Originally posted on Facebook by the South East Timber Association with comments by Don Milligan
Are ideologically driven academics pushing Australian Flora & Fauna to the next mass extinction event?
The link to an interview on the ABC posted on the 5 June 2021 is one of the recent examples of the terra nullius view of historical Australian fire management. In June 1972, an early terra nullius opinion was voiced in the NSW Bush Fire Bulletin by two botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens and National Herbarium Sydney.
With regard to the effects of high intensity summer bushfires compared to the ecological effects of low intensity fires in other seasons, the botanists expressed the opinion that: “These will be damaging to flora and fauna (using any definition of “damage”).
Natural fires generally (if not always) occur during hot, dry, windy weather in summer, or at least the hotter months. It is this regime to which our plants (and animals) are presumably adapted. To state or suggest that winter hazard reduction is a substitute for, or equivalent to, summer wildfire is quite ludicrous. Most plants and animals have growth rhythms which reflect seasonal conditions and to superimpose a completely alien fire regime may well be more devastating than the occasional “10 year” crown fire.
These botanists denied Aboriginal burning over the past 50,000 years (plus or minus) has shaped the evolution of the Australian biota. Apparently, they had no understanding that fires of lower intensity have much more subtle effects on biodiversity than rampant high intensity bushfires. They also failed to understand “natural” summer bushfires” post European arrival have generally burnt in much heavier fuels than was the case under Aboriginal management. Fire intensity, in fine fuels (less than 6mm in diameter) of 30 or more tonnes per hectare (t/ha) is much higher than is the case with fires under the same weather conditions in fuels of 5 to 10 t/ha.
Fifty years later, many of the most outspoken ecologists continue to have what might best be described as an illogical understanding of fire intensity and fire behaviour under varying conditions and the consequential impacts on biodiversity. Two quotes from the Leeuwin Group Professor of Botany, interviewed by the Not My ABC reporter, with a translation to plain English are below.
“In 1967, they (WA) started a process of intensive burning.” This was actually an extensive program of low intensity burning.
“Our letter to the premier is saying, as scientists, the protective value of just a target, burning wilderness, burning remote from infrastructure and human lives and property does not make sense.” Memo to the Leeuwin Group, it does make sense to those who understand bushfire behaviour.
The fire management recipe proposed by the Leeuwin group has been developed and implemented in eastern Australia for more than 20 years and underpinned the 2019-20 bushfire season, which had a disastrous impact on human life and property and a catastrophic impact on biodiversity.
Who was it that said “Fools learn from experience. Wise people learn from the experience of fools.
Maybe it’s not that simple. The Leeuwin Group’s arguments can be found in their submission to the 2020 Royal Commission.
Can they be refuted?
The major omission is the use of wooden material as fuel for energy. The physics of cooking kilos of meat by roasting means that a large quantity of wood was consumed on each camp site and camp sites were not permanent – they changed regularly and the early lessons I was taught that it was because food became scarce, but I have become convinced that the availability of sufficient fuel was also a major contributor. It is supported by the observations of early settlers and explorers that the presence of aboriginal camps was easily identified by the amount of smoke. To compare banksia country to Karri country is ludicrous and having witnessed the remarkable resurgence of ground orchids in banksia country when an attempt was made to do light fuel reduction burns and also seeing the devastation of a hot burn in firstly the banksia type country where the seed bank was almost totally destroyed and in an old growth Karri forest where for months afterwards there was no obvious tracks of any animals for months after. That hot burn in the Karri did take out the crowns and was a very humiliating experience – I was part of a crew that saved some buildings that were adjacent to the coupe but had a buffer area and the main fire went around us, so we survived. It went into some regen about 20 years old which did burn. There was scaring so subsequent salvage thinning was a problem so the smaller stems were not able to be sent for chip, that industry does not accept any charcoal. The side of that coupe exposed to the fire was more severely damaged but the intensity was obviously less as it progressed and the next coupe was into a Jarrah coupe that was only a few years from having a “fuel reduction” burn and it did travel through that but was stopped completely at the far side of that. I also recall work done in the Manjimup/ Pemberton area where coupes were locked up completely and not burnt through to coupes that were actually set fire to when ever the fire would take. These coupes returned the greatest biodiversity of both animal and plant life. When you set fire to that coupe and there was a fire it did not travel far within the coupe and was the mosaic pattern naturally formed. No mention of dieback in the Jarrah forest when it was “rediscovered” in the 1980s that by regularly burning the competition for the nutrients was reduced and the Jarrah not only survived but flourished. Jarrah will survive where no other large tree will provided it does not have competition from smaller under-story which weakens it and the fungi takes over and kills the Jarrah. To see whole Jarrah forests spring back to life after the fuel reduction burns were implemented was so obvious. On the animal life, near our farm in WA was some Karri regen and adjacent to that was a mixed coupe that had dropped out of the burning system due to a realigning of a road. I would take visitors into the regen area to show them that animal life did exist in regen and even bandicoots and snakes and lizards survived the fox plague that was out of control then, before fox baiting was introduced. The mixed block finally did get burnt – a low temperature burn – and I took a german guy into the regen as his beleif was that nothing survies in a regen forest. I was struggling to find much and took him back through the burnt block, about 6 months after the burn, and the tracks of so many animals indicated to me that many of the animals had transferred into the cleaned up block.
So its not that simple at all and to apply a single prescription for the whole of Australia is impossible. The nature of the forest changes dramatically within very few meters and different species have remarkable different tolerances to fire. If a karri gets scarred the surrounding wood will die. A Jarrah will more than likely repair itself. The ash and gums in Tasmania and Victoria shed an oil vapour on a hot day that can actually be seen and become explosive. Also no mention of the methane released by letting the forest waste rot rather than putting the carbon back as CO2. I see the group as an anti industry lobby and I am even more convinced now that we need an industry to manage the forests so they survive for ever rather than having a forest that will eventually destroy itself. In the past the industry has driven the exploitation of the forest but those practices have long since ceased to exist and forestry is all about protecting the forest as a long term management program that must include the removal of wood from it and which needs an industry to dispose of the wood.