work as soon as Adam Bandt of The Greens spoke out:

Stage One: silence environmental concerns with the politically-correct instruction that nobody politicise the bushfires.

Stage Two: politicise the tragedy from the perspective of the sceptic.

Stage Three: roll out professional climate change deniers to support Stage Two.

Stage Four is yet to come. I imagine it will be this: refuse to discuss the issue. “The emergency is over. We will not let extreme environmentalists further their anti-business, anti-family agenda by continuing to discuss the matter.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

The bushfire that didn't arrive, but still taught me lessons

First: wow. The Rural Fire Service. Words aren't enough. Their work in the three Blue Mountains bushfires beggars any praise I can offer.

Second: the fires didn't come near me or mine. A big reason for that is the RFS, which held the two fires that worried me (the Mount Victoria “Mount York Road” fire was the greatest concern, the State Mine Fire a close second) to their containment lines in horrific weather.

My nearest neighbours have two young children. Given the warnings that went out on Tuesday, they evacuated at 9:30 am Wednesday. “If you think you need to go, go now” was the message. They did the right thing. Other neighbours were also absent.

So I found myself in an expanse of perhaps 50 or so very bushy acres (neighbours' homes and bush included), quite alone.

One part of my brain was perfectly rational. I can read maps, look at weather, look at terrain, identify where the populated areas are. To burn the place I stood upon, under the prevailing wind, the fire would first have to ravage the north side of Wentworth Falls, a place which would have been very well protected since there's about 1,000 homes there. The RFS would defend that area, regardless of how they feel about my patch of bush.

That's the rational part of my brain.

The other rational part of my brain looked around: everybody else was gone. What did they know that I didn't?

Well, they knew about the risk of ember attack igniting spot-fires ahead of the blaze. That's why was where I was. A small fire started by an ember is something one person might be able to deal with; a fire-storm rushing through a property? My plan was to fight the first, flee the second.

Through the day, I settled into a pattern. Because you can't guarantee connectivity near a fire-ground, I didn't take a computer to check on data. Because mobile data sucks batteries, I didn't rely on that either. I made sure the family at home had all the links to check, and depended on them via phone, ABC 702 in the car, and local reports from my neighbour, who was listening to the chatter on the radio scanner.

My closest friend kept my eye on the clock via SMS. If I lost attention and didn't send a “still okay” message for too long, I'd get a demand for a status update.

And I waited and worried, and because a lot of that waiting and worrying involved stalking around a couple of hundred metres of driveways, re-assessing risks and wondering where burns could be safely ignored, or driving to other places seeking vantage points but still on my own, I think I learned something about myself.

The first lesson was that other people were worrying more, about me, than I was worrying about myself.

The second lesson was that in the circumstances, other people understood me better than I understood myself.

The first is easy to explain: I could see conditions on my particular patch of potential fire-ground, and they couldn't. They could only hear the news reports, the warnings and the suggestions that people get out. I could find a high vantage point – the foot-bridge at Wentworth Falls Station was fit for purpose – and make a simple assessment. “Is the smoke blowing towards me, or past me?” As long as smoke was blowing in other directions, I figured I was not in danger. If the sky darkened, I should run.

The second is more difficult. It took a conversation with a friend who's known me since about 1975 to crystallise it: “If you were watching your dream catch fire, would you have the strength of will to leave it to burn?”

That's a very difficult question to answer. You have to be able to answer it the right way, in the face of a circumstance you haven't yet encountered.

Look at it this way: one little spot fire, I can deal with. A couple of spot fires? Call triple-zero and get to work. What if they started arriving all over, all small, all manageable? What if the escalation from trivial to terror happened without me noticing? At what point would I decide to ignore the adrenalin and the “save everything” urge, and take care of myself instead?

Would I make that decision – would I turn my back, let the dream burn, start the engine and use my escape route – soon enough? Or would I fight until the last second, only to find the last second already past?

Since I never was in danger, I can't actually answer. I suspect there are people who answer that question the wrong way: they suffer injuries or death, because turning away would hurt too much. I understand, now, how that happens. I understand how my heroes in the RFS can become so driven that they perform miracles in the name of service. I honour them all.

