Hamish MacCallum 16 January 2020
Fire. How do we respond?
Bushfire Planning in a Hotter World
“We survive fire by living with it. If at times it seems our worst enemy, it is also our best friend. We can’t thrive without it.” Stephen Pyne.
I am writing this between long-haul deployments to the fires in East Gippsland, where I have been working as a volunteer firefighter with the CFA. Something that has been remarkable about this fire season is not the obvious size or severity of the fires but the scale of discussion on fuel and landscape management, so many people who had previously little interest in fire or landscape management suddenly seem to know exactly what should be done. The issue is clearly emotive, with opinions and convictions on the appropriate response.
As a bushfire and land management consultant and I am often asked (at the moment sometimes several times a day) what we should be doing to better manage landscapes to avoid further catastrophe. The answer I give often fails to relieve the obvious tension people are feeling in their search for a solution to a battle we are obviously losing, “It depends”. Every landscape is of course different, along with the ownership and responsibilities that go with them, different inputs and outcomes dictate a multitude of different ways to deal with the issue. This may seem like a deflection from an obviously serious issue but techniques are only the toolbox to be wielded when we know what the underlying problem is.
What is the problem? Like in medical diagnostics it is critical to look at the underlying issue rather her than the obvious condition, for instance it is more effective to stop smoking than treat lung disease. With fire fuel management we need to look less at removal of forest fuels (burning) and more closely at forest management itself. Research has shown that clear felling forests makes them more prone to causing severe fire, especially as they reach the 10 to 30 year stage. Crowded stems in forests lead to moisture stress and an accumulation of ladder
fuels, leading to greater crown fire potential. Selective thinning techniques have been shown to rapidly increase tree height, making them less prone to crown fire. This also increases space between canopies and reduces moisture stress and therefore ladder fuels (stressed Eucalypts put out foliage all along their trunks and branches).
The issue with losing properties to bushfire is compounded by removing the most valuable asset, people. By advocating leaving we only encourage further disconnection from the landscape and further alienation from our relationship with fire, turning friend into foe. This in turn increases further pressure on the environment through resource extraction to rebuild what was lost. The increased fire risk further drives people away from the rural landscape, leading to further disconnection and the loss of skills and bodies needed to embed appropriate cultural practices for fire management. That’s not saying we should all stay and defend, once again, “it depends”. Living in rural areas comes with the risk of fire. Importantly, how we manage our own land and infrastructures can directly affect our neighbours and communities. It is imperative that the cultural land management paradigm extend to the peri-urban environment, where most rural populations live. This relatively new cultural domain is where education, skills and training are needed to design and manage fire resilience in housing and landscape. The concept of community fireguard needs to be re- kindled and expanded to become a cultural obligation, the recent fires have shown how effective community based firefighting crews can be at protecting their communities. During my deployment in Mallacoota I saw the evidence of a community that pulled together every possible resource and able body to protect the town. Wheelie bins full of water and a mop stood out on the street, buckets lay by front yards. Blackened circles, evidence of a spot fire that failed to take hold, interrupted in its spread by an informal volunteer firefighter.
Fighting fire with fire (and fungi)
Traditional land management has been mitigating the problem of severe wildfire for thousands of years. The massive upheaval of indigenous people and landscape has had a huge effect on wildfire. In many parts of Australia we have lost the knowledge and skills of traditional burning techniques, along with a landscape more naturally resilient to wildfire spread. The land has changed so significantly that a whole new paradigm of fire management will need to be learned.
However, again the techniques are less important than the principles guiding them. Something that struck me during the National Indigenous Fire Workshop (Dhungala, 2019) was the concept of the Eucalyptus forest litter smothering the ground, like a sickness. Fire was seen as a healthy remedy to this. The over-representation of eucalyptus in the forests is a compounding factor , cool fire was a preventative measure to keep open country from being overgrown. From an ecological perspective, less trees in our forests means less competition, leading to taller growth, more drought resilience and the forest being less prone to severe fire. Higher moisture levels in the landscape encourages decomposition of forest fuels, often overlooked as an effective tool for fuel reduction. Fungal decomposition of forest fuels leads to significant soil building, carbon and water storage. A well functioning forest ecosystem would effectively be digesting its own fire fuels. What we can learn from this is how to strategically encourage this process, with skills and techniques based from traditional knowledge and modern science.
Ironically the environmental movement has been in part responsible for the misguided notion that more trees in forest systems means a healthier forest. The creation of the national park was a double edge sword, the separation and disconnection from the human/nature relationship is arguably perpetuated by forest protection and idolisation. Here in central Victoria evidence of pre-European landscapes tell a different story, anecdotes form early settlers described a “park like” landscape, open fields and large, widely spaced trees in a mosaic pattern, carefully managed with cool fire an strategic grazing to maintain the mosaic. Once again traditional knowledge can effectively inform an appropriate response. It may seem somewhat paradoxical that the new wave of greenies will wield chainsaws and drip torches (my neighbour coined the term ‘Greennecks’, a comment on our love of nature, chainsaws, and guns).
The problem is the solution
In permaculture the aphorism “the problem is the solution” guides our observations to become without judgement, allowing a broader perspective to be considered. In context, the removal of trees from the central Victorian forests may present its own problems, such as how can we reduce the impact of forestry on other species? How do we use the carbon removed from the forest? How can we have a positive effect on the forest while creating significant
gains in fire management? How does the removal of trees from a forest lead to a healthier, fire resilient landscape? Although this is possible, once again the answer is “it depends”.
The intentional community based outside Fryerstown was originally developed using permaculture principles to guide the village construction and continuing land use. It is nestled into one of Victoria’s significantly fire-prone landscapes, making fire management a priority outcome in any decisions around land use. Lucky for us, we love chainsaws. Lucky for the forest, we love trees also. 25 years later, hundreds of trees chopped down and the result is significant. A trip through our front gate shows a striking difference between the state forests on one side and our management regimes on the other. The trees are significant larger, the forest floor capable of supporting herbaceous understory, parts are being opened up to native grasslands, a mosaic of land use is emerging. As with the permaculture aphorism, the problem of overcrowded forest has led to positive outcomes. Healthier forest, less fire risk, fuel for cooking, hot water and heating. Turning fire to our friend has reduced the risk of fire being our enemy. In future we hope to continue this relationship with the forest we love, using fire to generate electricity (biomass gasification), burning the land to encourage specific plant communities (cultural burns) and continue to promote bottom-up solutions with broader community engagement in the landscape we have chosen to live with.