The Wilderness Society and Bushfire Management

I have been critical of many environmental activists over the years on the grounds that they know what they are against, but they don’t know what they are for. For example, bushfire management systems developed by forestry agencies over many decades are savagely condemned, but no alternative system is offered up as a replacement.

I was therefore interested to see that the Wilderness Society News 173 (Winter 2008) contains a Six Point Action Plan that the Society says will “reduce bushfire risks and help to protect people, property, wildlife and their habitat”. They have done this because they assert that a “massive increase in hazard reduction burning and firebreaks is destroying nature, pushing wildlife closer to extinction and in many cases increasing the fire risk to people and properties by making areas more fire prone”.

The Society also says that with the onset of climate change “mega-bushfires that burn massive areas” are expected to become more frequent. They have therefore come up with the following Action Plan:
1. Improve aerial fire detection.
2. Ramp-up high-tech suppression forces, including more Elvis helitaks;
3. Do more research into fire behaviour and the impacts of fire on wildlife;
4. Around towns and urban areas, carry out fuel reduction burning and have fire breaks;
5. Give priority to wildlife and their habitat in remote areas and national parks;
6. Make forests resistant to megafires by protecting them from woodchipping and logging.

I disagree that there has been “massive increases in burning” which are “pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction”.  On the contrary, statistics from various agencies show that the amount of burning in forests and woodlands in Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales has declined since the 1980s. I am not aware of a single species of wildlife in Australia which is at the brink of extinction due to prescribed burning. In my view the real threat to wildlife is the large high-intensity summer bushfire. These are generally a consequence of insufficient prescribed burning.

I find the Wilderness Society’s Action Plan deficient. It is impractical, greenhouse unfriendly and costly. Most importantly, it will not reduce the number of large high intensity forest fires in Australian forests. It is the relatively small number of large, high intensity fires that do most of the environmental, economic and social damage caused by bushfires, and therefore must be the primary target of a fire management system. The very much larger number of small low-intensity bushfires are easily suppressed and do little harm.

A surprising aspect of the Society’s Action Plan is that it does not appear to have had any input from people with knowledge of bushfire science or with actual forest fire management experience.  Unfortunately this does not mean it can be ignored, as the Wilderness Society has a very high media and political profile.

Taking each of their proposed action points in turn:

1. Aerial detection is a first-rate resource. A comprehensive system of aerial detection has been in place in all southern Australian states since the early 1970s, supported (under rising fire danger conditions) by lookout towers. However, aerial detection has limits. The greatest problem is that the system can fail completely when it is most needed – under hot unstable atmospheric conditions and when there are very high winds. [I was the Officer in Charge in the karri forest during the Cyclone Alby bushfire emergency, and on the day of the fires all our aircraft had to be grounded and tied down.]

Furthermore, whilst rapid and accurate fire detection is a routine aspect of all existing fire management systems in Australia (and has been since about World War 1), it is of little use if you cannot get firefighters to the fire in time to do useful work. In heavy fuels in the jarrah forest, for example, even under moderate summer conditions a fire can become too intense to be directly suppressed by firefighters within about 15 minutes of ignition. When multiple ignitions occur, as happens during electrical storms, the risk of losing fires increases with every new ignition. This is because access, and resources for fire suppression, are the limiting factors, not detection capability.

2. The dream of hi-tech aerial water bombers dominating forest fires is just that: a dream. It has never succeeded in Australia, and not even in the USA where the entire might of an enormous fleet of water bombers fails repeatedly to handle hot fires burning in heavy fuels. Elvis helitaks look impressive and they are beloved of the war correspondents who cover “bushfire events”. But they cost a fortune, burn massive amounts of fossil fuel, use gigalitres of precious water and are ineffective in stopping the run of a crown fire which is throwing spotfires. Water bombers do good work protecting houses from grass fires at the urban interface, and in some cases can help to “hold” a small forest fire burning under mild conditions until ground forces arrive. But against a big hot forest fire they are next to useless. On simple environmental and economic grounds alone their expanded use cannot be supported, but this is especially so when a more carbon-friendly solution is available which is cheaper and more effective. 

Few people appreciate the heat energy released by a large bushfire burning in heavy fuels. Calculations show that the fire that engulfed Canberra in January 2003 had an energy release equivalent to a Hiroshima-type nuclear bomb being exploded every 30 minutes. The idea that such fires can be extinguished by helicopters dropping water is quite unrealistic.

