Australia — It’s spring, and soon we’ll start to get sensationalist stories predicting a horrendous bushfire season ahead. They will carry attacks on agencies for not doing enough to reduce fuel loads in forests close to homes, for unless those living on the urban fringe see their skies filled with smoke in winter they panic about losing their homes in January.
Fighting fires with fear is a depressing annual event and easy sport on slow news days. Usually the debate fails to ask two crucial questions: does hazard reduction really do anything to save homes, and what’s the cost to native plants and animals caught in burn-offs?
A new scientific paper published in the CSIRO journal Wildlife Research by Michael Clarke, an associate professor in the department of zoology at La Trobe University, suggests the answer to both questions is: we do not know.
What we do know is a lot of precious wild places are set on fire, in large part to keep happy those householders whose kitchen windows look out on gum trees.
Clarke says it is reasonable for land management agencies to try to limit the negative effects of large fires, but we need to be confident our fire prevention methods work. And just as importantly, we need to be sure they do not lead to irreversible damage to native wildlife and habitat.
He argues we need to show some humility, and writes: “The capacity of management agencies to control widespread wildfires ignited by multiple lightning strikes in drought conditions on days of extreme fire danger is going to be similar to their capacity to control cyclones.” In other words, sometimes we can do zip.
Much hazard reduction is performed to create a false sense of security rather than to reduce fire risks, and the effect on wildlife is virtually unknown.
The sooner we acknowledge this the sooner we can get on with the job of working out whether there is anything we can do to manage fires better. We need to know whether hazard reduction can be done without sending our wildlife down a path of firestick extinctions.
An annual burn conducted each year on Montague Island, near Narooma on the NSW far South Coast, highlights the absurdity of the current public policy free-for-all, much of which is extraordinarily primitive. In 2001 park rangers burnt a patch of the devastating weed kikuyu on the island. The following night a southerly blew up, the fire reignited and a few penguins were incinerated. It was a stuff-up that caused a media outcry: because cute penguins were burnt, the National Parks and Wildlife Service was also charcoaled.
Every year since there has been a deliberate burn on Montague, part of a program to return the island to native vegetation. Each one has been a circus – with teams of staff, vets, the RSPCA, ambulances, boats and helicopters – all because no one wants any more dead penguins.
Meanwhile every year on the mainland, park rangers and state forests staff fly in helicopters tossing out incendiary devices over wilderness forests, the way the UN tosses out food packages. Thousands of hectares are burnt, perhaps unnecessarily, too often, and worse, thousands of animals that are not penguins (so do not matter) are roasted. All to make people feel safe. Does the burning protect nearby towns? On even a moderately bad day, probably not. Does it make people feel better? Yes.
Clarke’s paper calls for the massive burn-offs to be scrutinised much more closely. “In this age of global warming, governments and the public need to be engaged in a more sophisticated discussion about the complexities of coping with fire in Australian landscapes,” he writes.
He wants ecological data about burns collected as routinely as rainfall data is gathered by the agricultural industry. Without it, hazard reduction burning is flying scientifically blind and poses a dangerous threat to wildlife.
“To attempt to operate without [proper data on the effect of bushfires] should be as unthinkable as a farmer planting a crop without reference to the rain gauge,” he writes.
In the coming decades, native plants and animals will face enough problems – most significantly from human-induced climate chaos – without having to dodge armies of public servants armed with lighters. Guesswork and winter smoke are not enough to protect our towns and assets now, and the risk of bushfires increases with the rise in carbon dioxide.