But the other lesson I learned, the third one, is about how other people can help make the right decision.

I'm not an easy person to like. Finding myself with a veritable cloud of guardian angels was a completely new experience for me.

It was connections to other people that kept my feet on the ground. I could have receded into a bubble, and if a fire had arrived, perhaps I'd have died in the bubble: only my assessments, only my eyes and muscles and judgement, and a will too weak to leave.

I left earlier than I wanted to (although events proved others' judgement better than my own), because so many people stayed connected to me.

My family at home, speaking every half-hour for eight hours to discuss the latest RFS briefing, the current weather, the fire maps (PS, kudos to Google for its disaster maps, and ditto to the RFS for helping Google make it work in near-real-time).

My neighbour, who after evacuating his family, sought me out four times in the day in person to urge me to leave (and called at least another four times with the same message).

The best friend who demanded text message reports, half-past every hour. And others.

People called me away from the vigil. When I left at my wife's demand, I phoned my neighbour (“Call me tomorrow.”) and texted my best friend (“Oh, good”), and went home, even though I still feared the onset of fire.

It wasn't anything in me that gave me the will to leave: it was others. Their love and friendship had been in front of my eyes for eight hours, while my attention was occupied by other things. Even with attention diverted, though, eight hours is a lot of time to consider the various manifestations that love can take: my family reporting data to me so I can decide what to do; a neighbour's motorcycle arriving at Wentworth Falls Station because he'd worked out where to look for me when I wasn't where he expected me (his “I thought I might find you here” was extremely smug and very welcome!); the friend's clock-reliable text messages.

I learned a lot, in eight hours. And I owe thanks for that.

As well as owing so much more to the volunteers who have worked so hard, and saved so much.

Wikipedia: Even as a Wikipedia user, Greg Hunt is a mug

The story so far: to support the contention that there's nothing unusual about the 2013 bushfire season, our environment minister Greg Hunt has made himself a village idiot with a global presence with this statement:

“I looked up what Wikipedia says for example, just to see what the rest of the world thought, and it opens up with the fact that bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year. Large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires. That’s the Australian experience.” (Source: The Guardian)

That's set off a round of ridicule about his use of Wikipedia. That's fair enough, but there's another reason to make fun of Mr Hunt. Even if you believe Wikipedia records bushfire events accurately, Mr Hunt is using a source that undermines his position.

The data presented by Wikipedia clearly indicates increasing bushfire activity. All you have to do is make a chart of how many major bushfire events Wikipedia lists occur each decade.

Note that in this chart, I omit the current decade because it's only 2013.

I don't think you need me to add a trendline to get the picture.

Not only that: Wikipedia clearly supports another statement.

The current NSW bushfire season's early start is nearly unprecedented.

The chart below shows the number of days between the official start of summer (1 December) and the first of that summer's major bushfire events, as reported by Wikipedia. Negative numbers indicate that the fire season for that year began in September, October or November before the start of summer.

  1. Every time the fire season started before 1 December has taken place after 1979.
  2. Before 1979, only once did the bushfire season start as early as 1 December (1951).
  3. Since 1979, there have been eight pre-summer starts to the major bushfire season (1979, 1980, 1997, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2013).

So it seems to me that even as a Wikipedia user, Mr Hunt's grasp of the data in front of him is tenuous, at best.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

About the Army's mealy-mouthed “apology” for the State Mine Fire

The headline is that the Australian Defence Force has apologised for causing the huge State Mine Fire that's destroyed homes and still threatens many, many more.

The other headline is that it took right until the end of a nearly 19-minute press conference for Air Marshal Mark Binskin to bring himself to use the word “apologise”, having resisted nearly all calls for exactly that word.

In fact, if you hadn't listened online but on the radio, you'd have missed the word “apologise” because most outlets cut the feed a few minutes in. So I've taken the trouble of recording Briskin's entire contribution to the press conference, so you can see how long it took before he got around to “sorry”.

