SOME STATEMENTS ON 2019 AUSTRALIAN FIRES

Australia has had a history of bushfires stretching back long before the English invasion. There seems to be little doubt that the fire related activities of Aborigines have had a substantial effect on local ecologies and the species that have survived and gone extinct.

This post consists of a number of fire related statements written as a prod to discussion.

General Statements:

  1. A number of factors contributed to the extent and severity of the NSW/Qld 2019 fires: These included:
  1. We don’t know to what extent the items listed above are a one off coincidence as distinct to a long term change in weather patterns.
  2. Fires and the way we manage fires and fire protection can have a marked effect on both the built and natural environment, the extinction emergency and weather patterns.
  3. Australian plants, animals and ecologies have evolved to deal with the effects of fire in various ways. At one extreme there are plants etc. that are killed by fire and others that need periodic fires to survive and compete. (Think plants that need fire for their seeds to germinate and the burning of other plants to give their seedlings fertiliser and a clear space to grow. Coastal heaths and wildflower zones often depend on periodic fires to thrive.)
  4. Some fire resistant plants have leaves etc. that burn strongly and destroy competing plants. Increasing the frequency of periodic burning to reduce the build-up of flammable material will favour these fire resistant species and may actually make fires worse.
  5. When spinifex burns it leaves the ground bare. It grows again starting with small clumps that are too small and far apart for a fire to propagate. After a number of years the clumps expand until they are close enough to propagate. Once this has happened a lightning strike or whatever can start an intense spreading fire over a large area.
  1. Some animals that live in spinifex country need amix of mature spinifex clumps that they can hide in and get out of the sun in during the day and less mature spinifex areas where they can feed at night.
  2. Firestick farming of spinifex involves lighting mature patches when the wind is blowing towards nearby immature patches that are big enough to stop the fire. The result over time is a moziac of small patches of varying maturity that provides hiding places in old spinifex close to feeding spaces in younger spinifex for the small animals that live in this type of country. Aborigines and hawks hunt some of the animals that are disturbed by the fire. (The fires may also encourage plants that Aborigines use.)
  3. The small fires associated with firestick farming make it easier for small animals to escape the fire and reach safety.
  4. Where Aborigines are no longer looking after the country older patches that have not been burnt link up. The result can be much larger fires that are harder to escape, reduce the total length of boundaries between older and newer growth and reduce the number of animals that the system supports.
  5. In some cases grazing practices rather than fire might be used to create the mosaic. Recently grazed areas will reduce fire intensity, slow down fire fronts and provide refuges for people and animals trying to escape fires.
  6. In the parts of Arnhem land that I was familiar with firestick farming takes a different form. The dry long grass from the wet season is burnt early in the dry season when the soil still contains some moisture. The moisture means that green shoots will sprout after the fire and attract animals that the Aborigines hunt. Burning is also done to make it easier to move around during the dry season. (Wading through long grass is hard work.)
  7. Mosaics are all very well but many animals need connected country to allow them to travel around to seek mates, adapt to climate change etc. Poorly designed connections may help fire travel around too. Bent shapes may reduce the risk by allowing fire to go only so far before it needs to change direction and burn into the wind.
  8. Other Aborigines will have had their versions of firestick farming and fire management. This will have affected the countryside and made changes to the species that thrive and struggle.
  9. Recovery can be rapid a few weeks after bushfires as species that benefit from fires take advantage of the circumstances that suit them.
  10. Since Aborigines arrived the world climate has changed to include periods of ice ages etc. It is not just human activity that has formed the Australian countryside.
  11. We can learn from the ways Aborigines used and looked after the land. However, keep in mind that what they did was about supporting their lifestyle and may, over time, have reduced the lands capacity to support people as well as reducing environmental variability.
  12. Fire has a role in the competition between grass and trees. Grass fires will kill young trees but not more advanced ones. Frequent grass fires favour grassland. Less frequent fires may allow the forest to take over what used to be grassland.
  13. Healthy trees pump moisture into the atmosphere continuously except under very very dry conditions. This moisture increases the chance of rain. The sucking up of this moisture can stop the level of the saline water table rising. Strategies aimed at reducing fire risk need to understand that trees are more than just fuel to fires.
  14. Some greener, lusher plants that don’t burn easily may help slow down or stop fires. (Think rain forest trees.)
  15. From a conservation point of view fire policy should aim at protecting iconic places and species as well as supporting environmental diversity and limiting the damage caused by bushfires.

