The Burning Question?

(Weekly Times)

In November 2014 I attended a meeting in Bairnsdale on the threat of bushfires at which Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2011) spoke. His message to the meeting was to burn often and burn everywhere and I noted a number of discrepancies between his lecture and his book which I may eventually document if I live long enough. His plea for a return to an ‘idyllic’ pre European situation of 200 years ago is of course impossible. Suffice to say the Gammage thesis only ever applied to some parts of Gippsland and the last 50 years of clear-fell logging and ‘farming’ of our native forests has made his arguments both obsolete and absurd. And most importantly the burning he advocates takes no account of our serious climate emergency.

I am familiar with many of the burning practices having been occasionally employed as a seasonal worker by the old forestry department. On a personal basis I used small fires regularly – along with mowing, slashing, pruning – to remove extra fuel from around our house in the bush. This was a common sense use of fire as ‘asset protection’. The current practice of ‘asset protection’ fuel reduction burns was instituted after the Black Saturday Royal Commission whereby 5% of public land is to be burned each year. This bureaucratic requirement means that substantial parts of the state are over burned and a large part of this ‘fuel reduction’ burning is nowhere near threatened assets. An example of this is the current proposal to burn bush south of Nowa Nowa between the township and Lake Tyers. One’s imagination must be stretched to see this as any form of asset protection.

This leads us to the question of climate change. Any bushfire, regardless of intensity, puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides. It is therefore a question of how to minimise this. There is a substantial argument that regular low intensity burns may help prevent catastrophic fires and the bushfires crowning. Some of the behaviour of the Black Saturday fires appears to contradict this argument and I will have to examine it more closely in another later blog, probably several. Despite this ‘debate’ there are a still a number of obvious conclusions. The logging industry must be phased out as quickly as possible at the same time as the forest and fire protection services are substantially expanded. And until the evidence definitely says otherwise, fuel reduction burns should be confined to real ‘asset protection’ and other, minimal, uses of fire such as ‘ecological’ burns.