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Fire - what's on the record?

Phil Ingamells, VNPA Park Protection Project

There is a lot of nonsense talked about fire. Not least in this regard are the claims and counter-claims about how much controlled burning once happened in Victoria, and what should happen in the future.

It's worth looking at the past though, while our land managers work towards rolling out the Bushfires Royal Commission's recommended burn target of around 390,000 hectares of Victoria's public land each year.

It is hard to get a reliable account of historic management burn levels, but there is a published record going back to the year 1933-34. The figures lie in the annual reports to Parliament of the Forests Commission (from the 1920s until 1984), and of the various bodies that absorbed its role since that time.

Graph: fuel reduction and bushfire 75 year history

 

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo. The long-term effect of fire on Victoria’s fauna is largely unknown. Secure long-term funding for monitoring the impacts of fire on biodiversity is essential.   Photo: Jenny Barnett

Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo. The long-term effect of fire on Victoria’s fauna is largely unknown. Secure long-term funding for monitoring the impacts of fire on biodiversity is essential.  Photo: Jenny Barnett

 

For the most part, the Forests Commission reports are fairly comprehensive when it comes to bushfires on public land. The reports establish not just the total area burnt, but give figures for regions, and also list the causes of the fires.

But when it comes to fuel reduction burning, there is rarely anything more than a single area total for the state. Occasionally, when a particularly large burn has happened, this is explained. For example, in 1972-3, an uncommonly large burn of 206,554 hectares (516,384 acres) was achieved, but 169,200 ha of that burn was the result of aerial incendiaries dropped in East Gippsland lowland forests. It was, like many others, a record of the total area treated rather than the area actually burnt.

Importantly, there are only four occasions since 1934 (when management burn records started) when the reported figure exceeded 300,000 hectares in a year.

And there is only one year in that time when the annual fuel reduction burn total exceeded 390,000 hectares. That was a massive 477,000 hectare figure for 1980-81. But the decade average for the 1980s, by far the highest on record, was still only 207,000 hectares. And there is some doubt about that average. It is skewed considerably by the 1980-81 figure, which might be largely an expression of management enthusiasm. Informal conversations with land managers suggest the figure is questionable.

Indeed these official records from the last three quarters of a century, useful as they are, must suffer from differing degrees of accuracy and the fact that the pattern and severity of burns are not always comparable.

And the early figures for Forest Commission burns ignore the reality that landowners, and graziers with forest licences, used to engage in their own burning. While the area of those burns isn't recorded (it would have been difficult to do that), such burns do turn up in the statistics for bushfire causes. In the 1930s and 40s, 'grazing interests' appear as one of the most significant causes of bushfire each year, variously starting, over that time, between 9% and 57% of all fires in the state.

The Royal Commission into the 1939 fires, so eloquently penned by Judge Stretton, nevertheless sent mixed messages for controlled burns. In the introductory pages, he had no sympathy for 'settler' burns.

"They burned the forest floor to promote the growth of grass and to clear it of scrub... The fire stimulated grass growth; but it encouraged scrub growth far more... The scrub grew and flourished, fire was used to clear it, the scrub grew faster and thicker, bushfires, caused by the careless or designing hand of man, ravaged the forests... And so today in places where our forefathers rode, driving their herds and flocks before them, the wombat and the wallaby are hard put to find passage through the bush."

Yet Stretton asked for a greatly increased rate of fuel reduction burning by the Forests Commission which, in the period before the 1939 fire, was burning an average of just 7,500 hectares per year.

One thing, however, is very clear from the historical record. The future statewide target of 390,000 ha is setting us on a level of management burning unprecedented in Victoria's history. This 'rolling target' (if it is not reached in any one year, the deficit is to be added to the next year's target) is to be achieved regardless of the extent of bushfire in any season.

It's nearly twice that reached by any post-settlement period on record, and there is no reliable evidence that this level of burning was achieved, or indeed remotely achievable, by Aboriginal communities.

The recent Bushfires Royal Commission, and the Government, have set Victoria on a path that could have unprecedented impacts on biodiversity in the state. And there is no guarantee that such a regime will be effective in reducing the impact of fires in extreme weather conditions like Black Saturday.

Calls for a more strategic approach to management burning are growing.

Fire and our parks
Royal Commission into the 2009 fires