Three consecutive extreme summers accompanied the Settlement Drought of 1790-93. Masses of flying foxes and lorikeets dropped dead in Parramatta during three days of blistering northwesterly gales with temperatures above 43 degrees Celsius. Aboriginal fires were burning 24/7 but there were no fire disasters.
Our first megafire, around 1820, established the Great Scrub of South Gippsland after Aboriginal burning was disrupted by a 1789 smallpox epidemic. Following European occupation, five million hectares of Victoria exploded in the Black Thursday disaster of 1851. The Strzelecki Ranges were incinerated again on Red Tuesday 1898.
When the Highlands were set alight in extreme weather on Black Friday 1939. Fourteen large fires in East Gippsland did little damage because the land was managed by grazing and burning. In 1961, four towns in Western Australia were destroyed by the Dwellingup fires. Foresters woke up, reintroduced broad area burning, and developed aerial ignition techniques. Bega was saved from disaster in the horrendous 1968 fires by prior aerial burning in what is now wilderness to the northwest.
In the 1970s, ecologists had a dream that species that thrived through about 40,000 years of Aboriginal burning would be wiped out by mild fires. Prescribed burning was reduced and the Hume-Snowy Bushfire Prevention Scheme was disbanded.
In 2003, lightning strikes started many fires in and around Kosciuszko National Park. Fires in managed areas outside the park were all rounded up within three days. Fires in the park went on to destroy nearly 500 homes in Canberra and claim four human lives.
The parliamentary inquiry into A Nation Charred took evidence from land managers and:
‘Heard a consistent message right around Australia:- there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long; local knowledge and experience is being ignored by an increasingly top heavy bureaucracy.’
A dissenting report relied heavily on information from Professor Robert Whelan of Wollongong University who claimed that ‘broad scale hazard reduction is threatening biodiversity conservation and must therefore be avoided by land managers and resisted at a political level’.
South-eastern bureaucracies boycotted the Nairn Inquiry and set up a Council of Australian Governments Inquiry under an emergency manager, Professor Whelan, and another professor. They gave us ‘learning to live with bushfires’ – education, emergency response, and evacuation instead of sustainable fire management.
Since COAG 2004, more than 200 people have been killed in bushfires.
Whelan set up a bushfire ‘research’ industry at Wollongong University which eventually became the core of NSW Bushfire Research Hub. The academics made models supposedly showing that prescribed burning doesn’t work in the southeast because it’s biogeographically different from the southwest, where 60 years of real data have proved its effectiveness. They said that, in any case, prior burning has no effect under extreme conditions.
The long-term operational data from Western Australia show that burning is ineffective unless a minimum of around 9 per cent of the landscape is treated each year. The effects last up to six years. So prescribed burning is effective when at least half the landscape is being maintained. In the southeast, the figure has been around 1 per cent per annum. The real data also show that the positive effects of maintenance apply particularly in severe seasons, by preventing the development of unstoppable firestorms.
Authorities in the southeast use models to target the miniscule amount of prescribed burning around the edges of suburbia. They are, in effect, creating supposed firebreaks. The scientific and historical evidence is crystal clear that firebreaks, fire engines, and waterbombers can’t stop firestorms coming from unmanaged land. The world record Gospers Mountain fire of half a million hectares started from one lightning strike in the Wollemi Wilderness.
After Black Summer, NSW’s Bushfire Inquiry took advice from the Bushfire Research Hub. I will not attend the International Fire & Climate Conference set to be held on 7-9th June 2022, but I think one of the highlights must surely be this presentation by Professor Ross Bradstock, the Founder and, until recently, Director of the Research Hub: The role of science in the bushfire-inquiry cycle: a case study from the 2019/20 fire season.
It will be impossible for attendees to miss the Keynote Address by Mr. Greg Mullins, Climate Councillor and Founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action: Climate and fire – learnings from the political interface.
Vic Jurskis is a former senior NSW Forestry Commission professional forester. He has published two books, Firestick Ecology, and The Great Koala Scam, both available from Connor Court.
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