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sydney alternative media - non-profit community independent trustworthy
Monday, 9 February 2009
Of bushfire horror, weather and woodchips
Mood:  sad
Topic: aust govt

The ACT fire January 2003 was a giant weather changing locomotive according to reportage of the time: ' Nothing could stop it'. And nothing could stop the political and legal fallout afterward either. Just like after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires when we were a kid in Warrnambool, or after the 1994 conflagrations in NSW as per the front page stories above.

PM Rudd is down at the affected communities north of Melbourne yesterday with social welfare payments and military mobilisations of heavy machinery. His party political colleague Premier John Brumby is struck silent by grief and shock in front of the microphone and camera.

Back in NSW in the summer of 1993 and January 1994 there was hell to pay for the 700 odd bushfires and handful of deaths. [The Victorian Govt have just announced a royal commission and the terms of reference will be forthcoming.] What followed was a parliamentary inquiry in parallel with a coronial inquiry. Similarly the ACT after 2003 was a legal and political sh*t fight.

We represented The Wilderness Society in 1994 after the previous state campaigner in Sydney Rod Knight was driven off the political arena by attacks of the logging industry across all big media platforms. Rod's main thesis was illegal ignition causing the trouble. But this was howled down 14 years ago. Rod has been vindicated.

In truth he had decided to move on before those shocking early 1994 fires but an innocent submission on closing unnecessary fire trails in New England wilderness far from towns and farms to maintain wilderness values was a pretext for statewide attack by redneck industry and Natioanal Party closely allied to private logging interests. This was hugely ironic as will be demonstrated with a much bigger role in causing wildfire for which they are in denial.

It was timely for a litigation lawyer like us to be handed the reins. We got a 'letter of the week' in The Land newspaper (which now seems to be lost in the dreaded filing system) which appeared in most every regional newspaper in the state exhorting co-operation not division while the fire threat was still underway. This is what people wanted to hear. We listed little towns from north to south where local greenies were pulling their weight as part and parcel of the local bushfire brigade. One bloke from North East Forest Alliance had the local firetruck parked in his driveway as he took the call.

That's what happens in reality in rural and regional areas - left, right, brown, green, people pull together in an emergency because they only have each other. And that's why The Land newspaper, no friend of The Wilderness Society, printed our letter as letter of the week.

We explained why wilderness was a scape goat for threats on the town bush interface and the official statistics proved this. That the real threat factors are:

1. extreme weather - to which we can add global warming drying out the country - including hot days, low humidity and windy conditions;

2. ignition problems with arsonists

3. planning issues of separation and preparation of property near forested country.

This communication strategy was successful. By the time the Inquiries came around where this writer was called to both our attendance was a non event at both. No media flurry, no toxic political attacks from industry. There was no credibility in the attacks.

Even so be assured there will be hell to pay over the deaths of 66 [now 130 plus] people and 700 plus homes in rural and regional Victoria this last horror weekend with the threat to life and property ongoing. Comparison with Ash Wednesday 1983 with several deaths there are being made. Only this is very much worse. Back then we remember as an 18 year old having the chance to fly over areas of the Western Districts of Victoria to determine the location of the ignition. Our father, a local lawyer, was retained to sue the local energy authority or perhaps it was sparks from a farming machine on rocks. Hard to recall.

No wonder Premier Brumby broke down over burns victims in Alfred Hospital yesterday afternoon. Our guess his career is effectively over. As much as NSW is lampooned in the national press, our Bushfire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons - whose own National Parks and Wildlife employee father was killed in bushfire - is an acknowledged safe pair of hands. As was the logistically successful Phil Koperberg, later elected an MP, before him. 'There is no land management agency in NSW that prevents bushfire precautions in NSW' is the testimony of Fitzsimmons only a fortnight ago on the big media. That's the legacy of 1994 speaking.

We still have our big dangerous bushfires in NSW but we also have sky crane helicopters, a military finesse to the organisation of professional and volunteer bushfire brigades, police increasingly aware of arson as a focus, local government planning rules, political resourcing and community level of expertise. No bogus political debate distractions in NSW these days over fire trails in wilderness areas. If they are genuinely needed they are there.

However the logging industry in "production forests" do have some serious questions to answer over landscape changes converting bushfire country into wildfire country.

There is life after bushfire as these pictures indicate from a walk later 1994 in the Colo Heights/Tinda Ck/Mellong area (Six Brothers map) of Wollemi world heritage area with the writer doing the Milo Dunphy thing: This area has suffered another bushfire as we write so we don't recommend an outing like this for quite a while:

Here is our briefing note from the editor's ecology action web pages:

Bushfire science

These diagrams below first presented in 1995 reveal the process of landscape conversion of native forest from moist old growth fire resistant type, derived from their closed canopy, to dry sclerophyl bushfire prone regrowth type.

As long as a moisture rich closed canopy is in place a high density of ground cover remains of moderate risk and tends to break down quite quickly as well.

The most severe process of logging disruption of the closed forest canopy has been going on since the advent of high intensity 'integrated logging' for timber but also high proportion of woodchips especially since the mid 1970ies. This was around the time of the advent of bulldozers, other big machines and modern chainsaws.

Thus even if a small proportion of a forest of say 2 or 3% suffers high intensity logging per year, after 40 years of patchworking, close to 100% of the moist micro climate will have been destroyed along with the broken canopy. It will take maybe a century to re establish the moist old growth closed canopy microclimate across broad areas of forest IF devastating fires don't constantly set the clock back to zero again in a cruel ecological game of snakes and ladders.

