Burning for  fire fighting solution

Foresters ignite debate on "cool" fire hazard reduction


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The recent Tabulam fires were intense and damaging. Greater management of the understory through periodic low-temperature burns might have reduced the chance of wildfire.

The recent Tabulam fires were intense and damaging. Greater management of the understory through periodic low-temperature burns might have reduced the chance of wildfire.

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Decades of land management devoid of cool fires designed to maintain eucalypt forest health has left a legacy full of risk, say foresters and ecological historians

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The state of Australian eucalyptus forests is largely a ticking time bomb, losing vigour and biodiversity while harbouring all the right ingredients for destruction by wildfire.

Foresters and academics meeting on the North Coast last week were in agreement that the solution involves greater number of smaller, "cooler" fires to reduce woody weeds and invasive shrubs which have changed forest ecology over the past three decades.

This is exactly the same period of time during which there has been a decline in koala numbers.

Retired forester and ecological historian Vic Jurskis led foresters and interested parties on a tour of the Tooloom Scrub as part of the Institute of Foresters of Australia conference, held at Southern Cross University in Lismore.

​Tooloom, like many forests in the sub tropics of Northern New South Wales and South East Queensland, has been over-run by Lantana which harbours Bell Miner birds harvesting leaf eating bugs called psyllids, attracted to sick trees like Heliothis homes in on stressed crops.

The Bell Minor's piercing call is an audible sign of a forest in decline.

Mr Jurskis explains that dry schlerophyl Eucalypt forest does not fare well with an under story like Lantana which fixes too much nitrogen in the soil - a nutrient not necessarily good for Australian hardwoods which have evolved to thrive in leaner soils.

The changing ecosystem does suit, however, an encroaching rainforest and its associated shrub layer which seems wonderful to a new population of ecologically sensitive humans, but the forest that is difficult to manage with "cool" fire can become a problem during extended drought. 

Dave Cromarty, Chair, NSW Division of the Institute of Foresters of Australia, said the lack of controlled fires on public lands in recent decades had as much to do with the fear of litigation, as it has a dislike of smoke by new land holders.

"Without these maintenance fires the risk to neighbours increases, but it is harder to litigate against anyone in the event of a wildfire if no one lights it, whereas if a prescribed burns gets out of control there is a case to answer for.

Blackbutt forest in the Upper Tweed choked with Lantana and ringing with Bell Miner birds is an example of how a lack of low intensity fires has led to declining health of the tree canpoy.

Blackbutt forest in the Upper Tweed choked with Lantana and ringing with Bell Miner birds is an example of how a lack of low intensity fires has led to declining health of the tree canpoy.

"The take home message from the Lismore conference is that there needs to be greater co-ordination between private and public land management. There has to be more support for private landholders wanting to carry out prescribed burning.

"With the aging demographic of farmers and a greater concern about litigation if a fire does get out of control we are finding private landholders are more reluctant to do hazard reduction."

Mr Cromarty said proof that better co-ordination could exist was already shown between foresters, country fire service and national parks in Victoria, prompted by the devastating 2009 fires.

Dr Bill Jackson from the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the need to engage with community was paramount so people could begin to understand the complex nature of forest ecology.

"The change in forestry management has contributed to the decline in the health of those forests by allowing a build-up of nitrogen in the soil through increased ground cover," he said.

"We are finding rainforest is moving into drier forest and that makes it difficult to start low intensity fires and more difficult to put them out once they get going.

"We also have a challenge in northern NSW and south-east Queensland with increased population. People like rainforest and they don't like smoke. It is more difficult to carry out a hazard reduction burn because there is a perception that this harms the forest yet Aborigines burned the forest for tens of thousands of years. In a sense we are now destroying that cultural landscape and we are losing species and areas of dry schlerophyl forest.

"While this approach is well-meaning it is not great for biodiversity. We need good research and evidence not perceptions. And as we saw in Queensland last year that country will burn and with an increasingly drier and hotter climate those incidents will increase."

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