Australia — People have been lighting fires in the forests. It’s OK, they’re not arsonists, they’re public servants and the fires might just prevent homes and properties from being destroyed by bushfire. However some people are asking: at what cost?
The season for burning off may be coming to an end, but the debate over how and where those burn-offs should take place continues to be volatile.
The small town of Walpole lies near the western edge of Australia’s south coast. On one side of the main street sit the general store, police station, pub, bakery and the tourist-oriented cafes and gallery. On the other side is a small visitor’s centre, set in front of thick forest.
The scene is idyllic but potentially dangerous. The town’s population of 500 people live sandwiched between dry coastal heathland and dense temperate forest.
Between the pub and the general store is a small wooden building, home to the local branch of the Department of Environment and Conservation. There Donna Green works as the Frankland District Fire Coordinator, overseeing the department’s program of prescribed burns. It’s no small task.
“We’ve got about 30,000 hectares this spring and then about 11000 hectares proposed to burn in autumn,” she says. “We burn a range of vegetation types from along the coastal heathland, which dries out obviously earlier on in the season, through the Jarrah, Marri and then Karri Tingle forest.”
The department uses a range of burning techniques.
“We have small hand burns, which may be just ground ignition by guys walking through with a drip torch,” says Donna.
In larger areas incendiaries are dropped from an aircraft, with back burns conducted beforehand to ensure that the fire is contained to the desired area.
The problem is we don’t know what the effects are
On the other side of town lives Jess Beckerling, President of the South Coast Environment Group. In the years since logging was largely phased out in the region the group has been concentrating much of its effort on protecting Tingle forests against proscribed burning.
“We’re still really concerned that there’s a significant lack of science behind the way that the prescribed fire is introduced to the forests,” says Jess. “The problem is we don’t know what the effects are. The science needs to be improved.”
Jess is at pains to point out that her group does not want to end prescribed burning all together, but says “it needs to be applied in a cautious manner that takes into account biodiversity requirements.”
“Now the department of environment and conservation will say that they do that” Jess says, “but too often their priority is community protection without taking into account what might be happening on a biodiversity level.”
It’s a comment that doesn’t impress DEC Fire Management Services Manager Rick Sneeuwjagt.
“That’s rather silly,” says Rick. “We can do both.”
“The point is that we are a conservation agency with the primary responsibility of maintaining the health and vigour of our ecosystems,” he says. ” We need to be aware that, unless we take some strategic burning, the tingle is in danger of being lost to major wildfires.”
He also rejects the assertion that there is a lack of science behind the way the department conducts its burns. He says there has been 40 years of research into fuel reduction burning in WA and that the department is recognised internationally for its work.
“There’ll never be enough knowledge, I’ll accept that,” says Rick, but he insists there is “enough for us to progress”.
It’s the science that’s been done, however, that generates much of the controversy.
Jess Beckerling points to a report by Dr Grant Wardell-Johnson that she says found a “reason to be very concerned” about the current fire regime in the district.
“What he found is that we’re actually changing the over-storey structure, you know the large trees, by burning it this frequently,” says Jess. “My concern and the concern of the group is that if it’s obvious enough, if the changes are obvious enough that we’re actually changing the over-storey species – the large tingle trees – then what’s happening to the little fungi and the invertebrates and those things that really hold the ecosystems together?”
“I don’t believe that study in fact showed that,” says Rick Sneeuwjagt. “I certainly have never seen any reference to the changing of the over-storey as a result of fire.”
He says the department is sensitive to the needs of various ecosystems.
“We do very limited prescribed burning in tingle,” he says. “There is less burning in the hinterland, in the wilderness area.”
However, he is worried that reducing burning in those areas would lead to out of control wildfires like those seen last summer on the east coast.
“My concern is that the Red Tingle is carrying masses of fuel on the ground,” he says. “What we don’t want to see is what happened in Victoria.”
Rick says that Dr Wardell-Johnson is “very much in favour” of fuel reduction burning.
All fires can cause changes to the over-storey
So who is right about this report, Jess and the SCEG or Rick and the DEC?
Both of them are, as it turns out.
For a start, Grant says it is true that his report found that prescribed burns alter the over-storey structure.
“All fires can cause changes to the over-storey,” he says.
“Although fires burn naturally in Red Tingle forest they usually burn only very infrequently,” he says. “It’s a long time between fires as a general rule in Tingle forest.”
“Although the fires are very infrequent they are very intense,” he says. This is why prescribed burns are called for.
“Communities may want the fires to be less intense because they might worry about their houses or their agricultural areas or their towns or whatever so they might push for more frequent burning which will reduce the load of the fuel,” he says.
Grant says the pay-off is that Red Tingle trees are quite susceptible to fire.
“They’ve got quite a weak interface between the root system and the stem so they tend to what we call hollow-but, they tend to burn out,” he says. “The stand structure will alter.”
He says regular prescribed burns may well have a negative impact on the smaller elements of the eco-system that Jess was talking about.
“The Red Tingle harbours many Gondwana relics which are ancient elements of the biota,” he says. “There’s all sorts of interesting critters in the forest which are basically left over from much wetter, less seasonal climatic periods and those creatures tend to favour habitats that don’t burn frequently.”
However Grant agrees with Rick’s assessment that he is very much in favour of prescribed burns.
“I’d be worried if there was no fire happening because I know that within a fairly short period of time there’d be one big fire,” he says. “That’s not good for biodiversity.”
He says a new study he’s involved with in the South West may show a way forward. The study is trialling a “mosaic burning pattern”.
“The aim of that is to protect tall open forest, of which Red Tingle forest is an example, by more frequently burning other areas in the landscape,” he says.
The patch work burn pattern means that “when fires do occur, and they inevitably will, the fire gets broken up across the landscape”.
Despite such research, Grant says the debate over prescribed burns will most likely never be resolved.
“The more you research the more you find there are questions,” he says. “Under situations of global climate change we would expect more and more unknowns to crop up. The fact is that fire is going to take a different form in the future.”