Editor: It's a little bit waffly but also duly sophisticated unlike the wicked NAFI logging industry pre emptive smears of conservationists in the press every so often. The expert here even notes the wrongdoers in the logging industry which is quite right: They have got off scot free for 30 years for the woodchipping effect promoting landscape change and more intense bushfires in spindly regrowth in place of mature forest. A 30 year scandal on our watch.
Also an interesting comment from a contact: fires on farmland are generally not really 'bushfires' as such, they are properly described as 'grass', 'agricultural' or 'farmfires' rather than bushfires. That may well be pretty fair in relation to say the big fires of the Eyre Peninsula (SA, 2005) or South West Victoria (1983) on mainly agricultural land burning grasslands.
More on bushfires here too: http://cpppcltrust.com/ecologyactionsydney/id2.html
Kevin O'Loughlin: Burning issue begs a new solution
08 January 2007
WITH the immediate summer bushfire threat appearing to have eased, the debate has hotted up on the causes of recent big bushfires, who is to blame, and what the solution might be.
Along with the most recent fires in Victoria's alpine region, we've had some extreme fires in recent years: January 2006 in the Grampians, the NSW mid-north coast and southwest slopes; 2005 in the Eyre Peninsula and Perth Hills; 2003 in Canberra and the Southern Alps; and the Black Christmas fires of 2001 in NSW, to mention only a few. After each of these, the debate has been similar.
Given the frequency of very large fires in the past five years or so, it seems fair to aSK: are big fires inevitable? And, if so, what can we do about it?
Busfires are not confined to southeast Australia. In northern Australia, millions of hectares of tropical savanna grassland burn every year. The international perspective is also relevant. In 2003 alone, along with Australia, Portugal, France, Spain, the US and Canada experienced extreme fires.
In the US, fire and land managers, scientists and conservation groups are working together to find solutions to more frequent, severe fires. The former US Forest Service national fire director and now adviser to the Brookings Institution, Jerry Williams, was in Australia at the invitation of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre recently talking about mega fires. He defines them as destructive, record-breaking, long-running fires that can't be suppressed until there's a break in the weather. The US has had at least 10 mega fires since the late 1990s. Williams argues it's not just about the need for more suppression resources to protect people and properTY: it's about management of natural resources, public policy, and about how to engage all relevant parties in finding solutions.
The present alpine fires in Victoria seem to have a special message. More than two million hectares of alpine country were burnt in 2003 and the current fires are now approaching one million hectares. Are fires of this size and frequency telling us something?
Of course, the long-running drought and the current El Nino are factors. But so are the higher-than-normal temperatures in Australia over the past decade, suggesting climate change is also a factor. We have a tendency to look for the simple answer but the reality is more complex.
Despite technology, society is now more vulnerable in some ways. The already dire situation with our water supplies means that a major fire in our main catchments could be catastrophic. It could destroy water quality and, once new tree growth is well established, reduce the run-off for decades as younger, fast-growing trees use more water than mature forests.
We also have more people living in the bush fringes of our major cities as the suburbs expand. In the 2003 Canberra fires, the heavily mulched native gardens carried the fire further into the suburbs.
These fires are also devastating for our forests. The forestry sector is sometimes seen as one of the bad guys in the fire debate. But the sector has an important role. Professional foresters have expertise in fire management and these forests are assuming an increasingly important role as a factor in carbon storage.
The environment sector clearly has a role, too. The environmental damage of these big fires is drastic and long lasting. But here's a paradOX: periodic fire is essential to much of our fire-dependent ecosystems. It can improve the health of forests and increase bio-diversity. But what is the right dosage for each part of the ecosystem and how do you manage it?
The state and territory fire, park, land and forest management agencies have day-to-day responsibility for fire issues. They are the ones who struggle with the dilemma of prescribed burning. We can't control a drought or change the climate easily, but we can influence the build-up of fuels. But how do you achieve the desired targets when the fire season starts early and the fuel loads cause extreme behaviour even in moderate weather? Research to improve weather forecasting and fuel assessments is part of the answer, but there are no simple solutions.
The community, too, is a critical factor. Will it accept more regular local smoke from prescribed burns as a lesser evil? In major fires, many people now understand they can't necessarily rely on a red truck to save their house.
The Bushfire CRC is now halfway through its first seven-year term of multi-disciplinary research on some of these complex issues. A national bushfire forum in Canberra on February 27 will be a step in this direction.
Are more big fires inevitable? I believe the answer is probably yes. We need to know more about the complex issues involved, but the time has come for nationally co-ordinated action based on what we already know.
Kevin O'Loughlin is chief executive of the Bushfire CRC.