From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.


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Brushtail Graphics

The dead leaf test

15 June 2000

Sunday night was cold and wet and the Mount Kuring-gai tragedy was still the talk of the Brushtail Cafe. A couple of Joadja's old mates from the National Parks and Wildlife Service dropped in to talk it over. They were just leaving when I came down from the office.

I shook hands and muttered condolences and my hopes for those still in intensive care. Bruce and Tarkis looked respectfully from their stools at the bar, with the air of those on the threshold of a world beyond their experience or, perhaps even, imagination.

"How could something like this happen?", said Tarkis, after the rangers had left. "They say it was just a routine operation, with perfect conditions".

Joadja snapped a banksia leaf off the big arrangement of dried wildflowers at the end of the bar and picked up a cigarette lighter. Pinching the leaf's stem between her thumb and forefinger she held it pointing straight down and lit the tip. It flared and began to burn up, towards her fingers.

"Watch this", she said. She turned the leaf slowly till it was horizontal. It continued to burn, then, slowly, she turned it upwards. It hadn't quite got to the vertical plane when it gutted out. I had seen this before, but Bruce and Tarkis looked on, wide-eyed.

"Old firefighters's trick: they call it the dead leaf test. If it had kept burning down towards my fingers while it was pointing straight up, I'd have known the bush was explosively dry", she said.

"But it didn't, because it's been raining, and humidity's gone up, and even this dried-out old leaf has absorbed some moisture from the air. Give it a dry day or two, or a few really hot hours and it would burn straight down.

"The bush is like the sea. You have to watch it from hour to hour, like a rock fisherman or a sailor must watch the sea from moment to moment. And even if you do that, you might still be caught by some freak condition, because nature is infinitely variable."

Jo dropped the leaf in the bin, and I took a sip from my cider.

"So waddaya reckon they should do? Do you think they should burn these places more often, you know, so they're less dangerous?" Bruce asked.

"Look, there's a lazy bit of pop ideology which insists we should burn the whole of the east coast every year", Jo said. "During the big fires of '94 it became an article of faith with the political Right -- all the radio shock-jocks took up the cry -- but it's really a bit of irresponsible gibberish. Like most things concerning nature, it just isn't that easy, or even possible. You have to look at it practically. In some years it rains too much. The bush gets so damp you just can't light it up, so you can't do any hazard-reduction at all.

"Even in the best years you only get a small window of opportunity -- just a few weeks -- when you can do a burn-off safely -- then suddenly it gets too dry. If you light up, the burn takes off and runs out of control. Lots of wildfires have started as hazard-reduction burns that went wrong.

"It's a really tricky thing to manage. It takes lots of professional planning and it isn't cheap. When you're doing a burn-off near homes -- and there's thousands of kilometres of interface between the suburbs and the bush -- you need scores of properly trained firefighters, with fire tankers and helicopters and all the rest. The great Aussie dream of living on a ridgeline in a split-level home cantilevered over a bush valley has a terrible downside."

It sure has, I thought. The National Parks mob had suffered more deaths and worse casualties when something freaky happened during a routine burn-off than the whole of the Timor intervention force has experienced so far.

• • •

INCLUDED in Whispers from the mean streets -- Best of 2000

FREE downloadable PDF booklet.