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Planned Burns

are making Tallarook Forest more flammable

IMG_3977 screenshot - 5 days after Magazine Tk burn - reduced.png

The photograph above shows the result five days after an ineffective planned burn which took place on 22 April 2024, called the Magazine Track Burn. Much of the flammable understorey remains, and the burning at ground level will encourage seeds of more shrubs to germinate.

 

BEAM Mitchell Environment Group advocates for the cancellation of future planned burns in the Tallarook Forest. Instead, we argue that fuel-load reduction strategies that don’t use burning should be implemented.

We have written to Victoria’s Chief Fire Officer calling for this change in approach to minimising the risk of bushfires.

Planned burns were adopted as a bushfire risk-management practice in the 1930s, in the belief that burning forests would reduce the amount of vegetation, also called “fuel load”, and thus reduce the risk, spread and severity of bushfires.

This seems naturally right to most people, but what is not acknowledged is the quick regrowth that occurs in much of Victoria’s forests after burning. While there is a short term reduction in vegetation for about two years after a planned burn, fire also stimulates seeds to germinate, and after two years there is a rapid regrowth of the flammable plants that the planned burn was meant to eradicate. In Tallarook Forest that is Common Cassinia (Cassinia aculeata), Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata) and new eucalypt saplings, especially blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus subsp. bicostata).

Forest Fire Management Victoria claims that it uses a fuel load assessment methodology, developed by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), to determine overall forest fuel hazard, such as fine tree bark, small trees, scrub, and “near surface fine fuel” like leaf litter. But this assessment tool is hardly ever used. Instead, they mostly rely on mapping which shows fire history and just assume that long-unburnt forest must have the greatest fuel load.

In 2022, BEAM commissioned ecologist Karl Just to assess the fuel loads and growth patterns in areas subject to past planned burns in the Tallarook Forest. We have been conducting follow up assessments every year since then.

Using FFMV’s own methodology, Karl Just extensively recorded fuel loads in areas of Tallarook Forest which have been undisturbed for up to 80 years, and areas in the forest that had experienced planned burns in the last 10 years. His findings show planned burns are more effective at reducing fibrous bark on stringybark trees, and for several years, but this is soon outweighed by understorey growth, leading to Very High and Extreme fuel levels overall.

Karl’s research shows that FFMV’s fuel load reduction burns either create no benefit in reducing fuel load, or else increase the fuel load. It is an enormous waste of public money. We need more effective alternatives.

Importantly, Karl’s findings show that long unburnt areas of forest carry much less fuel load in comparison. The flammable shrubs naturally die off themselves within 25-50 years of germinating, as the forest canopy returns to its mature coverage. A lot of the Tallarook Forest is in that state already, so has the lowest fire risk.

Long unburnt and unlogged forests are also unlikely to burn because they are generally damper and cooler. By burning forest every 7-12 years, which is the FFMV approach, they are creating a permanently thick, dry and flammable forest.

We want Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) to focus on fuel reduction close to houses and farms, using manual thinning to cut back the flammable species, and leaving the moister plants that actually don’t burn easily. Long-unburnt low fuel load areas in the forest interior should be protected from planned burns, and regularly monitored by ecologically trained staff to allow the natural dieback of understorey to happen.

 

Unlike the narrow window of time that planned burns can be undertaken in, these new approaches can be carried out across the year. BEAM argues that the resources of Forest Fire Management Victoria spent on planned burns - up to $140 million per year across Victoria - can then be focussed on increasing the rapid detection and response to bushfires, putting them out while they are still spot fires.

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FFMV’s post-burn assessment process is superficial and remote, rarely if ever involving site visits to make a proper fuel load assessment following planned burns. By contrast, BEAM has been assessing an area west of Gravel Pit Road where a planned burn occurred in 2021. Inspection of the site every year since that burn has revealed significant regeneration of understorey plants and blue gum saplings.

 

Another patch of the forest, on East Falls Road, was clear of undergrowth for decades prior to a burn there in March 2016. Now, it is thick with highly flammable two-metre-high Common Cassinia shrub, and became like that within two years of the burn.
 

The most recent planned burn in the forest was east of Magazine Track, lit on 22 April 2024.

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