This season’s bush
fires have affected most people – some directly and many indirectly through
personal connections or broader concerns for people, animals and the environment. Reading Annemaree Docking’s article
on her personal experiences with fire raised some memories of my past
experiences with fires. The risk of fire
is escalating with the climate crisis, and we all – personally and collectively
– need to decide how to respond. And our
responses, as Annemaree says, should be based on the best available evidence in
these extra-ordinary times.
responses to the direct threat of fire will depend on the circumstances. After 2009, I visited many fire-affected
properties to support the recovery efforts of the landholders. And heard many awful and amazing
stories. Before that fire, I had not
fully realised how massive and overpowering such a fire could be. After the fire, we decided that, in similar
extreme conditions of ferocious hot winds blasting across the dry landscape, we
would leave that morning (or night before) based on the forecast and not
the imminent threat of fire. Even though
we only lived on the edge of a town, not in the forest, we did not want to take
The Mickleham fire in 2014 may not have been as big and ferocious as the Black Saturday fire but it was big enough to spread widely across farmlands in the district and take a huge effort by fire crews and several days to quell. 18 houses were lost and – significantly – 16,000 livestock were killed. Annemaree stayed and successfully saved her animals. But could all the animals have been saved? In 1978, a hot, fast-moving grass fire near Bairnsdale killed two people who were trying to save their livestock, and I spent the following week assisting in the shooting of hundreds of badly burnt survivors of the more than 6000 sheep and cattle killed in that fire. It is often impossible – and very risky – to stay and try to protect or move livestock in front of a fire. But what an awful decision to have to make.
How do we –
collectively – protect people and animals and assets from fire. This is already being hotly debated with some
simplistic solutions around the reduction of fuel in the forests. To some extent, this is a problem of our own
making – more and more people are moving out of cities into forested areas –
very attractive places to live but also very dangerous in summer.
So do we burn – and graze and mulch and
trample – the forests to reduce fuel loads?
From my readings on this, the evidence is very confusing. Are controlled burns effective in moderating
fires and making them easier to control?
Hard to imagine in extreme crown fires in forests. But also, how much does the regular burning
of forests affects the biodiversity and ecological functions of forests and even
possibly increase fire risks with the regrowth?
The Royal Commission after the 2009 Black
Saturday fires recommended that 5% of crown land be burnt every year. This 5% rule resulted in inappropriate burns
in sensitive and remote country, at least in part because it was more possible
to get to 5% within the verynarrow window for controllable burns in Spring and
Autumn and with the limited resources available to do the burns.
But a real concern from ecologists was about
the impact of regular burns on forest environments. Regular fire is good in some ecosystems such
as grasslands and heathlands), but is disastrous in others. For example, three fires from 2003-2013 near
Mt Feathertop has wiped out a lot of species including Alpine Ash that didn’t
have time to recover between burns. And fuel
reduction burns are often very hot. There
was a lot of damage in Tallarook Flora Reserve and the Cobaws (including big
loss of old trees) after “controlled” burns and it will take a long time if
ever for full recovery. In some forests,
there is a period of higher fuel loads as trees and shrubs come back more
densely in the first phase of recovery.
But other scientists – and popular demand
from some sectors – are saying that we need to burn even more. So lots of different opinions from people
coming from different directions and in different situations. No one rule will work in all bushland
environments. And what is the purpose of
fuel reduction burns – to reduce fire intensity and spread (but with climate
change and extreme weathers, how much can we really do?) or protect people and
assets with more strategic burns?
One of my favorite parts of Victoria are the
alpine areas. And alpine grazing is one
of those issues that come up after fires.
Annemaree deferred to “greater minds” on this topic, but I want to state
my position more strongly. As with
climate change denial, inconvenient science is easily dismissed by many people
with opposing interests. Grazing has
caused a lot of damage to fragile ecosystems in the alps, particularly the
wonderful bogs and waterways. From 1939,
exclusion plots on the High Plains were studied to assess the long-term impacts
of grazing. Despite the evidence, it
took until after fires in 2003 and a lot of polarised debate to halt alpine
grazing – and there have been efforts to reintroduce grazing since then.
“Alpine grazing reduces blazing” was a
popular car sticker but where was the evidence?
In December 2002, I walked through mobs of cattle, cow dung and polluted
streams around the Tawonga Huts on the High Plains. One month later, it was all burnt. Dick Williams and others looked at the wider evidence,
and found that grazing did not stop blazing.
(Williams, R. J., Wahren, C., Bradstock, R. A., & Müller, W. J.
(2006). Does alpine grazing reduce blazing? A landscape test of a widely-held
hypothesis. Austral Ecology, 31(8), 925-936. doi:
fuel reduction (if any) from grazing had little effect, and I think the
catchment and biodiversity values of the alpine areas are a far more important
consideration, especially with the serious impacts predicted for climate change
on alpine ecosystems and species. I
wouldn’t want to go back to that grazing debate again in this world of populist
politics rather than earlier evidence-based decision making that finally
excluded grazing in the alps.
concern. After 2009, many areas of the
central highland forests were logged before “dead” or damaged trees were no
longer useful as timber. Instead of
allowing natural recovery from the surviving plants and the seed bank released
after the fire, the ground was disturbed by machinery and by the removal of a
significant component of the habitat – the large trees. Work by David Lindenmayer and others have
shown that there are many losses after two successive major disturbances, with
increased runoff from disturbed ground, loss of soil nutrients, and impacts on
the recovery of plants and animals (including some significant threatened
species). Conservation groups are trying
to persuade the government to halt logging in forests burnt this season. But on March 1st …. Logging is due to start in fire-ravaged forests this
week. It’s the last thing our wildlife needs
I am very thankful
that this summer has ended with a whimper, but we need to be alert and support
all efforts to protect our bushland environments against hasty, ill-informed
and populist policies.