The East Gippsland Bushfires Still

I have just learned that an EGCAN member and contributor to this blog Kay Schieran has had his house burned down. He is the second friend to suffer this loss in our ‘unprecedented’ fires. Anecdotal evidence continues to indicate how the disaster has affected everyone’s lives from the numerous evacuation notices and false alarms to those smoke affected, to the tourist business casualties and the rush for rental accommodation in Bairnsdale.

The Murdoch media continues to deflect from the climate change issue sowing doubt and apportioning blame. The two main furphies they have floated have been that the fires have been started by arsonists and that the fires could have been controlled or stopped with controlled burns. With regards climate change both claims are beside the point as it is the warming and drying of the region, combined with strong winds, that has made the fires unstoppable.

As well as this many commentators (old, white, male, ‘shiny bums’ from the city with a few exceptions) confused ‘back burning’ with ‘controlled’, ‘low intensity’ or ‘prescribed’ burns. The former being part of the fire-fighter’s tools whilst the latter being burns conducted in the off season to reduce the fuel load. There is a small element of truth in the ‘controlled’ burns thesis. I am reliably informed that some areas, such as Sarsfield, could have been better prepared with limited controlled burns, especially noting that these burns are most effective close to the assets they are designed to protect.

Although fuel loads are an important aspect of the fires, to isolate and appropriate blame on this element alone to the exclusion of temperature, topography, vegetation, humidity, and wind speeds is pure political propaganda. To counter this some anecdotal accounts have country burning twice – tricking along the ground during mild conditions and crowning when the Forest Fire Danger Index soars. Also country that has been previously burned in bushfires or in controlled burns in the last ten years has burned again. Finally there is mounting evidence that the burning process, whatever its origins (controlled burns, logging or bushfires) actually encourages low level fire prone vegetation for about thirty years.

Another aspect barely considered is that as the region has warmed and dried the ‘window of opportunity’ for controlled burns is restricted. Controlled burns can quickly become uncontrolled. There are a number of examples of these ‘escapes’ – the winter bushfire at Cape Conran in 2018 is one example.

The other media slander – that the fires were caused by arsonists – is demonstrably untrue. A number of fires in mountainous, inaccessible areas in East Gippsland were ignited by ‘dry lightning’ on November 21. As I have previously pointed out, so too were the mammoth blazes in Gippland earlier this century 2003 and 2006/7 ignited by dry thunderstorms. And as noted previously there is evidence that this form of ignition will increase with the warming (see here and here).

ABC journalist Kellie Lazzaro noted on February 10 (see above) that there was still substantial fire activity in our region. This date makes the East Gippsland fires of 81 days duration – unprecedented and still trickling away in many places. The final statistics for these fires may still be some time coming.