COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Old-growth forests and wildfires
, February 8, 2003
Old-growth forests and wildfiresThe appalling bushfires which have devastated Canberra, south east NSW, Tasmania and parts of Victoria over recent weeks have been aggravated by the policies of state governments which have locked up large areas of the country's eucalypt forests from timber harvesting, and consistently failed to perform adequate fuel reduction burning, making them massive fire hazards.
The bushfires which swept into the ACT in mid-January began in the adjacent national parks in southern New South Wales.
The fires burned for weeks, destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of bushland, before forming a massive fire front which swept into Canberra from the west, causing the loss of several lives, hundreds of homes and leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.
While drought and hot weather have undoubtedly aggravated the problem, forestry experts (and governments) have understood for many years that the effects of bushfires can be substantially reduced if debris is removed from the forest floor.
Two ways of doing this are through supervised logging operations, and by controlled fires during the wetter months of the year.Buying votes
In an effort to buy environmentalist votes, Labor governments have excluded timber harvesting from substantial areas of forest, by redefining state forests as national parks. These are intended to become old growth forests, untouched by mankind.
This idea has led to a deliberate and substantial decline in fuel-reduction burning over the past decade, as the amount of land set aside as national parks has increased substantially.
Peter Webb, the Federal Member for Eden-Monaro, in southern NSW, wrote to the NSW Environment Minister, Bob Debus, in December last year, pointing out that the danger presented by the build-up of fuel in the Brindabella National Park, west of Canberra. Mr Debus did not even reply.
Mr Webb has pointed that that in the Brindabella National Park, "No hazard reduction whatsoever was carried out in the last two years."
The position in the huge Kosciuszko National Park, the largest in New South Wales, is even worse. Of the 674,000 ha park, only 2,164 ha were subject to controlled burns last year, representing only 0.3 per cent of the park's area.
Despite the fact that 750,000 ha of National Parks were burnt in the devastating bushfires in New South Wales just a year ago, and 20,000 properties were threatened, the lessons of those dreadful fires have not been learned.
Interestingly, Western Australia, which is also prone of major bushfires, has suffered no major forest wildfires since 1961, when prescribed burnings were introduced, to ensure that trash on the forest floor is kept below 8 tonnes per ha. (Interestingly, Mr Webb pointed out to the NSW Environment Minister last December that forest trash in the Brindabella National Park had reached up to 140 tonnes per ha, and the average level was of the order of 30 to 50 tonnes per ha.)
Don Spriggins of the Institute of Foresters in WA recently revealed that in his state, experience has shown that "the forest needs to be burnt about every five to seven years to give fire crews a reasonable chance of suppressing a fire." (Financial Review
, January 22, 2003)
What this means is that 15-20 per cent of all forests need to be burnt every year, to enable fire fighters to control bushfires. The problem is not just one for New South Wales and the ACT.
In Victoria, the Bracks Government has admitted that it had carried out less than half of the planned back-burning operations in Gippsland, site of some of the state's most extensive national parks.
Despite the fact that the Government's own target was for 119,000 ha to be burnt, it had achieved only 54,000 ha. Victoria's national parks total over three million ha.
A senior Country Fire Authority (CFA) official in the Alpine National Park, Captain Ralph Barraclough, said he had written to Mr Bracks about an impending disaster in the Alpine National Park, but his warnings had been ignored, because of pressure from the Green lobby. (Herald Sun
, January 23, 2003)
Mr Barraclough began writing to the Government after bushfires four years ago showed that the CFA could not fight fires in the Alpine region, due to he the build-up of fuel on the forest floor.
He told the Herald Sun
, "The mechanisms for the safety of human life are basically non-existent, or at the very best, grossly inadequate, and we were pointing out that a disaster like this was long overdue."
The Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, replied that Mr Barraclough was expressing "one man's view", and said he believed that his Government had taken the best advice in preparing for bushfires - a statement which is obviously untrue.
The end result of the pursuit of old growth forests will, inevitably, be devastating forest fires which obliterate everything in their path, not least, the fauna and flora which live in them.
If current policies are not reversed, the present bushfire crisis will be repeated, for no good reason.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council