3. I can only agree with the Society that more research is needed into fire behaviour and fire impacts, especially the impacts of large high-intensity fires on fauna, water catchments and soils. This is not to say that a great deal of research has not been done already, and I would draw attention specifically to the Project Vesta studies. This ten-year multi-disciplinary study, involving CSIRO, the Bushfire CRC and scientists from a number of research and management institutions, is probably the most comprehensive fire behaviour/impacts research ever done. The conclusions were unambiguous, and do not support the recommendations of the Wilderness Society.

Curiously, the deleterious impacts of large high intensity fires on water catchments do not rate any mention in the Society’s Action Plan. In the short term, a high intensity fire has an enormous environmental cost. It bares and erodes the soil, and sends sediments into streams, wetlands and reservoirs. In the longer term, it destroys mature forest and replaces it with regrowth, reducing catchment yield. If indeed it turns out that our climate is drying, Australia needs to protect its forested catchments from damage by wildfire, not deliberately expose them, and protection cannot be achieved by locking them away and hoping a big unstoppable fire will never come.

4. It is revealing that the Society recommends that fuel reduction burning should be done around towns and urban areas. This suggests that they understand its value in minimising fire risk, rather than making the burned areas “more fire prone”, as claimed elsewhere in their article. But it is surely illogical to suggest that prescribed burning is acceptable as a means of reducing fire risk in forests around towns but not in the wider forests.

5. I agree that insufficient priority is given to wildlife conservation in national parks and remote areas – but not for the same reasons as the Wilderness Society. The current management of many forested national parks in Australia has led to a situation in which fuels have accumulated in areas from which fire has been excluded for many years, often decades. This has been accompanied by the closure of roads and fire trails, and downgrading of trained firefighters in favour of water bombers. The result is that sooner or later an uncontrollable landscape-level fire occurs. These decimate the wildlife, bake and erode soils and kill stone-dead the old growth forests over thousands of hectares. The alternative is more frequent planned burning under mild conditions. This leads to a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas, leaves the overstorey and the soil intact, and ensures a diversity of habitat for wildlife and opportunities for rapid regeneration and recolonisation. In a holistic fire management system this approach is supported by an adequate system of roads and fire trails, maintained so as to allow safe access by firefighters, plus the maintenance of a corps of well-trained professionally-led firefighters in and around the forest.

6. I have never seen any evidence that old growth forest is less likely to burn than the regrowth forests arising in the wake of logging or wildfire. Fire risk is determined by climatic and weather conditions, fuel type, fuel weight and dryness, aspect and topography. These factors are independent of the age of the trees overhead. The Society’s statement that ‘mega-fires” can be prevented by stopping woodchipping suggests a forest policy based on a political agenda rather than knowledge of fire physics or bushfire experience.

Finally, I note the old chestnut that ‘global warming will cause inevitable megafires’. This is now being said so often by so many pundits that it has achieved the status of biblical truth. What it ignores, however, is the presence in the system of intelligent and determined humans. If the computer models are correct and the weather becomes hotter and drier, it does not inevitably mean that we have to throw up our hands in despair and retreat into a bunker waiting for the next inferno to come roaring over the horizon. Pre-emptive action to minimise fire intensity and fire damage is possible, and we already know how to do it! Indeed in southern Australia, the computer-generated predictions suggest greater opportunities for fuel reduction burning under mild condition, as winters will be drier and springs and autumns warmer. Less fuel will lead to less intense fires, less fire damage and easier and safer fire suppression, to say nothing of healthier, greener forests.

There are many deficiencies in current Australian bushfire policies and practices, as illustrated by the increasing number of large fires experienced in all States in recent years. The answer does not lie in the throwing up of hands as suggested by the climate doomsdayers, or in the sort of measures put forward by the Wilderness Society; indeed these approaches will only make things worse.  It lies in strong leadership, from land managers who are prepared to put bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation in front of the razzle-dazzle of aerial suppression technology. It requires governments to put more resources into research and into monitoring actual bushfire outcomes, including the environmental impacts of large high intensity bushfires, and continuous feedback to management systems from real-world experience out in the forest.

Roger Underwood lives in Perth, Australia. He is a former firefighter, and a district and regional manager with the Forests Department in Western Australia and is currently chairman of the Bushfire Front Inc, an organisation dedicated to best practice in bushfire management in Australia.

The photograph from David Ward, shows a scotching at Scott River, Western Australia and was taken on January 30, 2007.


17 Responses to The Wilderness Society and Bushfire Management

  1. Geoff Brown November 15, 2008 at 7:47 pm #

    I find it interesting that our local Bush Fire Brigade did a control burn around our property about 6 years ago. I really appreciate our local guys that did the control burn but they were controlled way away from here. After they had done the control burn, there were many woody weeds that had been killed by the control burn (lantana etc) but still remained a definite fire hazard as the bulk of the dead plant remained after the burn.

