Canberra, Australia — Regular hazard-reduction burning would not reduce fire danger or help control bushfires in the lower Cotter River catchment, according to recent CSIROreports.
The reports, including one posted on the Environment ACT website, say fuel reduction burns in the catchment were “unlikely to assist fire suppression” during hot, windy summer weather and would threaten natural recovery of soils and native vegetation after the 2003 bushfires.
The ACT Government allocated $1.31million for bushfire fuel reduction in last week’s budget and has flagged more frequent burning of the catchment in a draft management plan for the lower Cotter.
The reports, by CSIRO Land and Water and CSIRO forestry expert Dr John Raison, call for more research to be conducted “on different styles of controlburning” in the lower Cotter and long-term studies on the rate of fuel accumulation after the 2003bushfires.
Yesterday, the Government remained tight-lipped over claims by Australian National University scientists that Canberra’s water supply had been placed at risk from environmental damage caused by a large-scale hazard-reduction burn in the lower Cotter last month.
Professor Ian White and Dr Alan Wade said the fires had denuded areas of the catchment, increasing the risk of soil erosion. They said heavy storms could wash “massive loads” of sediment into creeks and streams, affecting the quality of Canberra’s water supply.
ANU ecologist Martin Worthy photographed the hazard-reduction fires, which scientists at the university’s Centre for Environmental and Resources Studies claim were allowed to burn out of control, destroying wildlife study sites and large areas of nativeregrowth.
Chief Minister Jon Stanhope was unavailable for comment yesterday and his media adviser, Penelope Layland refused to answer questions from The Canberra Times about why the ANU wildlife study sites were allowed to be burned.
She said it was “‘normal practice… for scientists conducting research on a particular piece of land to let the landowner know” so they could be consulted “in the event that activity such as hazard-reduction burning is planned.” ANU and Environment ACT sources have confirmed the Government knew the location of the fauna study sites, which were established after the 2003 bushfires to monitor the return of native wildlife – such as lizards and small mammals – to the catchment.
Mr Worthy, an ANU doctoral student who has been studying erosion in the lower Cotter since the 2003 fires, said he had not been informed about plans for the burn.
“The first I knew about it was the smoke.”
A helicopter equipped with a cabin-controlled lighting device called a heli-torch was used to burn almost 100 piles of pine logs, or windrows, across 1000ha of the bushfire-ravaged catchment. Environment ACT claims the burn was necessary because the windrows were a serious bushfire risk.
Fire management expert Roger Good has criticised the helicopter-controlled burn, saying it should not have gone ahead if the Government lacked resources to stop the fire spreading into native regrowth.
“They should have only burned windrows and the fires should not have gone beyond those windrows. Plans should have been in place to protect native regrowth, which is critical to the catchment’s ecological recovery as a water catchment.
“If they didn’t have the resources to control the spread of the fires lit by the helicopter, that’s irresponsible fire management.
“What would they have done if the weather changed?”