I've put this below for relentless checkers, because my main point is this. The Army started the bloody fire, and it's taken days and lots of questions before the simple word “apologise” snuck into the language. The headline isn't “Defence apologises”, it's “Defence tries really hard to dodge apologising.”

I'm not surprised that Blue Mountains residents aren't satisfied. I can't say I was in direct danger on my watch-and-act patrol yesterday. I can't begin to imagine losing a home or a business to a bushfire. I was merely alone in a region that had been comprehensively abandoned, surrounded by bush, watching the fires and the weather, and hoping that I didn't have to try and actually fight a fire.

I didn't. Others, every one of which has my admiration and gratitude, did the hard work. But I'm not satisfied with the Army's attempts to dodge, deflect and hide behind process. And I'm furious that the apology gets elevated, and the attempts to hide behind process get … hidden.

Here's my transcript. Most of the journalists' questions are very poorly caught by the microphones, but the answers explain the context. The whole of the briefing is at the RFS's Facebook page.

BRISKIN: Training activity at the Marangaroo training area, which the NSW Rural Fire Service has identified as the cause of the State Mine Fire near Lithgow.

Let me start by saying Defence continues to treat this matter very, very seriously, and will not shy away from our responsibility to fully examine this activity, and importantly, to support the official NSW Police investigation.

As is normal in this situation, you will know that the NSW Police investigators are preparing a report for the coroner.

From the outset, Defence has been open and transparent in relation to our activities at Marangaroo, and we continue to cooperate fully with NSW authorities investigating the State Mine Fire.

In addition to the NSW Police investigation, we will also conduct our own inquiry into the specifics of the activity at Marangaroo that led to that fire. The Defence inquiry will look at the specific circumstances surrounding the explosion and ordnance training activity, and the fire on Marangaroo training area.

The purpose of our inquiry is to fully determine the facts, which may identify any lessons to be learned from it, and apply it to practices and procedures, not only at Marangaroo in the future, but possibly at other training areas around Australia.

We are not removed from what is going on around New South Wales at the moment, or what has been happening in the past few weeks as regards to fires. Defence is part of the local community, and our people live and work in and around Lithgow and the Blue Mountains, and indeed in many other areas affected by fires over the last few weeks.

Many of our members are RFS volunteers, and are involved with the fire-fighting effort across the state over the past week, and at the moment.

A number of Defence personnel have lost their homes, with many others also being affected by fires. Our thoughts are with them, and with everyone who is currently affected by the fires burning within New South Wales.

Over the past week, Defence has been assisting with the bushfire effort throughout New South Wales. We are providing accommodation and meals for fire-fighters, as well as refuelling and ground support for New South Wales Rural Fire Service aircraft, and we stand ready to support the emergency services in any way that we can.

I would also like to take this chance to offer my praise and admiration for the dedication and the courage of the RFS volunteers throughout their day-in, day-out fighting these fires in very difficult and terrible conditions.

I would also like to take this moment to personally say that my thoughts are with the family of the pilot who was tragically lost this morning, down fighting the fires on the South Coast. As a pilot, I appreciate the dangers of operations like this, and any accident like this really does hit close to home. So our thoughts are with the families and friends of him.

Thank you, I will now take questions.

QUESTION (inaudible)

BRISKIN: At the moment, we're ascertaining the facts. That's why we're doing our inquiry into that particular fire, [inaudible] the specifics.

What I do know, and I saw the report this afternoon that the commissioner has provided me, which was only finalised today, which has identified that that fire did lead to the State Mine Fire.

QUESTION: What do you think of the Blue Mountains mayor asking for an apology?

BRISKIN: Look, I felt for the mayor last night when he was talking on TV. It was a very emotional, very hard day, there's a lot of strain for him, and in fact everyone in the community. I've heard the senior Australian Defence Force officer in the Blue Mountains talk again this afternoon, he's [the mayor] actually very committed to the close relationship with Defence and with the community, and knows that we stand there to support.

But as I said, I understand his feelings, I really do. It's been a hard couple of days, for him and for the community.

