Doomed Planet

Empirical Evidence vs. Ecological Modelling

Our national capital was devastated and five million hectares were burnt by wildfire in 2003. The chairman of a parliamentary inquiry, which produced what came to be known as Nairn Report, stated

The committee heard a consistent message right around Australia:- there has been grossly inadequate hazard reduction burning on public lands for far too long; local knowledge and experience is being ignored by an increasingly top heavy bureaucracy.

That view was not universal, however. A dissenting report from a Greens member quoted Professor Robert Whelan of Wollongong University, who asserted that

broad scale hazard reduction is threatening biodiversity conservation and must therefore be avoided by land managers and resisted at a political level.

The top heavy bureaucracy in southeastern Australia did not contribute to the Nairn Inquiry. Instead, the Council of Australian Governments set up another inquiry in 2004. It was headed by a former fire chief and two academics. One of them was Professor Whelan. The COAG report questioned the effectiveness of prescribed burning and emphasised ‘education’ in the cause of “learning to live with bushfire”. Since then, more than 200 people and countless millions of animals have been needlessly killed by wildfires.

Meanwhile, Whelan “prized” Dr. Ross Bradstock from the NSW bureaucracy to set up the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires. Professor Bradstock has personally supervised at least 22 PhD Students and 15 staff, bringing in research funding of nearly $20 million. In 2017 he set up the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub with $4 million in government funding. The Hub says Bradstock is

an international doyen of fire ecology, having collaborated with just about every well-known fire ecologist in the world. He has published > 120 journal articles. He co-edited and co-wrote one of the most influential fire ecology books in Australia [twice] – Both have become ‘mandatory reading’ for scholars, students and practitioners of fire ecology in Australia and internationally”.

Professor Bradstock’s books and papers have perpetuated the dichotomy between experienced land managers and academic ecologists/emergency managers. The academics lack experience of sustainable land- and fire-management. They seem not to understand basic eucalypt ecology. The emergency managers compete very successfully against land managers for scarce resources. Escalating environmental and socioeconomic disasters have been the inevitable result, with massive increases in funding for emergency response. Foresters, pastoralists and others living and working with the bush are gobsmacked by the idea that mild fire can threaten biodiversity in a landscape safely maintained by Aboriginal burning for 40,000 years. The hypothesis is that supposedly fire-sensitive, non-resprouting trees and shrubs will be eliminated if we burn too often, because successive fires will kill new seedlings before they reach sexual maturity.

It was popularised by Dr. Malcolm Gill in Fire and the Australian Biota in 1981 and repeated in those two “most influential” fire ecology books co-edited and co-authored by Bradstock, Gill and other academics. This strange idea overlooks the simple fact that mild fires in a healthy landscape don’t kill mature trees and shrubs. A classic example of a fire-sensitive, non-resprouting tree, offered by distinguished academics such as Professors Ross Bradstock, David Bowman, David Lindenmayer and Dick Williams, is mountain ash (pictured at right) – Eucalyptus regnans.

But way back in the mid-nineteenth century, Alfred Howitt FGSL, FRAI, D.Sc.(Cambridge) noted that the common name for E. regnans was “blackbutt”. This species’ basal stocking of rough bark was characteristically blackened by mild fires lit by Aborigines in summer when the light, discontinuous fuels were dry. Epicormic strands in its thin-barked crown are protected from the radiant heat of moderate fires by the height of the trees. Howitt identified suppression of mild burning as the major ecological disturbance wrought by Europeans:

bush fires tended to keep the forests open … any force which would lessen the force of the annual bush fires, would very materially alter the balance of nature, and thus produce new and unexpected results.

In 1851, less than two decades after the Aboriginal firestick was effectively extinguished in Victoria, five million hectares exploded in the Black Thursday holocaust. Like our Black Summer nearly two centuries later, it had nothing to do with any influence of human activities on climate. In 1891, Howitt noted that South Gippsland had two age-classes of thick young E. regnans forests with dense shrubby understoreys, where there had formerly been very open forests occupied by Aborigines. The older age class dated from an extreme fire around 1820, after the demise of the Yowenjerre people in what is thought to be the first Australian smallpox epidemic.

By the mid-Twentieth Century, Australian foresters had realised that trying to suppress fire was not merely futile but counterproductive. Eucalypt forests require mild fire to maintain their health and safety. However, since the rise of academic fire ecologists, our living elders such as Phil Cheney PSM and Roger Underwood AM, who were instrumental in reinstating sustainable fire management, are no longer being heard by governments. After Black Summer, the promised Bushfires Royal Commission became a Royal Commission into Natural Disasters.

