Wednesday, February 18, 2009

australian bushfires analysis

When I dug into this issue the main thing that shocked me was that a group of people in Australia (the Stretton group, formed in 2003) has been actively warning and lobbying about this threat for years. More importantly, they have also presented strategies about how to prevent such destructive fires. This group has had some success in implementing their policies in Western Australia but have been largely ignored in Victoria, which is the worst bushfire region in the world.
Fuels build up year after year at an approximate rate of one tonne a hectare a year, up to a maximum of about 30 tonnes a hectare. If the fuels exceed about eight tonnes a hectare, disastrous fires can and will occur. Every objective analysis of the dynamics of fuel and fire concludes that unless the fuels are maintained at near the levels that our indigenous stewards of the land achieved, then we will have unhealthy and unsafe forests that from time to time will generate disasters such as the one that erupted on saturday.
- David Packham, Victoria bushfires stoked by green vote
After studying some of these documents I see it this way:
  • we can’t control the weather - there will be very hot days, droughts etc., sooner or later
  • we can’t stop fire from starting - lightning strikes, arsonists, faulty electrical equipment etc.
  • we can’t or won’t stop people from living in the bush, it’s a free country.
All of the above is true and independent of the truth or falsehood of the global warming hypothesis.

The one big thing we can realistically control is fuel supply, by controlled burning in the non fire season. This won’t stop bushfires but will make them less intense and dangerous when they do occur. The Stretton group and some others, such as Phil Cheney and Roger Underwood have been arguing this for some years now.

Victoria has the worst climate and vegetation in the world for bushfires. Bushfires in Victoria are inevitable but by reducing fuel supply their devastation can be dramatically reduced.

Some of the relevant data from David Packham, in a 2002 (sic) submission is:
  • the fire exclusion policy has resulted in the highest and most dangerous fuel loads for 47,000 years
  • a running disaster fire intensity exceeds the maximum capability for fire fighting by between 4 and 80 times
  • reducing the fuels to one-quarter will reduce the areas burnt to between one quarter and one sixteenth
  • it will take 2 decades of effort to achieve healthy fuel levels ... There is however no alternative except major fire disasters at the rate of one or two per hundred years
  • the lessons of 1926, 1939, 1944, 1965 and 2003 do not appear to have been learnt. Policies or comments that oppose this help to perpetuate a situation that leads to massive destruction of life, property and the environment
Many of our politicians and a section of the media (although not The Australian) present these disasters as unavoidable and focus mainly on the recounting of the tragedy. The Stretton group has convinced me that they are largely avoidable and the fault has been a real lack of political leadership.

Victoria bushfires stoked by green vote by David Packham

Bush Fire Front by Roger Underwood, David Packham and Phil Cheney
Two myths have emerged about climate change and bushfire management and are beginning to circulate in the media and to be adopted as fact by some scientists:

1. Because of global warming, Australia will be increasingly subject to uncontrollable holocaust-like “megafires”.

2. Fuel reduction by prescribed burning must cease because it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating global warming and the occurrence of megafires.

Both statements are incorrect.
Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management - 2002 submission by David Packham OAM

Lessons not yet learned by Max Rheese
Max Rheese, Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation --> preventative burning is the best solution

Submission to Victorian Bushfire Inquiry by Norman Endacott
fuel reduction burning - advantages listed

The Green Inferno by Phil Cheney
do we really want to minimise disaster fires?

Manage Bush Better so Climate Change won't Matter by Roger Underwood
refutes Wilderness Society bushfire strategy

Examples of the Value of Prescribed Burning
- cites an example from West Australia where many prescribed burns got out of control owing to a cyclone moving faster than expected. It was far easier to contain these out of control fires once the fire ran into areas burnt under prescribed mild conditions in previous years

This burning issue of life and death by Miranda Devine
lists many green organisations that are opposed in practice to prescribed burning, while sometimes paying lip service to it


squidinkcalligraphy said...

What worries me is people jumping on the bandwagon to blame green groups for accumulated fuel. No green groups that I know of (and I know many) are against controlled burning. Many oppose logging, and somewhere in the minds of some people (some with other agendas) they connect the two - logging reduces fuel, so anti-logging groups are responsible for the build up of fuel, hence the fires. There is a similar argument with highland cattle grazing. Everyone will try to hijack this event to push for particular policy changes. Yes, we need more fuel-reduction burning. But the weather doesn't always allow for this, and the increasing number of houses in the bush makes this difficult in some areas - sometimes the wind changes and a controlled burn becomes an out-of-control fire. And in some conditions forests will burn even without fuel on the ground. The upshot of my argument is that fires will happen regardless of anything we can do. Fuel reduction burning is great and more needs to happen, but there will still be fires that will destroy property and lives. People need to accept this or get out of the bush.

Mark Miller said...


You are right that even with controlled burns and thinning fires will still happen. The idea is to reduce the fuel load so that when fires do occur they are less intense and thereby less dangerous to the ecosystem.

The realistic philosophy is to "live with fire" in fire-prone areas rather than try to eliminate it.

Bill Kerr said...

hi squid,

This article by Miranda Devine lists many green groups that oppose prescribed burning whilst paying some sort of lip service to it :-
Wilderness Society
WA Forest Alliance
WWF Australia
NSW Greens
NSW Nature Conservation
Threatened Species Scientific Committee
NSW Department of Environment and Conservation

Moreover people have received very large fines for cutting trees down on their properties. There is a now famous case from the recent Victorian fires of the home owner. Liam Sheahan, who was fined $50,000 for removing 247 trees from his property. His was the only house to survive the fires in a 2 km area.

It is true that some prescribed burns will get out of control. The point is that this policy will overall lead to less destruction of life, property and the environment.

It is also true that some Greens are genuine in their support for prescribed burning. eg. Tim Flannery recognises that Australian plants are fire loving and that the optimal conditions for them is a regular fire regime. See Ch. 21 of 'The Future Eaters'. btw Tim Flannery lost his house in a bushfire a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Bill Kerr said:
"This article by Miranda Devine lists many green groups that oppose prescribed burning whilst paying some sort of lip service to it :-
Wilderness Society
WA Forest Alliance
WWF Australia
NSW Greens
NSW Nature Conservation
Threatened Species Scientific Committee
NSW Department of Environment and Conservation"

The article says no such thing. It mentions FotE, who publicly state they are not opposed to prescribed burning. It mentions the Wilderness Soc, who are also not opposed to appropriate burns. It mentions Rob Pallin, then chairman of NCCNSW. That organisation does not oppose appropriate burning. The NSW Greens do not oppose approriate burning. The NSW TSSC listed "high frequency fire regimes" as a key threatening process which impacts on many ecological communities. It has not listed appropriate prescribed burning as a key threatening process.

Facts, you see, not more misleading misrepresentation.

Philip Maguire said...

Anyone who believes there are no green groups opposed to fuel reduction burning is living in fantasyland. I know of a green group in the Wombat Forest area which put in a submission opposing FRB to a Victorian Government enquiry.

As well Federal Environment Minister Peter "Turtle" Garrett has recently accepted an application to investigate the possibilty of listing FRB as a threatening process.

Mark Miller's "realistic philosophy has been the traditional Australian approach. We fight fire with fire. The green approach would see us dominated and cowed by fires over which we would have no control and would make the bush a more dangerous place than it has been in the history of human habitation.