Aborigines managed much of the Australian landscape with fire. This management strategy favoured fire tolerant and fire resistant species – perhaps why gum trees dominate so much of the Australian landscape. But river red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis ssp., unlike most gum trees, are not particularly fire tolerant.
A boat on the Murray River in the Barmah Forest. Photograph taken last Tuesday.*
The timber cutters and cattlemen who live and work along the middle Murray (river) have gone to great lengths to keep fuel-loads in red gum forests low through controlled grazing and the collection of firewood. This, combined with a network of rural fire fighting brigades, has made it possible to stomp out fires started from lightening strikes or camp fires.
This may explain why some foresters and aboriginal elders call river red gums ‘white fellas’ weed’ and why areas which were once open woodland are now covered in dense red gum forests including at Barmah.
This area in Barmah Forest was once known as Duck Hole Plains
But the situation is changing. The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) wants more wood and grass on the forest floor apparently to increase biodiversity. This means higher fuel loads and according to some white fellas** the forests will ultimately be severely degraded by uncontrolled and uncontrollable feral fires.
A wildfire in the Barmah Forest, in an area known as Top Island, burnt out 800 hectares last October.
Burnt forest at Top Island in October 2006, photograph taken Tuesday November 6, 2007.
Old habitat trees are apparently the first to go when a hot wildfire burns through red gum forest. Last week the Barmah woodcutters showed me how the old trees ‘burnt like chimneys’ from the inside – out.
Parts of ‘Top Island’ look like they are regenerating. But I’m told that the green coppice growth will eventually fall off – that these fire-damaged trees will never develop as habitat trees. Habitat trees have hollows for wildlife.
Coppice and a burnt-out old habitat tree.
Where the forest has been completely burnt, for example after the sand-spit fire of the late 1960s, and where there has been no management, the red gum regrowth can be very dense.
Regrowth from the 1968 Sand-spit fire, Photograph taken November 6, 2007.
* All the photographs in this blog post were taken in Barmah forest last Tuesday – on Melbourne cup day.
** I use the term ‘white fellas’ to refer to the guardians of traditional European knowledge in the Barmah forest.