Log­ging burnoffs.

The smoke drift­ing into Mel­bourne from fires in Vic­to­ria’s cen­tral high­lands, de­scribed by a govern­ment agency as the re­sult of bush­fire man­age­ment for com­mu­nity safety, is mostly due to log­ging in­dus­try burnoffs.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Kather­ine Wil­son

When a heavy pall of smoke blan­keted Mel­bourne last week, the Asthma Foun­da­tion as­sured suf­fer­ers of “the im­por­tance of planned burns for safety in our com­mu­nity [to] pro­tect life, prop­erty and the en­vi­ron­ment by re­duc­ing the fuel lev­els”.

Across Vic­to­ria’s cen­tral high­lands, if it didn’t sting your nostrils, the smoke ob­scur­ing the ranges might have passed for fog. Lo­cals put up with it, mind­ful that planned burns are a nec­es­sary evil – re­mem­ber Black Satur­day.

But when Adam Me­nary – a res­i­dent of the Yarra Val­ley, east of Mel­bourne – awoke on suc­ces­sive days with headaches, he re­solved to blow away “a smoke­screen of spin”. Ter­tiary-ed­u­cated in agri­cul­tural sci­ence, hor­ti­cul­ture and forestry, Me­nary is a trained fire­fighter and di­rec­tor of a risk man­age­ment com­pany.

He and other re­searchers say most of the smoke in Mel­bourne was from in­dus­trial log­ging burns – not fire man­age­ment. “We’re be­ing mis­led by govern­ment spin,” he says. He’s among a co­hort of sci­en­tists and busi­ness peo­ple urg­ing the Vic­to­rian govern­ment to “come clean”.

One of th­ese is Toolangi res­i­dent Deanne Ec­cles, vice-pres­i­dent of Tourism Net­work Yarra Val­ley. She says he­li­copters drop­ping aerial in­cen­di­aries – Coun­try Fire Au­thor­ity brigades call th­ese “ex­plod­ing ping-pong balls” – on log­ging coupes in Toolangi For­est are re­trau­ma­tis­ing Black Satur­day sur­vivors.

“Th­ese guys are gen­er­at­ing ex­treme tem­per­a­tures. The coupes burn for weeks, so when the winds pick up, I’ve got my fam­ily and my busi­ness in the mid­dle of dry for­est,” she says. “It makes me sick to the stom­ach. We feel so un­safe.”

Their yearly ef­forts to make this pub­lic, Me­nary says, have been stonewalled by “trolls in the log­ging in­dus­try”. But over the past two weeks, Greens MP Sa­man­tha Dunn put ques­tions on no­tice to par­lia­ment. Ad­dress­ing En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Lily D’Am­bro­sio, Dunn asked about “the smoke haze that has been blan­ket­ing the eastern suburbs for days now”. “Of those 119 planned burns,77 have been log­ging coupes, so this has noth­ing to do with com­mu­nity safety,” she said.

This week she asked Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Jaala Pul­ford why Vic­to­ri­ans “must en­dure such poor air qual­ity for the sake of the na­tive for­est in­dus­try?” Pul­ford replied that such a ques­tion falls un­der D’Am­bro­sio’s port­fo­lio.

In a me­dia re­lease, For­est Fire Man­age­ment Vic­to­ria (FFMV) chief fire of­fi­cer Dar­rin McKen­zie, a for­mer tim­ber in­dus­try fig­ure, said he was sorry for the in­con­ve­nience but that with­out planned burns, “we won’t re­duce bush­fire risk”.

Chris Tay­lor, a re­search con­sul­tant who wrote his doc­toral the­sis on Aus­tralian for­est cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards, was the source of Dunn’s fig­ures. He showed me how to ver­ify them us­ing a data­base of fire events on the FFMV web­site, cross­ref­er­enc­ing them with 10-digit num­bers of log­ging coupes. Th­ese and NASA satel­lite im­ages make it clear that most of the smoke that af­fected Mel­bourne at the be­gin­ning of the month was from 119 Vic­to­rian cen­tral high­lands and outer met­ro­pol­i­tan burnoffs that Tay­lor calls “in­dus­trial events”. He says it is de­cep­tive to de­scribe th­ese as “planned burns”, although technically true. “Log­ging fires aren’t there to pro­tect life and prop­erty.”

