Saturday, January 22, 2022

Open for Debate - Bushfires, Logging, Burns & Forest Management

Going into Christmas 2021, the megafires of two years ago are still fresh in the Australian memory and we head further into the bushfire season with some trepidation. Of course it is not just Australia where fires have raged out of control and caused immeasurable damage. Forest and land management practices around the world are, I hope, under scrutiny so that the best practices to suit the circumstances of each can be put into place.

It seems timely that the debate on this page open up beyond the original question of any connection between bushfires and logging to include other elements that make up sustainable forest management in Australia. The overarching question remains the same: How can Australian forests, as they are now, be best managed to achieve the best outcome with the least adverse consequences? What more can and should we do right now?

Those of you who have been following the commentary and articles collected here would suspect that there is no simple answer to this question and that there are deep divisions between commentators.

The impact of climate change, the impact of logging and harvesting, the impact of fuel reduction burns and the extent of FRBs appear to be key factors.

Surely though, these are not mutually exclusive and it’s not that much of a stretch to acknowledge that they all may have an effect on forest management and bushfire risk?  Perhaps the ongoing debate will get down to the details of where the balance lies.

At another level, the debate over forest management and bushfire mitigation and protection feeds into a debate over the future of rural and regional Australia itself, but that may be for the next round. 

As before, if you have expert experience or knowledge in this field, your input – as balanced and unemotional as possible, preferably debating the points and not the people – is invited. If you know someone who should contribute to this debate, let them, or me, know. TheEditor@ARR.News

While the length of a submission is not an issue, it would be helpful for ARR.News readers if commentators could give a clear summary of their main points at the outset.

Related story

What’s happening to the jarrah forest?

Jack Bradshaw. Exposing the hypocrisy of the WA government in banning sustainable timber harvesting in native forest but supporting the strip mining of the same forest.

Response

We’ve learnt nothing from Black Summer : Vic Jurskis

Einstein supposedly said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Australia’s current approach to forest management is insane ... Now the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Committee has published “Lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20”. It would be amusing if not for the ongoing dire consequences.

Response

Hang on, what about inadequate fuel reduction burning and consequent build up of 3 D fuels? : John O’Donnell

John O'Donnell provides a number of points in response to CSIRO findings on fuel loads, prescribed burning, climate change and forest fire activity in Australia over the last three decades.

Response

We need a new shared vision for Australia’s forests: Forestry Australia

Recent catastrophic bushfires and reports of threats to species have highlighted concerns about the management of Australia’s forests. Most prominently, there are increasing concerns that forest management is failing to ensure forest health, build ecosystem resilience and protect threatened species. These concerns are real, but the key drivers are not well understood. A body of opinion and media coverage often presents timber harvesting as the primary threat to forest ecosystems and suggests that creating more national parks will protect threatened species and habitats and reduce the risk of severe bushfires. Yet the situation is far more complex.

Reports

Report – Identification of fuel management locations and risk reduction potential

Planned burning is one of the most utilised fuel management activities, but the safe and effective application of this method is likely to be hindered by climate change (e.g. shrinking and shifting windows of opportunity) and potential adverse societal outcomes (e.g. smoke impact, risk of fire escape). For this reason, fire managers need access to detailed information to help them make informed decisions and select a fuel management strategy that is compatible with a range of factors.

Report – Influence of climate change and fuel management on bushfire risk in Western Australia

Bushfire risk is likely to increase in the future due to the combined impacts of climate change and urban sprawl. This report presents the results of an analysis combining the outputs from stakeholder consultation with those from the Unified Natural Hazard Risk Mitigation Exploratory Decision Support System (UNHaRMED) to quantify increases in bushfire risk due to different population growth and climate change scenarios in four areas of emerging bushfire risk in Western Australia.

Research

New research links Australia’s forest fires to climate change: CSIRO

New research by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, shows climate change has driven a significant increase in Australia’s forest fire activity over the last three decades. A lengthening of the fire season towards Autumn and Winter were also identified, along with an increase in fire activity in cooler and warmer regions including alpine forests in Tasmania and tropical rainforests in Queensland.

