Learning Dust Lesson to Fight Wildfires

untitledIT is generally agreed that the worst dust storms since European settlement were during the 1944-1945 period.  

In his book Out of the West: A Historical Perspective of the Western Division of NSW, former Western Lands Commissioner, Dick Condon, says there were 34 severe dust storms at Wagga Wagga during the period 1944-45, many so bad that it would have been necessary to turn the lights on in order to see inside the average sized house.  

Mr Condon suggests the dust storms during the 1982-83 drought were not as bad as those during the period 1885 to 1945 because of the much improved conditions of the landscape in the semi-arid and arid grazing country in western New South Wales.

In contrast, it is generally agreed that bushfires are getting worse.  

In Inferno, The Day Victoria Burned, journalist, Roger Franklin, explains that the bushfires of February 2009, while not without precedent, were worst than earlier fires.   For example, Black Friday, 1939, according to Mr Franklin, consumed twice as much countryside, but less than half as many lives.   He goes on to suggest that for all the theorizing and inquiring, we are losing ground when it comes to managing fire and that unless the “winds change in the corridors of power” next time will be worse.  Much worse. 

It seems that we are getting better at managing drought and worst at managing fire. 

Landholders certainly learnt the lessons of over-clearing and overgrazing, which left a lot of country bare in the early days of settlement, contributing to intense dust storms. 

A lot has changed since 1945: adoption of minimum tillage, wind breaks and, of course, the success of government-sponsored programs to control rabbits.  
But when it comes to implementing management practices to reduce the impact of wildfires, well, the efforts of landholders are generally not supported by government policy.  

Indeed, while Landcare and other government-sponsored environmental initiatives encourage planting of windbreaks, they prohibit bulldozing of firebreaks. 
It seems governments have a myopia of sorts when it comes to land management; an inability to see the bigger picture.  

While trees are an important part of many landscapes, there are times and places when many should be sacrificed for the protection of lives and property from fire.    

Indeed, if we are to reduce the intensity of wildfires there are lessons to be learnt by government from success in reducing the intensity of dust storms and it is simple: empower landholders.  

In particular, give farmers and foresters incentives to improve land management, including not only the right to plant trees, but also to cut them down.


‘Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned’ was available from bookstores nationally on October 1, and is $39.95 hardback.

This note was first published as a column in The Land newspaper on Thursday October 1.

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33 Responses to Learning Dust Lesson to Fight Wildfires

  1. Henry chance October 3, 2009 at 4:04 am #

    In the American prairie, if we have a wet summer season, the winter kills the taller grass and brush and provides more fuel for fire the next spring. We saw record rain in 2008 and also some deaths that couldn’t escape grass fires. Fires don’t cooperate with computer models.

  2. Stewie October 3, 2009 at 7:22 am #

    I think we need to go back to the raw data and in so doing we see that much of this so called ecological management is biological pseudoscience or worse, biological fraud.

    I believe flora and fauna species information, in many instances, has been incorrectly used as a political tool to distort land managenment decisions to favour political outcomes over and above environmental outcomes. One of the results has been to sidestep the issue of fuel load accumalation and the resulting high intensity, environmentally unsustainable, killer wildfires we now experience.

    If these high intensity fires were acknowledged correctly by certain people, then this would have put wildfire as the supreme ecological threat by far. The consequences of this politically are astounding.

    Clearly in the 1980-90’s, people with sound ‘local knowledge’ were deliberately being ignored by politically promoted ‘experts’. They now have blood on their hands, not only of humans but of the very species in the forests they purported to ‘protect for future generations’.

    Distorted environmental information on individual species, through ommission, exaggeration or misrepresentation of facts leads to a particular course of managemnent regimes. Often this ends up with an ability to total land control across all land tenure types, depending on which species or element of an ecosystem you focus on and distort.

    And it is all about land control at any cost.

    Good luck getting raw data though. They shield it from the public, just like they seem to be doing with this AGW theory. Suss or what?

  3. janama October 3, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    I’m not sure anyone noticed but on the same day that the NASA Modis site posted photos from satellites of the Australian dust storm it also showed similar pictures of the Patagonian dust storm into the south Atlantic and the west African dust storm into the north Atlantic.

