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January 06th 2016 print

Mark Poynter

A Tale of Two Fires

Lightning strikes started both, but the first was quickly extinguished under one set of land-management protocols. The second began that same day in the nearby Great Otway National Park, where green ideology and bureaucratic imperatives saw it burn unhindered until the town of Wye River was reduced to ash

ooopsAccording to the rhetoric from the Victorian government after the Otways Christmas Day bushfire emergency, a good outcome is achieved if no lives are lost …. even if 116 houses are destroyed incurring $53 million in property damage, the regional tourism sector cops a $50 million hit, and fire-fighting costs run into the many millions of dollars. Celebrating such an outcome reflects the (not unreasonable) premise that the final outcome could have been far worse. However, the flip side of that is that it could also have been oh so much better.

Indeed, Wye River and Separation Creek would have been spared altogether on Christmas Day, with immense savings to the community and the State, if a small fire, which had been ignited by lightning six days earlier, had been quickly controlled.  It was this fire at Jamieson Track, about 8km to the north, which grew exponentially on Christmas morning and did all the damage.

Most experienced forest fire-fighters are perplexed as to why this fire was still uncontrolled after five days of relatively benign conditions had prevailed between its ignition during evening thunderstorms on December 19 and when it ran amok on Christmas Day. Perhaps seeking to kill any speculation about the initial fire-fighting effort, Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley has been at pains to blame the inability to control this small fire on ‘difficult conditions’. In particular, he has emphasised the area’s heavy fuels due to being apparently unburnt for over 50-years. However, to experienced foresters familiar with this part of the Otways, the conditions are no more difficult than vast swathes of country in East Gippsland and north-eastern Victoria, where multiple lightning fires (sometimes a dozen or more at a time) are not uncommon, and are typically controlled in quick time, often under more difficult circumstances.

While it is not uncommon for small lightning fires to eventually grow very large and threatening, this typically occurs 1) in very remote country where it may take days to reach the fire and where machinery access is very difficult or impossible; 2) when there are multiple fires which stretch the fire-fighting resources to an extent that days can elapse before anyone begins to work on the fire; and 3) when the lightning strike is immediately fanned by hot and windy conditions.

None of theses circumstances applied to the Jamieson Track fire. It was easily accessible, being only 15 km from the major town of Lorne, and was one of only two fires ignited on December 19 (the other was quickly controlled) and, therefore, had no obvious limits on the resources that could be thrown at it. In addition, weather records and media reports suggest that the fire was sneaking around slowly in favourable conditions for fire control during the five days prior to Christmas Day. This seems to contradict the claim that heavy fuel loads alone inhibited the fire-fighting effort.

With respect to what happened later at Wye River and Separation Creek, the control strategy applied to the small Jamieson Track fire during the lead-up to Christmas Day is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ which, seemingly, the Victorian Government yet dares to contemplate. This may be understandable given that, as I write, the fire is still uncontrolled amidst fears that further hot and windy weather could push it into other parts of the Otways.

The present focus of the Victorian Government is on warning the community to prepare for further bushfire losses over the course of an expected long, hot summer. However, having just completed a major inquiry into an escaped fuel reduction burn at Cobaw, which destroyed five houses, the state government is duty bound to eventually examine the causes of the Wye River and Separation Creek disaster, given the massively greater costs that it has incurred.

When it does, the matters needing serious investigation include:

  • The standard of maintenance of the forests’ road and track network in the Great Otway National Park, including bridges, and any role this played in increasing the difficulty of quickly accessing the Jamieson Track fire;
  • The effect of the forced phased closure of the Otway’s native forest timber industry (completed in 2008) on the availability of locally experienced forest fire practitioners and skilled machinery operators accustoned to working in difficult forest terrain;
  • The extent to which national park management policies, aims, and a disturbance-avoidance conservation ideology inhibited the use of conventionally effective fire-fighting strategies, such as the use of dozers to build fire control lines;
  • The extent to which the fire control tactics initially employed at Jamieson Track were dictated by a rigid Operational Health & Safety culture which, in the interests of supposedly reducing risks to fire-fighters, is counter-productively creating massively increased risk to both fire-fighters and the broader community by lengthening the time it takes to control bushfires, thereby exposing them to the inevitability of battling fires in dangerous weather conditions;
  • The extent to which the proven default fire-fighting strategy of directly tracking the fire edge has been supplanted by arms-length methods, such as pulling out and back-burning from roads. This increases fire size and lengthens the time taken to control them; and
  • The extent to which expensive aerial water-bombing is being used as a substitute for getting fire-fighters in on the ground at the fire edge, which is ultimately the only way to ensure bushfire control.