The Commission was instructed to have regard to the findings of previous bushfire inquiries. Both Cheney and Underwood were amongst the multitude of experienced practitioners who’d informed the 2003 Nairn Inquiry. So was I. Consequently, I made a submission which referred to the Nairn Inquiry and Whelan’s submission to that inquiry. I also referred to citations of Bradstock’s publications in the 2004 COAG report. The Royal Commission redacted these references from my submission, even though they were already well and truly on public record.

The resulting report specifically referred to all official inquiries going back to the 2004 COAG inquiry and stopped short of considering the findings of the 2003 Nairn Inquiry. The Royal Commission effectively accepted the COAG report and rejected the knowledge of experienced managers. Consequently, needless death and destruction will continue.

Professor Bradstock recently co-authored yet another scientific paper founded on the extraordinarily erroneous yet persistent idea that our ‘very tall wet eucalypt forests’ are dominated by fire-sensitive non-resprouting species. The paper suggests that we can’t really do anything about megafires in mountain ash forests. It uses flawed methods and models to imply that we could save carbon by not logging so-called re-sprouting forests.

‘Doc’ Jacobs, arguably the ‘father’ of eucalypt ecology, wrote in Growth Habits of the Eucalypts (1955) that resprouting is an essential part of the development of mature eucalypt crowns.

In 2010, three scientists from Charles Sturt University published an article which confirmed by anatomical dissection that mountain ash trees are re-sprouters. Although this was no real advance in scientific knowledge, it was published in American Journal of Botany. Incredibly, the article once again referred to mountain ash as a fire-sensitive species.

I submitted a comment with Dr. Neil Burrows AFSM and Roger Underwood AM, to Forest Ecology and Management, on the latest bushfire science from Bradstock’s group. We noted that the striking contrast in fire regimes of tall wet forests across southern Australia was entirely due to lack of mild burning in the southeast. We also pointed to flaws in the methods and models used by the academics to account for carbon. Black Summer clearly indicated an urgent need to reinstate sustainable fire management across Australia. The real environmental problem is our Lock It Up and Let It Burn conservation paradigm.

Naturally, the new academic wisdom underpinning our environmentally and socioeconomically disastrous fire regimes is fiercely defended by professors and fire chiefs, who (inevitably) blame climate change for the problem.  However, the response to our comment from Wollongong University didn’t seem to comply with the journal’s editorial guidelines. It contained a patently false statement which targeted me personally.

We pointed out to the editor that contrary to the assertion by Wilson, Bradstock and Bedward, we made no attempt to “cast doubt on [their] finding that logging affected above ground carbon stocks”. As we told the journal’s editor, Professor Dan Binkley , “With all due respect, we are not that stupid”. We noted that our observations, based on long experience and well supported by citations from scientific literature, were referred to as “speculation”.  We highlighted the Wollongong academics’ statement that “resprouting characteristics of Eucalypts, forest structure and fire management … are interesting and important issues but well beyond the scope of our study”. Editor Binkley responded

It might be ideal if a journal could adjudicate differences in science, and ensure all scientists share the clearest view possible. As you realize this would not be a task journals could do. Other arenas are the place where some of the differences of use are aired for the community, for scientist to consider. We don’t expect authors to end up agreeing with each other, And it would Be unrealistic to expect no emotional responses. I think Dr. Wilson’s response was not unprofessional, so we have moved ahead with it

Editors of scientific journals are apparently a law unto themselves. However, with multimillion dollar government funding, Professor Bradstock’s Research Hub should be answerable to the public via the relevant minister. In this case it seems to be The Honourable Matt Kean. I would be interested in his response.

Vic Jurskis worked for NSW Forestry Commission as a labourer, forester, researcher, manager and finally, Silviculturist for the Commission’s Native Forest Division. He investigated chronic eucalypt decline across Australia in a Fellowship with the Gottstein Trust, and with a Maxwell Ralph Jacobs Award from the Australian Academy of Science. He has published two books, Firestick Ecology, and The Great Koala Scamboth available from Connor Court 

13 thoughts on “Empirical Evidence vs. Ecological Modelling

  • Harry Lee says:

    Yes, very useful article.
    The superstitions, political interests and self-interests that propel the incidence of massively destructive bushfires are deeply embedded in our governance systems, top to bottom, from the core to the peripheries.
    And these destructive factors permeate all of our social and economic decision-making -and that includes how to defend Australia both from external attack and from internal infiltration and insurrection of our governance, administration, education, legal, and news/opinion systems by all varieties of anti-Westernist enemies, home-grown and imported.
    And if 10% of Proper Australains do not now devote their lives to establishing a New Proper Australia, then yes, it’s The Wasteland for all of us.

  • March says:

    Thanks Vic,
    We are certainly living in a post empirical world.