That's how grim the situation has become in large areas of forested south east Australia as a result of rampaging logging and greed. Even much contemporary national park has been patchwork logged already prior to reservation in the last 40 years and still to regain closed canopy moisture. Depending on the fire patterns in the future they may never regain that closed canopy and moisture level.

There are many other factors contributing to bushfire such as ignition sources like arson or naturally occuring dry lightning. Climate impact of low rainfall also impacts fire intensity and risk. Ground fuel levels are also very significant.

But what is apparent in the current anxious reflections and research into how best to deal with the impending catastrophic fires of the futre is that the modern logging industry have been getting away with environmental murder that promotes mega bushfires. It all follows from breaching the natural water cycle under a closed canopy:

The diagrams above are based on the following scientific papers:

Cornish PM (1982) The variation of dissolved ion concentration with discharge in some NSW streams, Forest Hydrologist, Forestry Commission of NSW, The First National Symposium on Forest Hydrology, eds. EM O'Loughlin & L J Bren, May 1982,

Rieger W A, Olive L J and Burgess J S (1982) Behaviour of sediment concentrations and solute concentrations in small forested catchments, University of NSW, Department of Geography, FAculty of Military Studies, The First National Symposium on Forest Hydrology, eds. E M O'Loughlin & L J Bren, May 1982

Stokes R A and Loh I C (1982) 'Sustaining Sensitive Wildlife Within Temperate Forest Landscapes: Regional Systems of Retained Habitat as a Planning Framework', pages 85-106 in Ecology and Sustainability of Southern Temperate Ecosystems, eds. Norton T W & Dovers S R, CSIRO 1994.

Wronski E (1993) Tantawangalo research catchments, Change in water yield after logging, Report to the Forestry Commission of NSW, 1st July 1993

Declaration: The editor/author was called as witness to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry, and briefly to the Coronial Inquiry after the summer 1993-4 bushfires, as a representative of the Wilderness Society in NSW.


More background

The public are noticing the intensity of forest fires seem to be greater and to have more devastating effects. Certainly there are many factors involved:

1.climate eg drought, very low humidity, hot winds etc.

2. ground fuel load is significant but notice

(a) closed canopy wet 'old growth' or rainforest is far more fire resistant than a dry sclerophyl eucalypt forest regardless of leaf litter, and dry sclerophyl is being spread like a curse by the woodchipping sector. The wet fire resistant nature of old closed canopy is not our invention: An excellent scientifically referenced booklet called 'Old Growth Forests and their High Conservation Values' was published in Feb 1995 by Taylor, Woof, Thomson with relevant diagrams. We submit this process has contributed disastrously to fire intensity over the last 35 years and could literally take centuries to reverse, short of concreting the lot. No one wants that.

(b) that the high ground vegetation grazing pressure by ground dwelling native herbivores has been greatly reduced as a result of feral predators killing these critters off.

3. arson: A recent Institute of Criminology report late 2004 found up to 9 out of 10 fires are started by arsonists and in NSW the government have taken action to address this. This was the concern of green groups from at least 1993 but largely ignored by authorities until now.

4. escaped logging fires. These are less arson, as negligent land practices. Evidence of these are listed further below.

In the area of fire management the politics of the Carr NSW government are on track compared with so many other land use policy areas ...if one ignores the underlying landscape transforming impact of woodchipping Carr has so far failled to ban: We submit that closed canopy forests have been systematically wiped out in Australia especially in the last 40 years, which has destroyed the natural water cycle and humidity in forest understorey and more generally.

In the environment movement we still hear, not so much in NSW, but from colleagues in Victoria and elsewhere cheap shots at greenies not pulling their weight in rural fire brigades etc. When we last investigated this point in 1994 during during the Black Friday bushfire crisis we learned that 20 or 30 places across regional NSW had greenies in their local brigade ... that rural people invariably pull together whatever their politics.

One fellow in the north east angrily commented he was the driver of the local fire truck and it was in his driveway. The letter I wrote rebutting such nasty cheap political shots was printed in virtually every local newspaper in NSW including letter of the week in The Land newspaper. People were in no mood for cheap smears during such a serious bushfire event. We have no reason to doubt that reality in 2005 and beyond.

Source documents can be found in the following links:

13 Dec 2006 ...Howard?s divisive politics: bushfire green baiting today, dog whistle white supremacism yesterday

April/May 2003...El Grande, Tasmania: fire vandalism by govt logger/regulator exposed by expert botanist

4/2/03... loggers cause fire in Tasmania says Wilderness Society

2/2/03...How the Regional Forest logging 'Agreeements' omitted bushfire effect on volumes

22/1/03... intensity: role of logging old, closed canopy forest over past 50 years

13/5/02...Clearfell logging is making the wet forests of the Otways drier and more fire prone

1/1/02...Koperberg dismisses burn-off, Sydney Morning Herald

1/1/2002... Fire reduction burn offs useless: Daily Telegraph

Jan/Feb 2000...Serious forest fires in the Otways are started by careless logging practices

patchy, rare fire occurrence in wet forests of Otways, Vic

1997....scientific refutation of the 'burn lots and burn often' simplistic approach allegedly used by pre European Aboriginal society

Return to ecology action index page here

Posted by editor at 2:58 AM EADT
Updated: Monday, 9 February 2009 7:29 PM EADT

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