Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Forests, fires and burns – still no consensus

Recent stories

This article relates to the ongoing debate on Australian Rural & Regional News: Open for Debate – Bushfires, Logging, Burns & Forest Management

As those that have been reading Australian Rural & Regional News for some time will know, we have been following news and articles dealing with the question of what, if any, connection there is between forestry operations and bushfires, and the related question of whether prescribed (controlled) burns, of whatever type, reduce bushfire risk.

A great many articles on these and related questions from the last few years can be found on the dedicated Open for Debate page, including a series of responses late last year on the contentious issue of self-thinning forest understoreys and bushfire risk between Philip Zylstra, Jack Bradshaw, Roger Underwood and Peter Rutherford.

In recent weeks, two particular statements have come to the attention of ARR.News that highlight the continuing conflicting and confusing information in the public domain.

They suggest an acceleration of the fundamental disagreement on the connection between forestry and bushfire and the efficacy of prescribed burning between academics who “review the literature on key questions and ask what science has discovered in how fire behaves and our relationship with it” (Professor Brendan Mackey, www.bushfirefacts.org) and “practical bushfire specialists, with hundreds of years’ accumulated experience in preventing bushfire damage to people, property and forests” (www.bushfirefront.org.au).

In New South Wales, the argument that timber harvesting increases bushfire risk is being used to seek to persuade the Minns Labor government to stop all native forest harvesting. In Western Australia and Victoria, native forest harvesting ceases from January 2024 following decisions by the McGowan and Andrews Labor Governments respectively.

A recent instance of this argument is the media statement by the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales (NCC) on 24 November 2023, ‘With fire season well and truly here, NCC urges the NSW Parliament to help protect the community and environment by stopping native forest logging’. The NCC media statement draws on a paper released by the academics comprising the Bushfire Recovery Project (www.bushfirefacts.org), a collaboration between the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, Griffith University and the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative, ‘Bushfire Science Report No. 3: What are the relationships between native forest logging and bushfires?’

In Western Australia, members of the public are expressing concern about what they believe, relying on similar schools of thought, are unnecessary prescribed burns damaging the environment and increasing rather than reducing the bushfire risk. This is demonstrated by the petition launched by Luke Gaches from Nornalup seeking to stop prescribed burns planned by the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) for the tingle forest near Walpole and Nornalup.

Much weight, perhaps undue weight, is placed on the peer review process. If it ever did, peer reviewed does not mean now that a paper is authoritative, that it has been through and survived rigorous challenges by every, or even a great many experts in the relevant field, or even that a research study is accurate. It does not mean there is consensus amongst established experts.

If papers on contentious issues have survived or been refined following rigorous challenges, it might be instructive to publish these interchanges with the paper itself.

ARR.News has asked questions of NCC, and sought responses from the Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW), the WA DBCA and also experienced firefighters and foresters, many of whom have contributed to the ongoing debate on ARR.News and some of whom are members of The Bushfire Front. Gordon Wilson from ARR.News has also commented. This series of questions and responses is set out below.

Noting that commentators on these issues may be weary of covering what they consider to be the same ground, further comment from all referred to in this article and those with expertise or experience in these areas is nevertheless welcome, especially if it adds new views or data.

In particular, it would be useful to learn the views of the school that opposes native forestry and prescribed burns if there are any circumstances where it considers native forestry is sustainable and has environmental or social benefits, and any circumstances where controlled burning of any type has any benefit or reduces bushfire risk.

Similarly, it would be useful to learn whether the school that supports native forestry and the use of controlled burning to reduce bushfire risk considers that there are any circumstances when forests are better left alone.

Of both, is it time to look more deeply into alternative ways to reduce fuel loads where possible and thereby reduce the release of further CO2 from either controlled or uncontrolled burning and possibly even produce environmentally friendly biochar and bioenergy.

Forest management, forestry and bushfire mitigation and management are matters of profound importance to country people and communities.

