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Victoria

Jul 17, 2009

The bushfire blame game: greenies, loggers or arsonists?

Victorian conservation groups have hit back at claims greenies and National Parks are culpable for the severity of the Black Saturday bushfires, blaming logging companies.

Victorian conservation groups have hit back at claims greenies and National Parks are culpable for the severity of the Black Saturday bushfires, blaming logging companies for monopolising the government personnel who undertake burning operations.

Melbourne Water Catchment Network and Otways Ranges Environment Network spokesperson Simon Birrell said the 2003 Esplin Inquiry into bushfires that year exposed how the logging industry have played a role in decreasing the number of fuel reduction fires.

The Esplin Inquiry found that the number of burns conducted after logging dominated, representing an average of 63% of prescribed burins each year compared with 33% for fuel reduction. However, the average area burnt each year due to logging is tiny at only 2% compared with 90% for fuel reduction burns. Why? The average size of each logging burn is 24ha compared with 700ha for each fuel reduction burn.

There are only very limited days available to safely conduct fuel reduction burns, and a limited pool of qualified personnel to undertake this dangerous work.

Birrell also claimed the logging industry were guilty of causing fires. He said, “… the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s own data indicates that over the past two decades at least one in 20 wildfires have been started by logging industry practices.”

Institute of Foresters of Australia Victorian Chair Michael Ryan told Crikey that the only people the Black Saturday fires can be blamed on are arsonists. Ryan said:

The publicly accessible DSE website states that the number of fires from escaped planned burns are on average 9 out of 450 pear year making 2% of the causes of all fires. These planned burns include fuel reduction burns, post logging regeneration burns and ecological burns.

Escaped planned burns make up 2% of the causes of wildfires and 5% of the area of fires. It is therefore incorrect for Mr Birrell to state that at least one in 20 wildfires are started by logging practices. It is also worth noting that escaped planned burns occur under more mild autumn conditions than summer wildfires so do not tend to cause the same level of impact as summer wildfires.

ANU Forestry Professor Peter Kanowski told Crikey the logging industry essentially paid for regeneration burning services. He said, “all management costs associated with wood production (including regeneration burning) are met from the price paid to VicForests for the timber.”

Kanowski said it was likely there would be a greater number of staff employed to conduct burning operations this year:

Victoria’s 2008 Bushfire Management Strategy envisaged a substantial increase in fuel reduction burning across all tenures (not just production forests):

To carry out the burning program at the scale necessary will require a significant investment in trained and experienced firefighters across the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), its partner agencies and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

A Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman told Crikey:

Over the last 12 months, more than 154,000 hectares of public land has been treated by planned burning, with only 2% percent of this area being in logging coupes.

Logging coupe regeneration burns are conducted jointly by VicForests, the authority responsible for managing native forest harvesting in Victoria and DSE. VicForests crews also assist DSE in conducting DSE burns. More importantly VicForests personnel play a significant role in fire suppression work during an fire. The equipment associated with timber harvesting, which is frequently located close to fires, is also an important resource for fire suppression.

Regeneration burns are generally not nearly as labour intensive as fuel reduction burns near houses.

DSE employs a large number of seasonal field staff each year. Most of the seasonal staff stayed on for autumn to assist with the burning program and some seasonal staff will begin work early in spring to assist permanent staff with burning and preparedness work.

An additional $21 million over four years, including 15 additional fire management staff, to assist with fire prevention works in outer metropolitan Melbourne parks was announced last week.

This comes on tops of $50 million over five years which was announced late last year to implement landscape mosaic burns.

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “The bushfire blame game: greenies, loggers or arsonists?

  1. Simon Birrell

    In response to Institute of Foresters of Australia Victorian Chair Michael Ryan, I stand by my estimate that 1 and 20 fires are cased by logging practices on public land.

    Mr Ryan has not acknowledge about 3% of wildfire starts are machinery that includes chainsaws and logging/cartage equipment exhausts.

    Also DSE Regional Fire Protection Plan reports include more detailed information regarding wildfire start categories. The miscellaneous fire starts category (5%) indicted on the DSE pie chart has combined many of these other fire start categories that may also be linked to logging practices.

    The number of wildfire starts attributed directly to the native logging industry has not been specifically calculated by the Government but should be the subject of a specific independent study. This sort of public disclosure is something I would hope the Institute of Foresters would welcome and is something was have asked for in our submission to the Royal Commission.

    I appreciate the Institute of Foresters has not blamed greenies and National Parks for the cause of the Black Saturday fires.

    In response to ANU Forestry Professor Peter Kanowski, yes VicForest now pays for post logging burns however that was not the case in the recent past.

    In response to the DSE comment about more money only last week being allocated for more fuel reduction burns and staff. That is welcome. However is that not also an acknowledgment that past logging practices were historically diverting resources and now the State Government is pumping in more public money? Is that not something the Esplin inquiry six years ago recommended should be done? (See Section 10.36 of Esplin inquiry).

    Simon Birrell

  2. Jan Dash

    Instead of preventing fires by more burning – adding more smoke to the atmosphere, why not cut the timber and chip it?
    It might take longer but the chips could turn a profit and they wouldn’t add to the problem of smoke in the air.

  3. Simon Birrell

    They already woodchip the forests. Over 70 % of trees cut down are woodchipped and woodchips are VicForests main source of income. Still does not fix the problem.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    Kanowski would have more credibility when he publicly admits that the modus operandi of the logging industry for the last 50 years – with it’s highly mechanised operations – is to convert wet old growth into dry schlerophyll with all the bushfire implications that involves.

    That’s landscape change – in particular hydration levels not so different to the Peter Andrews natural sequencing agriculture – on a national scale. Moisture tends to resist fire.

  5. Lorraine Leach

    Tom McLoughlin is spot on – logging, massive road construction to support logging – and the nonsensical prescribed burns – convert wet forests to drier, increasingly more flammable vegetation. Clearfelling rain generating mountain ash, the most carbon dense trees on the planet is a lose, lose situation all round – increasing climate change, decreasing rainfall inland as well as available water flow into catchments and destroying what’s left of our biodiversity. It’s a no-brainer, all funded by the taxpayer to effectively destroy our life-support systems and cause ever more intense bushfires. Will we never learn!!

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