Saturday, May 21, 2022

Our megafires are a political, not a climatic crisis: Vic Jurskis

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Vic Jurskis

Historic blackbutt stand
Major Mitchell rode his horse to the top of Mt. Macedon through blackbutt stands, such as these, with trees averaging two metres in diameter.

People proliferated across Australia, which was then a part of Sahul, from about 40 000 years ago when megafauna finally disappeared long before the Last Glacial Maximum. Aboriginal burning initially turned much biomass into charcoal, reducing browse, changing vegetation and causing megafaunal extinctions. It created ecosystems whose health and safety depend on constant human input of mild fire.

Palaeology reveals that these human ecosystems survived thousands of years of sometimes extreme climate change without suffering holocaust or pestilence. When Europeans arrived, so did megafires. Our world famous mammal extinctions and plagues of irruptive native plants and animals occurred before any hint of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Mild burning of anthropogenic landscapes consumes relatively little biomass and produces relatively little charcoal. Although burning by people has typically been regarded as an ecological disturbance, the historical evidence, together with traditional Aboriginal knowledge, suggests that it is actually maintenance, essential to sustain our natural environment. People can reinstate resilient, healthy and safe landscapes irrespective of climate change.

Aboriginal burning was originally disrupted by the 1789 smallpox epidemic, especially in central Queensland and south Gippsland, and by flu in northeast Tasmania. Our first megafire was in South Gippsland around 1820, closely followed by Black Thursday 1851 when fires exploded across 5 million hectares of Victoria. Palaeology shows an unprecedented peak in 70,000 years of charcoal records at that time, before AGW was even thought of.

European pastoralists carried on Aboriginal tradition in some areas, notably the Alps. And no-one bothered to put out lightning strikes in the rough forested country. The situation worsened when Forest Services tried to suppress fire from early in 20th century. We suffered insect plagues and megafires such as Black Friday 1939 and Dwellingup 1961. We learnt and adapted. Mild fire was reinstated, using aerial and ground ignition, from the 1960s. Charcoal deposition declined as temperature increased.

Green Academics have disrupted sustainable fire management since the 1980s. They built huge empires in tandem with the Emergency Services after the COAG Inquiry by a fire chief and two professors in 2004. COAG effectively buried the findings of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the 2003 disasters when 500 homes were destroyed in our National Capital.  Since then, the academics and fire chiefs have been routinely invited to mark their own cards in Inquiries.

The latest ‘research findings’ just add more fuel to the fire problem:

New research released today has found climate change will expose larger areas of forest in coastal NSW to higher frequency and more intense fires, amplifying the changes to fire regimes brought about by the 2019/20 fires.

Leading researchers at the University of Wollongong, a partner at the NSW Bushfire Research Hub, conducted the research using the latest data on behalf of the NSW Natural Resources Commission.

According to the lead researcher, Emeritus Professor Ross Bradstock, “The 2019/20 fires mean now only 10 percent of forested areas are currently within their recommended fire frequency thresholds. We found half of the state forest and national park area is now classified as ‘vulnerable’ in coastal NSW. This means the 2019/20 fires effectively doubled the extent of vulnerable forested vegetation on these tenures.”

The research also modelled what would happen to the habitat of 24 threatened species under a climate change scenario of hotter temperatures and little change in rainfall. Of the 24 species, seven species are predicted to have their habitat reduced by over 75% by 2070.

NSW Natural Resources Commissioner Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte said. “This is an important report, one that highlights consequences of the 2019/20 bushfires and future climate for NSW’s forests and provides guidance for future planning of our forests”.”

It is effectively illegal in NSW to burn frequently and mildly enough to maintain a healthy and safe landscape. Eucalypt forests need gentle fire at intervals less than 6 years to support natural nutrient cycling and diverse open ground layers. The “recommended fire frequency thresholds” of the academics were originally known as the ‘Bradstock Intervals’. They are a very large part of the problem.

The Intervals incorporate an illogical, untenable theory based on false assumptions and a wilderness mentality. Here’s the theory:

There are some fire-sensitive plants that aren’t capable of resprouting after fires and consequently rely on reproduction from seed. If you burn the same patch of bush a second time before the new plants have reached reproductive maturity, you’ll eliminate the species.

The thing is that Aborigines used the firestick to confine fire sensitive species to deep dark gullies, wet areas or bare areas without continuous groundcover. That’s why the megafauna disappeared. The ‘fire-sensitive obligate seeders’ which the academics think they’re saving, need mild burning to protect their health and prevent accumulation of scrub, litter and/or rank growth that fuels unstoppable firestorms in extreme conditions. The prime example is Eucalyptus regnans, now called mountain ash. It used to be called blackbutt because its stocking of rough bark was invariably black from mild fires lit by Aborigines and lightning. It grew in open mixed-aged forests. Major Mitchell rode his horse to the top of Mt. Macedon through blackbutt stands with trees averaging two metres in diameter. (See the old photo of such a stand above).

Megafires since mild burning was disrupted have converted most mountain ash forests to dense young even-aged stands choked with scrub. But there’s a research industry built on the myth that it’s a fire-sensitive species which will be eliminated by prescribed burning at intervals less than twenty years.

Blackbutt/mountain ash is now indeed threatened by frequent fire because the natural return interval of extreme fire weather is less than twenty years as it has been for thousands of years. The problem is simply that the academics who are advising government are frightened of fire. They don’t understand the difference between mild fires and wildfires because they’ve never learnt to use the firestick.

Gentle burning recycles nutrients, keeping soils, roots, trees and herbage healthy and safe. High intensity wildfires generate dense scrub that exacerbates the problems caused by our lock it up and let it burn ‘conservation’ paradigm. Traditional burning expert Victor Steffensen told NSW Koala Inquiry during the fires that we need mild burning as soon as possible after high-intensity fire to control the new scrub growth. NRC and their academic experts plan to use repeated satellite imagery to monitor scrub development as a measure of recovery!

NRC conducts elaborate and expensive ‘public consultations’, but consistently accepts advice from academics rather than experienced land managers who know fire as a friend and an ally.

Vic Jurskis has written two books published by Connor Court, Firestick Ecology and The Great Koala Scam.

Related stories: Threatened species habitat at risk from a hotter climate: University of Wollongong

Emeritus Professor Ross Bradstock has responded to this piece: Megafires: Prof Ross Bradstock responds

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