  4. Ian Mott October 3, 2009 at 9:42 am #

    Warning! Warning! Farmer demonisation alert!

    Condon refers to dust storms in Wagga Wagga and blames them on land use practices further west in NSW. But one must ask, did the same dust storms appear in Broken Hill, just 40km from the SA border? The most recent storms were also blamed on conditions in western NSW when the evidence clearly points to a dust source much further west and over a much wider area.

    My sister has lived in Mildura for two decades, only 120km from the SA border, and has also experienced dust so bad that the lights were needed in the middle of the day. In each case the dust has rolled in from the west or norwest, not the north, and certainly not the noreast, as would have to be the case if the dust came from NSW agriculture.

    Could this be another example of that old technique of investing legitimacy to a contemporary lie by applying similar spin to historical events which are much harder to verify?

  5. jennifer October 3, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Thanks Motty, for the note of caution.

  6. Ian Thomson October 3, 2009 at 10:40 am #

    The day before that last dust storm, as I was about go to the left of the Lachlan River next day on dirt roads, I was checking on the progress ( BOM radar) of the severe storms coming through SA . As I often do ,I checked the Woomera radar to see what might be incoming from that direction.
    All day one could clearly see dust rising around Woomera on the radar.
    I wonder what sort of crops those Woomera cockies grow .
    Must be that yuppy vege called rocket.

  7. Ian Thomson October 3, 2009 at 11:04 am #

    Tim Flannery himself described gum trees as colonisers. They colonise by fire and by dehydrating the lanscape.
    Has anyone else noticed that of late NSW fires seem to batter little explored places ,such as Wollamai NP and the Grose Valley ?
    What I am getting at is that if current management practices in such areas were past ones ,the Wollamai Pine would have been incinerated before anyone knew of its existence.

    The man who dicovered the tree questioned what else may exist 150kms from Sydney that we do not know of.
    I ask what may be being destroyed in these fires that we do not know of?

    – for overseas blog readers, the Wllomai Pine is a primitive, dinosaur age tree ,discovered accidentally by an abseiling park worker, on a day off.

  8. Green Davey October 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    I think Prof Tim Flannery may have got his ideas on eucalypts from Prof Steve Pyne, of Arizona State University. Steve’s books are essential reading for anyone interested in bushfire, in America, or Australia, or even Europe. Eucalypts are beautiful fire weeds. They create the litter for self-promoting fires. Anyone who does not know that is not an ecologist’s bootlace.

    And Stewie is quite right. I know of a case where some academics decided, on the basis of a ‘model’, that a certain area of WA should not be burnt more often than every 12-15 years, to ‘protect biodiversity’. Local families, some there since the 1850s and 1880s, said it was burnt every 3-5 years, mainly by roo-shooters, up to the 1950s. Another academic told me this was ‘mythology’ and ‘lay opinion’. In 2004 the whole area burnt in a single, uncontrollable fire. Photographs can be seen at http:/eneabba.net/Eneabba/Eneabba-fire3.htm.

    I think local families might regard that academic as a ‘mythologist’ and ‘lay person’, but of course he has published copiously in refereed journals, so he must be an expert. His opinions on fire management were once sought, and presumably implemented, by the Victorian government. That was before the Victorian fires of 2009.

  9. Green Davey October 3, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    Sorry, try http://eneabba.net/Eneabba/Eneabba-fire3.htm

  10. ian George October 3, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    The Vic bush fires in Feb, 1851 still rate as the worst on record. The fires burnt out almost 25% (5 million hectares) of Victoria and , although only killing 12 people, that was a higher percentage of the population than 2009. The temp recorded in Melbourne was 47.2C (higher than 2009) and the winds drove embers some 30kms out to sea. Northern Tasmania reported smoke so thick it blackened the sky.

