Australia — Failure to burn off old bush debris is fuelling big fires thisseason, and the result may be less water in our rivers for decades, writes AsaWahlquist.
The first fires of the season, two months earlier than usual in September,were a harbinger that Victorians were entering what could be the worst bushfireseason since settlement.
The emergence of a mega-fire this week, a hugeconflagration caused by several fires joining into a massive front, appeared toconfirm the prediction. The most severe bushfire months are traditionallyJanuary and February. Many fear the worst lies ahead.
Victorian Emergency Services commissioner Bruce Esplin warns that a change inclimate, for whatever reason, is changing the way fire seasons should be managed.”There really is a need for a rethink. The emergency services, the publicland managers and the community need to recognise that this dryness and thisextreme fire danger is something that we need to prepare for all year, everyyear,” he says. “It is not just something we do for the bad years.”
Ten years of below-average rainfall, topped by an El Nino drought this yearthat brought a hot, dry spring, have left forests and the litter of leaves andtimber they drop particularly dry. Every bushfire season also brings theinevitable debate about fuel reduction, or hazard-reduction burning, and thisyear is no different.
Esplin conducted an inquiry into the 2002-03 fires in Victoria thatrecommended more fuel reduction. He says the Victorian Government has increasedfunding for fuel reductions but the drought weather of the past year made it toodifficult to meet the targets. “I am fully supportive of more burning beingundertaken but I think it has to be done strategically, and it has to be donesafely. The last thing we want is fuel-reduction burns escaping and privateassets being lost, and that has happened in the past.” Esplin also found acommunity divided over fuel reduction.
Rod Incoll is now a fire risk management consultant. He was chief fireofficer in Victoria from 1990 to 1996. He argues the state public service haslost much of its fire culture and one of the consequences has been its failureto meet prescribed burning targets for the past two decades. Incoll saysEsplin’s reports have noted staff numbers have dropped and that staff are unableto meet the targets.
Incoll fears this summer will be incendiary. “There is not much we cando about it. The reason for that is the fuel loads are so high because there hasbeen no strategic burning done. Those large fires just get going, and once theyget going you can’t stop them because the fire intensity, the heat generated bythe fire, exceeds the fairly puny efforts that human intervention can exert.”
Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre chief Kevin O’Loughlin says thebuild-up of bush fuels – the quantity and their dryness – is causingfirefighters difficulty. Traditionally, firefighters undertake a lot ofmanagement in the cool of the night. That has not been an option this year. Hesays the fires have been burning with an intensity at night “that few ofthe old hands have seen, mainly because of the amount of fuel”.
O’Loughlin says everyone acknowledges there should have been more prescribedburning, “but what has been a problem for the agencies is finding the rightweather window. This season started in September. The window available forprescribed burning this year has been pretty narrow, therefore there hasn’t beenenough done and everyone knows it.” O’Loughlin thinks research being donenow will lead to “some fairly drastic changes in land management practices”.
Mark Adams is leader of the Bushfire CRC’s prescription fire project. He isalso professor of ecology at the University of NSW. Adams argues the only firefactor people can control is the fuel. “Our knowledge of fuel managementthrough prescribed burning is also very extensive and soundly based,” hesays.
Adams will not accept the argument that the weather did not allow forreduction burns. “If they can’t copewith a three-year drought or a five or10-year drought, then their systems are plain wrong,” he says. “We areliving in Australia.” Adams, who is conducting a research project in thehigh country, has found that, contrary to past belief, the build-up of litterdoes not occur at a steady rate. “Every time there is a drought theeucalypts drop sometimes twice the amount of fine fuels they dropped the yearbefore,” he says. “The fuel on the forest floor is essentially inequilibrium with the atmosphere. So if the atmosphere dries out, then the fueldries out.”
When conditions are really dry, as they have been this year, even old logsthat have been lying on the forest floor for half a century will burn. “Theymight have survived 10 fires in that period but under the conditions we have atthe moment, even these large pieces of wood that have been there sometimes for50 years just go on burning,” Adams says.
He says there are two things that must be untangled: one is an appropriateprescription for fuel reduction, the other is land tenure. “The fire regimeacross land tenures needs a total overhaul. We have far too many differencesthat prevent or at least hinder efforts to try and put in place a sensibleregime of prescribed burning.” The Victorian and NSW governments havefailed to meet their self-imposed target for fuel reduction for more than adecade, he says.
“There are large areas of the high country that are national parks inwhich we know there are no plans to conduct prescribed burning to manage thefuel. The only thing we can manage is the land. Farmers have known that for avery long time. What the hell is going on with government? Why aren’t theytaking it as seriously?” Adams argues the alpine ash forests, the snow gums,are fire-adapted and regenerate well after fire. “There is more than enoughscience to back up the need for regular prescribed burning,” Adams says.The only unanswered question is how frequently the burns should be conducted.”Is it 10 years apart, is it 20 years apart? No one is proposing an annualprescribed burn, or even a five-year prescribed burn.”
At risk is not just the land but future water supplies. As young trees startto grow, they suck up much more water than a mature forest. The result is alarge reduction in water flowing into streams and dams. Adams says the impact ofthe fires burning today will be felt for decades. “People in Gippsland andthe northeast have got to understand that they are now looking at very long-termreductions in water yields to major rivers. They will have less water in 30years than they have today as a result of these fires.”
Rob Rogers, assistant commissioner with the NSW Rural Fire Service, admitsNSW did not reach its hazard reduction target this year. In fact, NSW has neverreached its targets, he says, “because we always target more than we areever going to do. We plan much more than we can ever do, so if some sites arenot suitable we have another one, already planned, that we can do.”
It was too wet on the coast, too dry inland. “We’d love to do more andwe are trying to do more and we have plans to do more, but we just physicallycan’t get more done because we can’t control the weather.”
Phil Cheney has retired from his job as fire scientist at the CSIRO butretains a strong interest in fires, along with an honorary position. Hecontributed much of the current science on prescribed burning: science that hefears is now being overlooked. “Prescribed burning is a tool,” he says.”It requires expertise, and we are now worse off in having expertise inthis country than we were 30 years ago, because people are not doing it, theyare not doing it scientifically.”
Cheney’s greatest worry is the lack of a trained professional force to fightfires. He argues volunteer firefighting services were brought together toprotect communities and should not have to go and fight fires on public land.”We already have problems getting volunteers.” He says the volunteerforce is ageing, while fighting fires on the front line is a job for the young.”We measured firefighters back in the ’80s, they were working equivalentrates to long-distance runners.”
Esplin argues fire is a natural part of the Australian environment, but adds:”There will be occasional fires that nature will put out, not man, and inthose fire situations it is the preparatory work and the strategic value of theprevention and mitigation that will make a difference.”