The statements and responses set out here begin to demonstrate the complexity of the issues and the level of disagreement confronting the public and policymakers.

Nature Conservation Council NSW statement

NCC media release, ‘With fire season well and truly here, NCC urges the NSW Parliament to help protect the community and environment by stopping native forest logging’ (24 November 2023), In NCC’s words:

“The Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales (NCC), the state’s leading environmental advocacy organisation, has today urged members of the NSW Parliament to prioritise safety and security by ending the fire risk being caused by native forest logging.  

“Across NSW state forest is being logged to the edge of towns. This is dramatically increasing the bushfire risk these communities face and should be stopped as a matter of priority”,  NCC CEO Jacqui Mumford said today.  

“Right now logging is occurring within within 6km of Lansdowne (mid-north coast), 15km of Batemans Bay (south coast) and there are plans to log forest right on the boarder of Nambucca Heads (mid north coast) within the next 6 months. Operations have just been completed in forests 4km from Bulahdelah (mid-north coast) and 5km from Ourimbah (central coast).“ 

“We are calling on members of the NSW Parliament to take an important step to protect the community and the environment from the risk of bushfires by ending native forest logging.”  

Extensive, peer reviewed research has found that logged forest was more likely to have burnt, and at a higher severity, during the 2019-20 bushfires than unlogged forests.  

Logging produces forests that are more likely to burn because: 

  • It increased the amount of sunlight and wind that can enter and dry out the soil and understory.  This promotes the growth of more drought-tolerant and fire prone species such a eucalypts.  
  • Less than 40% of a logged tree is removed from a site – the rest is left on the ground or in piles that dry out and increase the severity and impact of a fire (J.Sanger (2022) NSW’s Forest Carbon,The Tree Projects, P.6) 
  • The vegetation that regrows after logging has substantially more flammable branches close to the ground, creating a vertical ladder of fuel which will allow all available vegetation to burn, and at a higher temperature. 
  • The crown fires that occur due to this vertical ladder are much more difficult to control, spread more quickly, and embers are much more easily transported by wind to start new spot fires. 

In a review of the literature Prof. Lindenmayer concluded:  

“Native forest logging makes bushfires worse – and to say otherwise ignores the facts”.  

“Every empirical analysis so far shows logging eucalypt forests makes them far more likely to experience crown fire…Research shows forests became dramatically less likely to burn when they mature after a few decades. Mature forests are also less likely to carry fire into the tree tops.”  

Further statements attributable to Jacqui Mumford, NCC CEO. 

“With the extreme fire risk we are experiencing as we enter a period of El Nino drought, we need to do everything we can to increase safety and security and reduce bushfires.”  

“All the evidence we have shows that disturbed, younger forests that have been logged are more likely to burn, and do so more intensely.” 

“In contrast, older, undisturbed forests are shadier, wetter, and have taller trees leading them to be less likely to burn, and when they do they burn slower and cooler”. 

[Clockwise from top left, images circulated with the NCC media release with the captions given by NCC:] [2] Dying out the forests – Logged forests have a dramatic reduction in canopy coverage and non-eucalypt species, creating creates a much more flammable section of forest (Photo: David Gallan); [3] The leftover timber after a forest has been logged; [1] NCC CEO Jacqui Mumford demonstrating the huge amount of dry, flammable wood left by after logging has taken place.

Responses to the NCC release and the Bushfire Recovery Project paper by forest and fire commentators

Commentators point to the lack of practical experience in fire mitigation, suppression and management of the authors of the report.

Others point to the lack of data to prove the hypothesis that logging increases the severity of fire and the failure to follow the basic rules of science to establish causation by disproving all relevant alternate null hypotheses and instead wrongly using correlation based on predictions by models as evidence of causation.

Others point out that all the Black Summer bushfires in NSW started in National Parks and none began in the State Forests, that National Parks controls 88 per cent of the NSW forests and of the 12 per cent controlled by FC NSW only one per cent of that is harvested each year.

