Fire, Flood and Mud

Will we in Victoria ever provide good management for our remote lands and our forests?

News of the recent appointment of Prof. Neville Nicholls of Monash University to investigate the cause of Large Infrequent Fires has come as a surprise to many interested conservationists in rural and regional Victoria. We query the need for Academia to start yet another investigation, especially when recent history demonstrates the unwillingness of the Department of Sustainability and Environment to change their land management practices.

Judge Stretton gave a clear, concise prescription for land management and, from 1944 to 1983 we did pretty well. What fires there were, were handled quickly and extinguished. Even the biggest fires were extinguished in days rather than months.

Could this Nicholls Inquiry be yet another delaying tactic on behalf of a Government that specialises in wasting petitioner’s time, resources and effort?

Leader of the Liberals in Victoria describes ALP management as the ‘Octopus’. Consumers consulted are comforted and cosseted and made to feel that their issue is of great importance and that the Government is giving it deep consideration – while, in fact, they had made their decision well beforehand and they are just interested in draining the efforts of the supplicants.

Proof?

  • The Government was talking to the Mountain Cattlemen about their access to the high country even while they were making a TV promo extolling their decision to kick the graziers out.
  • The Government was making a TV promo regarding the new desalination plant in Bass Coast Shire before anyone in that Shire had an inkling of their decisions. Even now, they have refused to set up an Environment Effects Statement because they are not going to reverse their decision.
  • They set up Community Consultation Committees to effect changes to the classification of some State forests. Stakeholders could discuss competing issues and agree upon compromises, only to find that the decisions had been made long before these Committees first sat. Peter Ellard, President of the Australian Motorcycle and Trail bike Riders Association was vocal regarding his disgust with this sham.

After years of us rural lobbyists calling for better land management budgets and being studiously ignored by Ministerial advisers, the damaging and disastrous fires started with the Caledonia River fire in 1998. Then the holocaust of 2003 was continued with “feral’ fires in 2005, 2006 and 2007, resulting in the deterioration of at least two and a half million hectares of the public’s land around our State. Thousands of hectares of rural water catchments were razed and water flow, depending on the type of tree, will not resume normal quantities for from eighty to two hundred years.

With one notable exception, these fires were started by lightning, but, due to the lack of forest workers, were dependent upon Government fire fighters – who didn’t get moving quickly enough. Their sluggish reaction gave small fires the opportunity to grow, then amalgamate until there was no human intervention that could bring them under control. It was a fruitless and pointless exercise. But it drew the public’s attention away from the fact that these fires became so damaging because the Government had allowed the forest floor fuels to accumulate to the point where no human effort would contain the intensity of the fires.

Calling in fleets of aircraft after the fires had expanded provided a media spectacle that demonstrated “your taxes at work”. “Look, we have closed the stable door.”

It used to be that the old fashioned fire fighters got to the fire and fought it with knapsack sprays, rakes and beaters while it was small. They now have to stand back while huge fires are played with by very expensive aircraft.

Significant losses to humans?. Yes.

Cremation for a vast number of Australian flora and fauna? Undoubtedly. Fauna, especially, has been severely compromised because the intensity of these fires made them burn so deeply into the humus. Many areas have eroded away, while in other places, the soil is now hydrophobic.

We know that rain showers in February fell on hydrophobic soils, washed eroded humus away and caused disastrous mudslides in Target Creek, Licola and downstream. Eroded soils carried the remains of many burrowing fauna who couldn’t dig deep enough to escape the heat. Where they escaped the heat and flame they suffered a lingering, starving death

We are aware that heavier rains in June also failed to penetrate the forest floor and huge torrents of water built up in the valley of the Macalister River, carrying all before it. No man made device was able to stop it. Bridges, roads, school summer camps, buildings. Nothing stopped this inexorable body of water and the only saving grace was the sand bar that blocked the Lakes Entrance sea entry was washed out to sea.

The inaction of Governments.

In a deliberate manner, Ministers of Conservation since 1982 have reduced the funding for fire prevention; reduced the standing of the fire management team and their trained fire fighters and, paid great heed to a section of our society that claimed that it was best to lock up our forests and leave them to develop naturally.

This land has been subjected to the management of mankind for at least forty thousand years, probably longer. Research has shown that fires razed the landscape regularly and inhibited the growth of a lot of trees. One researcher has described the absence of regular cool burn fires in our forests as a disturbance. He maintains that an environment that is largely based upon regular fire cannot survive without cool burning.

Written, verifiable history.

Abel Tasman, describing the Storm Bay area of Tasmania in 1642 wrote “Tasmanians habitually carried firesticks … and applied fire beyond their windbreaks and throughout the interior” In 1779, Tobias Furneaux recorded that there was continual fire along the shore of Tasmania.

Sir Joseph Banks, in 1770 described Bulli, NSW as a “very barren place, without wood …very few tree species, but every place was covered with vast quantities of grass … the trees were not very large and stood separate from each other without the least trace of underwood.

Mr Alfred Howitt, in 1890, presented a paper to the Royal Society of Victoria in Melbourne in which he described the eucalypts of Gippsland. His essay, written after many years of discussing issues with the early explores such as Angus McMillan and the indigenous peoples in the area makes it very clear that there were not a lot of trees right across Gippsland. The Snowy River valley was a vast area where grass was the major growth and the trees infrequent.

If we are to heed the lock it up and leave it proponents we would do well to remember that our land was never locked up and never left. Indeed, even today in the tropical parts of Australia fuel reduction burning is carried out each year.

Paying for land management

Our State faces a huge conundrum when it comes to the management of the public’s land. Too much use without good land management leads to a deterioration of the environment.

All environmentalists must sympathise with the Victorian Environment Assessment Council (VEAC) in their task to bring good management to the southern bank of the River Murray. As more of us use the area, either commercially or for our recreation, more damage is done. Bio diversity is compromised. More management is required.

However, the answer is not in forming National Parks and Wilderness areas because experiences over the past twenty five years shows that insufficient money has been allocated for their maintenance. This was highlighted in the size and frequency of hyper fires since 1998 and has led to many parts of our forests having eroded and, what is worse, formed hydrophobic soils.

A perusal of Government statistics in the National Parks Act Annual Reports for 1982 and 2005 highlights some very disturbing features;

  • 1982, 272 outdoor workers cared for almost one million hectares of public land at an average cost of, in CPI adjusted values, $25. per hectare. There were only 114 administration staff.
  • In 2005, just 396 outdoor workers cared for some three and a quarter million hectares of the public’s land at a cost $68 million or $21 per ha. Administration staff totalled 625 people.
  • In 1982, there was a ratio of one outdoor worker to 3,600 ha.
  • In 2005 there was a ratio of one outdoor worker to 8,170 ha of land and sea.

The most disturbing factor is that while the number of admin staff has blossomed, a ‘back of the envelope estimate’ suggests that while maybe $17 per hectare was spent on National Parks management in 1982, the 2005 estimate is that upon physical management in 2005, the rest going in salaries, pens, paper and other benefits for the administrators.

It goes without saying that the public’s land must be well managed and compromises must be achieved where various uses compete for space and resources. There has to be better funding of all of our National Parks and Wilderness before the rural and regional taxpayers of Victoria continue paying for pen pushers in Nicholson Street.

Maybe its time to start spending the public’s taxes on fuel prevention rather than fire suppression. It would be better for the public purse as well as bio diversity if cool burning was undertaken in both autumn and spring.

Maybe Professor Neville Nicholls will come to that conclusion. Maybe he will have the courage to let his masters know what has gone wrong so often in the Victorian fire seasons over the past nine years.

John Cribbes

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