Neo Conned
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Figure 1: Preolenna village, Feb 2009.

Given that plantations should be kept 700 metres away from a community [1] and that fireballs explode 200 metres in radius from their eucalypt fuel and that ember attack can come from kilometres away [2], rural communities like Preolenna in NW Tasmania have obviously been hung out to die since plantations have moved in.

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Figure 2: The view to the west Meunna, Mawbanna….and some.

Their only fire appliance is in the main village, near five of the 21 houses in the district. The road in and out of the village has plantations on either side of the road. The school bus dodges log trucks as it wends its way between the trees. There is no safe way in and no safe way out as far as Morleah, further to the coast.

My neighbours, with fire-fighting experience would refuse to help in the instance of a serious fire. It is unlikely that a single house is 200m from a plantation – many are less than 50 metres away.

“There’s nothing anyone could do to save them without dying themselves. No way I’d be there… I ‘d be at my home in a bunker if Preolenna was alight.”

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Figure 3: The main road from south of the Preolenna village.The trees are between 8 and 9 years of age and may double their fuel load before harvest. The fire appliance is near by communications tower.

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Figure 4: The school bus route -on the main road twice daily.

On Sunday 7th January 2007 an arson attempt failed due to sheer luck [3].

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Figure 5: Existing mixed farmland goes under, May 2001. The roof reflections show the bus route from the main road, Coalmine Rd intersection heading west (left) to the village in the far middle distance.

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Figure 6: February, 2009. The roof of the house on the corner of Preolenna and Coalmine Roads is just discernible through the additional fuel load.

The arrival of plantations have turned the farmers’ household shade and shelter belts into fire hazards and their houses into death traps. Not every house with trees around it is the result of tree-hugging, tree-changing stupidity. The number of tree changer hectares would have trouble matching the 1 million hectares of hardwood and softwood plantations that have invaded the space between Australia’s native forests and rural communities (53% of plantations were on previously agricultural land in 2000[4]. 1.82 million hectares of plantations are identified in the 2008 State of Forests Report.)

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Figure 6: Plantations replace mixed agricultural land – July 2001.

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Figure 7: The house with the smoke in figure 6 – Feb 2009.

There are houses like this throughout the hinterland of the NW Coast of Tasmania in a belt of plantation that stretches from Smithton to Devonport and beyond. They no doubt occur in any rural area in Australia where it used to rain more than 6-700 mm per year.

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Figure 8: Another farm east of Preolenna near Takone. Weather conditions and neighbours prevented catastrophe from a lightning fire in a neighbouring coup.

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Figure 9: The same farm house (figure 8) in 1980, before extensions, outbuildings and garden were added in the mid 1980’s. The risk of fire from the small stand of radiata pines is almost nil.

Population shifts make housing on the outskirts of major centres necessary, given the inflation of town prices and lack of housing for those moving from remote regions. Premier Brumby does not forget the occasional lifestyler, either. The unfettered encouragement of plantations has failed to recognise these forces and the rights of existing residents – let alone having plans that consider the implications of climate change.

At no point have the state government departments concerned with resource planning , local government, fire prevention, or forestry made people aware of the true risks they face. At no point have they or plantation companies provided fire prevention plans. The fire authorities have actually engendered a false sense of security. Evidence shows they are assessing fire risk without an objective set of criteria. They use the “personal experience” of the officer usually assuming a small isolated outbreak in typical weather, with ample resources available.

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Figure 10: Plantation to the fenceline of a property in Moorleah, north of Preolenna

The local council that looks after Preolenna does not issue fire abatement notices in the hinterland: understaffed. The companies spend only enough on maintenance to clear 3 metre trails every couple of years and slash once per year, usually when it is too late and after a lot of nagging. They are understaffed and their maintenance budgets are underfunded for doing the job properly.

The plantation industry and its state and federal government backers are culpable for exposing the rural population to known risks of lightning strikes, arson and fires at least as bad as the Ash Wednesday and Snug fires. It amounts to a criminal neglect of their duty of care even before new climate change risks are factored in.

Plantations will need to be removed to at least a distance of 700 metres from communities (including those in ribbons along public roads ) and at least 200 metres from isolated residences. Clearings for powerlines and other infrastructure need to also be reconsidered in the light of the increased risks due to climate change. A share in the costs of private bunker construction for plantation-threatened households should also be mandatory. Fire risk assessment protocols should be established and the state fire authority overhauled. Councils should be forced to carry out the duties they have to their entire shire (including mowing their own verges twice: before, not after fire season).

State planners should be required to rezone areas for plantations so that they are broken into smaller non-contiguous parcels before the next rotation.

Many of the residents of Preolenna and other rural communities are the employees that the plantation complanies purport to care for so much. Let’s see some evidence of social conscience and not of what looks like deliberate extermination.

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Figure 11: An existing Preolenna farmhouse, now invisible due to plantations. Looking Eastwards towards Takone and Hampshire, 2001. It once produced milk, beef, lamb and potatoes.

References
[1] Chen, K. and McAneney, J. (2004). Quantifying bushfire penetration into urban areas in Australia. Geophysical Research Letters, 31, L12212, June issue, doi:10.1029/2004GL020244.

[2] Annecdotal evidence from this months Victorian fires.

[3] The Advocate, Tues, 9th January, 2007. P1.

[4] 53% of the 2000 plantation estate is on previously agricultureal land and 20% was on previous plantation, on second rotation. (Plantations of Australia, Summary Report 2001, Dept Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Australia, P8)

Or download picture essay: Left_to_Die.doc