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A forest scientist's view of the recent Australian bushfires

Posted on 4 June, 2020 at 1:53
This was written (quite brilliantly) by a good friend and fellow forest scientist. He beautifully dismantled the rhetoric around the cause of this summer’s bushfires. I wish I’d written it.

I know I can be accused of bias by supporting a fellow forester who is trying to bring some realism and pragamatism into the debate on bushfires in Australia. My plea, however, is for those of you without forest management experience to be aware of the real situation. I ask that you are very careful what sources of information you rely on to help frame your views in this debate. 

For too many years now, we have bureaucrats called Fire Commissioners with little or no on-ground fire experience (the recently rewarded ex-NSW Commissioner was a mechanic and his deputy a plumber).  Add to the list the academics, comfortably ensconced in their leafy campus offices, sipping lattes, while developing opaque fire behaviour models. They are the ones telling governments how we should deal with this issue. Neither groups have fought a wildfire or planned a prescribed burn. 

For too long now, (really since 1994 when new Emergency management laws were enacted in most States), we have seen fire in our forests continually mismanaged, or more correctly unmanaged. We have seen a system of fuel management in cooler months that worked, dismantled and replaced by an emergency response system that does not work and is grossly expensive.  This new system relies on aerial water bombers to put out a fire with the equivalent energy force of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. It is futile and a waste of money - your taxes are funding this epic failure.

Blaming the disastrous fire seasons of 1997, 2002-03, 2007, 2009, 2013-14, 2017 and 2019-20 on climate change is fatuous and a simplistic ploy to divert attention away from the incompetence of these bureaucrats and academics who have failed the public, the animals and the forests for over two decades. No matter what the Commissions of Inquiries or Royal Commissions say about the value of broad-scale low intensity burns, the same bureaucrats and academics manage to bury that message. They have inflicted two decades of pestilence and damage on us. 

They argue you can ignore the build-up of fuel across the broad landscape and prevent these devastating fire seasons if you just address climate change. We have always had bad fire seasons even before CO2 in the atmosphere was deemed an issue. We had Black Thursday in 1851 (Vic); we had Black Sunday in 1926 (Gippsland, Vic); we had Black Friday in 1939 (Vic), we had Black Tuesday in 1967 (Hobart). In fact nearly every day of the week was charred before climate change became an issue. 

The bureaucrats and academics argue you only have to regularly burn immediately adjacent to houses in order to save them. They argue if you spend millions of tax-payer funds on aerial water bombers they can be used to fight the fires, save houses and protect lives. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The evidence is the millions of hectares of charred and black forests that have been irretrievably changed.  Unless we reintroduce low intensity, prescribed burns across the landscape that mimics (within the 21st century limitations) the Aboriginal management for millennia, we will see our forests continue to change for the worse.

We will continue to have severe fire weather combined with bad droughts, even if we change to 100% renewable energy overnight. There are claims that fire seasons have started earlier and extended later under climate change. There is no evidence for this.  In the sub-tropical areas of south-east Queensland and northern NSW the fire season has always been during spring before the summer wet season. In 2019-20 it was no different. Bad fire weather in November in NSW was compounded by the fact that fires lit either intentionally or started by lightning strikes under mild conditions were not extinguished. Unfortunately this is now common. Foresters developed a sophisticated system of fire surveillance and rapid attack, supported by infrastructure and fire trails to complement their fuel management. When this system was fully developed in the 1960s it worked. Their system, however, was gradually dismantled almost immediately starting with a broader conservation consciousness in the 1970s. The 1983 Ash Wednesday fires were a warning signal of the consequences of not  managing the fuels and maintaining an efficient on-the-ground fire detection system. 

Unfortunately the dismantling continued with the disintegration of the forestry services and the establishment of millions of hectares of National Parks. Australians allowed benign neglect to take over and its insidious impacts went unnoticed until fires exploded over the landscape after a series of drought years combined with a torch. Unattended small fires in inaccessible areas, waited for the opportunity to expose their ugly flames on a bad day.

Most of all the large fires in the 2019-20 season started as small fires under mild conditions in October, and were allowed to continue uncontained. They should have been contained and extinguished, if possible. We have a chance of minimising the impacts of fires on blow up days if the fuel has been managed.  We have no chance if it is unmanaged across millions of hectares. Fuel reduction burning does not stop wildfires, but it makes it a hell of a lot easier to manage wildfires, protect houses and save lives. 

Please read the attached article carefully if you truly want to understand the plight we face and share widely with your friends who may be affected or interested in this calamity. Our local MPs need to hear from their constituents and made aware of the failings of our current system. They should not solely hear from the bureaucrats and the academics who have failed all of us. They need to be held accountable. We are all impacted through grossly increased insurance premiums, increased government regulations, and wasted tax payer spending. 

Foresters have been ringing the alarm bells for awhile now and we have been ignored. Media choose to ignore our story because our detractors use emotional, nonsensical and puerile stories against us which the media prefer to hear. 

We need your support to change things and to save our forests and animals. More than ever our forests need professional managers, not tradesmen and computer modellers.

If you want some links and references to the science that foresters rely on as part of their professional management, I would be happy to share with you.

Categories: Good forest management

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