Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Politically correct fire management

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This article relates to the ongoing debate on Australian Rural & Regional News into Bushfires, Logging, Burns & Forest Management.

Vic Jurskis

Elders of Australian forestry temporarily reinstated sustainable fire management more than half a century ago, before a new generation of ecologists dismantled it. These new experts employ the Climate Cop-Out to explain the inevitable resurgence of pestilence and megafires. Now Forestry Australia is collaborating with them to ‘reimagine’ our future. To achieve this, they have to reinvent our past.

The first day of the latest FA symposium featured Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher from Melbourne University. Fletcher argues that our current fire problem is due to “colonial suppression of Indigenous cultural burning”. In fact, the evidence shows that our first megafire occurred around 1820 after Aboriginal burning in South Gippsland was disrupted by smallpox. Following European occupation, Victoria’s second megafire burnt five million hectares in 1851’s Black Thursday holocaust. Red Tuesday in 1898 also pre-dated the official baseline for purported Human Climate Change in Australia.

After Black Summer 2019/20, Australian Forestry published an article on the pro-forestry side of a silly debate about whether the miniscule proportion of logged forest contributed to the devastation. This was no mere distraction, because the paper endorsed the demonstrably false hypothesis that drought and extreme weather were to blame.

Around the same time, Professor Fletcher almost let slip, on ABC Landline, that our devastating Black Summer was actually caused by recent disruption of sustainable fire management: “Something has to change. What we’ve been doing for the last few decades [slight hesitation] the last 150 years, is not working … we have – connected, incredibly flammable, overstocked forests that go for hundreds if not thousands of kilometres”. Fletcher used these words to cover the slip: “We’re not managing country properly and as a consequence we’re going to keep getting these fires that are now climate-driven, but they’re not the result of fires. [sic] They’re the result of poor management, high fuel loads and climate now is kicking in and making them untenable”.

The sedimentary charcoal records clearly show a marked downturn in biomass burning against a trend of rising temperatures after foresters developed aerial ignition and reinstated mild fire in the 1960s. Recent sediment cores also show the charcoal signature of fires that have destroyed alpine bogs since grazing and burning by pastoralists and foresters were eliminated. Forestry Australia has previously promoted the views of another Melbourne University professor, Patrick Baker, who wrongly blames climate change for the destruction.

Real data on charcoal, i.e. burnt biomass, presented by both experts contradict the Climate Cop-Out.  

After our National Capital was ravaged by fire in 2003, elders of all colours and varieties, including foresters and pastoralists, contributed to A Nation Charred – the report of the Parliamentary Inquiry. It found that the problem was lack of maintenance by mild fire. The fires coming from the wilderness exploded into Canberra long after fires from the same lightning storms had been safely extinguished in adjoining State Forests and private lands.

But expert academics, bureaucrats and fire chiefs organised an alternative inquiry to sweep these findings under the carpet. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) 2004 Inquiry gave us ‘education’, emergency response and evacuation instead of sustainable land and fire management. A forestry professor and Fellow of Forestry Australia was one of three members of this inquiry. The inquiry effectively established a bushfire research industry as well as huge paramilitary firefighting forces with squadrons of heavy waterbombers and columns of fire engines.

Following the inevitable horrors of Black Saturday and then Black Summer, the latest Royal Commission endorsed the Climate Cop-Out. Forestry Australia agreed. They said that mild burning is not a panacea. They announced that, “We need a new shared vision for Australia’s forests … We envisage that a new vision would move us towards more holistic and integrated approaches to forest management that will enable us to build back better … These approaches should be based on active and adaptive management that is informed by science, practical experience and traditional ecological knowledge.

The words sound good, but the new vision embraces experts using the climate cop-out for megafires as well as those applying it to chronic eucalypt decline and pestilence. The vision excludes experienced scientists and managers who successfully applied active, adaptive management to improve forest health and fire safety before the terminology was invented.

When I started as a forester on New South Wales’ north coast in the late 70s, I saw the benefits. It was an open, healthy, safe, diverse and resilient landscape maintained by mild burning and grazing. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people worked side by side in our forests. I learnt from my forestry elders. But it wasn’t long before academic experts started interfering with sustainable management. I’ve seen forests decline and turn to scrub which chokes out biodiversity and explodes in firestorms from natural ignitions during natural weather extremes. I’ve seen consequent irruptions of native and exotic species.

I’ve assisted some highly skilled colleagues in investigations of the underlying physical, chemical and biotic processes. The fairdinkum science fully accords with traditional Aboriginal knowledge as articulated by Victor Steffensen. He talks of upside-down country – thin on top and thick underneath – and of sick trees with lazy roots on damp soils. This is evident in the photos from Bellbird Creek NR. Eucalypt forests need mild fire at intervals of three to six years to maintain their health, safety, diversity and resilience.

Forestry Australia and their expert academic collaborators don’t get it. President Bob Gordon says that “Europeans disrupted traditional low impact burning regimes”. They weren’t low impact, they were critically important. Our current environmental problems are a consequence of modern experts disrupting the adaptive management that our forestry elders applied. Tinkering with so-called cultural burning cannot correct the huge problem that currently exists in southeastern Australia.

There is no holistic and integrated approach amongst the experts. The fire experts specify minimum acceptable intervals between fires based on ecomythology. These produce perverse outcomes including hazard production burns. Forest pathologists study symptoms of and contributors to chronic eucalypt decline in the absence of mild fire as if they are causes. When koalas irrupt in response to eucalypt decline, it is seen as a good thing. When unsustainably dense sub-populations crash in droughts or are immolated in megafires, it’s climate change.

We don’t need collaboration among academic experts to reinstate sustainable fire management. We still have the technical knowledge of some forestry, pastoral and Aboriginal elders. We need political will, not political correctness. We know from long experience that we have to manage fire across the whole landscape to maintain forest health and safety. But many Forestry Australia fire experts in the southeast publicly support limited burning around urban fringes as a fire management strategy. Forestry elder Roger Underwood from WA calls this the ‘Colgate Ring of Confidence’ approach. It’s a proven recipe for disaster and does nothing for forest health, resilience and biodiversity.

Note that FA’s Key Performance Indicators for the National Bushfire Management Policy do not include the most important, informative and simply measurable indicator – annual percentage area treated by mild fire. In launching the ‘landmark framework’ to save us from bushfires Bob Gordon said it was vital that all states and territories worked together to tackle the nation’s growing fire challenges in a co-ordinated and accountable manner. The problem is that WA has been doing it for 60 years by mild burning across the landscape. FA apparently wants to drag them down to the same level as southeastern Australia. 

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

Australian Rural & Regional News will seek and welcomes a response to this article or on the issues raised generally from Forestry Australia and welcomes contributions to this important discussion from anyone with experience or expertise in this field.

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