    I am thankful that the next 30 years will be global cooling because it will greatly reduce the fire risk.

    Google map of my heavily wooden acreage can be found here

  2. Janama November 16, 2008 at 5:41 am #

    Roger – I’ve passed your comments onto my neighbour who is the fire chief around my area in the Clarence Valley. I hope he replies to your article. He’s a passionate tree person.

    There is a No7 that wasn’t mentioned. Arson!

  3. cinders November 16, 2008 at 2:56 pm #

    Roger, thank you for another excellent article displaying a wealth of knowledge on Australian forest fire. It is a pity that the Wilderness society has again gone it areas that are outside its core business.

    The society receives over $10 million in donations annually to promote and protect wilderness, yet despite the tax deductible charity status of these donations for the environment, they have been used to fund a 3 year campaign against a factory, known as a pulp mill, that will have no impact on wilderness and now it seems a fire management campaign.

    Despite management of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area crying out for more resources, the Wilderness society is not spending any money on its actual management. Instead they chose to send a three person lobby group to the last World Heritage Commission meeting to lobby against the forest sector including claims that both fire from forestry and the pulp mill would ‘destroy’ conservation values.

    These claims were very different from the truth discovered by the WHC reactive monitoring team “As regards the construction of roads, regeneration fires and logging operations, these are all regulated under the Forest Practices Code (FPC) of 2000 …The mission also discussed issues relating to the construction of a paper mill at Bell Bay in north Tasmania,… It was clarified by the authorities concerned that the established level of annual harvesting of timber in Tasmania would not be raised, that no old growth forest will be logged for this purpose and that the mill would operate on the currently exported raw materials.”

    In fact they found “The threats to these forests from production forestry activities are well managed and there no need for the boundary of the property to be changed to deal with such threats.” See

    Details of the fire management in the TWWHA can be found at

    Whilst some members of the Wilderness Society are also members of rural fire services it is a pity many of their front line protestors don’t volunteer to protect the environment by becoming fire fighters rather than trying to get rid of forest contractors and machines (that can be used in a fire emergency) from the bush.

  4. Bronson November 16, 2008 at 7:10 pm #

    Roger I thought the Wilderness Society’s action plan pretty much mirrors much of the fire management practices on the east coast for the last 20 years. The same management practices that bought us the 02/03 and 06/07 mega fires in Vic. The thin red line approach (planned burning around village edges) was promoted in NSW and the ACT for years its end result was the disasterous Canberra fires.
    These policies haven’t worked before, they don’t work now and they wont work in the future with or with out climate change.

  5. John Cribbes November 16, 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    The Institute of Foresters of Australia this year awarded Roger Underwood their highest honour, the NW Jolly Medal, awarded for outstanding services to the profession of Forestry in Australia.
    The commendations states that Roger continues to provide leadership in forestry in Australia , setting a shining example of articulate commitment integrity and professional achievment.
    If only The Wilderness Society were to employ Roger to work on their policy we would see an improvement in our forests.
    TWS, the ACF the Victoria Naturally alliance could have a substantial part to play in restoring our forests to the magnificent conditions found in the 18th and 19th Centuries if only they would heed our forest scientists and researchers.
    See also The Bushfire Front in WA and Forest Fire (Vic) Inc for good research, well written Google Project Vesta for the CSIRO and obtain their research findings by snail mail.

  6. Norm Benson November 16, 2008 at 11:59 pm #

    The past is prologue. Better detection and faster control, a precept for US wildfires has been in effect for over a century. The result being more fuel build-up and conflagrations rather than smaller fires.

  7. John Cribbes November 17, 2008 at 10:05 am #

    Norm Benson, I’m not sure where you are coming from. Have you read Harold Biswell’s book PRESRIBED BURNING in California Wildlands Vegetation Management?
    Available through this book was written by the late Harold Biswell after a long life of research into the subject.
    Roger Underwood recommended that I obtain a copy, which I did and read it thoroughly to understand the great benefits to be obtained by getting rid of the forest floor fuels.
    Aerial detection is good but fires don’t go feral where there isn’t much fuel.

  8. David Ward November 17, 2008 at 2:13 pm #

    There is a belief in some quarters (including the Oxford English Dictionary), that ecology is a branch of biology, and that biologists are the only reliable source of information on the subject. History is dismissed as ‘anecdotal’. This dogma is an intellectual dead end.

    Our understanding of ecology, including fire ecology, needs to be informed by a trivium of knowledge, drawn from the three main streams of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Biology has much to contribute, but no more than social sciences such as economics and psychology, and humanities such as history and philosophy.

