A unique feature of the bushfire scene in Australia (as compared with other countries I have examined) is the extent of the opposition within Australian universities to fuel reduction burning in Australian forests. This oppposition is a source of discontent among firefighters, foresters, bushfire scientists and land managers. They find themselves assailed by self-confident academics who publish their thoughts on internet sites like “The Conversation”, invariably promoting bushfire policies that are doomed to fail, and discounting policies that are known to succeed. It is not just that the hard-won practical experience of bushfire practitioners in the field is rejected. The real tragedy is that opposition to burning:
- undermines the work of the men and women trying to minimise bushfire damage to Australian communities and forests;
- confuses the public who can’t work out who to believe; and
- leads directly to more and worse bushfire disasters.
It almost seems as if there are two parallel worlds.
In the first world, typified by the Fenner School at the ANU, the Centre for Risk Management at the University of Wollongong and the School of Environment and Conservation at Murdoch University, bushfire ‘research’ is conducted by computer simulation, or in poorly designed short-term experiments on a single species. Occasionally a selective literature review also masquerades as “research”.
In the virtual world of simulation, the harsh realities of real bushfires and the lessons from bushfire history count for nothing. The firmly-held belief of those who oppose fuel reduction is that (i) it destroys biodiversity and (ii) it has little or no value in bushfire control. The modus operandi of the adacemics is to design models that invariably prove both of their beliefs to hold true.
Land managers, fire scientists and firefighters occupy a parallel world, the real world. In it, they study, light prescribed fires and fight bushfires. Their views are continually being tested by events in the bush during real fire events. They respect historical scholarship, personal experience, field observations, empirical measurement of fire behaviour and impacts, and the corporate knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. Computer models are used, for example in forecasting the weather and in planning a prescribed burn or a firefighting operation, but not for ‘research’ that involves contrived inputs aimed at proving a predetermined positon. The firmly-held belief in the real world is that (1) the Australian biota is superbly well-adapted to frequent, mild fire; (2) if fuels are allowed to accumulate, the inevitable result is massive and destructive bushfires; and (3) that the cheapest and most ecologically-friendly way of preventing massive and destructive bushfires is to immunise the bush with low-intensity fire in conditions of your own choosing well before a potentially destructive bushfire starts.
Those who occupy the real world have seen no evidence that the biodiversity crumbles (as foretold in the computer models of academia) under a program of relatively frequent, mild-intensity prescribed burning. Indeed, the reverse is the case: Australian forest ecosystems are seen to benefit from frequent mild fire. Bushland regularly burned by mild intensity fire is healthy, beautiful and biologically diverse. This compares with the devastating impact of landscape-level crown fires that leave behind a smoking ruin in which the biodiversity has been drastically reduced if not completely eliminated.
Real-world bushfire managers are well-aware of the lessons of history, for example the scholarship by Bill Gammage, Sylvia Hallam and others on burning over millennia by Aborigines[i], to which Australian ecosystems were adapted or else they would not be here. And they accept the validity of the work of bushfire scientists, such as those described by Adams and Attiwill[ii], coupling the science to the accumulated thousands of years of hard-won experience and wisdom by land managers and firefighters.
An example of the sort of thing that emanates from academia is an article by University of Wollongong academic Owen Price[iii]. Price asserts that the secret to successful bushfire protection in Australia is simply for land owners to clean up around their houses. Beyond the backyard, the bush can be left to do its own thing. To justify this view he states: “…most planned burning patches never encounter a bushfire during their effective lifetime [and] in any case, bushfires can burn even through one-year-old patches”. This is equivalent to saying that there is no need for hospitals because most people are not sick.
I took exception to Price’s proposals for bushfire management and wrote to him about his article. My experience is that reducing fuels only in a narrow strip around the asset (the so-called “Colgate Ring of Confidence” approach) always fails when confronted by an incoming crown fire. The fire simply goes over the fuel-reduced strip or around it. The challenge is not to design a system to protect houses from low intensity fires burning under mild weather conditons. My Aunt Dolly can put out this sort of fire with her garden hose. The real job is to protect assets from crown fires, burning on hot days under high winds, and threatening both the built and bushland assets. This challenge can only be met by pre-empting crown fires through mosaic broadscale fuel reduction right across the landscape.
As for Price’s throw-away line about fires burning even in one-year old fuels, I differ from Professor Price in that I have actually faced this situation in the field. On both occasions I observed a raging crown fire run into a patch of one-year old fuel and watched as the fire dropped to the ground, allowing firefighters to walk around and kick it in with their boots. Needless to say, my experience cut no ice with Professor Price.
Anti-burning academics always reject this sort of experience. It is described as an “anecdote”, the implication being that it is made-up, a bush yarn, or is somehow untrustworthy, especially compared with the glossy output from a computer model. Price has recently published yet another paper which says exactly the same thing as the first[iv], indicating that he is incapable of learning from the experience of others.
I would have thought Price’s statement untoppable in the Idiotic Bushfire Statement Olympics, but Murdoch University academics Neal Enright and Joseph Fontaine have taken out the Gold Medal. In a paper published in an international journal[v] they unequivocally assert that “there is no evidence that fuel reduction burning has any benefit in wildfire control”. Meanwhile, their colleagues at the University of Wollongong, achieving the Silver Medal, write (of a proposal for more fuel reduction burning in the USA): “However, [the prediction] that the extent and severity of wildfires can be substantially reduced by introducing managed fires is not well supported by the evidence.”
No evidence! Not supported! The observations of firefighters, the results of long-term research studies such as Project Vesta, the scholarship of Adams and Attiwill and the experiences of generations of foresters are contemptuously cast out the window. As is so often the case when academics like Enright and Fontaine discuss fire in the Australian bush, their belief in their intellectual superiority allows them effortlessly to trump real-world experience with theoretical ideology. This elitism would be laughable if it was not so dangerous.
As an alternative to the Enright and Fontaine nonsense, consider this little memoir sent to me by Russ Ritchie, a retired Victorian forester:
While stationed in Trentham Forest District in 1963, I carried out a MacArthur Grid type fuel reduction burn of approx 500 acres along Domino Rd. This road ran parallel with the Dalesford/Trentham railway line and was approx 1 km. to the south of the railway line.
The burning operation extended north from Domino Rd until it reached the forested Private Property/State Forest boundary, which in turn was about mid- way to the railway line. From this point to the railway line, the Private Property was composed of a Messmate /Gum forest type (similar to the State Forest itself) with the balance of the area parallel to the railway easement being very dry grass. For whatever reason, this section of railway line had been responsible for several fires in the past, hence my decision to carry out the fuel reduction burn, in anticipation of a fire problem sometime in the future.
Some months later, early in 1964, on a Total Fire Ban Day with a severe northerly wind, the Trentham fire tower on Blue Mountain reported a fire a little west of Trentham adjacent to the railway line. A fire crew was despatched from Trentham. They found a crown fire heading south in the Private Property forest. There was nothing that the crew could do to tackle this fire as it was a full crown fire. However, as soon as the head of the fire reached the fuel reduced area north of Domino Rd. it immediately dropped to a ground fire. This the crew was easily able to control with hand tools. The fire was completely contained within the fuel reduction burn I had conducted a few months previously. [vi]
Why are voices like this never heard, but the ramblings of the half-baked are published in international journals, and believed by uncritical bureaucrats and the uniformed bushfire generals?
But without doubt the nadir in this genre is a paper by Dr Donald Driscoll of the ANU’s Fenner School and published in the journal Conservation Letters[vii]. The paper (which, astoundingly, has 15 co-authors!) is profoundly anti-fuel reduction burning. The grounds for this stance is that burning is deleterious to biodiversity. The authors ‘prove’ this assertion using a made-up algebraic formula and a statistical approach called ‘decision theory’. Data from the field involving actual fire regimes and measured impacts on biodiversity do not come into it at all.
The unreality of the whole exercise is exposed by a review of the inputs to Driscoll’s algebraic model. This reveals that the ‘deleterious’ impacts of burning on biodiversity are based on the assumption that prescribed fire will totally consume every element of the biota, re-setting the entire ecosystem back to age zero. However, mild fires in light fuels do not kill mature woody plants and do not impinge on physical refugia, where fire sensitive plants and animals lived for the forty thousand years during which Aboriginal people constantly burned the bush.
Typically Driscoll et al cite none of the literature from Western Australia (for example, Abbott and Burrows[viii]) have shown, based not on a mathematical equation but on actual measured post-fire outcomes, that prescribed burning has had no deleterious impact on biodiversity. Consequently the paper does not come across as a reasoned argument, but as a one-sided polemic, the sort of work more likely to flow from the pen of an environmental activist than that of a scientist. The philosopher Robert Thouless would be turning in his grave.[ix]
There is, of course, nothing wrong with burning at short intervals of less than five or six years in most Australian eucalypt forests. In fact, many contemporary bushfire scientists, and ‘firestick ecologists’ like Vic Jurskis[x], have demonstrated that this is the best way of optimising biodiversity and forest health while at the same time minimising ‘megafires’ and fire suppression costs. That prescribed burning is not done more frequently (or not done at all) in most Australian forests these days is almost entirely due to the malevolent influence of academics promoting the idea that it is destroying biodiversity, apart from having no practical value.
