CHEAP, simple to use and extremely effective fire management tools that are owned and operated by almost every householder who is exposed to the risk of wildfire are the humble axe and the chainsaw. But the various native vegetation “protection” laws around Australia have effectively outlawed their use, even in the most extreme emergencies.
Indeed I have lost count of the number of published images of the Victorian fires that provide clear and damning evidence of our legislator’s role in the manslaughter of so many innocent Australians. Almost every image of a burned out home also exhibits the unmistakable signature of ill-informed social engineers who have abused their legislative powers to compel, what is now clearly proven to be, one of the most destructive social changes ever forced upon a minority community.
The facts clearly establish the case that the Victorian and other state governments around the country have made a direct contribution to the character, scale and intensity of the wildfires, and the death and destruction they have caused. They made critical choices as to the form and content of seemingly unrelated legislation which has banned the use of some of our most readily available and effective fire risk management tools.
And they have not just implemented that legislation in a manner that has prevented efforts to improve fire management and lower the associated risks. These people have established a policy architecture that has actively discouraged, on pain of penalty, rural people from preventing the state sponsored deterioration of fire management conditions and all the increase in risks associated with it.
In the days when large fires were fought and defeated by men and women without machinery, pumps, water bombers or GPS, the axe was an essential tool for reducing the height of the fire face at key defensive positions. My own father, the late T.R. Mott, spent most of the 50 years of volunteer firefighting, that earned him an Australia Medal, carrying the day with axe and hoe.
The proper exercise of legislative power has always demanded the full consideration of all relevant matters, especially matters of entirely foreseeable risk or detriment. But our vegetation management laws all ignore the fact that any tree, let alone a number of them, within 100 metres of a house, in extreme fire weather, is a very dangerous thing. Any tree is most dangerous when all its leaves and branches remain on top of the trunk where they raise the height of the fire front, greatly extend its zone of radiation and assist in projecting embers far and wide.
Yet, almost every image of a burned out house has a backdrop of young trees, also charred, right next to the smouldering heap. Most of the trees are a long way short of “pristine old growth”, as the greens would have us believe. They are rarely more than 20cm in trunk diameter with most of them only 6 to 10cm thick, less than 10 metres high, and easily dispatched with an axe, let alone a chainsaw. They are usually close together which means they have been in fierce competition for soil moisture and with much drier leaves than would be the case with more widely spaced stems. This renders these trees even more dangerously combustible than normal.
The simple, dare I say it, inconvenient truth is that any tree poses the least risk of all when it is not there at all. But unbeknown to the greens and the legislators, there are numerous options between these two extremes, of no trees and too many trees, that the metrocentric policy processes have completely ignored.
Any tree will present a smaller portion of its maximum fire risk when it is not in fierce competition for soil moisture with closely spaced neighbours. A broader root area means a larger volume of available moisture, and this means that moisture is available for a longer portion of the interval between rainfall events. And that means that the leaves retain their moisture for a longer portion of that interval, thereby making the tree less combustible for a greater part of the year. It also reduces the amount of leaf fall in dry times. And in most of the photos of burned out houses, the amenity of the site would not have been reduced in any way if half of those trees had been removed long ago. But in fact, all of them should have been removed, some of them long ago and others just before the fire came.
It is trite but true that any tree presents only a fraction of its maximum fire risk when it is on the ground, or when all or part of the trunk remains standing but all the branches and leaves are on the ground. The height of the fire face is substantially reduced, the exposed surface area is reduced, the zone of radiation is seriously diminished and the height and distance of ember projection is reduced. More importantly, the fuel in the branches and leaves can then be moved to a safer place, preferably down wind, or concentrated in one place where the resulting fire can be contained. Indeed, if action is taken early enough then this fuel can be eliminated with a bonfire, buried, or completely removed from the site long before the fire season.
Yet, as far as the vegetation management legislation is concerned, the moment any single native tree, even a sapling that has only grown this past year, is cut, topped, lopped or otherwise damaged, it is classified as “broadscale clearing” which, apart from a few exceptions, can only take place with the consent of the relevant authority. Eskimos have numerous words for snow but here in Australia our legislation has only one word for tree management, “clearing”. And this consent to clear, of course, has absolute “Buckley’s Chance” of being obtained in the short interval between a wind change and an ember storm. And even if a determination was given in time, in most cases the proposed action would be rejected.
Governments have gone out of their way to completely eliminate this highly contributive fire management option from the community’s collective wit. So even when it is absolutely certain that every tree in the path of a megafire has less than half an hour of life remaining, the legislation persists in defining any person who cuts down or lops just one of those trees as a criminal.
Even when the trees have grown in a paddock or roadside verge long after a house was built in good faith, in a safe, open paddock, the legislation has actively prevented the homeowner from removing that regrowth to maintain the conditions of fire safety that were present when the house was built. And we then get assorted “experts” who assume that all trees were always there and that it is the home owner who has been at fault for building in a silly place.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that even diseased trees will resprout with vigorous coppice growth after they have been either burned to the ground or cut down, the legislation persists with this incredibly ignorant urban green delusion that the whole tree, roots and all, has been destroyed, never to regenerate or be replaced. But this is clearly not the case. In fact most lignotuberous eucalypt species have specifically evolved to do this naturally.