Frank Batini:

“… The use of FFDI [Forest Fire Danger Index] does not consider key factors that drive fire behaviour such as fuel type, fuel quantity and slope. Any experienced firefighter would rather fight a fire in 2 ton/ha fuel on a 40 degree day than in a 20 ton/ha on a 30 degree day. Temperature has a minor effect on fire behaviour, but at 20 tons, the fire intensity is 100 times that at  2 tons. We cannot control fires by going for net zero asap. IF net zero will work ( and there are serious doubts) it will take at least 50-100 years to reverse current temperature trends. They are preaching dangerous nonsense, but will be unaffected and unaccountable for the consequences- more lives lost and homes/properties burnt by wildfire.”

Frank has contributed a number of articles to ARR.News including on the effectiveness of prescribed burning and forest thinning.

Dr Neil Burrows AFSM:

“… an attempt to ‘frighten’ people about the calamitous effects of climate change by inferring that recent disastrous bushfires were caused by climate change.  Earth’s climate has changed naturally for millions of years – nothing unusual about that. Even before the current era of climate change, or expression of climate variability, there were droughts and bushfires. Over millennia, the planet has experienced periods when it’s been warmer, cooler, wetter and drier than present. That it is changing due to ‘anthropogenic forcing’, as the authors claim,  is actually not ‘settled science’, but is contestable space. For example, see the graphs attached from Gregory Whitehouses’ book “Inconvenient Facts”.  There is a growing published, peer reviewed literature that questions the conclusion that climate change is driven by fossil fuel burning alone. For example, see Koutsoyiannis and Kundzewicz 2020 and Connolly et al. 2023. This search for the truth will continue to grow as scientists are more emboldened and willing to challenge the now ‘established’ theories about the cause of current climate change. Fear of being ‘cancelled’ or ‘piled on’ or of losing funding, has bullied many scientists into silence, or into ‘towing the party line’.  Getting to the bottom of this is very important, because it underpins the fallacious, simplistic and dangerous argument that to prevent bushfires from occurring, we need to stop GHG emissions. If emissions stopped tomorrow, we would still have weather conducive to big bushfires. Guaranteed.

… the authors had a responsibility to be honest and acknowledge the critical role that bushfire fuels play, together with climate, in driving bushfire severity.   Not only is this critical, but, unlike climate change, landscape prescribed burning to manage fuel buildup is something we can do in a relatively short time frame  – like in a  few years –  to mitigate the bushfire threat. Despite the highly questionable science that suggests otherwise, historical data, the lived experience of firefighters and credible bushfire science proves that prescribed burning, done properly, is effective and it is environmentally safe.”

Roger Underwood:

” … Firstly it ignores bushfire and climate history; secondly it makes assertions unsupported by facts; and finally it proposes action that will make not the slightest difference to the bushfire threat in Australia

The answer to the bushfire threat in Australia is well known, and has been demonstrated to work where applied properly. This involves an integrated and comprehensive system, incorporating fuel reduction, with responsible investment in preparedness and mitigation. Residential areas must be prepared in the expectation of fire. Reliance on suppression of fires after they start, or some pie-in-the-sky idea that if Australia achieves net zero there will no longer be a fire problem, is a foolish, immature and inhumane approach, doomed to failure.”

Roger Underwood has contributed and been referred to in a number of articles on ARR.News.

John Clarke, Chair, Bushfire Front provided the BFF’s, A Blueprint for Australian Bushfire Management’, which includes:

“Essential Background Truths:

1. Australia’s climate, renowned for periodic drought and hot, dry summers, is conducive to the occurrence of bushfires.

2. Australia’s vegetation is highly flammable, dominated by plant species that ignite easily and burn fiercely.

3. Bushland fuels accumulate and increasing fuel results in increasing fire intensity.

4. Fire prone ecosystems are adapted to fire and there is no evidence that low intensity planned fire regimes cause any long term harm to biodiversity.

