Forests ‘not looked after’

Forests ‘not looked after’

9 December 2006

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Australia — Victoria’s forest fire management remains in a parlous state andthe ongoing North East blazes have the potential to make a major impact on thehealth of water catchments, chairman of Forest Fire Victoria, Athol Hodgson saidyesterday.

Mr Hodgson said water was becoming more scarce and that catchments were oftenfurther polluted as a result of bushfires.

He said burnt trees could regenerate, or be replanted, but the young treesoften took up significant amounts of water initially, compromising urbandomestic supplies.

“Often it doesn’t get back to normal for 50 or 100 years,” he said.

“We have people like Malcolm Turnbull talking about making gigalitresavailable for this or that purpose and I don’t think we have the gigalitres togo anywhere.

“These particular fires will impact on catchments in the North East andGippsland and they might impact on the Melbourne catchment.”

Mr Hodgson said that while the immediate bushfire danger might subsidefollowing the weekend, one large fire would still remain.

“What happens if another fire starts somewhere else?

“In 2003 the fires burned for 57 days but more than half the area burnt inonly four days.

“I’m predicting these fires will burn for 100 days and there will besimilar pulses within that time.”

Mr Hodgson said a fundamental problem was that there were not enough peopleworking within country Victoria in its forests and parks.

“Surely there are enough feral animals, blackberries and the like that wecould employ an army of men and women working within our forests.

“These are the sort of people who keep tracks open, who know the countryand who regard the public land as theirs. If there is a fire they’ll stamp itout.”

Mr Hodgson said a report by emergency services commissioner Bruce Esplin lastyear had recommended fire become a core business for the Department ofSustainability and Environment, an admission that this was no longer the case.

“The department is a shadow of what it ought to be,” he said.

In a paper he presented at the Norman Wettenhall lecture in Melbourne onNovember 23, Mr Hodgson said Victoria had been far better prepared to fightfires in 1985 than it was now or in 2003.

“In 1985 the community was well connected to the forests and a largeworkforce of experienced firefighters worked in the forests,” he said.

“The fire event when lightning started 111 fires in a pattern similar tothe fire event in 2003 proves the point.

“The Alpine area at that time was drought affected, the firefight lastedjust 14 days and confined fires in the Alpine area to 50,000ha without the helpof rain.”

Mr Hodgson said the price of having fewer people available to manage forestswas having big “feral” fires and then governments having to hand outcompensation.

“The regeneration of the Alpine Ash which burnt in 2003 will be killed andeventually instead of Alpine Ash we will have grassy woodlands,” he said.

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