Response

ABC, CSIRO and climate science – what hope have we got? : Vic Jurskis

Since the Black Summer bushfires, there has been fierce debate over the role hazard reduction burns played in the severity of the fires, but Dr Canadell says prescribed burning has not actually changed ... Dr. Canadell was absolutely correct in saying we’re burning a really small amount. I wonder why, then, he finds it difficult to imagine that fuel loads are driving megafires ...

Debate response

To burn or not to burn? Is that the question? : SETA

Peter Rutherford. This photo essay may provide a different perspective on the questions as to whether we burn and if we do burn, how often. Perhaps the relevant question is not whether we burn but how do we burn.

Debate response

We don’t need to chew the fat, we need to rekindle the firestick : Vic Jurskis

The whole landscape needs maintenance by mild fire. But academics and fire chiefs talk of asset protection zones, strategic zones and management zones with different fire regimes. They just don’t get it. Firebreaks don’t work in extreme weather. They can’t stop firestorms and long-distance ember showers. If you need to reduce accumulated fuel, you haven’t been maintaining the landscape properly.

Response

Forest fires and climate change: CSIRO responds

Dr Pep Canadell. Our study doesn't discuss forest management. In our paper we show that the TREND in mean annual fire area is driven unequivocally by the TREND in mean annual FFDI (a weather index), ie by the changing climate. Forest management is important locally but varies substantially regionally and between states.  We expect it contributes, along with other factors, to the unexplained variance (20-25%) in the relationship between FFDI and fire area that occurs nationally.

Reply

CSIRO climate cop-out ignores the science : Vic Jurskis

Dr Canadell said in response to my comment: “Our study doesn’t discuss forest management.” This statement is Not True ... Dr Canadell and his colleagues failed to consider critical evidence which demolishes the CSIRO argument.

Fire history

Research

Forest fire management – hard won lessons almost forgotten

Peter Rutherford, SETA. ... evidence that the three dimensional fuel loads, which have become the norm in much of the NSW forested landscape, are an artefact of over 200 years of fire management neglect and are not representative of the of up to 60,000 years of evolution, shaped by the intelligent use of fire in the Australian landscape.

Research

Major bushfires in Australian history – the 1974 and 1975 Australian bushfires

John O'Donnell. In contrast to the temperate southern regions of Australia, fire events in Central Australia are driven by above average rainfall in the preceding years, rather than below average rainfall or drought in the current year. Widespread fire events in Central Australia were found to be associated with two or more consecutive years of above-average rainfall. Fuel loads in long-unburnt grassland can get to high levels.

Research

Major bushfires in Australian history – the 1851 Victorian bushfires

John O'Donnell. The Black Thursday bushfires were a devastating series of fires that swept the state of Victoria, Australia, on 6 February 1851, burning up 5 million hectares. This was 170 years ago.

Research

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

New research from the University of Wollongong, a partner at the NSW Bushfire Research Hub, 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 ... Amongst other findings: Previous timber harvesting did not increase the fire extent or severity of the 2019/20 fires. However, there is potential for cumulative impacts in harvested landscapes that are subject to fire, particularly in the next 5 to 10 years.

Opinion

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

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.

Response

Megafires: Prof Ross Bradstock responds

The bulk of this commentary has little to do with the content of the Report to the NSW Natural Resources Commission. The report addresses the consequences of the 2019/20 fires for the objectives and outcomes of the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (i.e. forest health, threatened species conservation, water quality and aquatic biodiversity). The 2019/20 fires have rendered forests, in relation to these objectives and outcomes, in a highly vulnerable state because of their magnitude and severity. This vulnerability will be ongoing and challenging to deal with because the efficacy of all facets of fire management (e.g. preparation, prevention, suppression) will be adversely affected by climate change.

Reply

Megafires: Vic Jurskis replies to Prof Bradstock

Dear Editor, Ross Bradstock’s response failed to address “the recommended fire frequency thresholds” aka ‘Bradstock Intervals’, which featured in his NRC media release and my commentary on it. Those ‘recommended’ intervals are severely restricting the mild burning which is essential to maintain healthy and safe landscapes ... Furthermore, three aspects of the Emeritus Professor’s response elucidate my argument that megafires are a purely political crisis ...

Bushfires and logging

Whether and what connection there is between bushfires and logging is the subject of much passionate debate in Australia.  

