The headline from the Bairnsdale Advertiser May 25 screamed “Road Reserves are Bushfire bombs” in yet another article calling for the clearing of roadside vegetation — this time from a public meeting of the East Gippsland Wildfire taskforce chaired by Craig Ingram MP. The ever present David Packham was there too — a member of the Stretton Group who have provided much of the “burn burn burn” commentary since the Black Saturday bushfires.
It was likely that groups like this fuelled the attacks on “greens” or “greenies” blaming them for a lack of fuel reduction burning that was directly linked to the fires that killed people in Gippsland, Kinglake and Marysville.
With the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission so far dealing with the issues surrounding the day of the fires themselves government agencies and pressure groups are attempting to change particularly forest management by public opinion — capitalising on public fear. Politicians react and this is not the first time Craig Ingram has called for the fuel reduction burning or even clearing of roadside vegetation since the summer fires. Which is more dangerous on a road reserve — highly flammable dead bracken and dry pasture grasses or vegetation these species replace?
Does fuel reduction burning every seven to ten years actually reduce or create fuel? If it does reduce fuel, which types of bush, alpine forests, coastal heathlands, open woodlands, red stringybark forests, swamps etc? What is its impact on domestic water supplies, recreational fishing or tourism in a haze of smoke and blackened National Parks? In a State desperately dry how much of this increasingly localised drought is due to these fires?
Emotive public opinion is no replacement for careful evaluation — especially given the risks and costs involved. The Royal Commission is meant to be giving the Victorian Government advice on fuel reduction burning in a few months yet it appears that various government agencies working with select lobby groups have already made up their minds what management for Victoria’s forest in the future will be — regardless.
The deliberate targeting of National Parks for burning raises a host of other issues. While many botanists seem to have an almost indecent love of fire for its ability to increase the diversity of collectable plants there is little research on the impact of these fires on mammals and other animals which many of these parks were set up for as refuges. Hollow dependent mammal bird species like parrots, owls and gliding possums are being reduced in number as the hollows became rarer with each successive fire. It is surely time to pause and evaluate these other impacts of lighting fires — whatever they are called.
Much of the Victorian forest management strategy invokes Aboriginal burning as the factor that kept forests open and “park like” and assumes that it is the lack of fire that has made recent fires more intense. This most basic assumption can be verified — or refuted — by taking sediment cores from lakes and swamps and examining the layers of ash and pollen to decipher the past pre and post European fire history of every part of the state.
There is also now a complex mosaic of burns across dozens of vegetation types that would enable objective analysis of how fires impact fuel loads, wildlife and water objectively and intelligently.
There is a lot of money to be made from fuel reduction burning, salvage logging, fire break construction and maintenance commitments. The public deserve a detailed assessment by professionals at “a full arms length” from those who gain financially — whether they are private industry or from expanding empires of opinionated academics and forest managers on the public payroll.