Haphazard reduction burning

Many friends of the environment were lost to us over the February fires this year. Many others lost their friends, family members and their homes. It was a shocking time. Besides having to deal with these losses, the environment movement was accused of being responsible. Let’s analyse this …

The shameless politicisation of such an immense tragedy, happily whipped along by the media, shows that the land abusers and the news industry have unlimited lack of decency. The accusations cantered around the supposed lack of prescribed burning and the absurd claim that green groups have been stopping burns. Once more, let’s take another look at this issue.

In southeastern Australia, these mega-fires are the manifestation of two things – man-made land abuse that dries our ecosystems and man-made planet abuse that changes our climate. Every time a bushfire hits us, this fact is overlooked. Instead, the lynch mob rides around wildly gathering momentum and media mugs, looking for someone else to blame. So, as James Woodford asked, why don’t we see this type of blame game after floods or cyclones? Maybe there are no empires to be built, no competition between agencies for hero-status and more funding, no lobby groups who can push this barrow for more access to forests, more clearing, more development in bushy areas and more demonizing of environmentalists.

But there is no logic or decent science behind any of their arguments. There is only a decrepit “expert” or two who gains a disproportionate amount of media space to tell us their outdated opinions from the 60s.

Blame the Greenies

Greens cop the blame relentlessly and the media is happy to provide the arena to perform this blood sport that the red-neck brotherhood has made popular. “Greenies” are used as bait to satisfy this primordial inclination for revenge. Forget fair debate or evidence. Has the environment movement ever run a campaign against fuel reduction burning to protect property? Well no – but why bother with this fact if the lies build up the fantasy, if they bolster the opinions of the traditional “men of the land” and justify their established habits? And besides, there’s primal scrotal excitement to be had when burning anything that will take a match.

And with the logging industry on the decline, the mega million-dollar fire lighting arm of government is set to soar. What government would deny its land “managers” an open wallet to burn and bulldoze all in the name of “public safety”?

Wildlife watch-out

In April, Premier John Brumby pre-empted the Royal Commission’s findings by allocating millions of dollars to continue burning forests that survived the last three mega-fires. Maybe he isn’t aware that his own Scientific Advisory Committee has shown that frequent fires have the potential to further threaten the endangered Spot-tailed and Eastern Quolls, Long-nosed and Long-footed Potoroos, Squirrel Glider, Southern Brown Bandicoot, Ground Parrot, Glossy Back Cockatoo, Ringtailed Possum, Sugar and Feathertailed Gliders, and many other species.

That the very recent haphazard reduction burns carried out around Marysville made not one iota of difference to the town is not mentioned. The fact that cleared, drought stricken, open grassland burnt fast and furious was ignored. And the speed at which the fire raced through regrowth forest and plantations was best overlooked in the arguments for more incineration of forests.

Burn big and burn often

Prescribed burns might help on an average day – MIGHT. But they have no effect on restraining a flaming tornado influenced by temperatures in the mid 40s and powered by 180km per hour winds. Just look at the language; hazard reduction burns and fuel reduction burns. Yet no one has proven that a forest’s understorey is either fuel or a hazard.

In normal conditions, normal methods of fire suppression and attack should be ample. Some careful burning immediately around towns could help protect assets. But in blow-up conditions, just head for the bunker. Areas burnt as ferociously that were “control burnt” as areas that weren’t burnt. So why do authorities try to placate the public by telling them that burning will make them safer? It might show the government is doing something but it could be more dangerous than educating people to be self-reliant in the face a bushfire.

In 2007-08, Victoria torched a total of 156,000 hectares of its public lands. Much of this was again burnt in the February ‘09 fires. The blitz-burn lobby wants to at least treble this area. But where’s the evidence that it will achieve anything besides more modification and drying out of the landscape?

In some areas, grape growers have lost their entire annual crop due to smoke taint, tourists have gone elsewhere or stayed home, and the public in general is fed up with breathing smoke (complete with natural toxins) for weeks on end, especially the elderly and those with respiratory complaints.

Although this will never be made public, health authorities know that asthma deaths increase during smouldering prescribed burns in the calmest Autumn weather, when there’s no wind. Is it possible that DSE’s “cool” burns kill more people than bushfires do? Now those figures would be interesting to obtain.

Aboriginal burning

In a detailed study on the fire history of the Alps over the last 600 years, fire scientist Phil Zylstra shows that post European fire frequency increased 8-10 times than when Aboriginal people used the country. It’s folklore that there was serious fire-stick management by Aborigines. When do records show most major bushfires occurring? When the place was regularly burnt! The claim that increased burning stops bushfires just goes up in smoke with this information.

We’ve altered forests and the climate to create the perfect mix for mega fires. We’re now paying for centuries of altering the environment. Rather than using a simplistic box of matches solution, we need to look at house and block layout, larger community planning, bunkers and burning close in to human assets – where needed.
Uneducated politicians, “men of the land”, and the finger-pointing, self-interested lobby groups don’t yet have the answers. Nature is complex and delicate – even in the face of fires and environmental recovery. We don’t have the science right. But we do know that fires will be a threat to us for decades to come. We should organize ourselves to be personally responsible in the face of fires, to live with what is just part of the nature of our corner of Australia. We also need to recognize that more intense fires will be thanks to our tampering.

Jill / James Woodford



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