Worse, the air near the coupes wasn’t mon­i­tored, but 41 kilo­me­tres down­wind at Moorool­bark, an outer eastern sub­urb near the Dan­de­nong Ranges, the read­ings were “off the scale” in tox­i­c­ity, said a se­nior fire­fighter, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity. Clean air, in En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity Vic­to­ria’s air qual­ity in­dex, has a rat­ing of 0–33; poor air 100–149. Very poor air is rated above 150. The Moorool­bark read­ing early on the first morn­ing in May was 901 – toxic enough, my source said, “for emer­gency evac­u­a­tion”. He said the air-qual­ity in­dex, an ag­gre­gate mea­sure, hides more than it re­veals: the devil is in the de­tail of particulates and gases.

Lev­els of dan­ger­ous car­bon monox­ide and P2.5 (car­cino­genic particulates) were “through the roof ”, he said. Later, Sa­man­tha Dunn told par­lia­ment the lev­els “greatly ex­ceeded World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion” tox­i­c­ity mea­sures.

Log­ging coupes are on pub­lic land but are logged for pri­vate profit un­der re­gional for­est agree­ments that ex­empt them from fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment law.

Most of the logged wood from a coupe is sold and pulped to make pa­per, but the re­main­ing slash – woody de­bris that amounts to about 62 per cent of the tim­ber har­vest – is burned. In the­ory, burn­ing the coupes after log­ging helps re­gen­er­ate Moun­tain Ash for­est.

VicForests, the state tim­ber in­dus­try au­thor­ity, as­signs names to coupes: War­head, Com­mando, Bone Crusher, Harpie, Ducks Guts, Troll, Dirty Days, Lu­cifer, Wicked, Mad Dog. Coupe burns cover a smaller area than fire-re­duc­tion burns, but in­cin­er­ate at higher in­ten­si­ties and emit more pol­lu­tion. On con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates from govern­ment data, coupe fires burn “more than 140 tonnes per hectare” while fuel-re­duc­tion burns only “around 10 tonnes per hectare”, Chris Tay­lor says.

As the smoke de­scended on com­mu­ni­ties in the Yarra Val­ley, peo­ple re­ported its ef­fects on Face­book. A woman had “eyes burn­ing” and “bed sheets smelling like smoke”; another’s son “feels like he can’t breathe”. A man’s mother was hos­pi­talised be­cause she was “chok­ing to death”, a teacher kept chil­dren in­doors, a health clinic re­ported a rise in asthma at­tacks.

A spokesper­son from the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (DHHS) said there was only “a small amount of re­lated cases”.

The En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity (EPA) re­ceived 200 com­plaints around the time of the smoke. By email, it ad­vised a com­plainant that “smoke from log­ging does not fall into the EPA Vic­to­ria’s ju­ris­dic­tion”. De­ter­min­ing where re­spon­si­bil­ity lies is tricky –

I was shunted back and forth be­tween VicForests, FFMV, the EPA and the DHHS.

While there is talk of a pub­lic in­quiry, fire­fighter and for­est campaigner Jill Red­wood, who is based in ru­ral East Gipp­s­land, says class ac­tion against the “pyro-cow­boys” in govern­ment “seems the only op­tion left, be­cause govern­ment agen­cies are as use­less as tits on a bull”.

Deanne Ec­cles agrees: “The govern­ment is look­ing after the few – the tim­ber in­dus­try elite. Tourists come here and are flab­ber­gasted that we’re burn­ing our forests.”

Farm­ers are also com­plain­ing about the smoke, as vine­yards re­port “smoke taint” dam­ag­ing high-value crops.

“This is a mass pol­lu­tion event,” Red­wood says. “A lot of farm­ers are in ab­so­lute de­spair.”

Whether for for­est re­gen­er­a­tion or fuel-re­duc­tion, the sci­ence sup­port­ing burns as a one-size-fits-all method is con­tested. Foresters who sup­port log­ging prac­tices tend to be cited by govern­ment agen­cies as de­fin­i­tive sources. Th­ese in­clude in­dus­try staff and se­nior aca­demics. Many, in­clud­ing re­tired forestry botanist Dr Peter At­ti­will, have pub­lished with right-wing think tank the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs.

