27 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Trees don't start fires

Gavan McFadzean, Victorian campaigns manager for The Wilderness Society
The Age, December 27, 2006

More management of forests does not necessarily make them less fireprone.

Don't be taken in when the anti-national parks lobby feigns concern about bushfire risk. Their latest contributions to the debate have been unscientific, insensitive and opportunistic.

Insensitive and opportunistic because while exhausted fire crews fight blazes across three states and people's lives and property are at serious risk, the logging industry launches another round in its attack against national parks to get greater access to forests for logging.

Unscientific because the more "managed" a forest is for logging, roading and four-wheel-drive access, the more fireprone it becomes.

The anti-national park lobby argues for greater access to our forests — not for logging, of course, but to prevent bushfires. Unmanaged forests, they say, are a firebomb waiting to explode; they need to be logged and burnt regularly to make them less fireprone. But letting loggers into our old-growth and native forests is like giving Dracula a key to the blood bank.

More management of forests does not necessarily make them less fireprone, and national parks less fireprone than areas managed for logging.

Parks are not "locked up" — they are managed as part of fire protection plans. Management burns are routinely made in most parks, and firebreaks are found in most of them or along their boundaries.

Contrary to popular opinion, most fires start outside parks and burn in. Of the most recent blazes this summer, 70 per cent started in state forests. This is consistent with the average, where about 70 per cent of fires start in state forests and burn into national parks.

The fires of Black Friday, 1939, burnt 10 times the area of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, yet there were few national parks back then. We can, and should, take sensible measures to reduce the risk and severity of bushfires, but it's a case of horses for courses. Controlled burning can reduce fire hazard around towns and urban centres, but may also create a fire timebomb in the bush.

Forests are ecosystems; they respond to whatever you do to them. Their response to regular hazard-reduction burns is for fire-tolerant plants to take over from fire-resistant plants, because they thrive in a regular fire environment. As a result, so-called hazard-reduction burns may, in fact, create a more fireprone landscape.

Advocates of more fuel-reduction burning talk as if it is risk-free. Remember Wilsons Promontory last year, where a fuel-reduction burn got out of control, burnt vast areas of the park and threatened campers? Controlled burning has many risks.

In the past few years, numerous controlled burns have escaped in Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. Premier Steve Bracks is right to say drought conditions can make controlled burns in the lead-up to summer too dangerous, and impossible to control. This is not to say we should never have hazard-reduction burns, but you have to pick the right environment and day.

The 2003 bushfire inquiry noted that the "prescribed-burning debate has been at times ill-informed and peppered with gross exaggerations and the view by some that one size fits all". The inquiry noted that there are only about 10 days a year when conditions are right for prescribed burning.

The oversimplification of this issue by some sectors of the public is dangerous. Bushfires are a complex phenomenon, and no single land-management practice will reduce the extent and frequency of large, intense fires across the entire landscape.

The argument that we should engage in widespread and regular burning of the forest because that's what Aboriginal people did for years is, as the 2003 bushfire inquiry put it, "a highly attractive philosophy".

But the inquiry rightly concluded that unfortunately "we do not know enough about traditional burning in southern Australia to be able to re-create an Aboriginal burning regime".

Since European settlement, the landscape has changed dramatically. Trying to replicate Aboriginal fire practices in southern Australia would unfortunately now be a risky experiment. Instead, the goal must be to produce a fuel-reduction management plan that protects biodiversity and reduces the effects of wildfire for protection of people and assets.

As for the pro-logging interests, their hypocrisy is breathtaking. They say a logging industry is essential to help fight the fires, yet this is the same industry that has contributed to making the forests of south-eastern Australia so fireprone in the first place.

Logging destroys old-growth forests and rainforests, which are less fireprone, and replaces them with young, dense, fireprone regrowth over vast areas.

The Ash Wednesday and Black Friday fires were mostly in managed regrowth forests recovering from logging. The royal commission on the 1939 Black Friday fires concluded that logging had increased the severity and the extent of the fire.

The Canberra suburbs of Duffy and Curtin, which were razed in 2003, were surrounded by pine plantations and grasslands. Pine plantations are managed forests with plenty of roads and easy access, yet these forests created a firestorm.

Logging and regeneration burns create big gaps in the forest, which in turn create a drier, more fireprone environment. Huge amounts of debris are left on the forest floor after logging, adding to the fire hazard.

About 75 per cent of fires are started by humans, and logging roads provide greater public access to the forest.

If the logging industry really cared about reducing the bushfire hazard, it would be calling for an end to the logging of native forests.

In big bushfire seasons, national parks are demonised. We need to remember that these areas are huge carbon sinks that buffer us from the impacts of dangerous climate change. Our parks take the equivalent emissions of 250 million cars for a year out of the atmosphere.

Prime Minister John Howard's comments that the recent bushfires are unrelated to climate change are alarming. CSIRO has predicted global warming may double the very high and extreme fire danger days. South-eastern Australia is already one of the three most fireprone areas in the world.

Fire is a natural and vital part of Australian landscape; it has been a key process in shaping Australia's unique biodiversity.

With the onset of dangerous climate change, fire frequency and intensity is likely to increase unless we take a different approach to forest management.

Original article

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