The perception that national parks are a major drag on the capacity to control forest fires has been further heightened here. Of the two lightning fires ignited in the Otways on December 19th, the one which occurred outside the Great Otway National Park in public forest managed by the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning, was very quickly controlled and kept to just nine hectares. In stark contrast to this, the Jamieson Track fire within the national park grew to uncontrollable proportions – 2,400 hectares at the time of writing.

None of the above matters are new concerns and they apply equally to forest fire-fighting throughout Victoria and, undoubtedly, in other states. Unfortunately, successive Victorian governments have shown little interest in taking these concerns seriously, as is arguably exemplified by the current Government’s serious interest in declaring another huge national park in central Victoria (the so-called Great Forest National Park proposal) which would unnecessarily kill-off the bulk of the state’s remaining native forest timber industry.

This government has already abandoned the state’s 5% fuel reduction burning target which had been strongly recommended by the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission. The replacement of this with a new system of targetted landscape-risk burning does not specifically say less burning will be done, but the prioritising of smaller and more difficult burns in close proximity to human assets and towns suggests that this is inevitable. The prospect of this leading to less burning is clearly the hope of those environmental groups, academics, and bureaucrats who strongly lobbied the government to dispense with the former target.

The distaste for broadscale fuel reduction burning evident amongst many politicians was exemplified in Premier Daniel Andrews’ disdainful dismissal of any suggestion that it may have helped to avert the Wye River disaster. In so doing, he directly contradicted his Emergency Services Commissioner, who had steadfastly maintained that the major problem preventing rapid control of the initially small Jamieson Track fire was the area’s heavy fuels.

Recent Victorian Labor Governments have shown a propensity to formulate their policies on fuel reduction burning and forest management by deferring to the views and wish lists of mostly city-based environmental groups and their supporters. They claim to have a passion for the environment, but have no practical experience of land management and are incapable of appreciating the adverse environmental consequences of their policy preferences. (editor’s note: one prominent opponent of preventive burning was a tram driver before becoming a full-time quote generator for a green lobby group.)

These groups only tolerate fuel reduction burning as a strategic tool when used in narrow strips around the edge of towns. They are thereby advocating exactly the sort of situation that occurred in this instance, where a fire originating 7km to 8 km away from a town in heavy, long unburnt fuels eventually built momentum and swept into that town when suitably difficult weather conditions arose. Indeed, what happened at Wye River should permanently put-to-bed the ridiculous notion perpetuated by those groups (and some academics), that broadacre fuel reduction conducted in remote areas or far from towns is of no value.

In his recent book, Firestick Ecology (Connor Court), forest fire ecologist, Vic Jurskis, noted that lying at the heart of the political, academic and activist opposition to broadscale fuel reduction burning is an appalling denial of the historical record of past fire and a lack of understanding of how this has shaped Australia’s forested ecosystems. This book is essential background reading for those interested in how a pervasive ‘green’ influence on public opinion and politics has created a land management paradigm of regularly occurring and unnaturally hot bushfires that is severely damaging our forest ecosystems.

A particular irony of the Otways fire emergency is that former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, has had a holiday home at Wye River for 30 years. It was Bracks, the consummate populist politician, who without any prior warning committed to closing the century-old Otways native hardwood industry and creating the Great Otway National Park in a cynical grab for green votes on the eve of the 2002 State Election. This arguably initiated the progressive dismantling of the previously very strong culture of public land fire management which had prevailed since at least the 1950s.

While Bracks’ house survived on Christmas Day, there is nothing to suggest that he would ever reflect on the role he played in the disaster which has befallen his neighbours. Like the present day crop of politicians, it’s far easier to avoid any informed scrutiny of their policies by painting this disaster as further evidence of the unavoidable consequences of climate change.

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 35 years experience mainly in Victoria, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia.