January 30th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Dyson report only partial answer to union problems

CANBERRA OBSERVED No urgency but Turnbull will want to make his mark

NATIONAL AFFAIRS SA pays price of solar and wind generation

FRENCH POLITICS AND ISLAM Kepel scathing of French elites, Salafists and far-right Islamophobes

ENVIRONMENT New bushfire tragedies: when will we ever learn?

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Betrayal: Curia no friend to Russian Catholics

HISTORY OF TAIWAN From pivot of Dutch trade to Japanese outpost

LIFE ISSUES Victoria enacts law based on lies told to Parliament

LIFE ISSUES Euthanasia: a false start to end-of-life issues

ETHICS Book traces foundations of true civilisation

RELIGION AND SOCIETY A welcome in truth for the same-sex attracted

CINEMA The beauty beyond fear: The Good Dinosaur

BOOK REVIEW Secularism mars insights

BOOK REVIEW A novel for the remnant

LETTERS

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ENVIRONMENT
New bushfire tragedies: when will we ever learn?


by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 30, 2016

Over the Christmas/New Year holiday period, Victoria and Western Australia were ravaged by bushfires that caused the loss of hundreds of houses and thousands of farm animals, though, thankfully, few lives.

 

Gary Featherston, chairman of

the Victoria division of the

Institute of Foresters Australia.

The ABC and the Bureau of Meteorology – predictably – blamed “climate change”, and pointed to the higher temperatures and lower precipitation which accompanied the el Niño event in Australia in 2015.

 

State premiers and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited the fire-ravaged regions to express sympathy for those families who had lost everything, promised a few thousand dollars of emergency relief, and said, “We will help them rebuild”.

Totally lacking was any acceptance of the fact – recognised by long-serving fire-fighters and forestry experts – that these fires could have been prevented completely, or their severity greatly mitigated, by better forest management, particularly regular and sufficient fuel-reduction burning, at a frequency to prevent the build-up of dead trees and trash on the forest floor.

Speaking after the Victorian fires, the Institute of Foresters Australia called on the State Government to hold a special inquiry into the fire that destroyed 116 houses on Christmas Day. The Inspector-General for Emergency Management will examine the fire as part of the normal process for any fire of significance.

Fire was containable

In a media release, the institute pointed out that the fire was sparked six days earlier by lightning, which it says is common, so it should have been contained quickly. Gary Featherston, chairman of the Victoria division of the Institute of Foresters Australia, said better fuel management, including fuel reduction burns, should have been employed.

“Experienced foresters find it hard to comprehend that a small, lightning-caused fire in relatively accessible forest could not be contained after five days of benign weather conditions before Christmas,” Mr Featherston said. ’We acknowledge that property losses could have been far worse if not for the high quality of the emergency response on Christmas Day.

“However, focus on this response has obscured ‘the elephant in the room’, that is, how did the initial fire at Jamieson Track, about eight kilometres north of Wye River, grow to be such a problem in the first place?”

Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley blamed the inability to quickly control the Jamieson Track fire on difficult country and heavy fuel loads from 50 years without fire. However, foresters experienced in fire-fighting say that the area is no more inaccessible than country in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria where multiple lightning fires are common, and are typically controlled quickly.

Mr Featherston said: “The Victorian Government rightly initiated an inquiry into a fire which destroyed five houses at Cobaw in October.

“However, in view of the much greater losses at Wye River and Separation Creek (116 houses, $50 million in insurance claims, and a massive hit to the local tourism sector), Premier Daniel Andrews must not delay in setting up an independent inquiry into the pre-Christmas fire-fighting efforts at Jamieson Track.

“The Victorian public needs to be made aware of the practical and cultural aspects of forested land management which affect the capacity to effectively control forest fires, rather than continually being told that devastating bushfires are just an unavoidable consequence of climate change.

Neglected

His comments echoed the observations of Professor Mark Adams, who wrote a most informative article in the Melbourne Age on January 5.

“Fuel reduction in the vast forests behind the communities along the Great Ocean Road have been neglected for decades,” Professor Adams wrote. “No amount of platitudes or hair-splitting about attaining a target of 9,000 hectares of fuel reduction in the past year can make up for decades of neglect of an estate of hundreds of thousands of hectares.

“Our place was built using second-hand along with new materials. Much came from the demolition of the Large Lecture Theatre in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne.

“Beautiful old messmate floorboards, blackwood stools and benches, and even a linen press made from an old herbarium cupboard were features. So too were the stairs, bannisters and handrails and window seat that were also crafted from salvaged blackwood, and structural beams of Oregon, still as good as new.

“An irony is that generations of foresters were taught about the ecology and management of forests in that large lecture theatre, or LLT, as it was known.

“They learned about fire. They walked across the messmate floorboards that, in a different age, were routinely scrubbed to a sheen by dedicated cleaners. “They parked their backsides on the blackwood stools and etched their names and witticisms into the bench tops. But they learned and then practised what they had learnt in the forests of Victoria. Many who visited our place heard that history, if they asked. Not that it meant too much in that setting.

“The house was not a museum or a library or a university – far from it. But nearly everyone could see the risks.”

Vain hope

Professor Adams continued: “Dense blue-gum forest behind and a one-lane road ensured we diligently cleared and hoped every year. We hoped that at least once the authorities would come and run a fuel reduction fire in the forest behind.

“Like most, we are strong supporters of the Country Fire Authority. The annual fete at the CFA is where we exchange one set of paperbacks for another, one set of dodgy deck chairs for another, and claim as big a share of the cakes and doughnuts as we can.

“Separation Creek and Wye River were sitting ducks for bushfire. As with many houses at Wye and Sep, our place was too big a risk to expect it could be saved by a tanker or a few slip-on fire-fighting units, once a bushfire had entered our settlements.”

He added: “Premiers and prime ministers, celebrities and media are right to praise the work of the emergency services for their success in saving lives and property that could otherwise have been lost.

“While an autopsy of the fire inside Sep and Wye still awaits, big questions ought to be asked elsewhere.

“I know – and I mean I know – that for more than a quarter of a century there had been no serious fuel reduction within cooee of Sep and Wye. Sure, there had been the odd cosmetic burn along the Ocean Road, but the serious fuels to the north and west – the quarters from where the big risks would come with hot dry winds — were ignored. Easier by far to declare the forests a national park and then let nature take care of itself.

“For decades foresters were taught how to manage fuels in concert with the ecology of the forests. Some of it they learned by sitting on the same blackwood stools that are now piles of ash. It wasn’t too hard for them to manage forests so that disasters were avoided.

“How many disasters must we have, and how much public and private money needs to be spent, before we stop accepting a situation that can and should be avoided?”

Environmentalists agenda

Not surprisingly, greenies oppose fuel reduction burn-offs.

In an article published in The Age on January 10, a spokesman for the private lobby group known as the National Parks Association claimed that fuel-reduction burns are ineffective and expensive.

He wrote: “It seems our most favoured fire-management tool is least useful when we need it most, and very expensive where we need it most.”

He pointed out that this is the official position of the Victorian Environment Department, which is responsible for overseeing the government’s policy towards national parks, where logging of timber and even collection of fallen logs from the floor of the forest, is not permitted.

The Environment Department has ignored the recommendation of the royal commission that was established after the disastrous Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 that took 170 lives.

After hearing expert evidence from experts in forest management and environmentalists, the royal commission recommended an annual burn target of 5 per cent of public land (about 390,000 hectares) across Victoria.

It is now a month since December’s fire disaster in Wye River and Separation Creek, but there has been no evidence that the Victorian Government is willing to look again at introducing effective fuel-reduction burn-offs in Victoria.




























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