What should happen now? ( Dec 2019)

  1. Continue fighting fires:
    • Look for ways of increasing the resources being used to fight this lot of fires.
    • Find the generosity to provide some compensation to volunteers who have been fighting the fires and businesses affected
  1. The size of the fires means that we are unlikely to have another big one in the areas where the fires occurred. Time to think, do the research properly and come up with good plans.
  2. The response to the Dec 2019 fires needs to consider both:
  • The overall problems of fighting such a widespread and prolonged fire emergency.
  • The whats, whys and contributing factors behind what happened locally.
  • What worked locally? Action to reduce risk, make it easier to fight fire or reduce damage.
  1. There is a real risk that post fire discussions will get bogged down into a war between those:
  • Who think it is all about climate action
  • Who want to shut down or modify national parks.
  • Want to blame the Greens etc.
  • Who see opportunities to do things like harvest more trees, get some free grazing in national parks etc.
  1. Investigation needs to get down to individual fires. Some of the causes and actions will be quite local.
  2. Questions that need to be asked include:
    • What can be done to make homes and buildings more fireproof.
    • How many lives would have been saved by better shelters?
    • How many problems related to the difficulty of getting out via long roads etc once the evacuate order was issued?
    • What do we do to increase air moisture levels? (More trees? Forests stretching from the coast? And??

Looking forward to suggestions.

8 thoughts on “SOME STATEMENTS ON 2019 AUSTRALIAN FIRES”

  1. John, a couple of sundry points.

    You said:

    Federal government reduced labour available for preparing national parks for fire season.

    My impression is that the NSW reduced labour available, while Qld increased it. I can’t quote the exact figure, but I remember premier Palaszczuk saying that Qld had done over a million hectares of hazard burning, which was more than previous years, but not enough.

    Second point, there is an African introduced grass infesting parts of the NT that grows high and burns very hot, exterminating native species. Can’t remember the name.

    Third, I heard the academic fire expert from Tasmania, can’t recall his name, say that the time had passed where you could ring 000 during a fire alert and expect to get an answer. So you need to be prepared to make your own decisions when you evacuate.

    Nor can you expect that your house will be defended.

    Local ABC issues warnings, but only on the analogue broadcasts, which not everyone has.

    I know that you can get texted warnings about thunderstorms in Brisbane. Not sure about fires.

  2. Brian:

    Federal government reduced labour available for preparing national parks for fire season.

    I removed this statement to avoid controversy over a side issue. I don’t think more preparation would have made a lot of difference given the dryness and high temperatures over such a wide area.

  3. This is what the Greens and others had to say about the fires, hazard reduction and some of the attacks on the Greens by some politicians and commentators:
    Bushfires, Hazard Reduction and Backburning
    On hazard reduction the Greens position has long been:

    The Australian Greens support hazard reduction burns and backburning to reduce the impact of wildfire when guided by the best scientific, ecological and emergency service expertise.

    Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire & Rescue commissioner said:

    Climate change is making fires and droughts worse, with the windows for standard hazard reduction measures during winter months becoming increasingly sparse.

  4. Victorian fire chief says calls for more fuel reduction burns are an ’emotional load of rubbish ‘https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-07/fuel-reduction-burn-debate-rubbish-says-vic-fire-chief/11849522
    “Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has moved to shut down calls for a massive increase in fuel reduction burns, as the state’s fire chief says the debate has involved “hysteria” and an “emotional load of rubbish”.

    Key points:
    Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and others have called for more planned burns in the wake of the bushfires
    But the Country Fire Authority’s chief officer says the “hysteria” over planned burns is “an emotional load of rubbish”
    The Premier says the window during which planned burns can be safely attempted is becoming smaller each year
    The recent bushfire crises across south-eastern Australia have prompted calls on social media and from former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce for more land to burnt off during the cooler months to reduce bushfire fuel in summer.
    Mr Joyce has attacked Greens politicians for what he says is a failure to support hazard reduction burning during winter, despite such burns being part of Greens policy.
    Some residents emerging from the East Gippsland township of Cann River, which was cut off by bushfires which have devastated the region, have today told the ABC they believe more planned burning should have been done.
    Cann River farmer Graeme Connley said residents had been given “no say” in planned burning in their area.”
    Done poorly fire reduction burning can drive extinctions and make some areas more prone to big bushfires.
    Some science and sensible discussion is required.

  5. Indigenous fire practices have been used to quell bushfires for thousands of years, experts say. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-09/indigenous-cultural-fire-burning-method-has-benefits-experts-say/11853096.
    Interesting article on how Aborigines used fire to reduce bushfire risk while supporting the environment.
    “How is it different from regular hazard reduction burns?
    According to Mr Costello, hazard reduction burns, conducted by state-based fire authorities, are generally focused on reducing fuel load or types of debris and vegetation that can feed a fire.

    A man blowing on sticks to make fire
    PHOTO: Oliver Costello said more investment was needed for cultural burning to become part mainstream fire management. (ABC News: Supplied)
    He said this approach focused on preventing property loss but could often be a “blunt instrument”.

    “It’s just so focused on fuel reduction,” he said.

    “I’ve seen a lot of hazard reduction that isn’t appropriate for that area.

    “It can be way too hot; it can scorch areas that shouldn’t be burned, [but] some isn’t too off the mark.”

    Can it be used everywhere?
    Mr Costello wants to see the practice used all over the country.

    “We want to uphold our cultural lore, we want to make our sick country healthy,” he said.

    For Mr Lapsley, who led the emergency management response after the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, there needs to be a national uptake of these practices.”

  6. I know it’s anecdata but I’ve seen two or three reports that in areas which have been culturally burned (even in past years) structures have survived the latest fires, often to the surprise of their owners.

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