Pic: Matty Tuffin

While my heart goes out to all those people and animals who have been affected by the recent fires in Tasmania I have had some interesting discussions with many people about the issue of the effectiveness of hazard reduction burning.

While people are undoubtedly in a state of shock as a result of the fires and sympathy for those who lost property the real debate about fire prevention and management in Tasmania needs yet to happen. It seems that little has been learned in Tasmania from the recommendations of various interstate inquiries into catastrophic fires about prevention and management as well as protection of property. In Tasmania, as globally, the predictions of extreme weather events as a result of climate change should alert us to take a more realistic and longer term approach to fire prevention and management.

Last week I had a lengthy discussion with someone who has been through five major fires and lost their home in one of the Tasmanian bushfires two weeks ago. We discussed issues around hazard reduction burning and the large area of bush in Tasmania that under this practise would need to be burned every year. There was no doubt in our minds that this would be catastrophic in itself.

I found a useful website for The Habitat Advocate that covers the debate over ‘to burn or not to burn’ very well:

S. Ridd, editor of The Habitat Advocate wrote:

‘But habitat-destroying strategies applied by RFS bushfire committees each Autumn-Spring hark to 1940s solutions and are as ineffective as they are environmentally destructive. ‘Hazard’ reduction assumes a direct relationship between wildfire risk and the total area burned. But ‘hazard’ reduction does not significantly reduce wildfire risk. In 2003, the Auditor General of Victoria identified in his audit on fire prevention and preparedness, that “the relationship between hazard reduction burning and the overall wildfire risk is currently limited ...

Research into the Warrimoo, Valley Heights and Yellow Rock bushfires of 2001-2 concluded that the main cause of houses destroyed by bushfire was from burning debris (ember attack) allowed to gain entry into houses through inadvertent openings. Houses-by-house, those that survived were due to vigilant intervention by those present putting out small fires after the fire front had actually passed. CSIRO Research (1999) into causes of building loss from bushfires in Hobart (1967), Blue Mountains (1968), Otway and Macedon Ranges (1983), and Sydney 1994) confirmed the same and advocated focus on landscaping and building design strategies. Out of the 2001/2002 NSW bushfires, Sydney Councils recommended Sydney Water increase mains water capacity during bushfire crises.’

We know that there are some fires that cannot be prevented;  those caused by lightning strike; all other fires could be prevented by stronger education and arson prevention strategies. We know that the weather conditions that exist during some fires make it impossible for the fires to be significantly impacted on by human intervention. Back-burning and other means of protecting areas from fire can be useful if weather conditions allow.

But ... the consequences of catastrophic wildfires are something we are going to have to learn to acknowledge may be beyond our control - even potentially for our cities.

While some people in Tasmania have unfortunately used the Tasmanian bushfires as an opportunity to attack ‘greenies’ - by this the whole community is being subjected to a pointless attack reminiscent of the 1940’s when some people believed they had the power to control nature. Destroying habitat is not the answer ...

‘Extensive field research by Catling (1991) of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife Ecology has shown that “vertebrate fauna of south-eastern Australia is most abundant in forests with a dense understorey.” “If shrubs, litter and ground cover are removed, reduction in complexity of forest structure leads to a reduction in abundance and species diversity of small mammals” (Lunney 1987, Royal Zoological Society of NSW). Frequent, low-intensity burns in autumn reduce and eventually eliminate dense understorey – because rain and warm
weather needed for regrowth are denied. As understorey is lost, threatened ground-dwelling native mammals (Tiger Quolls, Eastern Pygmy Possums, Rufous Bettongs) lose habitat protection, while many exotic species (foxes, feral cats, black rats) are advantaged.

On 28th April, ‘hazard’ reduction burning was prescribed for 347ha of the World Heritage Jamison Valley.’