Will forest shredders stop fires?

Putting VicForests as the overseer of these trials has discredited the trial’s integrity right from the start.

Trials are currently underway to assess ‘mechanical fuel reduction’ in our public forests. The details are sketchy but seem to be based on a US practice of using heavy machinery with mulching/shredding capacity to run through native forests turning everything in the lower and mid story into mulch or shredded material. Trees are taken out and sold to mills. In the US this method of ‘fuel reduction’ is driven by the commercial need for bio-char, but is dressed up as ‘fire-safety’. In Australia, burning forests as a method of ‘fuel reduction’ remains an unproven science as a method of keeping communities safe, despite its wide spread use. However there is much research that shows it can be useless to counterproductive and extremely damaging for the natural ecology and wildlife of areas.

This was the brain-child of Barnaby Joyce and Richard Colbec several years ago supposedly as a ‘bushfire mitigation’ method and straight from the logging lobby group, AFPA’s wish list. They want to perform a free public service to fire safety by ‘thinning’ our national parks and other areas currently out of bounds.

Across the massive diversity of Australia’s many ecosystems, only three small trials are to be held; Collie in WA, Wauchope in NSW and logged forest south of Cann River in East Gippsland. This degraded coastal scrub can hardly become the blueprint for its use across Victoria, but is what is planned.

When we were told at a meeting on 26th April that VicForests would be the overseer, our alarm bells went off simultaneously.

Our meeting was with two ANU academics, Jacki Shirmer and Mel Mylek, who the federal govt had contracted to consult the public in those small regional areas. No one from outside the immediate areas was consulted, only 10 East Gippslanders. It has all the signs of a tick-the-box exercise.

The three enviro reps from EEG and GECO highlighted a huge number of weaknesses and concerns with this plan – not the least, VicForests involvement!

Jacki Schirmer and Mel Mylek acknowledged they were testing the waters with the public to gauge attitudes and how to navigate problems.

We highlighted the many dangers of this method. They included:

  • First establish ~ that planned burns, let alone understorey shredding actually prevents major bushfires or makes people safer. Peer-reviewed science or rigorous non-political research is critical. The Mickey Mouse trials proposed can’t do this.
  • Taking out the mid and lower storey layers in a forest opens it up to greater wind speeds, drying it out, encouraging feral animals, weed invasion and so on; a whole new suite of enviro and fire related problems will be created.
  • Will trees also become ‘reduced’ as fuel? If so who determines using what criteria?  
  • There must be no commercial involvements such as log sales or biomass interests as the driver.
  • What would happen with the shredded vegetation? What would the hazard be once dried out and before breaking down?  
  • Why no decent pre-trail surveys for species and the ecosystem? 12 months would be needed as a minimum, not just one season. One survey for plants and birds is totally inadequate given the huge suite of species reliant on the understorey.
  • Will all the natural fuel-reducers also be ‘reduced’ like fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, lyrebirds, digging mammals and others?
  • Who determines where it applies, using what criteria, how far from human settlements and over what area for what purpose?
  • Is it just an employment program for machinery operators and a funding source for DELWP fire managers? Is this part of the new fire economy?
  • There must be genuine science not simply political expedience hidden by spin doctoring.
  • This won’t be instead of planned burns with its increasingly controversial and serious health impacts for thousands of people, but it will be as well as. 

We rattled off our experience, insights, ecological concerns, alternative fire management options, the new era of climate realities and so on for 2 hours. However I felt that the Federal government really wants to aid the logging industry’s plan for greater access to forests. This could be for the much-touted biomass industry which could take the place of the exports woodchip industry. It felt as if no amount of logic or evidence will make an ounce of difference.

Any results that claim mechanical destruction of the understorey will save us from bushfires, after such a short trial (1 year) will clearly be a sham and is probably already predetermined. Our bullshit antennae are fully extended. We suspect it could hide an extremely sinister, national, foot-in-door exercise for the waiting biomass burning industry, or as a method for the logging industry to access national parks and reserves. 

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