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Black Summer whitewash – a preview of Armageddon

By Vic Jurskis - posted Monday, 20 July 2020

Millions of hectares were incinerated and Canberra was devastated by bushfire in 2003. A Parliamentary Inquiry heard from experienced land managers all over Australia that the problem was lack of mild burning. However, bureaucracies from ACT, NSW and VIC boycotted the inquiry and COAG set up an alternative process behind closed doors. They hired an emergency services generalissimo and two professors. One was the head of bushfire research at Wollongong University, who had told the Nairn Inquiry that prescribed burning was "threatening biodiversity". Ellis, Kanowski and Whelan, effectively buried the findings of that Inquiry and decreed that Australians must learn to live with bushfires. Nearly 250 people as well as countless millions of animals have been killed since then and many thousands of homes have been destroyed.

Instead of mild burning across the landscape, we've had two decades of rapidly escalating expenditure on emergency response. Whilst firestorms erupt in the wilderness, there are futile waterbombing sorties, and armies gather on urban fringes to greet the arrival of the holocaust. Volunteers, who know from lifelong experience that the disasters are unnecessary and preventable, are put in impossible positions. Some have been killed trying to defend the indefensible. At the same time, the highly paid and bemedalled city-based generals are lauded as saints, whilst they over-rule the wisdom and experience of the real heroes in the bush.

The High Commands, assisted by green academics, have effectively delivered our Black Summer and assured us of more to come. They happily rely upon the Climate Change Religion to absolve themselves of responsibility. Meanwhile, our forests, which Aborigines kept healthy and safe for 40,000 years by frequent mild burning, continue to deteriorate into volatile scrubs. By early 2019, the unprecedented accumulation of explosive 3D continuous fuels prompted my prediction that all the bush from Bairnsdale to Sydney would be incinerated when we got extreme weather.


So far, this has been confirmed. The only substantial area of eucalypt forest that didn't burn during Black Summer is a broad swathe to the northwest of Eden. When Mallacoota was devastated on New Year's Eve, I knew that we were comparatively safe because the Border Fire would come to us from the south with relatively cool and humid winds across Twofold Bay. During the next few days, preparations continued for a backburn to contain the fires coming from Victoria. We had perfect conditions, with temperatures around 20 degrees and humid northeasterly breezes that could have safely carried a burn from well prepared roads and trails, through dangerously continuous and dry fuels, towards the uncontained edge of the fire. Unaccountably, the backburn was disallowed. A disturbing mantra has been repeated during recent megafires, that there is already too much fire in the landscape.

After the winds once again came towards us from Victoria, there was massive destruction of forests and wildlife to the south of town. Homes and infrastructure were needlessly incinerated. People in Eden were urged to evacuate. I continued cleaning up around the house. As the Border Fire approached, it became completely dark at 4 pm. There was a constant rain of scorched and burnt eucalypt leaves from far away. I patrolled around home for 12 hours. If we'd had embers from the northwest instead of ashes from the south, I wouldn't be here to tell.

We were lucky because we didn't get the searing northwesterly gales changing abruptly to southwesterlies that typically drive firestorms in unmanaged fuels on the south coast. But the explosive 3D fuel is still there in a long, broad swathe from northwest, right into the middle of town. Meanwhile, urged on by the Fire Chiefs who oversaw the developing problem for several decades, the Government announced a Royal Commission into Natural Disasters. However, there's nothing natural about it, as I told them at their Mallacoota forum.

Now there have been several extremely disturbing developments which leave me with no hope that we will see a return to healthy and safe landscapes in my lifetime:

Firstly, the experts at Wollongong University, who have a strong track record of opposition to prescribed burning, announced that they will teach us how to do it. They've teamed up with fire behaviour modellers from Melbourne University who also seem to lack experience in either lighting or fighting fires:

Backed by eight years of CRC research incorporating thousands of fire simulations ... [and considering] effects of climate change on prescribed burning effectiveness … the website can support organisations to make the best decisions about where and how to undertake prescribed burning for different areas across New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland.


Five years ago Professor Bradstock's crew at Wollongong analysed records from southeastern Australia where miniscule areas had been treated – nowhere near enough to make any difference according to long-term empirical data from Western Australia. They reported that:

In most bioregions prescribed burning is likely to have very little effect on subsequent extent of unplanned fire, and even in regions where leverage occurs, large areas of treatment are required to substantially reduce the area burned by unplanned fire.

At the height of Black Summer, Bradstock told ABC Fact Check that burning makes no difference to fire control under extreme conditions.

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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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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