The vegetation policy milieu also has an overwhelming fetish, if not monomania, for connecting gaps in forested vegetation in some ignorant belief that it somehow enhances habitat value. Despite uncontested historical evidence that most of our forests were widely spaced grassy woodlands for 50 millennia prior to European settlement, the legislation has imposed the closed canopy as the key attribute that must be “preserved” and encouraged under all forest management regimes.
Despite clear evidence that the majority of forest dwelling species are dependent on the grassland-tree interface, the legislation imposes arboreal dominance. Birds dependent on grass seeds or grass eating insects for survival are allowed to starve as closer and closer canopy cover provides a dubious visual reward to our remote “eyes in the sky” while understorey diversity crashes.
Despite clear evidence that species like Koalas will cross pastured gaps more than a kilometre wide, and forest dwelling birds that have no problem with a 10 or 20km gap, a home owner who maintains a 50 metre gap between forested clusters for fire management purposes is regarded with a certain suspicion as to his ecological bona fides. And anyone who would like to create such a gap, that would present absolutely zero barrier to the movement of dependent species, is closely monitored after his application is rejected and prosecuted if he does so without seeking a consent that would never be provided anyway.
It is about this point in the narrative that all those who are most culpable will seek to divert attention from what they dismiss as “the blame game”. The most culpable will maximise the coverage of themselves as sympathisers and mourners to produce maximum perceptual distance between themselves and their guilt. Others will whip up some serious public fury at arsonists. But make no mistake, the responsible legislators and their green masters had a choice as to what sort of regulatory approach they would take. And they must accept full responsibility for the entirely foreseeable consequences of the poor choices they have made.
Put briefly, any vegetation management legislation option was required to interface with the planning legislation. The primary architecture of this legislation is based on the concept of “development” and the powers only extend to controlling of development. There is no power to compel changes to, or require consent for, existing lawful uses. This term “development” means new uses of land or premises or “material changes” to existing uses.
As far as the cutting of trees is concerned, this could constitute a new use of land, as with clearing of untouched forest for cultivating crops. Or it could constitute a normal and necessary part of an existing lawful use, such as the removal of a few trees to supply replacement fence posts from a woodlot that had been set aside for that very purpose. In the latter case the tree cutting could not be classed as development because the action did not amount to a “material change” in the nature of the use.
If the farm was sold to a housing developer, and the entire woodlot was removed to make more room for houses, then this would amount to both a new use of the land and a material change in the use of the woodlot. The planning legislation already picked up and required consent for this change and with it came the power to impose conditions on the new use, such as retaining the woodlot, or a reasonable portion of it if it covered a large part of the property.
But if the farmer had cut down and sold all the trees in the woodlot but had earlier completely renounced any option of selling some or all of the wood, even in a financial emergency, or major contingency like medical expenses or Uni fees etc, then this might constitute a material change in use. But in most cases landowners wisely do not limit their options in this way.
In fact, such were the climatic and economic vagaries of past times that just about every piece of forested land on private property was set aside for just such a circumstance. Woodlots were never left purely for habitat purposes as numerous departmental spivs would encourage people to do today. Yes, the farmers enjoyed the improved amenity and habitat value of their forested portions but, in the absence of a welfare system, the woodlot was also the reserve of last resort, to be exercised when re-stocking after drought or just before the bailiffs came a-calling.
And when the mostly urban based legislators tried, briefly, to get their distracted brains around the problem of defining material change to such a broad range of lawful uses they simply gave up. Just and equitable legislation that was consistent with established principles of the overriding planning framework was all too hard. They took the cop-out instead, the easy way out, and opted for a blunt instrument wielded by the myopic, or the downright malicious. They declared that the cutting or even pruning of any single tree to be “development” and deluded themselves that by providing certain stated exemptions they would avoid most of the adverse consequences for most of the time.
The problem is that bushfires don’t occur “most of the time” but preparation for them is best done during that “most of the time”. And trees produce seeds during that “most of the time” and the wind blows those seeds onto adjoining land most of the time. And birds eat seeds most of the time and deposit those seeds all over the place most of the time so that young trees grow where they are not intended, most of the time. The complete failure to recognise this fact meant that the legislation was slowly imposing a material change of use, by way of additional tree cover, on just about every piece of land that was not ploughed or mown on a regular basis.
And as with all regulatory regimes based on compulsion rather than incentives, the framework has acquired a completely debilitating, counterproductive, and clearly destructive focus on the detection of breaches and the prevention of loopholes. So even when the use of the humble chainsaw will make no material change and actually improve the survival prospects of both the tree itself and its owner, the legislation continues to criminalise reasonable men and women seeking nothing more sinister than their own survival and the protection of their core assets in a circumstance of extreme emergency. And they have done such a thorough job of it that none of the people that were victim to the fire appeared to have given the slightest consideration to the tree lopping or dropping option.
At a time when more than 500,000 hectares has been burned to ash, with almost every one of the resident wildlife incinerated with it, the regulators are apparently concerned that someone, somewhere, might take advantage of a bushfire management loophole to get rid of a tree that he just doesn’t like. And to top it all off, Premier Brumby still has the gall to make reference to those “pristine” native forests.
If Brumby is serious about putting all the cards on the table in the review of this disaster then he and his advisors need to get right back to core principles based on real and relevant material change in vegetation management and apply proportionate responses, justly and equitably. And by their deeds (and their omissions) shall we know them.
Images of the Victorian Fires: