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Megafires, koala plagues, devil disease and the budget deficit

By Vic Jurskis - posted Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Aborigines came to Australia and burnt out most of the trees and bushes. The megafauna starved whilst eucalypts, herbs, grasses and mesofauna flourished. The ancient culture survived an ice age, global warming and hugely rising seas, forging economies in woodlands and deserts. Europeans doused the firestick, woodlands turned to scrub, mesofauna perished, megafires and tree-eaters irrupted. Foresters rekindled the firestick and greens stole it. Megafires and declines are back with a vengeance whilst ecologists dream-up reasons not to burn. Ecological history shows that we must apply the firestick frequently, willingly and skillfully to restore a healthy, safe environment and economy.

Australian fire ecologist, Professor David Bowman, is attending a conference hosted by the Royal Society in London, about the Interaction of Fire and Mankind.

My colleague Roger Underwood of The Bush Fire Front said that Bowman "doesn't seem to know which horse to ride … I have had trouble understanding where he is coming from for about 25 years". I think the problem is that Bowman is an academic. He doesn't understand the difference between wildfires that ravaged the wilderness before man came to Australia, and human fires that maintained a healthy, safe and diverse landscape for 40,000 years until whitefellas disrupted it. Roger and I used the firestick to manage the bush and saw how it worked.


The first megafire incinerated 5 million hectares of Victoria in 1851. It was another century before foresters realized the futility of fire suppression and introduced broad area burning. I was lucky to start my career as a forester in open, grassy, safe, productive and biodiverse bush. I worked on the Upper Clarence and Richmond Rivers in NSW where CSIRO scientist J.H. Calaby found the richest mammal fauna in Australia. Calaby attributed this to management by foresters and cattlemen. Greens took over from the 1980's, and public lands were locked up and left unmanaged. Tooloom World Heritage Area was declared where Calaby had worked and where I later worked. It is now scrub and dying trees. Grass and macropods are all but gone. But there are more koalas and bellbirds than there ever were, because sick trees are good tucker for koalas and psyllids, and psyllids are good tucker for bellbirds.

Greens and most academics don't understand that more is not better. They think that koala plagues are great until the trees start dying and the koalas starve. They think that bellbirds cause tree decline. They think that thick green scrub is biodiversity when it is actually homogeneity and dangerous fuel that ignites the firestorms that drive megafires. Europeans never saw a koala until 10 years after settlement. Captain Watkin Tench wrote: The country, I am of opinion, would abound with birds, did not the natives, by perpetually setting fire to the grass and bushes, destroy the greater part of the nests … they are besides ravenously fond of eggs, and eat them wherever they find them. Another reason birds were scarce was that healthy trees don't have many bugs for birds to eat. Surveyor General Mitchell was able to ride a horse on dark nights lit with grasstrees fired by Aborigines, in places where it is now impossible to walk in broad daylight for thick scrub.

In what is now Parramatta Park, at the start of 1791, flying foxes and parrots were dropping dead from heat exhaustion. Imagine the mileage Flannery and Steffen would make of such an event today. On 5th December 1792, with howling northwesterlies and temperatures in excess of 430C,

settlers were able to beat out fires with green branches and losses were confined to a hut, sheds and a stack of wheat ignited by embers from a burning crown. There were no firestorms because there was no scrub. Today there are huge paramilitary firefighting forces with airtankers, groundtankers and computers, run by bureaucrats. Megafires, flashing lights and uniforms colour our television screens and the bureaucrats are rewarded with increased funding. Climate change is used as an excuse for pathetic mismanagement. Flannery and Steffen say "we told you so".

Scrub is choking out biodiversity. Tasmanian devils are diseased because they're starving. Their prey lived in open grassy forests and woodlands that have virtually disappeared – not cleared but changed beyond recognition by fire suppression. Academics claim we haven't got national parks in the right places where there are good habitats. In fact we haven't got sustainable management on any tenure because theory has replaced pragmatic science and inner-city greens dictate our land management policies and practices. Foresters and graziers turned scrubs into healthy, diverse and productive forests like the Pilliga and the river red gum forests. Now governments have 'protected' these forests from the communities that created and maintained them, to buy inner-city green votes.

People are dying in megafires, we are losing species, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being wasted on futile paramilitary firefighting organisations and research of environmental problems caused by application of ecological theory instead of pragmatic science. Research scientists scrabble amongst themselves for funding of their specialties, and look for theoretical problems requiring ongoing research rather than looking for practical management solutions.

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About the Author

Vic Jurskis has been a forester for 40 years. He has published extensively in academic journals. He is the author of Firestick Ecology: fairdinkum science in plain English (Connor Court, 2015).

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