  11. spangled drongo October 3, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Where I live we have strong dry winds today from the west. It is hot and the RH is very low. For the six months up to June we had above average monthly rainfall and everyone knew that come spring there was going to be a dangerous fuel load.
    For the last three months there has been almost no rain plus a reverse monsoon that set in early to dry things out very severely.
    While this was happening there have been many opportunities to cool-burn but nothing was done and today we have many very vulnerable homes on a day of extreme fire danger.
    There is nothing unusual about the weather patterns, only the reaction of the authorities to them.
    Considering that there are now more of these vulnerable homes than there ever has been, courtesy of those same authorities, it is not hard to see where the responsibility lies.

  12. Bill Pounder October 3, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    Does anyone know for sure where this dust storm really started. I heard someone from the Wentworth Group being interviewed on ABC Radio, as the first storm was happening, and he said it started in the Nullabor and The Great Victoria Desert. I never heard any mention of this again.
    As the situation unfolded, the Lake Eyre Basin and maybe The Simpson Desert was nominated as the source.
    Here’s Moomba under a cloud


    And of course Broken Hill, just over the SA border


    Australian Museum Mineralogist Ross Pogson couldn’t find the rightful owner as he said it came “….from the general central Australia region.”


    Which is not exactly very specific, but one could conclude it had nothing to do with broadacre farming or pastoral activity.

  13. Ian Mott October 3, 2009 at 6:12 pm #

    The dust all came from aboriginal land, one of the lowest intensity agricultural areas on the planet. That is not to assign any blame to blackfellas but, rather, to make clear that this scale and intensity of dust event has been going on for 40,000 years. And even if we do not accept that modern man is part of the natural landscape, we must accept that all our current species mix have evolved to meet the circumstances created by man over the past 40 millenia. It is about as close to a natural event as we can ever get.

  14. janama October 3, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    spangled drongo – I live 100kms south west of you on the other side of the border with similar weather. My neighbour is the head firey for my area. He has been out and about a lot recently – he reckons he’s been told to do what’s necessary. A distinct change in policy.

  15. chloe October 3, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    Green Davey: I bought Inferno last night in Carlton, and have just finished a (long) chapter on Aboriginal burning and the debate about whether it happened or not. The author hangs a lot of the chapter on the Pintupi burning regime, so you might enjoy it. He doesn’t have much time for those who say Aborigines didn’t change the countryside.

  16. Ian Beale October 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm #

    This might be relative, though Louis might correct if needed!

    From “The Australians” Rigby 1966 p 29

    “- – – the Macdonnells were mountains of pure rock, lacking life, bare even of the most primitive lichens, but soaring to sumits of 10,000 to 15,000 feet.

    – – – But during the next 500 million years this unrelenting erosion rubbed 12,000 feet of the proud peaks away – – -“

  17. Louis Hissink October 3, 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    Ian Beale

    Now that is an interesting quote – (I initially thought Rigby was the author and wondered why he, as a cartoonist, felt compelled to write a book, only to then realise it was the name of the book publisher).

    Underling the evocative description of geological processes recounted in your referred text, is the belief that the Earth, over time, was essentially a constant factor dynamically – that is, an inert sphere suspended in the vacuum of space and orbiting its sun ad infinitum. This was Lyell’s assumption which he then embellished with reasonable explanations for observations.

    So to the MacDonnells were mountains of pure rock? Well, I won’t bother with that but the following quote, that 500 million years of erosion removed 12,000 feet is another matter.

    Firstly its not based on fact but the Lyellian mode of reasonable plausibility in an imaginative setting, these days known as computer modelling based on incomplete knowledge.

    Now removing 12,000 feet of rock has to produce some sort of deposit, and all sorts of technical novelties could be offered to show where that removed material might be, but to then infer that this 500 million year product of erosion might have a bearing on the reported 2009 dust storms needs more support in terms of evidence.

    I would also study the reports of dust storms on Mars, and figure out how those occur on its surface with its atmosphere many times less dense than Earth’s.

  18. Ian Beale October 3, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

    Louis –

    my point being that there might have been a bit of dust around from points west of the east coast for quite a time

  19. Louis Hissink October 3, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    Ian Beale

    Yes, there had to be, and if you then extrapolate the process into the future, then we have the interesting problem of dust being uplifted from the west, carried eastwards over the east causing all sorts of imagined, and real, problems, to then be dumped where? Off the eastern seaboard?