5. Fires will always be ignited every fire season whether by humans (accidental or deliberate) or nature (lightning).

6. High intensity fires cannot be stopped by firefighters if fuels are heavy and terrain is difficult.

7. Reducing bushland fuels is by far the most effective weapon against killer bushfires.

Gordon Wilson, ARR.News:

“… The real issue [with the NCC media release] is that the reader is not told that there is also extensive peer reviewed material that states selective harvesting, of native hardwood – which is all that is allowed by the NSW rules – does not cause bushfires …

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW fails to tell the reader the precise location of the photograph. There is a history of labels under photographs not being accurate. What is not advised is that if the photograph is a native timber harvesting site, looking at the photograph, it is clear the timber on the ground could be used as fencing or firewood. It is more than likely the timber would have been collected for such uses … It points to a misleading use of the photograph in the email …

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW does not tell its readers that all the major wildfires in NSW in 2019-2020 started in NSW National Parks which are administered by the NSW EPA. None of the wildfires started in State Forests where native hardwood is selectively harvested.

NSW National Parks control 88 per cent of native forests in the State. The balance of 12 per cent is controlled by Forestry Corporation of NSW. The latter carries out management of the forest to avoid wildfires. It would appear from the lack of NSW Government data that the NSW National Parks are not doing any management or fire prevention work.

Inquiries under Freedom of Information requests in 2023 showed that there is no data available.”

Response of NCC to questions from ARR.News

ARR.News: Could you please identify the precise time and place of the three photos you have included with your release were taken, and at what point of the timber harvesting operations these were taken?

See the photos marked [1], [2] and [3] above.

NCC:

Image 1: North [South] Brooman State Forest, January 19th 2023. After logging completed.
Image 2:  Tallaganda State Forest, August 2023, during active operation.
Image 3: North [South] Brooman State Forest, January 19th 2023. After logging completed
.

[Ed: FCNSW has advised that there have been no operations in North Brooman since 2017 so this and the Image 3 references may be mistaken for South Brooman, where there were operations that finished in January 2023.]

ARR.News: Have you sought any independent analysis of “Bushfire Science Report no. 3”?

NCC: We certainly have. The report was compiled by academics from the ANU Fenner School and Griffith Climate Change Response Program from Griffith University. It draws on a range of peer reviewed academic sources, meaning each paper has been assessed by a panel of independent experts in the field, who have endorses the validity, significance, and originality of each paper. This was compiled by some of Australia’s leading experts in bushfire ecology.

The sources for the studies indicating that logged forests burn more regularly and more intensively are listed with the media release and are based on evidenced based studies conducted in a range of forest types by internationally recognised fire scientists. 

ARR.News: Who have you consulted that has practical experience in fire mitigation, suppression and management that considers that the logging you mention is increasing fire risk?

NCC: NCC is fortunate to be able to draw on the experience of its Heathy Ecosystem Program Staff who work with communities across NSW in delivering sustainable fire management to protect life, property as well as environmental and cultural values.

These staff have a decades of experience in fire ecology and fire management, including as volunteer firefighters.  The NCC Bushfire Program has representatives on the Bush Fire Risk Management Committees across the state and a representative on the State Bush Fire Coordinating Committee.  NCC regularly partners with fire management agencies such as the Rural Fire Service (RFS), National Parks and Wildlife (NPWS), Forest Corp and Local Government in delivering positive fire management outcomes.

Our Bushfire Advisory Committee includes a former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner and a former NPWS Director.  

Assessment of the risk posed by fuels left after logging operations is also informed by the assessment techniques described in the Overall Fuel Hazard Assessment Guide.

We’re fortunate to have a range of bushfire experts as part of our core staff team.

ARR.News: What is your view of using logging waste for biochar, biofuels and bioenergy etc?

