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By Vic Jurskis – posted Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Early in 2019, I warned on the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association website, that in the event of severe fire weather, all the bush from Bairnsdale to Sydney would be incinerated due to an unprecedented accumulation of three-dimensionally continuous fuel. In extreme weather, such fuel inevitably creates firestorms with long distance ember showers. Firebreaks, fire engines and waterbombers can’t stop them.

We were lucky at Eden. We didn’t get the extreme weather. The threat here is always hot, strong and dry northwesterly to southwesterly changes with dry storms or other ignitions. We don’t very often get them, sometimes even when they’re predicted. Maybe that’s why it’s called Eden. The fires came at us from the south with relatively cool, moist wind across the south ‘fold’ of Twofold Bay. Even then, we had showers of scorched and burnt leaves from four in the afternoon, when it got dark, until at least four the next morning, when I went to bed.

I feel for all the people who got burnt out to the south of town. It didn’t need to happen, because there was an extensive break of roads and tracks that had been brushed up across a wide span of forest between them and the Victorian fires. Ideal weather conditions of low temperatures, high humidity and light northeasterly winds should have allowed safe backburning before the eventual run of the fires from the south. Apparently, orders came from high command in Sydney, not to take this essential action. I guess this was maybe a reaction to some bad publicity after a backburn inevitably went wrong when it was attempted under impossible circumstances west of Sydney.

Here in town, we still face the threat of huge quantities of 3D fuel across large areas of forest to the northwest of us, and right into the middle of town. It will eventually happen. What makes it worse is that we have to watch all the trees dying and the scrub booming in the long unburnt bush, as the fuel continues to build. Even where there is so-called hazard reduction burning, it is not often enough and it is too hot. Hot fires quickly create more fuel and scrub – this is hazard production burning.

Green academics and bureaucrats tell us there’s a conflict between burning and environmental protection, because they’ve dreamt up ridiculous theories in the wilderness between their ears. Aborigines managed healthy, safe and diverse landscapes across Australia for tens of thousands of years, including extreme climate change, with frequent mild burning. But we’ve now got a stupid Bush Fire Environmental Assessment Code (BFEAC) that ensures dangerous fuel loads and ongoing environmental degradation. The unburnt bush suffers eucalypt decline, pestilence and loss of biodiversity until the inevitable megafires cause death and destruction, erosion, siltation and socioeconomic upheaval.

Academics write papers claiming that climate change causes eucalypt dieback and loss of biodiversity, just as it supposedly causes megafires. From my verandah in town, I can see it happening, over three kilometres to the north, and I can assure you that it’s nothing to do with climate change. The crowns of trees in the forests have been deteriorating for years through droughts and floods. Eucalypt forests need frequent mild fire to maintain their health and resilience.

In the absence of mild burning and/or grazing, which performs a similar function, soil physics and chemistry change and vegetation responds, reinforcing the changes. Mulch builds up, sunshine and air circulation are reduced. Nitrogen in litter, seedlings and herbage that had previously been volatilised by fires and returned to the atmosphere, or mineralised by fires and taken up by the flush of new growth, now accumulates in the soil and the developing shrubbery.Topsoils become cooler, damper, softer and deeper.

Carbon to Nitrogen ratios of soils are reduced, acid forest soils become more acid and microtoxins such as aluminium and manganese are released. These inhibit tree roots and mycorrhizae. They become more susceptible to drought, waterlogging and root rots such as phytophthora. The deteriorating soils and roots cause nutrient imbalances, particularly in ratios of Nitrogen to Phosphorus, and physiological changes in the trees. New leaves are aborted before they mature and there is ongoing recycling of epicormic shoots. Thin canopies and sick roots promote scrub invasion. Trees’ sapstreams and foliage become more attractive and nutritious to arbivores – that is anything that derives nutrients from any part of the tree including roots, sapwood, sap and leaves.

During the Millennium Drought, dark green invasive native scrub continued to flourish on the sandy country north of Eden, same as everywhere else. After the wet seasons that broke the drought, sawtooth banksias started turning yellow. These are naturally very drought tolerant trees. At the height of the most recent drought last year, the banksias were dying en masse. I have no doubt that their roots deteriorated with changing soil conditions in the absence of mild burning, at the same time as phytophthora flourished and attacked the sick roots. A similar process seems to have happened with burrawangs in the spotted gum country further north. The dark green invasive ‘rainforest’ species continued to thrive at the peak of the drought.

In NSW, it is illegal to manage forests sustainably using frequent mild fire. For example, health, safety and biodiversity can be maintained in eucalypt forests by mild burning every three to six years, whereas NSW’s BFEAC specifies minimum intervals of ten years between fires in dry shrubby forests and thirty years in moist shrubby forests. Virtually all eucalypt forests on public lands are shrub-invaded because of lack of mild burning and/or grazing. Moist, shrub invaded forests are wrongly classified as wet sclerophyll forests by National Parks and Wildlife Service and Rural Fire Service.

Inaugural RFS Commissioner Philip Koperberg, a strong advocate of prescribed burning, pledged that they would make it easier to burn. BFEAC is supposed to have streamlined the approval process. That is not the situation described to me by people who have to work through the process. In any case, “acceptable” intervals between prescribed burns are those that will ensure environmental degradation and dangerous fuel loads. This suits cost squeezed public land managers, because everyday costs of management are reduced and firefighting is externally funded as disaster response.

Former CSIRO bush fire expert Phil Cheney summarised it pretty well:

The irony is that in the process of cost saving on government land they have shifted the costs to the suppression industry and created a monster that I fear, like in the USA, is unstoppable.

Unless government land managers are made responsible for all suppression costs on their land then there is absolutely no incentive to undertake management that will reduce the hazards and make suppression cheaper and easier. The volunteers are caught up in this mess and are quite cynically used to avoid criticism of government actions.

After five million hectares of Australia were incinerated in 2003, including the alpine megafires that eventually caused devastation in Canberra, a Parliamentary Select Committee of Inquiry heard a consistent message right around Australia. Chairman Gary Nairn reported that “there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long; local knowledge and experience is being ignored by an increasingly top heavy bureaucracy”.

In NSW, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has been in charge of this unstoppable monster for the last 12 years, while sustainable land management has been not only neglected, but prevented. The RFS has been increasingly rewarded for the inevitable failure of emergency response to unstoppable megafires, They receive more funding after every disaster. The measure of success has become minimal loss of human life. Fitzsimmons has been responsible for a massive expansion of the RFS airforce. Hugely expensive and ineffective water bombing operations during disasters have become the norm. This has been at the expense of cheap, efficient and safe, aerial delivery of sustaining fire to maintain healthy landscapes and prevent disasters.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced that Fitzsimmons will become our Commissioner of Resilience. This is a sad indictment of the state of the government, but a triumph of Orwellian Newspeak!

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