Ian Brown, Environmental consultant and former national park manager (6 December 2019)
Note: an earlier version of this article first appeared in the Colong Bulletin no. 277, December 2019
As I write (on 6 December), fires in the north and south of the Blue Mountains are merging into mega-fires, driven by severe dryness, strong winds and parched air. Forty per cent of the million-hectare Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area has burnt so far. Millions of people are smothering in smoke. North-eastern NSW has already seen devastation. The NSW toll stands at six lives, more than 500 houses and over two million hectares. Already. Numerous wilderness areas and conservation reserves have been impacted, with many national parks burnt completely. Key koala populations have been decimated and ancient rainforests burnt (at least their edges and at ground level). There is no doubt this is the biggest fire season in the recorded (white) history of the state. And it will get worse before it rains.
The afterburn and blame game started even quicker than usual, because this time the politics of climate change is the mammoth in the room. Conservative heroes from the National Party are appalled that anyone dare mention such an irrelevance and have tried to shut down the discussion. They and their ilk are terrified of debating the climate because their only answer is denial.
Instead, they are attacking national parks and trying to blame the ‘greenies’ for stopping off-season burning, in some kind of conspiracy. Robert Borsak has even said he’ll introduce legislation to allow farmers to burn off neighbouring national parks! Thankfully Environment Minister Matt Kean has been standing firm against these outbursts of stupidity.
All environment groups, including the National Parks Association and Colong Foundation, support responsible, science-based, well-planned burning as a useful measure and part of a suite of strategies to mitigate fire impacts on communities and ecosystems. This position is unsurprisingly similar to that of the RFS, NPWS, fire researchers and other experts. They also know that more burning is not a silver bullet, and that burn targets are a blunt instrument. Unfortunately a media focus on the burning debate has distracted from other vital issues like town planning, property management, rapid suppression and arson. Two articles by different researchers pointed out that 83% or 85% of all fires are caused by people – but note many current fires are from lightning.
A couple of long-time RFS members from the hard-hit village of Wytaliba have exposed the fallacy of the ‘not enough burning’ argument. They said that with Forestry and NPWS they have undertaken many burns over the past few years, and they had an actual wildfire in September. None of it stopped a November fire burning down half the village’s houses and killing two people. Many other wildfires have not been stopped by previous burns, and today as I write, a blaze near Katoomba is inexorably burning through part of last year’s planned fire on Mount Solitary.
Two large northern NSW fires together destroyed 84 houses. Both started on private land, burnt mostly private land and State Forest, with only small areas of national park. Fire, especially this year, does not notice such boundaries. Nevertheless, because most flammable bushland is in conservation reserves, it is inevitable that protected areas will dominate total area burnt.
The line ‘no fuel no fire’ plays well in the tabloids, but is simplistically akin to saying if there was no water then people wouldn’t drown. Some people want to emulate the Western Australian strategy of burning large areas every year, but WA’s Mediterranean climate and ecosystems are quite different from the east coast. Far from being a simple solution, more burning is complex and fraught with difficulties.
Professor Ross Bradstock’s research shows that the costs and benefits of planned burning are exponential: to get twice the benefit you need to burn four times the area. Research also shows that the fire-suppressing benefit of burns only lasts about three years, even less in extreme conditions. The weather windows for effective burning have always been limited, and are becoming ever more restricted. Burning close to housing is resource-intensive, complex and risky. Pushing burn envelopes will mean more fires get away and impact houses. Frequent burning promotes more fire-prone vegetation. Some widespread plant communities cannot be easily burnt: tall forest/wet sclerophyll will only burn under severe conditions (and catastrophically), and heathlands burn intensely. Large-scale burning could be Armageddon for natural ecosystems and wildlife, while providing little to no benefit on the settlement interface where burning needs to be targeted.
So while we should not buy into this false argument about more burning, its still worth noting that NPWS carried out 137,000 hectares of burns last year, 75% of all planned burning across NSW. Strangely, there has been little comment about fuel on private land, and Forestry NSW has escaped criticism. Is that the whiff of ideological witch-burning I can smell?
There have been the usual calls to graze national parks to reduce fuel (absurd, and scientifically disproven) and bring back ‘Aboriginal burning’ (without actually knowing what it was). While Indigenous knowledge should absolutely be harnessed, the model often invoked comes from northern Australia, where the cyclic wet/dry climate and grassy savannah woodlands are completely different from much southern vegetation. And the sorts of environments that may have been patchwork-burnt are unlikely to be what’s now left in our national parks.
The rate of climate change has become alarming. Only history will tell if the current drought and heat are a statistical blip or here to stay, but researchers are telling us that on current track we can expect more of the same. We have to take heed, and we all need to re-assess our assumptions, including conservationists. Radical new approaches may be needed to protect both communities and ecosystems. This might include more strategic burning, but also needs to focus on faster detection and suppression and boosting the defendability of communities.
Trouble is, NSW and federal governments are paralysed, held hostage by conservative firebrands who will wreak political havoc if climate reality is accepted. Some of the most vocal are from the National Party, supposedly representing rural interests while displaying an abiding ignorance of land management and ecology. Without acceptance of climate change, adaptive policies can’t happen. Climate change is here now, and while we must take action to stop it (and that includes being vocal on the world stage), we also have no choice but to adapt.
This is the fight that was always coming, between radically different world views. Those clinging to old notions of human supremacy will squeal in ever greater desperation, until they are mugged by reality and consigned to the compost of history. Bring it on.