  • Michael says:

    It is worth remembering that Aristotle’s theory that dropped objects fall with speeds proportional to their weights, so that heavy objects reach the ground well before lighter ones, survived for some 2,000 years, defended by academic philosophers, despite the fact that anyone can disprove it easily at any time by doing the experiment. Galileo finally called Aristotle out, saying heavy and light objects fall at the same rate, hit the ground simultaneously, and famously demonstrated it from the leaning tower of Pisa. Galileo condemned his academic contemporaries for being slaves to Aristotle rather than looking at the book of nature.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Notable that there is no public fightback against the anti-empirical/anti-logical forces.
    Wonder if the is an undercover one.

  • NFriar says:

    Thank you Vic

  • shirley nott says:

    There are ever increasing numbers of bureaucrats and public servants doing less and less in this much needed mild burning field. With our increasing aerial fertiliser [CO2] the forest fuel growth is visibly increasing also yet those responsible are not only walking away but are preventing land holders from doing anything as well because if things get out of control they might be held responsible.

    I look after a couple of kilometers of fire trail to protect myself and my adjoining suburban neighbours but for years now I have been unable to get them to strike a match. And the fuel load is phenomenal.

  • Harry Lee says:

    The ALP-Green alliance, and their allies in all public services from Fed to Council levels, stand in the way of proper bushfire management.
    And I see today that the ALP says it will not halt mining and export of coal.
    Really, there are many, many reasons not to believe that the ALP is genuine in this.
    Or to believe that they will keep this promise when in government and when they come under the inevitable pressures from the Greenists in all the public services, and in the ABC and commercial media, in the entertainment-arts industry, and from their UN allies-in-idiocy.

  • brakeslast says:

    Harry Lee.. Does your wisdom know no bounds?
    Is there no subject you are not the master of?
    I will go to the next story and see if you have done your usual 3 posts.

  • sirtony says:

    An element that must be taken into account is the locking-up of so much highly flammable forest in national parks and nature reserves by Bob Carr’s Labor government in NSW. When they came to office, national parks and reserves accounted for some 4.8 per cent of NSW. Today the total area of the state controlled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service is more than 9pc. The area of national parks and related reserves has virtually doubled, but the resources deployed to manage this have shrunk with successive budget cuts causing NPWS to slash its staffing of rangers by one-third, clearly impairing its capacity to conduct hazard reduction burns.
    The lack of fuel reduction burning is disgraceful. The Victorian Royal Commission that examined the 2009 Victorian fires recommended that 5 percent of the public forests be fuel reduced each year. The average area treated in NSW between 2000 and 2003 was about 6% or just over 555,000 hectares. The average area treated each year from 2004 to 2018 was about 1.8% or just under 165,000 hectares.
    I now live next to one of these National Parks – our sub-division was here before there was a a park. Rather, according to the map, I live next to a fire trail next to the park. However it would be impossible to get down this “trail” with any equipment and it is indistinguishable from the park vegetation. I keep some land cleared and have built a dam but the park is not maintained and grows up to my fence lines. The 1994 fires came up to our fences, I have no idea what the next inevitable conflagration will do.

  • DG says:

    I wonder how much the (over) professionalisation of the NSW Rural (Bush) Fire Service (Brigades) is part of this. I’ve got no problem with getting better at what an organisation does, but aspects of the now RFS seem to be at odds with the volunteer ethos. I agree that the lifting of training and organisation is beneficial, but having seen both incarnations of the ‘movement’ as it was, government heavy organisation as it now is, I prefer the ethos of the former. I have the impression that our continuous hazard reduction also reduced the severity of fires.
    I must say, the new look RFS does offer politicians plenty of good images for the newsreels.
    Yet we managed to bring the largest fire brought under control by planned action (Cobar 1974) with a very simple control system. The sophisticated systems of today seemed to be not up to the task on the NSW South Coast 18 months ago…but then, forests managed by earth-loving (hating) mystics didn’t help.

  • Peter C Arnold says:

    Editor, this is appalling stuff from “brakeslast” – 19th April 2021.
    “Harry Lee.. Does your wisdom know no bounds? Is there no subject you are not the master of? I will go to the next story and see if you have done your usual 3 posts.”
    Please stop this nastiness. It is as bad as some of the worst of social media. Surely Quadrant is above that level!

  • DG says:

    I’m with Peter C Arnold.
    Harry’s comments are always worth reading. We need more polymaths.

  • lbloveday says:

    I have no problem with Harry Lee making many comments as I don’t read them – I stopped after these head-in-the-sand comments by him:

    China’s ability to project large-scale, sustainable military force is trivial (Mar 13).

    China’s military power is exceedingly weak (Mar 3).

    “trivial”, “exceedingly weak”!

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