    How long has this process been operating? If for a long time, should not the western regions be, now, devoid of fine particulate matter on the surface, now deposited east of Sydney? That means that dust is being continually formed in the western regions at a rate commensurate with its removal by the dust storms.

    There is a slight mass balance issue here that I personally don’t understand.

    And the climate changers think the science is settled.

    Stupid is as stupid does, I suppose.

  20. Louis Hissink October 3, 2009 at 11:08 pm #

    Ian Beale

    In addition we in Wa should then be experiencing not dust storms but rain storms ………….Ahem.

  21. Ian Mott October 4, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    It is not just fire that is now destroying habitat and reducing wildlife populations. On the “Brisneyland” bay side we have a Koala population that has supposedly shrunk by half in the past decade. The current green alarmist spokespimp is claiming the local population will be extinct in only two years. As usual, blame is heaped on mankind, for deaths from roadkill, dogs etc.

    But if the Koalas were fully aware of what the green gonzos are doing to them, in the name of protecting them, they would be roaming the district in angry packs and tearing every suspected eco-nutter to shreds.

    The science has been very clear for three decades that Koalas prefer open woodland to closed canopy forest. But local and state level vegetation management policy has gone out of its way to discourage any activity that would enable private forest owners to continually thin out their growing stands and maintain the more open canopy state that maximises tree growth and the supply of fresh green leaves that koalas depend on.

    This has turned most of the private forest estate into the same degraded state as the government owned reserves etc where closed canopy and excess understorey clutter is an incontestable dogma. And the excess competition between trees in these degraded forests is rendering them indigestible for the resident koalas. They are forced into a state of hunger, weakness and illhealth earlier in each season.

    So they are compelled by incompetent forest stewardship to move in search of food. And there is still, some food left, because they can smell it from miles away. It is found on small acreage blocks where the understorey is kept mown and a wider tree spacing can be maintained. This reduction in competing vegetation, along with surplus run-off from driveways etc, ensures that the trees have longer access to soil moisture reserves between rainfall events.

    This maintains leaf moisture content above the critical 65% level and nitrogen content above the 1.5% that koalas need to get any benefit from this food source. So in a dazed, sick and desperate condition the koalas leave the larger forested areas that have been set aside for them and take their chances with the roads and Dobermans. And they are clearly suffering because of it.

    But rather than take a good close look at the consequences of their own negligent forest stewardship, the greens merely focus blame on the symptoms, the dogs and the cars. Rather than fix the problems in their own forests they demand the outlawing of the dogs that play an essential role in maintaining security on the acreage blocks where koala food is maintained.

    And as long as the general public continues to give the greens free, unscrutinised, rein on environmental issues then the community will end up with the koala population they deserve.

  22. spangled drongo October 4, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    “– he reckons he’s been told to do what’s necessary. A distinct change in policy.”

    So true. When the fertilizer hits the fan the bureaucrats drop their bundle and hand over to the only people that can do anything except that by this time it’s too late to do what should have been done weeks earlier.
    And when you have to “do what’s necessary”, that puts a lot more people at risk.
    I’ve just been going back through my diary to check on recent conversations with some of these “planners”.

    Interesting what you say about koalas. I’ve got ’em here today and I record all my sightings and what sort of trees they are in and I find, too, that they are usually to be found in half grown, vigorous, healthy trees in open forest.

  23. Marcus October 4, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    “I find, too, that they are usually to be found in half grown, vigorous, healthy trees in open forest.”

    Funny you should mention this.

    We lived on the farm in Trentham East Vic. for over twenty years, our property was surrounded by state forest on 3 sides, dense as can be. We had quite a few acres with scattered gum trees ourselves and I noticed the unusual numbers of koalas, unusual in a sense that I hardly seen as many in the forest itself, and we walked the bush very often.

    At the time i did not think of a reason, but with hindsight, there is a lot to what Ian said.

  24. kuhnkat October 4, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Ian Mott,

    thank you for a very enlightening post.

