The home they couldn’t save … the Blue Gum Forest’s fire-scarred trees, some of which have graced the Grose Valley for hundreds of years. Photo: Nick Moir
Australia — More than 70 years ago this forest inspired thebirth of the modern Australian conservation movement. Today Blue Gum Foreststands forlorn in a bed of ash.
But was it unnecessarily sacrificed because of aggressive control burning byfirefighters focused on protecting people and property? That is the toughquestion being asked by scientists, fire experts and heritage managers as aresult of the blaze in the Grose Valley of the upper Blue Mountains last month.
As the fate of the forest hangs in the balance, the State Government isfacing demands for an independent review of the blaze amid claims it was madeworse by control burning and inappropriate resources.
This comes against a backdrop of renewed warnings that Australia may be onthe brink of a wave of species loss caused by climate change and more frequentand hotter fires. There are also claims that alternative “ecological”approaches to remote-area firefighting are underfunded and not taken seriously.
In an investigation of the Blue Mountains fires the Herald has spokento experienced fire managers, fire experts and six senior sources in fouragencies and uncovered numerous concerns and complaints.
* It was claimed that critical opportunities were lost in the first daysto contain or extinguish the two original, separate fires.
* Evidence emerged that escaped backburns and spot fires meant the fireslinked up and were made more dangerous to property and heritage assets -including the Blue Gum Forest. One manager said the townships of Hazelbrook,Woodford and Linden were a “bee’s dick” away from being burnt. Anotherdescribed it as “our scariest moment”. Recognising the risk of thebackburn strategy, one fire officer – before the lighting of a large backburnalong the Bells Line of Road – publicly described that operation as “a bigcall”. It later escaped twice, advancing the fire down the Grose Valley.
* Concerns were voiced about the role of the NSW Rural Fire ServiceCommissioner, Phil Koperberg.
* Members of the upper Blue Mountains Rural Fire Service brigades wereunhappy about the backburning strategy.
* There were doubts about the mix and sustainability of resources -several senior managers felt there were “too many trucks” and notenough skilled remote-area firefighters.
* Scientists, heritage managers and the public were angry that theregion’s national and international heritage values were being compromised orignored.
* There was anecdotal evidence that rare and even common species werebeing affected by the increased frequency and intensity of fires in the region.
* Annoyance was voiced over the environmental damage for hastily, poorlyconstructed fire trails and containment lines, and there were concerns about thebill for reconstruction of infrastructure, including walking tracks.
The fire manager and ecologist Nic Gellie, who was the fire managementofficer in the Blue Mountains for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Serviceduring the 1980s and ’90s, says the two original fires could have been put outwith more rapid direct attack.
“Instead, backburning linked up the two fires and hugely enlarged thefire area what we saw would be more accurately described as headfire burning,creating hot new fire fronts. While it protected the town of Blackheath, theplateau tops burnt intensely – and that created new problems both for managementof the fire and the protection of biodiversity.
“When extreme fire weather, hot days and high winds arrived as predicted,the expanded fire zone was still not fully contained – and that was the cause ofmost of the high drama and danger that followed.”
In that dramatic week, Mr Gellie confronted Mr Koperberg with his concernsthat the commissioner was interfering with the management of the fire by pushinghard for large backburns along the northern side of towns in the Blue Mountainsfrom Mount Victoria to Faulconbridge, along what is known in firefightingcircles as the “black line”.
The Herald has since confirmed from numerous senior sources that”overt and covert pressure” from head office was applied to the localincident management team responsible for fighting the fire.
There were also tensions relating to Mr Koperberg’s enthusiasm forcontinuation of the backburning strategy along the black line – even when milderweather, lower fuel levels and close-in containment were holding the fire.
Several sources say the most frightening threat to life and property came asthe fire leapt onto the Lawson Ridge on “blow-up Wednesday” (November22) – and that those spot fires almost certainly came from the collapse of theconvection column associated with the intensification of the fire by theextensive backburns.
The Herald has also confirmed that
* The original fire lit by a lightning strike near Burra Korain Headinside the national park on Monday, November 13, could not be found on the firstday. The following day, a remote area fire team had partly contained the fire -but was removed to fight the second fire. The original fire was left to burnunattended for the next couple of days;
* An escaped backburn was responsible for the most direct threat tohouses during the two-week emergency, at Connaught Road in Blackheath. However,at a public meeting in Blackheath on Saturday night, the Rural Fire Serviceassistant commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons played down residents’ concerns abouttheir lucky escape. “I don’t want to know about it. It’s incidental in thescheme of things.”
Mr Koperberg, who is retiring to stand as a Labor candidate in next year’sstate elections, rejected the criticisms of how the fire was fought.
He told the Herald: “The whole of the Grose Valley would havebeen burnt if we had not intervened in the way we did and property would havebeen threatened or lost. We are looking at a successful rather than anunsuccessful outcome.
“It’s controversial, but this is world’s best backburning practice -often it’s the only tool available to save some of the country.”
The commissioner rejected any criticism that he had exerted too muchinfluence. “As commissioner, the buck stops with me. I don’t influenceoutcomes unless there is a strategy that is so ill-considered that I have tointervene.”
Mr Koperberg said it was “indisputable and irrefutable” that theBlue Mountains fire – similar to fires burning now in Victoria – was “unlikeany that has been seen since European settlement”, because drought and theweather produced erratic and unpredictable fire behaviour.
The district manager of the Blue Mountains for the Rural Fire Service,Superintendent Mal Cronstedt, was the incident controller for the fire.
Asked if he would do anything differently, Mr Cronstedt answered: “Probably.”But other strategies might have also had unknown or unpredictable consequences,he said.
Jack Tolhurst, the deputy fire control officer (operations) for the BlueMountains, said: “I am adamant that this fire was managed very well. Wedidn’t lose any lives or property and only half the Grose Valley was burnt.”
Mr Tolhurst, who has 50 years’ experience in the Blue Mountains, said: “Thisfire is the most contrary fire we have ever dealt with up here.”
John Merson, the executive director of the Blue Mountains World HeritageInstitute, said fire management was being complicated by conditions possiblyassociated with climate change.
“With increased fire frequency and intensity, we are looking at afundamental change in Australian ecosystems,” he said. “We will losespecies. But we don’t know what will prosper and what will replace thosedisappearing species. It’s not a happy state. It’s a very tough call forfirefighters trying to do what they think is the right thing when the game is nolonger the same.
“What we are seeing is a reflex response that may no longer beappropriate and doesn’t take account of all the values we are trying to protect.”