Alarm on catchment fire threat

Alarm on catchment fire threat

4 February 2009

published by

Australia — The $10 billion earmarked for rescuing the Murray Darling Basin could be a waste of taxpayers’ money if major fires are not controlled in the catchments.

Bushfire expert Prof Mark Adams said bushfire caused rapid regrowth that used more water.

Prof Adams, who is part of theBushfire Co-operative Research Centre, said there was more leaf area in a regrowth forest than in a mature forest and a significant amount of water was used in regrowing.

“The amount that goes into rivers and dams is what’s left after the plants have used their bit,” Prof Adams said.

He said a 10 per cent reduction in inflows due to regrowth was a conservative estimate.

Prof Adams said the inflow into the Murray Darling Basin was about 8000 gigalitres a year and 40 per cent of that was from forests in North East Victoria.

He said if a fire burned three million hectares in the Murray Darling Basin then “a 10 per cent reduction amounts to far more than could be saved by buckets in showers and water restrictions on households.”

Prof Adams said the 2003 and 2006-07 fires and climate change were likely to result in a significant reduction in run-off.

“The high country catchments will yield less water and we need to understand how much less before we allocated water for agriculture or river red gums along the Murray.”

Prof Adams said “bad fire years” could also produce massive carbon emissions, comparable to Australia’s industrial outputs.

He said billions of dollars was being spent on capturing carbon, reducing energy consumption and encouraging individuals to sequester carbon.

But he said fires in forests in the southern Australian states had the capacity to “completely swamp” the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on carbon capture and improving water yields.

“Bushfires pose an enormous threat,” Prof Adams said.

“We need to look at the release of carbon in fires.”

He said about 20 to 30 million tonnes of carbon could be released in a single major fire.

“That is far more than we will ever sequester from planting trees,” he said.

But retreating from active fire management was not the answer.

“If we do not tackle the issue of fuel loads . . . then we will certainly pay billions more for water and more than likely we’ll pay a lot of money for the amounts of carbon we’re going to (add) to the atmosphere.”

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