By Mark Adams – January 5, 2016
Fuel reduction in the vast forests behind the communities along the Great Ocean Road have been neglected for decades.
Our family place at Separation Creek was shared. As with so many of the holiday houses there and at Wye River, its informality provided a particular welcome to friends, friends of friends, and well beyond. Redolent of sea salt and eucalyptus oils, a generally musty smell folded around you every time you re-opened the house after being away.
It must be something about wetsuits, old newspapers, shells, and slightly too well worn rugs and couches that unite to provide an unmistakable “holiday ahead” aroma. Within a day or two the aroma would be augmented by cooking and transmogrify to become the “Wye River sleeping sickness” – an aura of relaxation and happiness combined such that people slept – on couches, in chairs, in hammocks and banana lounges, as well as in beds – at all hours, in between swims, surfs, coffees, nippers, fetes, meals and beers.
The character of our place was typical of the “owner-built” houses that dotted the slopes of our twin hamlets. Sure, we cheated and had great professional help, but the investment of time and family that is literally built into such houses cannot be replaced by million-dollar budgets.
As anyone who has fought and wrangled and wrestled and cursed and sworn to get building materials to where they need to be on 30-degree-plus slopes will know, there is enormous satisfaction in closing the door once it is built. Perching on home-made scaffolding half-a-dozen metres off the deck while you paint sure brings you closer to nature.
Straight and level and vertical become subjective terms when applied to houses built at Wye and Sep, as anyone who walked Paddy’s Path will know.
Our place was built using second-hand along with new materials. Much came from the demolition of the Large Lecture Theatre in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne. Beautiful old messmate floorboards, blackwood stools and benches, and even a linen press made from an old herbarium cupboard were features. So too were the stairs, bannisters and handrails and window seat that were also crafted from salvaged blackwood, and structural beams of oregon, still as good as new.
An irony is that generations of foresters were taught about the ecology and management of forests in that large lecture theatre, or LLT, as it was known. They learnt about fire. They walked across the messmate floorboards that, in a different age, were routinely scrubbed to a sheen by dedicated cleaners. They parked their backsides on the blackwood stools and etched their names and witticisms into the benchtops. But they learnt and then practiced what they had learnt in the forests of Victoria.
Many who visited our place heard that history, if they asked. Not that it meant too much in that setting. The house was not a museum or a library or a university – far from it. But nearly everyone could see the risks. Dense bluegum forest behind and a one-lane road ensured we diligently cleared and hoped every year. We hoped that at least once, the authorities would come and run a fuel reduction fire in the forest behind. Like most, we are strong supporters of the Country Fire Authority. The annual fete at the CFA is where we exchange one set of paperbacks for another, one set of dodgy deck chairs for another, and claim as big a share of the cakes and doughnuts as we can.
As with many houses at Wye and Sep, our place was too big a risk to expect it could be saved by a tanker or a few slip-on fire-fighting units, once a bushfire had entered our settlements.
Premiers and prime ministers, celebrities and media are right to praise the work of the emergency services for their success in saving lives and property that could otherwise have been lost. While an autopsy of the fire inside Sep and Wye still awaits, big questions ought be asked elsewhere.
Sep and Wye were sitting ducks if the forest beyond was not properly managed. No amount of platitudes or hair-splitting about attaining a target of 9000 hectares of fuel reduction in the past year can make up for decades of neglect of an estate of hundreds of thousands of hectares. I know – and I mean I know – that for more than a quarter of a century there had been no serious fuel reduction within cooee of Sep and Wye. Sure, there had been the odd cosmetic burn along the Ocean Road, but the serious fuels to the north and west – the quarters from where the big risks would come with hot dry winds — were ignored. Easier by far to declare the forests a national park and then let nature take care of itself.
For decades foresters were taught how to manage fuels in concert with the ecology of the forests. Some of it they learnt by sitting on the same blackwood stools that are now piles of ash. It wasn’t too hard for them to manage forests so that disasters were avoided.
How many disasters must we have, and how much public and private money needs to be spent, before we stop accepting a situation that can and should be avoided?
Professor Mark Adams is director of the Centre for Carbon, Water and Food at the University of Sydney. He co-authored Burning Issues, published by CSIRO in 2011, which examines the many facets of fuel reduction burning in forests.