After 7 January, when nearly 200 people died in bushfires, the press quickly sheeted blame for the fires on a lack of “controlled burns” and “fuel reduction”. The result has been a backlash against all things “green”. The Royal Commission has begun and will make its conclusions in due course, but in the meantime, the state’s forestry bureaucracy has been quick to seize the moment and ignite an extraordinary number of “controlled” bushfires across Victoria .

National Parks in particular have been targeted by Parks Victoria and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), with fires still smouldering Wilson’s Promontory and being lit or “contained” in the Alfred, Glenelg and Croajingolong and several other National Parks at the time of writing. 

We can only hope that some of the state is left unsinged by the time the Royal Commission comes to consider some solid evidence of both the effectiveness of fuel reduction and the fire retardant properties of old established forest.

Reports today revealed that carbon dating of a large (but not the largest) Shining Gum from a freshly cut stump from Brown Mountain in East Gippsland revealed the tree to be between 500 and 600 years old. Victorian Greens MP Sue Pennicuik makes the case for Brown Mountain on YouTube , an area previously dedicated for tourism with planned nature trails. It is now scheduled for logging by VicForests.

These trees on the slope of Brown Mountain, in a catchment that drains to the Snowy River estuary, have not burned for 200 years despite being subjected to repeated fire threats. If the hype surrounding the recent bushfires is to be believed they should have “gone up” long ago.

The resistance of these old forests to fire is highlighted in recent burns. Remnant old Tasmanian Blue Gum forest on Wilson’s Promontory deflected major fires as they have down five or more times in the last century. These and even younger forest get wetter with age and “absorb” lightening strikes, increasingly restricting the fires they generate to the tree hit. Being the tallest forests and most likely to be hit by lightning. If they did not become less flammable over time, 500-600 years at least as we now know, they would not exist.

This 100 tonne Brown Mountain monster was still very healthy and growing when it was cut. However, the rich soils these trees grow in are sort after by forestry managers and the forest industry for crops of young forests — all for a pulp industry with an economically uncertain future. Forests like these are now threatened not only by Victorian Government through VicForests but by the rampant fuel reduction burning now being driven by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).

After the January 7th the forest industry and others blamed the lack of fuel reduction burning for these fires. As forester Andrew Campbell states : “Claims that more broadscale fuel reduction burning in Victoria’s forests would have prevented these fires and the horrendous loss of life are nonsense.”

In the same paper he quotes reputable scientists pointing out the forests around Marysville and Kinglake had been subjected to regular fuel reduction burning.

Proper and targeted asset protection is not questioned. However fuel reduction burning (in all its forms) dries forests and often leaves behind stands of dead dry solid timber increasing the heat and hazard of subsequent fires. Many areas burned in ’06 and ’07 burned again. The simple notion that if the bush is burned it is less likely to burn is easy to understand – but it could be dangerously wrong. In unburned forests the timber on the forest floor is rotted, though their may be ‘tonnes of it’. Rotten timber is holds moisture and is hard to burn – try it in your own fire place.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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