With Wilson’s Promontory National Park now blackened, the multi-million dollar stream of tourism income that has been a part of the South Gippsland economy for decades will be compromised or even lost for a period of time. Even now there are cancellations in all the adjacent holiday accommodation.

The fire nearly went out after rain on Thursday, but due to either a choice made by fire managers or a lack of resources, it was not fully extinguished. It flared up on Friday and has raged across the Prom to Corner Inlet, driven by south-easterly winds with extensive backburns as planned last Tuesday being lit to contain it. There are reports of extensive clearing for fire breaks at the Tidal River camping ground last week — though it was not under threat at the time or for now.

The Prom fire yesterday as seen from Yanakie.

There are many wide ranging impacts of bushfires and “management” fires than have not been considered to date. In between bushfires, fuel reduction burns, asset protection burns, ecological burns, extensive backburns and so on have ongoing impacts on many parts of the economy.

Fires dry out water catchments and the ash laden runoff strips creeks streams and estuaries of oxygen and fish for varying periods of time — all with economic consequences.

Before these Black Saturday fires, plans were lodged with the Federal Department of the Environment for approval for roads and fire breaks in Melbourne’s water supply catchments. This appears very much like a first stage of preparations to burn these remaining ash forests — and remember, this was before these latest fires. The 1939 fires compromised the future streamflows to Melbourne’s water supply, just as these fires have. Should risky fuel reduction burns in catchment ash forests turn into wildfire, the economy of Melbourne itself could be under threat. No water, no city.

The forest industry has long fought to get access to the timber in these water supply catchments and it is vital that the Royal Commission takes evidence independent of the forest industry and the institutions that support it.

Roads and hundreds of kilometres of bulldozed fire breaks have already created sediment and nutrient laden runoff that will compromise domestic catchments for years, especially when the built up and down slopes are prone to erosion. Even maintained dirt roads continually shed sediment into creeks and streams.

Forested water supply catchments are essential for maintaining water quality and streamflow for dozens of domestic water supply catchments across the state — and many have been compromised.

Fuel reduction burns since 2003 have seen most towns in East Gippsland shrouded in smoke for months on end. This has had negative impacts on public health, especially for the young and the old and those who suffer asthma and of respiratory illnesses.

Following the 2003 and 2006/7 fires, there was also extensive salvage logging, further compromising the integrity of streamflows to the Murray Darling system and water supply catchments. Timber was cut from the Mitchell River and Snowy River National Parks in the construction of fire breaks.

The rules that normally govern logging are considerably “eased” post-fire, and royalties reduced for the multi-million dollar salvage logging industry generating large volumes of woodchips — and environmental impacts.

Following the 2006/7 fires, the estuarine environment of the Lakes Entrance system — and its fisheries — were compromised by the inflow of ash, nutrients and possibly fire fighting chemicals. Similar losses and compromises of river and estuarine systems will occur after these fires and the fuel reduction and back burning they have generated.

It is vital that the Royal Commission into these fires consider the impact of management fires, salvage logging on both the domestic water supplies and streamflow generally, especially to the Murray River.

The impact of any recommendations for more burning, fire break construction, land clearing, etc. that may be made by the Victorian Royal Commission need to consider their impact on public health, streamflow and water quality, fisheries and tourism from the wealth of data available relating to the impact of previous fires.

Despite the urgings of well known “forest ecologist” Germaine Greer, the same wealth of data also needs to be examined to establish if, where and when fuel reduction burning, fire break construction and back burning are effective or not. The Commission also needs to examine what the other impacts of this management and the recent fires on water, fisheries and tourism have been and will likely be.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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