NCC: We do not support burning native forest biomaterial for electricity. Cutting down forests for energy is bad for the climate and bad for nature. We want to see an end to all public native forest logging, which [will] remove the creation of slash and debris piles following a harvesting operation. 

Response of the Forestry Corporation of NSW to the photos and questions from ARR.News

ARR.News:

  • Are these photos accurate representations of the state of those forests at that time?
  • Do the North [South] Brooman photos represent the state that forest is normally left in after forestry operations are completed?
  • In what condition are forests required to be left after forestry operations?
  • What does FCNSW do to ensure that there is not a large amount of flammable wood left on the ground after forestry operations?
  • Also, what is FCNSW’s view of using logging waste for biochar, biofuels and bioenergy etc?
  • Any other comments on the NCC statement?

FCNSW spokesperson:

There is no scientific consensus linking timber harvesting and fire risk and the Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry found no clear link, but identified it as an area for further research.

The recommendations of the bushfire inquiry continue to be implemented, including a range of research.

Timber harvesting operations take place in just 1 per cent of NSW State forests each year. Whenever we harvest a tree, we aim to find a use for every part of the tree.​

Several different products can come out of one tree – large sawlogs for flooring or decking, smaller logs for landscaping timbers, and the tree crowns and branches may be used for firewood. 

This approach seeks to ensure that no part of the tree goes to waste. 

There is some residue left in the forest after harvesting and if there is no other viable use, we may open areas up to the community for fire collection and when weather permits during winter, we undertake controlled burns in areas which have been harvested to further remove debris and minimise the risk of wildfire.

In South Brooman State Forest we undertook a controlled burn this winter to remove fuel from the harvesting operation that took place last year.

Over the summer we will continue to monitor the fuel loads in forests, both harvested and unharvested.

As a firefighting authority Forestry Corporation plays an important role in responding to wildfires in regional NSW with around 500 staff and firefighting vehicles ready to fight fires on State forests and other land tenures.

By way of background

The first photo is not a typical forest operation but likely shows a log dump – an area we would have used during the operation to load timber. If this is South Brooman we have conducted controlled burning to reduce to fuel loads. We have not been operating in North Brooman State Forest in recent years.

We do not currently use residue from native forests for biomass for electricity production.

The WA planned Nornalup burn

ARR.News was approached by Luke Gaches from Nornalup, who was concerned about prescribed burns planned for the area and who started a petition seeking to prevent these at https://chng.it/dNkb5FKvM2.

Luke described his concerns:

“I write with regard to a prescribed burn planned to be conducted by the DBCA this summer in the rural village of Nornalup, WA. 

I would like to start by saying that I am not necessarily opposed to prescribed burns. I volunteer with the Nornalup bushfire brigade and have actively participated in prescribed burns. However, each area deserves to be assessed on a case by case basis, and I strongly oppose burning this particular area owning to the fact that it represents one of the few remaining pristine tingle forest riparian zones on the planet – an area of high rainfall and low altitude that would historically have very rarely burned either from natural causes or by its Noongar custodians.

The bulk of this area has not seen fire for many decades and presents low and declining flammability and fire risk according to recent research by fire scientists. The area is also home to endemic and threatened species such as quokkas, phascogales, Carnaby’s Cockatoos and others.

A prescribed burn in this area is also particularly high risk. As DBCA acknowledge themselves, there is always a risk of the prescribed burn escaping, which in this case would be either across the river to Nornalup village, and/or further up Douglas Hill both with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

I therefore consider this prescribed burn to be an irresponsible and immoral act due to the unnecessary harm caused to the ecosystem, detriment to the landscape, as well as threatening to human life and property.”

Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) response to questions from ARR.News

ARR.News:

  • Is DBCA in fact planning to conduct the burning operations as stated on the petition page?
  • If so, why are burning operations being conducted during bushfire season, a period of total fire ban?
  • Why were prescribed burns not undertaken earlier, before bushfire season?
  • What is the current (pre burn) state of the forests?
  • What is fuel load, what is the condition of the scrub and understorey?
  • Why are these burns considered so necessary in a long unburnt, pristine environment (if that is the case)?
  • Why type of prescribed burn is to be carried out? Eg mild mosaic burning or extensive burning to the crown?
  • What losses of wildlife are anticipated from these burns?
  • How can DBCA guarantee that this time, a prescribed burn will not get out of control and/ or do greater damage than intended?

DBCA spokesperson:

“Prescribed burning is the primary means at a landscape scale of reducing the level of combustible fuel and therefore the risk of bushfire faced by our community and the environment.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) has the responsibility of balancing the need to protect our communities and the environment from the damaging impacts of bushfires. In doing this, an evidence and risk-based approach is used, with detailed planning often taking several years.

A long history of fire research in Australia continues to demonstrate that low intensity prescribed burning reduces the size and potential impacts of bushfires.

The proposed Nornalup burn is 80 hectares in size and represents approximately 1.5 per cent of the total area of red tingle forest. As much of this forest carries heavy ground fuel loads that take a long time to dry out, this means that typically the appropriate fuel dryness conditions to undertake these burns are not met until summer or autumn.

DBCA recognises the important natural, cultural, scenic and landscape values of the Walpole Wilderness Area and is confident that a program of managed fire will provide better environmental and ecological outcomes than intense summer bushfires.

From a biodiversity perspective, prescribed burning is undertaken to maintain a range of wildlife habitat types through the creation of low-fuel areas in a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches across the landscape. Prescribed burns occur in more favourable conditions than intense summer bushfires, enabling animals more opportunities to safely move into areas of unburnt vegetation and various plant species opportunities to regenerate.”

Responses to the petition and DBCA response by forest and fire commentators

Frank Batini points to the 2009 Jarrahdale fire as one of many examples of a potential bushfire disaster being averted:

“Due to the strong wind, the fire was arrow-shaped, long and narrow, and was headed straight for Jarrahdale. Fortunately the head-fire entered the area that had been commercially thinned and prescribe burned 18 months earlier. Starved of ground fuel the crown-fire could not sustain itself and within 50 metres of the boundary the fire dropped to the ground. Here it became a mild ground-fire and was easily and rapidly contained with a mineral-earth break made with the Cat and by the firefighters.”

Thinned area

Forest outside Jarrahdale, thinned in April 2007, which was treated with prescribed burning in November 2007 to reduce the fuel hazard, including the additional fuels resulting from the thinning.
Photo: Frank Batini.

John O’Donnell:

” … DBCA are doing good work in WA and this should be supported.

The debate about forestry and fire has been covered to death and Vic Jurskis’s article in ARR.News on this summarised it as a non-issue … Forestry in NSW only covers 12 per cent and the area logged each year is miniscule. 

In many ways, it pisses me off that forest harvesting is so small, but conservation areas that are locked up and allowed to burn result in death trap forests and poor conservation …

What is a big issue is the huge understories/ dense regrowth over much of the range of the 18.5 million hectares of the 2019/ 20 bushfires and earlier intense bushfires, due to their intensity  …There are more disasters coming.  Why isn’t this addressed?

What about fire fighter and community safety, does this count for anything?  … Fire fighters are going into death traps.

The SE / Eastern states are doing less than 1 per cent of prescribed burning of forests per year, which is not going to protect anything much.  … only WA is reducing bushfire area.

Having being involved in two bushfires in Southern NSW both over 300,000 hectares, I saw first hand the long fire runs of 100 km, intense bushfires, community impacts, loss of life, fauna and ecosystem impacts.  The biggest individual bushfire in the [Australia’s history] was Gospers Mountain.  More prescribed burning and ecological maintenance burning is needed in mosaics, using the WA approach of 8-10 per cent per year.

