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.