It’s time to fight fire with foresters

Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment about to launch the first tri­als in Aus­tralian bush of ‘biomass re­moval’

Australian Forests and Timber - - BUSHFIRE PREVENTION - By Ross Hamp­ton Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer, Aus­tralian For­est Prod­ucts As­so­ci­a­tion (AFPA)

IN THE con­trol rooms of ru­ral fire bri­gades all around Aus­tralia, men and women are peer­ing at de­tailed ter­rain maps and pon­der­ing.

They are try­ing to use sci­ence, weather data, ex­pe­ri­ence and sim­ply gut feel, to pick where the bush­fires will start this year.

Be­cause they know there is no guess work about one thing - the bush­fires are com­ing.

As sure as sum­mer fol­lows winter, the flames are on their way.

Sadly, it won’t be long now un­til our nightly tele­vi­sion news is reg­u­larly full of smoke and thou­sands of or­ange clad vol­un­teers with grimy, weary faces.

The fact of bush­fires in Aus­tralia is some­thing we must of course live with.

We are af­ter all the sev­enth most forested na­tion on earth and even if we had no cig­a­rette butts, matches or fire bugs we would still have light­ning strikes dur­ing sum­mer thun­der­storms which would get the flames started.

The real ques­tion is, are we do­ing all we can to re­duce the in­ten­sity of the fires when they come?

Af­ter years of ar­gu­ment the an­swer fi­nally might be a hes­i­tant, and very con­di­tional, yes.

The rea­son for that ‘yes’, is that the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment is about to launch the first tri­als in Aus­tralian bush of ‘biomass re­moval’.

This is an im­por­tant first step to look at more in­no­va­tive ways to re­duce our fuel loads in ad­di­tion to the usual ‘pre­scribed burn­ing’ prac­tices.

Prescibed burn­ing has been, and al­ways will be, a ma­jor tool for fire , how­ever, it isn’t the whole an­swer.

The smoke cre­ates health is­sues and the risks of man­ag­ing even a ‘con­trolled burn-off’ close to towns and cities in an of­ten nar­row win­dow of suit­able weather makes it a highly chal­leng­ing un­der­tak­ing.

‘Biomass re­moval’ is also a process for re­duc­ing fuel load but in­stead of flames it uses ma­chin­ery.

The ma­chines are sent into strate­gic zones (such as a bush strip along­side a sub­urb) to ‘open up’ the for­est.

This in­volves the re­moval of some small trees and shrubs in an at­tempt to re­duce the im­pen­e­tra­ble jun­gle of dead branches and fallen trees and re­veal more of the for­est floor.

The goal is to re­duce the fuel load that in­ten­si­fies bush­fires, in­crease ac­cess and al­low bet­ter spaced trees to grow more vig­or­ously.

The ma­chin­ery also re­moves what fire fight­ers call ‘lad­der fuel’ which de­liv­ers the flames of a bush­fire quickly to the top branches cre­at­ing a far more deadly ‘crown fire’.

The ob­jec­tive of biomass re­moval is not to com­pletely stop fires pass­ing through such ar­eas.

Rather, it is to re­duce the avail­able fuel so that a white hot in­ferno which mocks the sup­pres­sion attempts of our largest fire fight­ing equip­ment, is re­duced to some­thing of lesser in­ten­sity able to per­haps be halted by cleared earth strips made by a bull­dozer or man­aged by fire tankers and air­craft.

If we are suc­cess­ful in trans­form­ing the bush in this way around key strate­gic ar­eas – where it abuts our cities, for ex­am­ple — we might be­gin to re­duce the an­nual na­tional an­guish of losses of both life and prop­erty. And from my per­spec­tive, prop­erty in­cludes the tens of thou­sands of hectares of our forestry trees and tim­ber re­sources which are de­stroyed by out of con­trol bush­fires.

A chang­ing cli­mate points to hot­ter, dryer sum­mers and mod­el­ling sug­gests Aus­tralia’s threat of big­ger bush­fires is only go­ing to grow.

It is time to deal far more ag­gres­sively with the chal­lenge than we have un­til now.

And while all this might be new here, such an ap­proach is cer­tainly not novel.

The United States has been driven by sev­eral years of dev­as­tat­ing for­est fires to reach for ev­ery tool at its dis­posal.

That coun­try is now spend­ing $400 mil­lion over a decade, on a truly am­bi­tious plan to work with large ar­eas of strate­gic for­est to re­duce fuel load.

Whilst the plan has its crit­ics, and the US is cer­tainly still deal­ing with ma­jor fire chal­lenges, many sci­en­tists in that coun­try are al­ready claim­ing that the pro­gram is hav­ing a pro­found ef­fect.

It is pre­dictable that there will be those in this coun­try who will crit­i­cise the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment for even start­ing in a very small way sim­i­lar ‘biomass re­moval’ tri­als – no mat­ter how care­fully man­aged they are or how well pro­tected the native fauna.

To those who will say ‘bet­ter to have the bush burn than al­low any biomass re­moval’, I would gen­tly coun­sel a field trip to the Snowy Moun­tains.

The mega fire which swept those thou­sands of hectares of hill­sides in 2003 is ancient his­tory for my young chil­dren.

When we drive through that area they do ask how­ever why the gum trees stand as life­less giants in their silent ranks, bristling on hill­sides and val­leys as far as the eye can see.

These thou­sands of ma­ture Alpine Ash trees were caught in a se­ries of in­fer­nos and the area has still not re­cov­ered.

Biomass re­moval - com­bined of course with winter burn­ing - is a must for this na­tion.

The sooner we move out of tri­als and into se­ri­ous ac­tiv­ity the safer we all will be.

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