I have to admit I was amused by one aspect of the paper by Driscoll et al. The authors do not totally condemn fuel reduction burning. Moving effortlessly from a single algebraic equation to a prescription for whole-of-forest management, they come up with a solution to the bushfire problem right across the forests of Australia. This is to install a system of ‘strategic’ buffer strips 150 metres in width winding through the forest. In these strips, which they refer to as ‘sacrificial’ areas, fuel reduction burning can be done. They do not explain how these buffers are to be burned, as they will be up against heavy fuels on both sides and have a very high perimeter/area ratio, nor where the resources would come from to do the work, which would be labour-intensive and highly risky. Nor do they consider the cost of installing and maintaining the hundreds of thousands of kilometers of trafficable firebreaks along both edges of the fuel-reduced strips throughout the nation’s forests, including those in mountainous regions.
Had Driscoll et al looked to the lessons of history, they would have discovered that a similar approach was adopted in the jarrah forest in the 1920s, based on a strategy developed in India in the 1860s[xi]. It was abandoned in both India (in 1926) and WA (in 1954) when it became blindingly obvious that it was dangerous, expensive, and useless as a measure for stopping high-intensity fires. No fire on a hot, windy day in mid-summer had any difficulty in spotting over a 150-metre wide strip and then tearing the guts out of the long-unburnt forest beyond. It is not the fuel reduced strips which are sacrificed under this regime, but the forest as a whole.
I suppose I should not have been surprised about the amateurishness of this paper. ANU “scientist” Donald Driscoll is well known in fire circles in Western Australia, where I reside. Here his ecological research is often cited as an example of what not to do. He was involved in a celebrated case when he published a paper in the Australian Journal of Ecology[xii] which purported to demonstrate that fuel reduction burning would lead to the extinction of a species of frog (Geocrinia lutea) that lives in swamps in the karri forest. To reach this conclusion, Driscoll conducted a single, brief experiment in which a frog-bearing swamp was burned. Immediately after the burn he counted residual frogs and compared the numbers in the burned area with those in “unburnt control areas” nearby. Fewer frogs were found in the burned area than in the areas that had not been burned. From this data he went on to assert that future fuel reduction burning would cause G. lutea to become extinct. Extrapolating from frogs, he concluded that the entire Western Australian forest biota would soon become extinct, thanks to the burning program.
The Geocrinia study was celebrated because Driscoll arranged for the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) to do the work for him, and thus CALM officers were well aware of his experimental design and methodology. Driscoll wrote a letter to CALM and requested that the burn be “as hot as possible”, and asked that he be advised as soon as the burn was completed so that he “could come down and count the fried frogs”. When I last heard of it, this letter still has a revered spot in departmental correspondence files.
I was not an officer of CALM in 1997, but I knew about the Driscoll incident because I had maintained my interest in fire and had a good relationship with CALM field staff. They let me know about the Driscoll research, and eventually I was sent a copy of his paper. It was a classic in the genre of what I would describe as “junk science”. For example, he did not mention that the experimental fire was of wildfire intensity, inferring that it was a prescribed burn. Moreover, his impact assessment was confined to a period of two years after the fire, whereas the normal time between burns in the karri forest in 1997 was about 8 years. Experienced fire ecologists are cautious about drawing conclusions on fire impacts based on the the immediate effects of a single fire, because impacts vary according to fire intensity, season and to the prior history of fires, as do changes with time after each fire.
Worse still, the “long-unburnt” control sites against which the impacts of the Driscoll burn were assessed, were not long-unburnt at all. Each had a history of being burnt at intervals of less than 10 years, going back over 30 years. One “control” site had experienced six fires in the 30 year period before nomination by Driscoll as an unburnt control. This information was available from CALM records and from local CALM staff, but was not reported. In other words, what the data from the “control” sites demonstrated was not the benefit to frogs of absence of fire, but the capacity of the frogs to survive fire. The real conclusion that emerged from Driscoll’s experiment was that a well-planned program of mild fuel reduction burning (in spring) will protect the swamps (and their frogs), whilst high-intensity summer wildfires will burn them.
I suppose none of this would matter, but for the fact that the G. lutea study quickly became one of the first papers quoted as “proof” of the deleterious impacts of fuel reduction burning on biodiversity, and it still crops up in pseudoscientific literature today.
