November 30th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Can we put the 'care' back into aged care?

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

ENVIRONMENTALISM Activists and courts give sharks the last laugh

CANBERRA OBSERVED ALP's self-examination will entice no one back

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Geopolitics, oligarchs and the Moldova miracle

ENVIRONMENT Into the unknown: Should we prepare for climate change or climate variability?

LAW AND SOCIETY Crime and punishment: Are we de-civilising?

WATER POLICY Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

ASIAN AFFAIRS Destination Oz: Flood of Hong Kong emigres may restart

HUMOUR MacStuttles, me ol' China

MUSIC Subliminal workhorse: An art takes the backseat

CINEMA Dr Sleep: Kubrick 'shined' from his rest

BOOK REVIEW Science and religion, with mutual respect

BOOK REVIEW A borrowed term for a socialist recipe



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

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Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, November 30, 2019

Media portrayal of the NSW and Queensland bushfires as “catastrophic” erroneously implies that they are unprecedented, whereas droughts make bushfires inevi­table in Australia’s highly flammable eucalypt forests.

Certainly, threats to life and property have increased as more people build a “house among the gum trees”, but that’s more the reason to manage fuel loads around settlements and towns.

Contrary to claims by the Greens and environment ideologues that this season’s fires are the result of human-caused climate change, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) warned in September that a severe drought was likely, due to a 40-degree warming of the atmosphere 30 kilometres above Antarctica in just a few days.

Dr Harry Heddon from the BOM said that this is a “naturally, internally generated phenomena” known as “sudden stratospheric warming”, not climate change. When it last happened, in 2002, it produced one of Australia’s driest years on record. This time it is a double whammy for eastern Australia, which is already in drought.

Aside from such sudden events, southern Australia goes through regular longer-term cycles of 12 to 30 wet years, followed by similarly long drier periods when fire risks increase.

Probably, Australia’s worst bushfire season was in 1851, when a quarter of the colony of Victoria burned, killing an unknown number of people, a million sheep, thousands of cattle and a huge number of native animals.

Since then, the worst seasons in deaths and houses burned were in Victoria in 1926 (60 deaths, number of houses burned not recorded), Victoria, 1939 (71/650), Tasmania, 1967 (62/1300), Ash Wednesday in Victoria and South Australia, 1983 (75/1900), and then Black Saturday on February 7, 2009, in Victoria (173/2000).

By the 1960s, studies of bushfire mitigation led to concerted fuel-reduction burn programs. As Roger Underwood, with over 50 year’s experience in bushfire management and formerly general manager of the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management, wrote in News Weekly (July 16, 2016), the great lesson learned from the 1961 WA bushfires “was the need for fuel reduction. Without it, no force on earth can stop a fire on a bad day.”

“The lesson was well learned and led to a revolution in fire management in Western Australia. Broad-acre prescribed burning became routine, up to 300,000 hectares burned annually.

“The impact was sensational. For a period of nearly 40 years, the southwest was virtually free of bushfire damage. Fires would start … but they were easy to control. The system developed after 1961 became the envy of the world.”

“Regrettably,” he added, “the burning program fell away … after about 2000.”

Royal Commission

That such programs fell away in many states was strongly criticised in the 2010 Victorian Royal Commission Report into the Black Saturday fires. It said that of the 7.7 million hectares of public land in Victoria managed by the Department of Sustainability and Environment, only 1.7 per cent (130,000 hectares) was being burned each year. The Commission recommended “an annual rolling target of a minimum of 5 per cent” to be burned.

According to Dr Neil Burrows, bushfire scientist with Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, in WA, “burning 1-2 per cent [of forested areas in WA] is largely ineffective”.

There is “a tipping point … We need to get up to the 8 per cent mark for it to have any significant effect for reducing the severity and scale of wildfires,” he said. While achieving this is more difficult in NSW and Victoria, because of a more changeable climate, rugged terrain and larger populations, Dr Burrows maintains it is possible.

Focusing on fuel reduction should also mean state authorities readjusting expenditure away from fire suppression (using expensive helicopter and ground equipment) and recovery to greater investment in prevention and fuel-hazard management, according to the report of Euan Ferguson into the 2016 WA fires. Since then, WA has reinvigorated its fuel-reduction program. Regardless of recent efforts in the eastern states, many localities remain at high risk because there is a fuel “hump” – a huge backlog of areas that have not been fuel reduced through planned burns for many years.

Despite this, the Andrews Government has just taken a big leap backwards, announcing that within a decade all Victoria’s old-growth forest will be locked up and the 120-year-old native forest timber industry will be forced to rely on plantation timber. As plantations take 50 years to grow, the industry will be forced to close.

Not only will this mean importing timber from countries with poor forest management, it means that, as trees age and die across an area of Victoria larger than Tasmania (seven million hectares), Victoria’s forests will be devastated by intense fires in drought times.

This impending conflagration will be impossible to manage as access roads and other infrastructure maintained by the timber industry is lost.

An excellent strategy for rendering the endangered Leadbeater possum extinct!

At present, Victoria still has an impor­tant economic and fire-suppression insurance policy – a mosaic/patchwork quilt of trees of various ages, thanks to the timber industry and VicForests. For example, a regenerated logged area near Marysville did not burn on Black Saturday and was a refuge for many animals.

Dr Frank Moulds, former head of the Victorian Forest Commission, poignantly referred to the dangers from failing to manage the state’s volatile forests in 1991: “There seems little doubt that, in the absence of regular burning of built-up fuels in our forests, future conflagrations … are inevitable … Fires are no respecter of geography and also issue a very clear warning to the government that fire prevention and suppression must be a number one priority every summer.

“Many so-called conservation measures must be relegated to second place after overall security from the worst effects of wildfire disasters is achieved. The … blanket prohibition on removal of natural vegetation in rural areas and on farmland makes no apparent concessions to the vital need for hazard removal every summer in numerous critical areas.” (The Dynamic Forest, Lynedoch Publications, 1991)

This ban was still in place when Liam Sheehan was fined $50,000 in 2004 for clearing around his house, yet this action saved his home from the Black Saturday fires.

As more people settle next to forest lands, the Victorian Government is locking up those forests. Banning selective logging in old-growth forests not only prevents the sustainable uses of a valuable natural resource, it increases the risks to life and property from intense/catastrophic bushfires.

While some lessons have been learned, policies dictated by environmental extremists and bureaucrats continue to leave lives and property at risk from major fires over huge areas.

Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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