Australia, especially the South East, isn’t prepared for bushfires …

What is a huge issue is the long fire intervals between burns and fire agency laxness on completing effective burning programs …The long fire intervals and no burning also increases the risks and presence of eucalypt decline.

In regards to adaptive management, the US has turned it around with thinning and prescribed burning undertaken at the WUI [Wildland Urban Interface], but is missing landscape burning.

Changes in forests is another issue that isn’t considered here. Forests are denser and in many cases have denser understories with the change from Aboriginal fire regimes.

John O’Donnell has contributed a number articles to ARR.News on forest management, prescribed burning and firefighting.

Robert Onfray:

“I might just add a couple more points about Gospers Mountain as it is instructive in this debate. While it hasn’t anything to do with the current WA debate, it is important in the broad argument about prescribed burning, and the concomitant issue of logging areas contributing to fire risk argument.

The Gospers Mountain fire is a devastating example of not managing fuel loads. High fuel loads meant the fire could not be put out. The whole of the fire was located in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and Wollemi Wilderness Area. These areas have never been subjected to harvesting.

Gospers Mountain fire started by lightning on 26 October 2019. It should have been attacked immediately while it was small and contained. We are told by authorities in charge of fighting the fire that it wasn’t attacked immediately because it was remote, or no access. That is crap. A fire trail was within 400 metres of the ignition point. Yet the fire was allowed to burn in high fuel loads over the next two weeks until severe fire weather arrived.

Then the shit hit the fan.

Aided by an inept top-heavy paramilitary emergency response organisation lacking fire management experience, the fire was allowed to grow and declared an emergency. Up to 3,000 firefighters, mostly volunteers, were battling the fire. Large numbers of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters fire retardant and foam failed to put the fire out. The large fuel loads prevented this. The fire grew to 350,000 hectares making it the largest fire in Australia’s history. But that was not the end.

To emphasise the inept fire management knowledge, it was decided to light a backburn after a last-minute change in strategy communicated to the local brigade captain, who strongly opposed that decision. The Mount Wilson backburn was lit on 14 December from a point with a history of escaped fires. That is another example of ignoring local knowledge. It was a windy day and Gospers Mountain fire front was just 15 kilometres to the north.

Inevitably the fires coaleasced and it grew to 512,000 hectares, 35 per cent bigger than the previous record. It was reported as contained on 12 January 2020 after 79 days.

The then Premier was proud as an inordinate number of resources and time was spent on saving the Wollemi pines, taking focus away from the main fire.

So, it was ok to destroy the Blue Mountains WHA in one fierce fire to save the Wollemi Pine, especially when you can get away without doing any fuel management outside the fire seasons.”

Robert Onfray has contributed a number of articles to ARR.News.

John Clarke, Chair, Bushfire Front:

“There is a cohort of people who live in small towns and communities along WA’s south coast who will never agree that prescribed burning is necessary for the protection of life and property. These same people also believe that our biodiversity is in grave peril and that every prescribed burn is a threat to its very existence. Some are also being swayed by the weird theory that forest fuels will somehow shrink in the absence of burning, despite our eucalypt forests continuously dropping leaves, twigs, branches and bark. 

The greater southwest of WA is a large area with a range of forest types and climate. It might be 35 degrees in Perth with gusty east winds whilst at Nornalup on the same day it might be 22 degrees with a southerly breeze. Hence prescribed burning may be conducted down there in December when there is a fire ban in the MidWest.

I think you are already aware that the WA Environment Minister recently rejected suggestions from the EPA in WA to limit prescribed burning and conduct another enquiry.

Rather than criticise prescribed burning, the people of Nornalup and elsewhere along that coast need to prepare for the next major fire in that area which is surely inevitable, especially if they keep on harassing the authorities like DBCA who are trying to do the right thing.”

Dr Neil Burrows AFSM:
(Added his own personal comments to the responses by DBCA above)

ARR.News: Why are burning operations being conducted during bushfire season, a period of total fire ban?