At­ti­will au­thored a 2013 jour­nal study “with help from VicForests” us­ing data from across the state. He says his study showed “there’s ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence what­so­ever that forests man­aged for tim­ber pro­duc­tion are more fire-prone than forests in na­tional parks”.

Op­po­nents of cur­rent log­ging prac­tices tend to be uni­ver­sity-based ecol­o­gists and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact mod­ellers whose work is cited by con­ser­va­tion bod­ies.

One of th­ese, the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity’s Pro­fes­sor David Lin­den­mayer, is cited by both camps.

His find­ings are qual­i­fied, al­low­ing that for­est types and fire be­hav­iour are var­ied, and that it isn’t rig­or­ous to gen­er­alise. None­the­less, his stud­ies show cur­rent log­ging of Vic­to­ria’s moun­tain ash forests – in­clud­ing the burn­ing of coupes – in­creases the risk of bush­fire, de­creases the state’s water sup­ply, and ac­cel­er­ates the demise of threat­ened species.

Last week, Lin­den­mayer and other sci­en­tists sent a let­ter to Premier Daniel An­drews. The five au­thors, from the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, the ANU and the Uni­ver­sity of Wollongong, urged the govern­ment not to rely on At­ti­will’s claims. The let­ter cites sub­se­quent stud­ies show­ing the high­est level of fire sever­ity oc­curs in young re­growth forests.

Many sci­en­tists are urg­ing VicForests to tran­si­tion out of na­tive forests and into plan­ta­tion es­tates, which have higher an­nual yields and lower emis­sions from slash-burns.

Late last year, a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry rec­om­mended the same, but last month it emerged that VicForests is con­tin­u­ing to log against rec­om­men­da­tions of the Vic­to­rian govern­ment’s flora and fauna sci­en­tific ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee.

Sup­ply of moun­tain ash is in de­cline, and in 2016, Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers es­ti­mated that each na­tive for­est in­dus­try job costs more than $5 mil­lion in state in­vest­ment, and only brings 14 cents in re­turn for every dol­lar spent.

Although it runs at a loss, VicForests op­er­ates as a busi­ness sub­si­dis­ing other in­dus­tries. When the Hey­field sawmill faced clo­sure, the govern­ment bought it for a re­ported $61 mil­lion fol­low­ing pres­sure from the then CFMEU, prompt­ing six other mills to de­mand the same treat­ment. When Aus­tralian Pa­per – owned by

Nip­pon Pa­per Group – owed VicForests $10 mil­lion, the govern­ment for­gave its debt and leg­is­lated to give dis­counted tim­ber to the Ja­pa­nese com­pany at a fixed price and fixed sup­ply un­til 2030, in a move de­scribed by one in­dus­try fig­ure as “an ex­er­cise in cor­po­rate so­cial­ism”.

“They’re poi­son­ing Vic­to­ri­ans’ air – and for what?” Jill Red­wood says. “To line the pock­ets of Ja­pa­nese share­hold­ers.” She says of­fi­cial terms such as “fuel re­duc­tion” and “fire man­age­ment” are de­cep­tive “baf­fle­gab” that re­duces forests to com­modi­ties.

Adam Me­nary, who last week raised th­ese con­cerns at an EPA Vic­to­ria air pol­lu­tion “source ap­por­tion­ment” work­shop, says that while some govern­ment agen­cies are “fail­ing in their duty of care”, oth­ers are at least promis­ing to lis­ten. At the work­shop, Lily D’Am­bro­sio in­vited sub­mis­sions for a “Clean Air For All Vic­to­ri­ans” cam­paign. “To­day,” she said, “kicks off en­gage­ment with Vic­to­ri­ans about pri­or­i­ties for what

• our fu­ture air qual­ity should be.”

Smoke haze seen from a home in Croydon, in Mel­bourne’s east, on May 1.

KATHER­INE WIL­SON is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor.Her lat­est book is Tin­ker­ing: Aus­tralians Rein­vent DIY Cul­ture.

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