    It would seem that ecotypes and gubmint share a common theme representative of this old saying:

    Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!! ;>)

  25. Green Davey October 4, 2009 at 8:01 pm #


    Is that a rephrasing of the Precautionary Principle? I have not seen it quoted much since a French lawyer pointed out that, applied to itself, it can rapidly disappear up its own fundament.

  26. kuhnkat October 5, 2009 at 5:44 am #

    Green Davey,

    the Precautionery Principle says you should rush in. My saying labels those who follow the Precautionery Principle, especially when taken to extremes, fools in my estimation.

  27. Ian Mott October 5, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    The precautionary principle only applies to irreparable harm, or harm that is so serious as to be almost irreparable. It has always been subordinate to the demands of “proper exercise of power” which includes taking all relevant matters into account, full and balanced risk assessment, and the requirement that measures be cost affective and not disproportionate to the scale of the problem.

    When applied properly and lawfully, the precautionary principle demands that the green movement be ousted from all aspects of ecological stewardship on the basis of detailed, proven and specific evidence of incompetence.

    The impact of their closed canopy fetish on soil moisture balances, microbial fertility, leaf moisture and nutrient levels, and the quality and dependability of wildlife food supplies was entirely foreseeable. Yet, they comprehensively failed in their duty of care to the wildlife they so publicly assumed exclusive responsibility for.

    I have a copy of Pahl, L (1990) “Koala and Bushland Survey of West and Central Logan City” which provides important insights into the ecological competence of the past two decades of Koala “protection” policy in the broader region. Both the Australian Koala Foundation and the Qld National Parks and Wildlife Service had input into the planning of the survey. And the most useful information it provides is a very clear picture of what these people didn’t understand and didn’t want know.

    The aim of the survey was to “identify the most important habitats and corridors of Koalas and to show the location of these on maps of Logan City”. It consisted of 954 sample plots with a total of 47,043 trees (larger than 10cm), comprised of 34 tree species grouped into 20 distinct tree communities. Each tree species was assigned a koala preference rating on the basis of 6,674 recorded faecal pellets. The preference ratings of each of the four major food trees were then multiplied by their respective densities in each of the twenty tree communities to enable their ranking in terms of koala habitat quality.

    The tree communities with the highest density of the four primary food tree species were regarded as the ones most likely to support a stable breeding colony of koalas.

    The problem with this analysis was that they did not bother to record the size of each tree to determine the approximate canopy (leaf) area of each tree. So a smaller tree with, say, 3 pellets could have the same statistical weighting as a very large tree with 3 pellets. And small trees of a species that koalas feed on were given the same ecological weight as a large tree of the same species.

    Yet, koalas rarely feed on trees with diameter less than 20cm for the very good reason that the leaves are all at the top and the small branches will not support their weight. A tree of 15 cm DBH will generally only have a crown diameter 15 times the DBH, or 2.25 metres. So the branch that supports the leaves will only be 1 metre long and, at standard 1% taper, will only be 1 cm thick at the trunk and only 5mm out where the koala would need to be to reach the leaves. In reality he would find himself flat on his back on the ground with a twig of leaves in his hand.

    Conversely, known koala feed trees, like E maculata (spotted gum), E fibrosa and drepanaophylla (grey & red ironbark), E nigra (white stringybark), and E signata (scribbly gum) were not included in the compilation of koala habitat groups. The so-called “koala preference rating” was nothing more than a simplistic division of the total number of scats found under all trees of each species, without regard for the total number of trees of each species, or their size or leaf area.

    So they had no way of gaining any meaningful insight into the actual condition of these habitats, nor even, if they were actual habitats at all. Some of the groupings appear to have had as many as 3000 stems per hectare which would mean an average stem diameter of only 12cm. Others had only 200 stems/ha which would indicate an average stem diameter of 47cm. Most would have a mixture of a few large former paddock trees and a dense infilling of smaller trees. But our resident koala “experts” did not feel the need to know whether all the pellets assigned to a particular tree species came from a few isolated large trees while numerous small ones had no pellets at all.

    In short, they didn’t have the faintest idea of what they needed to know. And they didn’t have the faintest idea of what the koalas actually had and even less idea of what they actually needed.

