Biological scientists, unlike other professions — the law, bricklayers, what have you — are not regulated by any professional body. The public rely solely on the objectivity of individual researchers, the institutions that employ them and the journals that publish their articles.

The Victorian fires are still burning, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from hitting the airwaves to blame these fires on a lack of fuel reduction burning. Never mind that there have been more than 3 million hectares of these burns and other fires since 2003. Monash Researcher David Packham’s article in The Australian yesterday “Victoria bushfires stoked by green vote” was an outstanding example. He is one of many researchers publicly advocating for more frequent fuel reduction burning, many with forestry qualifications.

There are many laudable reasons why academics become advocates for causes they are passionate about — but this may rule them out from providing the objective research required to properly analyse these fires when eventually they are asked to give evidence to the Royal Commission.

What is needed are statisticians, an epidemiology — objective collation and analysis of verifiable data relating to what happened to identify trends and patterns. Packham, Victorian Foresters and the Department of Sustainability and Environment may well be right — that even more fuel reduction burning may be required. However, with so much at stake in this long-held position they could also be wrong. The unprecedented availability of data and eye witness accounts on the interaction of vegetation, landscapes and weather need to be objectively evaluated.

At the time of Ash Wednesday there was no internet, no mobile phones, no digital cameras and no Google Earth and high resolution satellite photography. These technological tools will enable long standing assumptions to be revisited and tested — many of them for the first time.

We now have photographic, indeed video records, of these fires across almost all the areas they occurred in. We also have a hundreds if not thousands of examples of homes that burned and homes that did not. First hand accounts of the successful — and sadly unsuccessful — defence of homes. Careful analysis of what has occurred will inform the Royal Commission, future ‘bush’ management, house design and construction.

The impact of the fires on vegetation — and of vegetation on fires — can also be recorded. After Ash Wednesday research provided flammability ratings for a wide range of native plants. Eucalypts, for instance, are not all the same, with some far more flammable than others. Wet forest gullies and temperate rainforests will burn — but they may take more energy out of a fire than they contribute — giving fire fighters and communities valuable minutes.

Ten days before Ash Wednesday a fire roared up the north face of Mount Macedon in minutes — but having crossed the ridge it slowed in a forest gully, still wet despite the drought. Continuous water bombing stopped that fire burning down the mountain. (Sadly on Ash Wednesday the fire burned through properties that bordered this bush from the opposite direction.)

The extensive records of what burned and what did not, what burned quickly and what did not, will provide invaluable information for future vegetation management of communities living in the bush. There are plants that are more difficult to burn, that remain remarkably green during drought and will protect structures from burning embers. We need to know which species they are and use them.

If fuel reduction burning had burnt that wet gully on the south side of the Mount Macedon it would have offered little or no protection to the town in that fire on that day 10 days before Ash Wednesday.

Peter Fray

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