Two years after Black Summer, an environmental disaster looms

17 November 2021

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AUSTRALIA – Now, Dr Green said, eucalyptus trees were threatening to invade the slow-growing rainforests by dropping seeds that could quickly germinate across the landscape.

“Eucalyptus forests cope with fire much better than rainforests do,” he said.

Other tree varieties, including acacias, may also crowd into rainforest territory.

The 230-kilometre drive from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota takes in massive stretches of fire-ravaged bushland, but some sections were untouched.

The Black Summer fires burned more than 1.5 million hectares of land in Victoria, claiming five lives and destroying 420 houses.

WWF Australia reported the bushfires, which started in November 2019 and burned through to the following February in Victoria, killed or displaced 3 billion animals in this state and NSW.

But now there are some encouraging signs of survival.

Dr Green is researching how native snails have recovered. His team has located 17 of 18 species in burnt areas despite initially fearing they may have disappeared.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We’re confident those species haven’t become extinct because of the fire.”

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning estimates the fires affected more than 4400 animal and plant species, 244 of them losing 50 per cent of their habitat. More than 200 of those species were rare or threatened.

The department’s executive director of biodiversity, James Todd, said field crews and scientists were reporting extensive regrowth and the return of native wildlife.

“It is still early in the recovery, and we are continuing to survey and monitor the response of native plants and wildlife,” he said.

Mr Todd said emergency extractions of threatened species and pest animal control measures were aiding the environmental recovery and preventing degradation that might have occurred without human intervention.

The department conducted a captive breeding program for the Spotted Tree Frog after surveys showed severe fire and sediment associated with post-fire flooding exacerbated the risk of extinction.

It also transported Macquarie Perch from Dartmouth in north-east Victoria to fire-affected Upper Buffalo in May this year, among other animal rescue projects.

Surveys of cave-breeding bats, spotted-tailed quolls and eastern ground parrots are under way to determine the presence, or absence, of these species.

But opinions differ wildly about how to avoid another inferno.

The 9News Canberra bureau reflect on the devastating ‘Black Summer’ bushfires at the start of the year.

Cattle farmer Chris Commins lives in Ensay in East Gippsland but farms extensively in the region. He wants to see a major increase in planned burning to reduce forest fuel loads.

Mr Commins remembers the forest being more open and less overgrown with scrub when his father was burning the bush extensively until the 1970s.

He argues too few controlled “mild burns” have been conducted, leaving the bush neglected and fuel loads high, making it vulnerable to bigger fires.

“What was open country is now becoming scrub-dominant,” he said.

Mr Commins fears the knowledge of burning the bush is being lost but rejected suggestions his belief was based on advancing agricultural interests, such as grazing cattle in state forest, at the expense of the environment.

Mr Commins is working with other Gippsland residents including former CSIRO bushfire researcher David Packham to lobby for more planned burns.

“We’re all very passionate about the country we love, and it distresses us to see it smashed in a wildfire,” he said.

Queensland-based Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen, who has conducted burns across Australia, said governments needed to pay greater heed to traditional Aboriginal land-management practises.

“At the end of the day, they [governments] are not doing what’s right for the land,” he said.

He called for more burning based on Indigenous knowledge systems.

Forest Fire Management Victoria acting chief fire officer Allyson Lardner said planned burning had continued in East Gippsland, with 200 targeted burns since 2019-20.

She said the agency looked for opportunities to burn year-round when it was safe to do so.

“While planned burning is not the only solution, it is a key part of bushfire preparedness and part of an integrated strategy to protect life, property and the environment,” she said.

Melbourne University bushfire prevention specialist Janet Stanley said small-scale planned burns may be effective in protecting properties. But she insisted mounting evidence suggested larger prescribed burning was not the most effective way to reduce the risk of major blazes.

She estimated humans started 85 per cent of bushfires, whether accidental, reckless or deliberate, and this needed to be tackled through education and support programs particularly for youths prone to risky behaviour.

“We can do a great deal more to reduce the chance of wildfire that we’re not doing at the moment,” Associate Professor Stanley said.

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