Prescribed burners can’t see the forest for the trees

Prescribed burners can’t see the forest for the trees

13 April 2012

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Australia — The DSE program could have some unforeseen devastating results.

IT IS autumn and the sky billows with the steely pink smoke of a bushfire. It is a strange phenomenon at this time of year, and I realise that the Department of Sustainability and Environment is burning the Wellsford Forest near where I live, east of Bendigo.

After the horrific bushfires of 2009, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended the prescribed burning of a minimum of 5 per cent of public land, at least 385,000 hectares, across Victoria to reduce fuel loads. The policy sounds perfectly rational on paper.

But when I walk through the Wellsford, I weep. Instead of the bush I know, I am confronted by a blackened, smoking landscape. The burn has been applied to 499 hectares in the middle of the forest, kilometres away from private property. Vast areas of gold-dust wattle, golden wattle, everlasting daisies, lichens and native grasses have been burnt out. The trunks of grey box and yellow gum are scorched. The bush is eerily quiet. The Wellsford is in for more of this, and I fear for its survival.
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Within the Wellsford grow nine red ironbark trees between 450 and 700 years old. They were here when Aborigines speaking the Dja Dja Wurrung language used the forest to provide the resources for their physical and spiritual life. They were here when the forest, from 1851, provided white settlers with wood for fires, props for gold mining shafts, timber for fence posts, eucalyptus oil for medicines, gravel for roads, honey for food. After this intensive use and further clearing for farmland, only 28 per cent of the box-ironbark forest survives across the state. This is the bush that will be burnt.

Evidence suggests the box-ironbark is not the type of bush that has evolved through burning. It doesn’t produce a lot of ground fuel, so bushfires are less extensive and burn cooler, for example, than in forests in the south-eastern highlands. The box-ironbark forests are not the forests of Gippsland, just like the Mallee is not the same as the vegetation growing at Cape Otway. Yet the impact of fire in the making of our distinctive and varied forests is ignored in the prescribed burning program.

A recommendation of the royal commission is that DSE ”significantly upgrade its program of long-term data collection to monitor and model the effects of prescribed burning programs and bushfires on biodiversity in Victoria”. Without this knowledge, the intensity, seasonality and frequency of prescribed burns will certainly have an adverse impact on plant and animal populations. Without this knowledge, trees like the ancient ironbarks of the Wellsford are under threat.

If plants in the box-ironbark are burnt at the wrong time they won’t set seed. This in turn reduces the diversity of plants that grow and diminishes feed and habitat for birds and animals. If fallen timber and dead hollow-bearing trees are burnt, further important habitat is removed. But the real devastation comes from the loss of mid-storey vegetation, at which the fires are specifically aimed. This level of vegetation is slow growing and will not recover in the time available between burns. Under the current prescribed burning regime, it is likely a whole ensemble of species will be eliminated from the box-ironbark forests. The locals who know this bush are in despair.

If rotation burns occur every eight to 15 years, likely for the box-ironbark, the impacts will be significant. This bush takes about 10 years to create suitable habitat for some animal and bird species, 10 to 20 years for some plant species to reach reproductive maturity and 15 to 20 years for small mammal populations to establish. Fire will fundamentally change the box-ironbark forest’s ecosystems. In isolated vegetation remnants, it will lead to the extinction of woodland species, including birds and mammals.

It is generally accepted that some prescribed burning needs to occur to protect human lives and assets. But is this the objective that drives the burning of the bush, or is it more about reaching the target of 5 per cent regardless of the proximity of forest to human communities?

Whatever the motive, without an understanding of and planning for each forest’s idiosyncratic ecology, we are playing with fire. And sadly, our ignorance may sound the death knell for many of our forests.

Dr Robyn Ballinger is an environmental historian who lives and works in the box-ironbark country of central Victoria.

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