Important questions are raised by this discussion. For example,
1/ First, how does junk science like this get published? Both the Geocrinia and the Conservation Letters papers were refereed, and you would have thought that the most superficial examination would have rung alarm bells with the referees and journal editors. But, of course, this depends upon who the editors and referees are. I corresponded with the editor of the paper in Conservation Letters. He was a mathematician from Scandinavia, who told me he knew nothing about bushfires or, for that matter, Australian forest ecosytems. I also corresponded with the editor of Conservation Letters (Professor Hugh Possingham, an academic from Queensland University), but he turned out to be one of the manifold co-authors of the Driscoll paper. The paper’s referees (as is usually the case) maintained a careful anonymity, but it is hard not to think that they had been selected by Possingham in his role and both editor of the journal and author of the paper.
2/ Second, how is this sort of research funded, and to what purpose? The ANU has admitted that it has received funding from the Wilderness Society, an organisation of environmental activists opposed to responsible bushfire management. For me this rings an alarm bell the size of Big Ben. However, I suspect this was an aberration; most academics are funded out of the public purse. This is the closed world of the “government research grant” from which all outsiders and independent thinkers are ruthlessly excluded.
My greatest concern, however, is that undergraduates in Australian universities are being subjected to green propaganda against burning. I have reviewed the fire management syllabus taught at ANU and found that it does not promote fuel reduction burning as a means of reducing the threat of large, high intensity wildfires. Indeed, the Professor of Forestry at ANU, Peter Kanowski, remarked at a conference of Australian and New Zealand Institute of Foresters that “the jury was still out” on the benefits of prescribed burning. He had previously collaborated in the Council of Australian Governments Inquiry, whose chairman, Professor Robert Whelan of Wollongong University actually published a paper in Nature urging Australian land managers not to “fight fire with fire”. The COAG report under Whelan’s leadership not surprisingly shifted the focus of bushfire management from fire prevention and damage mitigation to community education and evacuation. This was after the Nairn Inquiry found that the 2003 megafires had “left a nation charred to its physical and spiritual core” and were a consequence of “grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long”.
I would not like it thought that I am an all-embracing critic of academia. I know and admire many good scientists in universities, people like Professors Mark Adams of Sydney University, and Peter Attiwill of Melbourne University. My beef is with the ideologists, the “green academics” whose aim, it seems to me, is not to help Australian firefighters and forest managers, but to make their jobs and their lives more difficult.
Most amazing to me is their readiness to sacrifice the forest beyond the Ring of Confidence to high intensity fire. This abandonment of forest ecosystems is especially ironic as it comes from people and organisations who regard themselves as “conservationists”.
I have come to despair over the bushfire situation in Australia. It has gone from bad to worse over the last 25 years, with our bushfire authorities increasingly opting to reject “the Australian Approach” (built upon pre-emptive fuel reduction) in favour of “the American Approach” (using expensive technology to fight fires after they start). In adopting this futile approach, bushfire authorites have aligned themselves with the green academics who oppose fuel reduction. The result is more and worse bushfire damage to the detriment of Australians and our environment, including its biodiversity.
Beyond despair, I note that after each successive bushfire disaster the green academics and bushfire authorities are rewarded for their failures with increased funding for research and for suppression, at the expense of sensible land management with a focus on preparedness and damage mitigation. It is a situation out of a fantasy world like that of Alice in Wonderland.
[i] Gammage, Bill (2011): The Biggest Estate on Earth. Allen and Unwin, and Hallam, Sylvia (2014): Fire and Hearth University of WA Publishing
[ii] Adams, Mark and Peter Attiwill (2011): Burning Issues. CSIRO Publishing
[iv] Price, O et al (2015): Biogeographical variation in the potential effectiveness of prescribed fire in south-eastern Australia.
[vi] Letter to the author from Russ Richie.
[vii] Driscoll, DA et al (2010) Resolving conflicts in fire management using decision theory: asset-protection versus biodiversity conservation. Conservation Letters 1-9.
[viii] Abbott, Ian and Neil Burrows (2003): Fire in ecosystems of south-western Australia: impacts and management. Backhuys Publishers
[ix] Thouless, Robert (1990): Straight and crooked thinking. Hodder Arnold
[x] Jurskis, Vic (2015): Firestick Ecology. Connor Court Pty. Ltd..
[xi] Underwood, Roger (2013): Foresters of the Raj. York Gum Publishing
[xii] Driscoll, D.A. & Roberts, J.D. (1997). Impact of fuel-reduction burning on the frog Geocrinia lutea in southwest Western Australia. Aust. J: Ecol. 22,334-339.