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Opinion: Re-think fuel reduction burns

This article by the VNPA's Phil Ingamells first appeared in the Weekly Times August 26, 2009.

The fires of Black Saturday were truly terrible, but it may be time to take a deep breath before we take revenge on the bush. We could lose more than we gain if we surrender to knee-jerk targets for fuel-reduction burning across Victoria.

Management burns have the capacity to significantly reduce fuel loads. They are a critical part of bushfire management, and contrary to some claims, the conservation movement has supported strategic fuel reduction across the state for many years now, including within National Parks.

But management burns are just one tool in the fire prevention armory, and like most tools they have their limits. Wrongly applied, they can be quite harmful.

Max Rheese and the Victorian Lands Alliance is calling for a tripling of current burn targets to the 385,000ha recommended by last year's parliamentary inquiry. But that figure was not based on any credible scientific evidence, and certainly not on the limited research the report actually referred to.

Indeed, the current target of 130,000ha per year, so far as we know, is also not derived from any clear scientific analysis. And oddly, this broad hectare target is meant to be achieved regardless of the extent of wildfire.

Whether there is no bushfire in a given year, or whether we get another Black Saturday across half the state, we are still meant to achieve a figure of130,000ha of additional burn.

It's a bit like deciding to pump 100,000 litres of water into a dam each year, regardless of how full the dam is. Even one of the strongest protagonists for larger fuel reduction targets, Peter Attiwill, makes it clear in his textbook, Ecology, used by students throughout Australia, that we must take wildfire into account when planning control burns.

He says "a prescribed fire regime to manage the accumulated fuel loads and to manage biodiversity demands knowledge both of fire behaviour and of the life histories of plants and animals".

And this is the most difficult part of the problem.

The bush isn't just fuel, it's where our 600 million-year-old evolutionary heritage of something like 100,000 native species hangs out.

If we are not careful, we could lose it.

The Victorian community may choose to decide that we have no other options for fire safety, and that it is worth sacrificing our heritage. But if we are to make that decision, it should be a well-considered one - weighing up all our knowledge, and looking at all of our management and planning options.

It's a difficult call though. Ecologists are telling us that frequently repeated fire is likely to have more impact on biodiversity than the occasional fierce fire, but we need a lot more information.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment has established "tolerable fire intervals" for different vegetation types. However, that only accounts for a relatively small number of plants, for which we have a fair knowledge of recovery periods. We don't yet take into account the recovery capacity of our many birds and animals, let alone the tens of thousands of different insects and other remarkable native species that hold our ecosystems together.

And well-intentioned prescribed burns can actually turn some relatively fire-resistant forest types into drier, shrubby forests, making them more fire- prone.

We are at risk of setting up a very extensive and quite dicey experiment in ecosystem management in Victoria, without sufficient scientific basis and little or no monitoring. This is something we would never tolerate in our hospitals, nor would we tolerate it from our engineers or bridge-builders.

With climate change clearly upon us, and more frequent fires predicted, land managers in 30 years' time will be desperate for data from long-term scientific monitoring.

Whatever fire regimes we may decide on, we must also set up comprehensive monitoring programs now. Then, hopefully, we might be able to make informed judgments on the effectiveness of different fuel reduction programs.

Also, we might then understand what we need to do to protect our natural heritage.


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Bushfire in Victoria