    I suspect that the Wilderness Society is in the mental cul-de-sac described above, relying on selected papers from the biological literature (some, probably unknown to them, statistically invalid), plus a fair dollop of fire fantasy. History is ignored. Let them dream on, but don’t let us act on their ideas, so causing lives to be lost, money wasted, vandals given greater opportunity, catchments polluted, old forests destroyed, and animals killed. That experiment has been done, with replication.

    Remember Cassandra urging the Trojans to burn the wooden horse, rather than take it into the city? Even though she was a minority voice, history shows she was undoubtedly right. Or is that just anecdote?

    P.S. For some decades, the long, broadscale exclusion of fire from kwongan heath, around Eneabba, north of Perth, has been urged by some botanists, using a ‘dynamic seed bank model’. The model ignores local history, which tells of former Aboriginal kangaroo shooters lighting many small fires in winter, so creating a fine mosaic. Before that, there were ‘large numbers’ of Aborigines in the area. The responsible government department believed the model, rather than local people, and acted accordingly. In December 2004 a monster fire ripped through the Beekeepers’ Reserve. The results can be seen by Googling (eneabba+fire). Not much ‘biodiversity’ seen in that ‘wilderness’ for a year or two.

  9. David Ward November 17, 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    Better try (bushfire+eneabba)

  10. Ian Mott November 17, 2008 at 3:00 pm #

    The people who believe the wilderness society guff will get the quality of forest they richly deserve. Lets face it, these people will only lose influence when they have been given sufficient time and natural resources to completely destroy their credibility. The only problem is they will have to completely destroy vast areas of forest in the process.

    It is a bit like North Korean “egalitarianism” really. Eventually not even the all pervasive propaganda will mask the abject squalor of their reality.

    Best just to sit quietly and watch, making it absolutely clear who is responsible for the outcomes. Lets not interfere with their date with destiny.

  11. David Ward November 18, 2008 at 10:50 am #

    There is much in what you say, Ian, but a few years ago a fire in 20 year old fuel a few kilometres from my house was dropping embers on my roof. So I am not in favour of giving the ‘wilderness’ nincompoops a free hand to create the conditions for major fires, and so cause the loss of my house, plus the death of thousands of native animals and old trees.

  12. Bill Burrows November 18, 2008 at 9:36 pm #

    It seems incredible to this oldtimer that there remain people and organisations out there who still fail to understand that Australia’s flora and fauna (at least those elements not confined to tropical or temperate rainforest) co-evolved with fire. And that for the past 40K years or so fire was the core activity of aboriginal management. Two quotes from ecolgists with considearble field experience in the NT and Queensland respectively come to mind: “aboriginals lit fires at any time it wasn’t raining” and “the aborigines managed the land by burning it in three ways – frequently, regularly and often”!

    Probably the best and informative read for anyone needing a good introduction to the subject of fire in the Australian context is Stephen J. Pyne’s (1991) Burning Bush – A Fire History of Australia. (Allen and Unwin: Sydney). It should be in the Wilderness Society’s library although that clearly does not mean that anyone there has read or comprehended it.

  13. David Ward November 19, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    I suspect that the Wilderness Society would be opposed to grazing in alpine areas. There is an old debate about the value of grazing in reducing bushfire severity. I believe there is a bumper sticker saying ‘Grazing stops Blazing’. A paper has been published in the journal Austral Ecology which questions this. The authors (Williams et al. 2006) claim no difference between bushfire occurrence and severity on grazed and ungrazed land in the Bogong High Plains of Victoria. Has anybody any comments on this matter? Might history be of interest?

    Williams, R.J., Wahren, C-H., Bradstock, R.A. and Muller, W.J. (2006) Does alpine grazing reduce blazing? A landscape test of a widely-held hypothesis. Austral Ecology 31(8):925-936.

  14. kuhnkat November 19, 2008 at 2:59 pm #

    A new report on soil charcoal from burns:

  15. David Ward November 20, 2008 at 11:08 am #

    Thanks Kuhnkat,
    Vairrrry interrresting! I think soil charcoal is one of the jokers in the pack. There are a few others. Climate modelers and mountebanks beware.

  16. fire damage November 29, 2008 at 3:39 am #

    yes they reserve lot of things with this stuff.

  17. Fire damage company December 28, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    Urban Southern California – known for its traffic logjams and ever-growing suburbia – will soon benefit from an agreement to protect one million acres of wild lands in four local national forests.

    These added protections are the windfall from a successful lawsuit that challenged the management plans of four Southern California national forests.The Dec. 15 court settlement is a win for drinking water, wildlife habitat, fresh air and outdoor recreation – benefits that will be enjoyed by many generations of families.

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