Neil: The burn will not be conducted in a period of ‘total fire ban’. It may be conducted during the ‘prohibited season’, which is different – it  means its prohibited to do any burning off unless with a special permit / permission (it used to be from the Minister?). As DBCA have explained, tingle forest fuel is usually not dry enough to burn until late December.

ARR.News: What is the current (pre burn) state of the forests? What is fuel load, what is the condition of the scrub and understorey?

Neil: I don’t know, but I expect it is long unburnt – perhaps 20-30 years?? I’ve not seen this forest recently, but I expect it will be carrying a heavy load of dead fine fuels (accumulated leaves, bark, twigs etc,) with a sparse live understorey. It is this heavy load of dead fine fuel that will drive the intensity of a bushfire. DBCA will know exactly when the last fire was.

ARR.News: Why are these burns considered so necessary in a long unburnt, pristine environment (if that is the case)?

Neil: Not sure what you mean by ‘pristine’, but it will have a history of burning and bushfire.  Just because it has not been burnt for ‘a long time’, does not mean it will never burn in a bushfire. It will – we just don’t know when. From this question, I’m thinking you may be referencing the theory that if you leave the forest unburnt for long enough, the fire hazard will vanish? In the words of Winston Churchill, “I should think it hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision”. Being long unburnt and carrying heavy fuels, when a bushfire does occur under severe fire weather conditions, it will be very intense and it will cause extensive damage to the tingle forest – many trees will be killed and many burnt down. Such an intense bushfire will not be able to be suppressed at its peak, and it will threaten / damage communities and critical infrastructure.  

ARR.News: Why type of prescribed burn is to be carried out? Eg mild mosaic burning or extensive burning to the crown?

Neil: I expect it will be a low intensity, cool burn under mild weather conditions. If properly executed, it will not damage the tree crowns. However, it’s difficult to create a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches in long unburnt heavy fuels.

ARR.News: What losses of wildlife are anticipated from these burns?

Neil: There will be no long term loss of wildlife. These ecosystems are adapted to mild fire, the acute impacts will be minimal if the burn is well executed, and the forest will recover quickly.

ARR.News: How can DBCA guarantee that this time, a prescribed burn will not get out of control or do greater damage than intended?

Neil: Prescribed burning is not without risk. However, the consequences of not prescribed burning and leaving it to a bushfire will be far more harmful than damage done by a prescribed burn that ‘gets out of control’.  The ‘do nothing’ option WILL result in unacceptable consequences down the track.  I expect DBCA will guarantee that they will take all feasible measures to minimise the risk of the burn getting out of control. Thorough planning and professional execution is the key to minimise risk. For example, this includes ensuring there is a burnt edge around the burn, choosing the right day, and days, in terms of weather on the day and the days after,  ensuring the right ignition pattern, ensuring adequate resources are on site, raking around trees near the burn boundary, raking around large trees with hollow butts, diligent mopping up and patrol, monitoring the burn in the days after the ignition, etc.  

Roger Underwood:

“If you think that the debate about prescribed burning will be resolved by allowing opponents to argue with each other in your journal, you are mistaken. It is an argument between people who know about fire, and who are accountable for bushfire outcomes on the one hand, and people who know almost nothing about fire and have no accountability on the other. It has been going on for over 50 years. It will never be resolved by argument or discussion. Only strong government leadership will keep the program going, with its responsible outcomes. And this will probably only emerge after the next ghastly fire wipes out the Nornalup National Park, although if recent history is anything to go by, this will be blamed on climate change.”

Conclusion

if you have read this far, dear reader, you must now be very aware that there is no consensus that there is – or is not – evidence that native forest harvesting increases the risk or intensity of bushfires or that forests untreated by any controlled burning are – or are not – more resilient.

When you read articles on these topics, bear in mind the political and academic landscape, and dig deeper.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Sign up to the Australian Rural & Regional News newsletters

Manage your subscription

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.