Does logging cause or exacerbate bushfires? Or can logging or forestry management minimise the risk of bushfires?  Can it do this without compromising the environment? Which is more fire resistant – an unmanaged, untouched forest or a well-managed forest? Are they now, or can Australian forests be sustainably logged?

Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is,  “it depends”, and if it is, depends on what?

Or is the whole debate a furphy and the actual practical question to be asked now, really, is ‘how’? How can Australian forests, as they are now, be best managed to achieve the best outcome with the least adverse consequences both for the forestry and timber industry and for the environment?

Responses

Bushfires and logging debate: Tasmanian Government statement

The Tasmanian Government is continually monitoring new scientific research to ensure the way we regulate forestry is contemporary and consistent with best practice. The Government takes bushfire management and mitigation incredibly seriously and is taking a number of important steps to manage future risk and keep our communities safe. The Government’s position, that actively managing our forests can markedly reduce fuel loads, is supported by a significant number of scientific publications.

Bushfires and logging debate: Lily D’Ambrosio, Minister for Environment, Energy and Climate Change (Vic)

There is much debate within the scientific community regarding the relationship between bushfire and forestry but what is not debated is the overwhelming impact climate change is having on the frequency and intensity of severe weather events and resulting bushfires. In the past 50-years there has been a 40% increase in very high fire danger days, and this is set to triple in some parts of Victoria by the end of the century according to the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Bushfires and logging debate: Senator Jonno Duniam, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries

Blaming bushfires on forestry is just another attempt from those ideologically opposed to forestry to shut down an industry they fundamentally disagree with. There is a constant pattern of behaviour from the those who disagree with the forestry industry of using misinformation and cherry picking from report and science to support their claim. As we currently stand there is no unequivocal or generally accepted evidence that forestry operations increase fire risk.

Bushfires and logging debate: Robert Onfray

We have a fire problem in Australia that is not being addressed. And it has nothing to do with climate change. Nor is logging a major contributing factor since very small areas are available for harvesting each year. It is about the decisions in the 1990s across most states, but particularly in NSW and Victoria to lock up millions of hectares of forest into national parks and manage them by benign neglect and allow the fuel levels to build up.

Bushfires and logging debate: South East Timber Association

In southern Australia, whether native forests are subject to harvesting or left untouched, if appropriate landscape scale forest fuel management is not undertaken, high intensity bushfires at a mega scale can occur in any summer, particularly when there are two or more years of below average rainfall. Any climate change effects are a reason to do more mitigation by fuel reduction.

Bushfires and logging debate: Vic Jurskis

Forests across all tenures are declining and/or exploding from lack of sustainable management. A miniscule proportion is available for logging. Logging can have a beneficial effect on local fire behaviour, but no effect on a regional scale. The bushfires and logging debate is a dangerous distraction from our real major environmental issue – sustainable fire management.

Research

Logging increases risk of severe fire: ANU research

The study, published in Ecosphere, analysed the severity of Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires by examining the amount of damage to vegetation. Co-author Professor David Lindenmayer said weather had a large effect on the fires. "However, forests also burned at very high severity when they were between 10 to 40 years old. Young forests regenerating after logging were particularly susceptible to very high severity fire," he said.

Science

Celebrating the role of science in our forests

The Institute of Foresters of Australia and Australian Forest Growers is celebrating the role that forest science plays in ensuring a healthy and resilient future for Australian society and the environment for National Science Week 2021. IFA/AFG CEO Jacquie Martin highlighted the benefits of forest management underpinned by data and research, paying tribute to the membership’s forest scientists.

Burning

Greater use of small planes, helicopters and drones in prescribed burning in order to achieve safe and healthy landscapes

John O'Donnell. Real data gathered from almost 60 years of historical data from the forests of south west WA unequivocally shows that when the area of prescribed burning trends down, the area of uncontrolled bushfires (wildfires) trends up. There is a simple explanation: bushfires are more difficult to put out in long unburnt, heavy fuels ... New technology is assisting in increasing the safety and efficiency of prescribed burning programs.

Research

IFA/AFG welcomes paper reviewing the role of timber harvesting in the Black Summer bushfires

A new paper reviewing the science behind claims that forest management and timber harvesting worsened the 2019/20 bushfires has been welcomed by the professional association representing some 1,000 scientific and professional forest land managers in Australia.
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