In support of controlled burns at Wilson’s Prom

 In support of controlled burns at Wilson’s Prom

16 February 2009

published by

Australia — Friends of the Prom and WPNP Advisory Group’s Don Jewell writes:

I wish to comment on the misleading and inaccurate information provided by “naturalist” Lionel Elmore regarding bush fires at the Prom — the current “Cathedral Range fire” and the 2005 fire.

The Australian environment was shaped by fire and our indigenous plants and animals are perfectly adapted to it — otherwise they would have become extinct long ago. The question is not if there will be another fire at the Prom, but when. Started by lightning, if not by careless people.

The problem is that an invasive, non-indigenous species known as Homo sapiens now live in the dry and volatile Australian environment. The species is generally regarded as intelligent and adaptable, but as we have learnt from places such as Kinglake and Marysville, this latest group of the species has not yet adapted to its new environment after only 200 years. An earlier group, who arrived about 40,000 years ago, are much better adapted to fire in the Australian environment — but they are few in number, and their aeons of accumulated wisdom is not often listened to by the more recent and far more numerous group.

In managing the environment of Wilson’s Promontory National Park, the staff have tried to imitate nature by conducting a series of controlled burns over a number of years. The large fire of Easter 2005 was originally a carefully planned two hectare “ecological burn.” It was planned to protect the biodiversity of the heathlands just to the north of Tidal River, and for asset protection of the Tidal River camp.

The logic was that if a fire started during the Christmas period — when there are thousands of Homo sapiens are camped in Tidal River — it was likely to come from the north. Such a fire might be driven by the same kind of fierce northerly winds that carried the recent fires in central Victoria.

As anyone who claimed to be a “naturalist” and had any understanding of the Prom would know, these heathlands were being rapidly invaded by Coast Teatree (Leptospermum lavigatum) and White kunzea (Kunzea ambigua). If left alone, the heathlands would have become entirely covered with teatree and kunzea. Of course, in nature this situation would be controlled by fire — so the rangers have burned it in a series of small area, controlled burns.

Lighting “controlled burns” is a most inexact science, and whilst conditions were acceptable when the fire was lit, five days later, they weren’t. A spell of hot dry weather followed — which was not predicted and had not occurred in the area at that time of year for 50 years. As we know, the fire escaped on 1 April and burnt all the way south to the lighthouse.

Anyone who believes that meteorologists can perfectly predict the weather five days in advance probably believes in the tooth fairy as well.

The park staff are open to criticism for not properly monitoring the two hectare ecological burn, but it is believed that the fire smouldered deep in some peat soil before flaring up again in the unusual hot dry conditions. Exactly the same thing happened in the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne — a CFA lieutenant told me that they not only wet the peat soil, but felt it and found it cool — only to have it to flare up later.

Any regular visitor to the Prom will have also observed that the grasslands of the Yanakie Isthmus is also becoming covered with Coast Teatree. There are careful, detailed plans to burn some of this when conditions are suitable. Otherwise, we will have a mono-culture of Coast Teatree — boring, with greatly reduced biodiversity and a major fire hazard.

The 2005 fire which burned about 13% of the Prom was unplanned and should not have started from a ‘planned burn’, but as no one was hurt and very few assets were harmed; it has actually done the Prom’s natural environment nothing but good. Plant species that have not been observed for 50 years flourished. Aside from the occasional black tree trunk, it is hard to see where the fire burnt.

Of course some animals would have been killed — which we find distressing. But nature is quite impartial and words such as “cruel” are meaningless in this context.

Many Australian species are actually advantaged by fire. The rare New Holland mice (Pseudomys novaehollandia), for example, increase their numbers in the regrowth after fire.

When the Friends of the Prom did some soil conservation work near the Lighthouse some months after the 2005 fire, we found the ground covered by Running Postman (Kenedia prostrata) and dotted with orchids. This was because the usual canopy was removed by the fire.

I have a series of progressive “after the fire” photos on a disk which is used for talks to interested environmental groups. The recovery and the speed of regrowth is quite remarkable.

The Cathedral Range fire was started by lightning — thankfully not by careless or stupid Homo sapiens — so it is a quite natural part of the environment. And having camped and bushwalked on the Prom since 1959, and camped at Stockyard Camp (near the park entrance) with the Friends of the Prom for more than 20 years, I think firebreaks in the north of the park are quite reasonable. If we got south or easterly winds with similar force to the northerlies which caused Black Saturday in central Victoria, it is not hard to imagine a fire escaping the park and on to the dry farm lands of Yanakie.

Sensible people take precautions against anything as unpredictable as Victoria’s weather.

If criticism is due, it should be aimed at the State Government for not adequately resourcing Parks Victoria and DSE — and insisting that the prescribed burning that repeated reports back to Ash Wednesday have recommended are carried out. These are possible in almost every vegetation type except Mountain Ash forest, where you just have to cut adequate fire breaks.

Controlled burns would be much more effective than cattle on the High Plains too — for the simple reason that cows don’t eat gum trees, the most volatile fuel.

Maybe the planned Royal Commission will convince them. But don’t hold your breath.

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