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Victoria’s forests: to burn or not to burn?

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013


Last week, the Victorian Government’s latest State of the Environment Report was released. As reported by The Age, one of its key messages was that the “state government should withdraw support for a recommendation by the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission to burn 5% of public land each year to prevent bushfires” because “this target could mean some areas would be exposed to fire frequency above its tolerance, impacting on biodiversity”.

However, just a few days later in a televised media release, the Victorian Environment Minister launched the Government’s Fuel Management Report 2012 – 13. In so doing, he trumpeted the success achieved so far in progressively increasing the amount of prescribed burning since 2009, while reiterating the Government’s committment to meeting the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

These somewhat contrasting announcements raise questions about dissidence within the state bureaucracy created by the Government’s adoption of the Royal Commission’s recommended prescribed burning target; and whether this is behind efforts to discredit broadscale burning as an effective bushfire management tool. 

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Arguably at the heart of this, lies an urban-centric conservation ideology that views Victorian (and Australian) ecosystems as exceedingly fragile and is consequently opposed to the concept of deliberately disturbing them. In relation to prescribed burning, it is only grudgingly tolerant of its small-scale use in deference to the undeniably destructive power of summer bushfires.

Missing from this ideology is any acknowledgement that frequent broadscale fire is a natural (pre-European) phenomenon in southern Australia, driven by a combination of indigenous burning and lightning-ignited fires that, over tens of thousands of years, has shaped a resilient landscape of fire-adapted ecosystems.

Those who subscribe to this conservation ideology typically argue that prescribed burning is only effective in protecting human life and property when strategically targetted at the immediate boundaries of properties and/or suburbs, and that therefore, burning in areas that are more remote from human habitation is virtually a waste of time. Furthermore, they contend that the Royal Commission’s recommended prescribed burning program, which will see areas being burnt on average every 20 years, will be too frequent for many ecosystems.

It is likely that the human benefits of prescribed burning may be optimised when it is concentrated in close proximity to properties and infrastructure assetts. However, it is also clear that those advocating the restriction of prescribed burning to these situations are typically pushing an agenda of far less burning, and are ignoring the propensity for broadscale burning to reduce the potential for remote area bushfires to build momentum that can eventually threaten life and property, as occurred in Victoria in both 2003 and 2006/07.

Accordingly, the associated suppositions that burning in more remote lands is virtually worthless and that it may also cause significant environmental damage, are almost absurd when measured against the infinitely greater severity of environmental degradation when hot summer bushfires burn through heavy fuel accumulations that develop in the long term absence of fire.

This has been writ large over the past decade when close to half of Victoria’s public forests have been burnt by summer bushfires, much of it with critically severe impacts on soils, water and wildlife; and notwithstanding the loss of 173 lives in the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ fires. Yet so soon after, it appears that conservation ideologues continue to deny that these impacts are in any way linked to the state of forest fuel loads. Instead, they largely prefer to blame climate change.

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Unfortunately, this denial of the effectiveness of prescribed burning on mitigating bushfire impacts is typified by a lack of understanding of what prescribed burning actually is, and how it differs from hot summer bushfires. It is also based on over-stated potential environmental impacts linked to fire frequency expectations that are unlikely to be logistically achievable by Government land management agencies; as well as an ‘over-the-top’ deference to the precautionary principal which dictates the need for ever more research that is likely to create a prolonged state of ‘paralysis by analysis’.

Unfortunately, these misconceptions are evident in the State of the Environment Report where mountain ash forests, closed forests (ie. rainforests) and ‘mist forests’ are cited as ecosystems that will be damaged by regular burning despite them not even being part of the prescribed burning program; by over-inflated claims that burning on an average of every 20 years is a high rate of burning that will be detrimental to many Victorian ecosystems”; by considering areas burnt by bushfires and prescribed burning as one despite them occurring under different conditions with very different impacts; and calling for “sound evidence”and “rigorous scientific research to identify the issues with clarity” as the basis for a revised burning program.

In its rush to discredit the Royal Commission’s prescribed burning target, the State of the Environment Report fails to sufficiently acknowledge that it was devised by an expert panel of scientists over several days of deliberations in what is, arguably, the most detailed consideration of burning policy yet undertaken. Despite the target being devised on the basis of science and evidence, the SoE Report’s description of it a ‘blunt instrument’ implies otherwise.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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