Mar 10, 2009

Fuel reduction burns made no difference on Black Saturday

Fuel reduction burns do have their place but on "Black Saturday" they made no difference to the outcome, writes Simon Birrell.

I have been reading Crikey's stories on control burns with a lot of interest.

On Sunday the 1st of March I went to State forest near Muchison Road in the Flowerdale area in Victoria. This forest area was incinerated by the Kilmore fire on the 7th of February. I took photos of a 30 hectare area that was controlled burned on 10th of April 2008.

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12 thoughts on “Fuel reduction burns made no difference on Black Saturday

  1. Graemel

    Sorry – a few carefully selected photos and your personal opinion will not convince me- and I suspect many others.
    No-one in their right mind will say that controlled burning would have stopped the event, but you can bet that the outcomes would have been much different given proper management of fuel reduction.

    To say that fuel reduction “made no difference” is an unsustainable piece of unsupportable propaganda no better than that which you criticise.

  2. Darren

    i reckon we should do a controlled burn every month – that will solve the problem!

  3. Lorraine Leach

    As a daily bushwalker, I’ve observed since Black Saturday just one small area around Healesville where a control burn last Autumn made a real difference. Everywhere else where I’ve walked and driven since – around Healesville, Dixons Creek, Toolangi, Strath Creek, Flowerdale and Glenburn – the ferocity of the fires has reduced forests to ash and charcoal matchsticks, regardless of the very sparse undergrowth beforehand. Yellowbox trees seem to have generated particularly ferocious fire in those areas with sparse, tinderbox dry undergrowth.
    The colour white appears to have reflected intense radiant heat and subsequent immolation. Hence many timber fence posts painted white remained unaffected in burnt out paddocks – even white netting protected grapevines whilst unetted vines beside them burned.

  4. Steve

    Simon, the flaw in your article is this:

    Even if you’re right, it is a well-accepted fact that NOTHING can stop fires of the intensity seen on Black Saturday. No amount of fuel reduction will do it. In Duffy ACT and in Sydney 2001 I saw well-mown green lawns sustaining fire. That is an extremely rare event which unfortunately humans can’t do much about.

    However, hazard/fuel reduction burns will greatly reduce the intensity of the vast majority of fires. While Black Saturday was horrific, there were hundreds of other bushfires along the eastern seaboard this summer. Hundreds.

    To suggest that fuel reduction is pointless, because it didn’t stop one once-in-a-generation fire, is a ridiculous assertion. 1000 fire trucks wouldn’t/didn’t stop it either, but we’re not going to argue that we shouldn’t have fire trucks, are we?

    Fuel reduction is proven to stop or reduce intensity of most wildfires in most situations. Using an exception to prove the rule is too amateurish for this topic.

  5. Jane Smith

    I think this just strengthens the argument for more regular fuel reduction burns?

  6. Ben Aveling

    Why is everyone trying to knock Simon for an argument he didn’t try to make? No-one is arguing that there shouldn’t be any controlled burning – so why spend so much effort beating on a straw man?

  7. Tom McLoughlin

    My view after years of pondering over the 1994 bushfires in NSW relates quite closely to this quote from Phil Cheney oft referred bushfire expert: It relates in effect to conversion from moist old growth to skinny dry sclerophyll regrowth:

    “Planning Considerations

    Fire Risk

    One of the major planning constraints associated with thinning is the higher level of fuel present after the operations. It is not considered feasible in Tasmania to carry out fuel reduction burns in thinned coupes because of the high fuel loads and the sensitivity of the retained trees to fire. The location of thinned coupes amongst conventionally logged coupes is problematic, as it is not recommended that any regeneration burn take place within two kilometres of areas with high levels of flash fuel within two years of harvest (Cheney 1988).

    Tree crowns (heads), bark, and other harvest residue make up the fuel load. The climate on the floor of the forest is altered by thinning, with higher wind speeds and temperature, lower humidity, and lower moisture content in the fuel itself. Understorey vegetation characteristics change because of these changes to the microclimate, especially increased light. Bracken ferns and cutting grass may grow vigorously, each having a far higher flammability than the replaced woody species (Cheney and Gould 1991).” In Forestry Tasmania (2001), Thinning Regrowth Eucalypts – Native Forest Silviculture Technical Bulletin No. 13 Second Edition, Forestry Tasmania.

    I think we need an ecological logging industry in the skinny dry sclerophyll strictly administered by real forest ecologist like ProfsTony Norton, Hugh Lindenmeyer to expedite dominant big trees. The opposite of business as usual trash the old growth which would be banned as promoting mega fire forest conversion.

    We really are in a fix now. We’ve stuffed the overstorey humidity, we’ve extinguished the native ground critters munching through the undergrowth. I wouldn’t want to be in the loggers shoes.

  8. Will

    Simon, I’m sorry to say this, but you have just provided the evidence that many need to support their claims that fuel reduction burns reduce the intensity of bushfires.

    Many of the pictures I have seen from the areas around Kinglake and Marrysville show utter devestation – nothing left but the black skeletal remains of giant eucalypts, where not even the canopies, in some places 40m above the ground, of these giants were safe. Yet here you show us a photo with coppice branches only a few feet above the ground still with their leaves.

    Anyone who has any knowledge of fire behaviour will be able to tell you that the area in your photos was not subject to anywhere near the same intensity as other areas on that day. Even on the panorama, one can see how the intensity of the fire increased once it entered the unburnt country with many more canopies appearing to suffer from crowning.

    What you also fail to address is what would be the effect on a fire if NO area of a forest had anymore than 5-7 years of fuel build up. The situation in Victoria was one that allowed fires to build up a full head of steam, only encountering a fuel reduced area here and there. Include spotting into the equation and it is little wonder the paltry attempt at hazard reductions over the last few years had little effect overall.

  9. Chris

    A number of scientific studies have revealed that with the effectiveness of a fuel reduction burn (FRB) in slowing a wildfire down will decrease with an increasing fire danger index (FDI). On Saturday 7 February, the FDI climbed to 180 at Kilmore. Anything above 50 FDI is considered ‘extreme’ by the CFA. With such a catastrophic FDI that day, the probability of a FRB slowing or even halting the fire would be very low. FRB in suitable forest types can be of assistance in slowing down the fire and to fire fighting efforts when the FDI is much lower.

    There are many people claiming that broadscale FRB could have prevented this disaster. The point that Simon is trying to make is that on the day of 7 Feb, the extreme conditions made it virtually impossible for any FRB or any other fire management strategy to have a significant impact in slowing or halting this fire. I would assume that if the fire front burnt through this forest on a day with a moderate to low FDI, the outcome may have been quite different.

  10. john

    So you expect me to believe that if I had a house next to the area that had had the controlled burn, it would have been “safe as houses”. Yeah right – pull the other one.

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