  28. Green Davey October 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm #

    Yes indeed Motty,
    There is plenty of pseudo-statistical ‘ecology’ out there, some of it in ‘refereed journals’. There is a need to get back to natural history – observe and think carefully first, don’t rush to publish hastily gathered numbers just to enhance the academic career path. There is a growing need for meta-refereeing – that is to say checking whether the referees got it right. Bogus papers should count for minus 10 on the academic publication count. That will encourage greater use of the Precautionary Principle by those publishing, especially papers on dust-storms.

    Thanks for the tip on Aboriginal burning. I will read with interest about the Pintupis. Am I right in thinking that your name is Greek for ‘green’?

    I agree. Personally, I apply the Precautionary Principle most rigorously to applications of the Precautionary Principle. So rigorously, that I never apply it. Don’t blame me. Although descended from Dafydd ap Llywelyn, my forty-ninth (or thereabouts) great grandmother was Aoife McMurrough, from the Land of Saints and Scholars.

  29. Ian Mott October 6, 2009 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks, Kuhnkat & Davey.
    The extraordinary aspect of the Pahl research, which must have cost a bucket of money, is that the entire Koala wanking community was involved in it and they managed to treat the biggest variable as a constant. Trees from 10cm DBH to 100cm DBH were all lumped in as one value. This is more than a simple ten fold variance because the 10cm trees were completely off the koala menu, so these stems had a nominal value less than zero.

    If they had bothered to spend just a few minutes extra on each plot and recorded DBH for each tree they would have been able to determine the stand basal area and compare it with the natural capacity of the site. They would then have been able to distinguish between the fully stocked sites, which would stop supplying koala food early in a dry spell, and the partially stocked sites that would maintain food supply for longer.

    They would also have been able to identify fully stocked stands with excess small trees with minimal capacity for additional growth. These stands would be the first to go into moisture deficit and produce the least amount of koala food, even in good seasons. Instead, Pahl lumped these sites into the high quality habitat category, based on raw stem numbers, when other sites with better spaced secondary food species were ignored.

    They completely lacked the wit to realise that any size tree in a partially stocked stand will produce much more than double the koala food, and for longer, of the same tree in a fully stocked stand. So the ten fold variance they ignored with tree size alone, was closer to a thirty fold variance in actual food supply. And that is before we look at nuances in run-off and ground water flow systems that could easily take the range of variance out to forty fold.

    Instead, they focussed on the four species with the most pellets and only a 3 fold range of variation. And they did so without any consideration of the role of secondary species in getting these animals through a dry spell.

  30. Green Davey October 6, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    I am not familiar with the paper. Was it in Austral Ecology? I don”t read that one much – fall asleep I’m afraid.
    May I suggest that you act as a meta-referee, by sending a letter to the editor, pointing out the errors you see. This will help to clean up the literature.

  31. Allan Taylor December 11, 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    I have never heard/read what the effect of dust storms have on solar plants and wind farms.

    Both methods are very expensive ways of generating electicity of an intermittant nature.

    In a dust storm I can imagine solar panels being coated in dust which must be cleaned off to maintain efficiency, such as it may be. Extra Green jobs?

    Wind turbines would be susceptible to dust in their workings. The gear boxes wear out rapidly. Average life span is said to be about 10 years.

    What we need is a weather-proof way of generating electricity, by using coal, gas or nuclear power.

  32. shipoffools January 23, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    Yes cut all the trees down. They only create bushfires. Without trees we would have no forest fires.

    Allan Taylor: What, don’t coal/gas/nuclear power stations have parts which wear out and require maintenance? And coal/gas/nuclear power plants are pretty damned expensive in terms of their environmental effects. Silly argument like most of the garbage on this blog.

  33. Rohrreinigung August 19, 2010 at 12:39 am #

    I bought Inferno last night in Carlton, and have just finished a (long) chapter on Aboriginal burning and the debate about whether it happened or not. The author hangs a lot of the chapter on the Pintupi burning regime, so you might enjoy it. He doesn’t have much time for those who say Aborigines didn’t change the countryside

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