QUESTION [inaudible but about training]

BRISKIN: We will ascertain the facts as part of our own inquiry, but what I do know to date is it was an explosives activity. It was a demolition in support of how people are trained for operations around the world. It was about 23 degrees, light winds at the time we made the decision to do it. The fire scale was on the lower end of the scale, and there wasn't a fire [?concern?].

But when the activity occurred, the small fire that started, they responded. We always have our own fire equipment on standby for this, but it's quite difficult because it's in an area where there is ordnance.

And within 30 minutes the Rural Fire Service were there as well.

QUESTION [inaudible]

BRISKIN: Personal safety always comes first, both for the RFS fire-fighters in this case and our own personnel. It was considered too dangerous to go onto the particular site, where this fire had started to burn. So they waited to clear that area, and then start to fight it.


BRISKIN: Oh, we're concerned with where the fire has burned, and as I've alluded to, we're not shying from our responsibilities here. And I am concerned with anyone that, or any property, that is threatened by this.


BRISKIN: No, this was not deliberately starting a fire. This was an accident as part of a training activity on a day where there wasn't a fire ban. But I want to be clear, we are doing our own internal inquiry into this, to make sure that any lessons out this, we can take to do better with our range practices both there, and there may be lessons that we can put to our other training areas around Australia.


BRISKIN: There's still a lot in the process to go here. This is not a Defence jurisdiction, that's why we're fully supporting the New South Wales Police investigation into this. And as you are aware, in fires of this type, the coroner normally asks the New South Wales Police to conduct investigations. That investigation will ascertain all the facts, and we'll wait until that comes out, when this all settles, so we can fully consider it.


BRISKIN: The actual details around that will be detailed in our own internal inquiry, but the time as I have it was that the explosion around about midday, twelve o'clock, very close to twelve o'clock, they had to wait for a small period after that just to check, after the activity occurred, that's only five minutes, they spotted a small fire, they started to fight that themselves, they had to move back because of the unexploded ordnance, the RFS were there within 30 minutes. So as I was told this morning, when I was talking to those involved, it's 12:30 and the RFS was there.

So that's very close timing, and it shows that we do work closely with the RFS not just there, but with ranges throughout.


BRISKIN: It was a course, I don't have the exact numbers, but a course to train our explosives demolition technicians, who operate throughout the world in those sorts of situations.


BRISKIN: Not in that fire. We have a number of Defence personnel, both uniform and I think some civilian, who have lost homes to fire or have been in harm's way, as you know we're a large part of the community around the Springwood / Faulconbridge area. I know there's some pretty horrific stories out of that, I know specifically force and Defence people there.


BRISKIN: We can take that offline, organise a briefing for the activities we do.


BRISKIN: It is significantly important. These are explosive demolition technicians. These are the people that go and defuse improvised explosive devices, and many of the instructors on this course have just come back from operations.

So that's the significance of the training that they do. Or they'll be out defusing unexploded ordnance, even ordnance that might be found from the Second World War around the region.

That's the work that they do, it is very important work, that these technicians do, not just around Australia but around the world.


BRISKIN: No, I don't know what the exact vehicle looks like ... a striker vehicle, I think that's the correct term for fire-fighting, plus they have all the back-pack equipment, very similar to an RFS [volunteer]. I'd have to put that to the expert.

QUESTION about fire-rating

BRISKIN: It was high, it was the second – it's right on the low-end spectrum of the new classifications. But we'll check all that – I know that for a fact – but what we'll do, take into account all the issues as part of this inquiry so we have all the facts, so if there's ways that we can do things better and take lessons out of this, we will.


BRISKIN: At the moment our focus is on, in terms of priorities right now, we'll let the New South Wales Police do their investigation, determine all the facts, and we'll look at the outcome. [inaudible]

I have, I have, I do apologise, because, it has been identified that this fire was the start of that fire, but as I've said before, we'll wait until the New South Wales Police to do their investigation, and they come out with their report, for the coroner, and then we can move on. I think there's far bigger priorities right now with the fire-fighting that's going on. Thank you.