July 2nd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Unanswered questions about the Chinese defectors

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Senator Brian Harradine retires

EDITORIAL: How best to help our children

TRADE: 'Benign neglect' no answer to debt crisis

RURAL POLICY: Water trade to shift water from farms to cities

QUARANTINE: Government appeals against court ruling

TASMANIA: Potato-farmers' outrage at fast-food giant

ABORTION: Feminist luddites of the abortion lobby

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Christianity under threat in Sri Lanka

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: East Timor in grip of major famine

ENERGY: China exchanges nuclear technology for Iranian oil

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The improvident society / A pub with no beer / Beazley's tax strategy / To Hell and back

Europe's malaise (letter)

Colin Teese on Europe (letter)

Strategy to prevent bushfires (letter)

Big Brother: sewage on TV (letter)

Child support reforms (letter)

BOOKS: GAY MARRIAGE: Why it is good for gays, good for straights, and good for America

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Strategy to prevent bushfires (letter)

by R.L. Burke AFSM

News Weekly, July 2, 2005

Peter Westmore's article, "Bushfires: COAG inquiry skirts the real issues" (News Weekly, February 12), referred to a meeting of members of our Rural Fires Association of Queensland Inc. for discussion.

The Association finds itself in agreement with the tenor of the article, particularly in respect to the vital role of hazard-reduction burning in the bushfire scenario.

Unfortunately, the fact is that some authorities, whose role is significant in any bushfire prevention or control management strategy, appear to be more and more minimising or abandoning this procedure which reduces the intensity, rate of spread and degree of destruction caused by major bushfire outbreaks.

In Queensland, the Rural Fire Board was founded in 1948 at the instigation of the Department of Forestry whose fire policy at that time was one of complete protection - no control burning (which was the term then used).

It was soon apparent, however, that this policy was not only short-sighted - as the Department later accepted - but was also unacceptable to rural communities, particularly in spear-grass areas where burning in late winter was essential for pasture rejuvenation to provide fodder for stock in spring.

The Board endorsed a policy of hazard-reduction burning and, in parts of North Queensland where population was sparse, initiated a program of broad area hazard-reduction burning, using aerial ignition methods.

In this way, vast areas could be treated for fuel reduction by mild fires at suitable times when fire intensity was low. The threat of intense bushfires was minimised through a pattern of "mosaic" hazard-reduction at a periodicity that had minimal effects on the environment. This program continues today.

Reduced to the simplest terms, fire requires three essential elements in order to be sustained: oxygen (air), heat (ignition source) and fuel (consumables). While all three factors can be attacked during fire-fighting, only one can be influenced before a fire outbreak. This, of course, is the fuel factor.

One doesn't have to be a fire scientist, therefore, to appreciate the effects of this factor. Its reduction or removal on a large scale can only be effective through burning.

Fire danger meters, devised by the late Alan McArthur of the CSIRO - one of the world's leading bushfire scientists - enable practitioners to safely carry out hazard-reduction burning by integrating the effects of air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, slope, aspect, fuel quantity and fuel dryness on fire behaviour.

Fire "prescriptions" (commonly referred to as prescribed fire), can be developed for any particular hazard-reduction burning program. Meters have been developed for application in grass, forest, brigalow, sugar-cane and house situations.

Regrettably, the general attitude to this practice, once widely accepted as best practice in Queensland, has encountered opposition from two main sources: homeowners who choose to live in a fire-prone bushland setting and who dislike the smell of smoke, however slight; and radical environmentalists who choose to selectively discount proven scientific facts.

It is apparent that both these groups are having a detrimental influence, in terms of public and environmental safety and protection, on local, state and federal authorities and on particular politicians.

To our Association, whose membership includes experienced professional fire scientists and fire managers, the position is clear. Given the right circumstances, this country will continue to experience devastating bushfires. No amount of preventative measures will ensure their complete disappearance.

Surely then, the vital question is how to reduce such outbreaks so that their devastating effects are minimised. The only factor that can be effectively managed is the quantity, arrangement and distribution of fire fuels through a scientifically proven program of strategically-orientated hazard-reduction burning.

In terms of damage to environmental values and the biodiversity values inherent therein, relatively frequent light mosaic burning at a time of minimal fire danger and intensity would surely be preferable to the once in 20- or 30-year holocausts that consume and completely destroy the environment, often with tragic loss of life and property.

Such holocausts have little regard to the biodiversity values which some land managers are charged with protecting. Animals, birds, reptiles, flora, the soil, rocks, boulders, seedbeds, habitats - every ecosystem value is either totally destroyed or severely impacted. Even to laymen, the answer would seem to be obvious.

In the final analysis, the Australian environment is one in which fire has, in at least the past several millennia, always been a factor. Indeed, many species of our native flora need fire to regenerate.

The environment, and the vast ecosystem types of which it is composed, is not static. It is subject to changes, whether or not fire is a factor.

Fire scientists and fire authorities are not anti-environmental. They see their responsibilities and practices as contributing to preserving a dynamic landscape, not one of total destruction.

They accept the fact that relatively frequent deliberately prescribed mild fire - that reduces only a portion of fuels in a mosaic pattern across the landscape - is a far more responsible approach than the complete exclusion of fire until that same landscape is totally devastated by inevitable holocausts that are seemingly gaining in frequency and size as a result.

In addition to the environment, there is the question of loss of human life. Rural and urban land managers and fire services, at both the federal and state levels, have the responsibility of ensuring that their paid and volunteer personnel who frequently risk, and sometimes lose, their lives fighting these holocausts are properly trained and resourced to deal with these unnecessary dangers.

Then consider the innocent civilians that are added to this toll. This Association advocates and supports the practice of properly conducted hazard-reduction burning that poses no threat to the lives of the general population or to those conducting those practices.

R.L. Burke AFSM,
Rural Fires Association of Queensland Inc.,
Highvale, Qld

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