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Green fingers turn back the ashes

Date

John Thistleton

Friends of the National Arboretum chair, Jocelyn Plovits, walks among a young forest White Cedar saplings with a 90-year-old forest of Himalayan Cedars behind her.

Friends of the National Arboretum chair, Jocelyn Plovits, walks among a young forest White Cedar saplings with a 90-year-old forest of Himalayan Cedars behind her. Photo: Graham Tidy

Energetic slashing, strategic burns and battle plans to protect the National Arboretum on Canberra's fire-prone west make for a defiant attitude.

People close to the 90-year-old Himalayan cedars - the arboretum's grandfathers - say if they could, those quiet giants would give fire the finger.

After the fierce January 2003 fires cut the conifers from 10,000 to 5000, a subsequent inquiry recommended the city's western edge should be a fire abatement zone.

Yet nearly a decade on, the rolling hills above Tuggeranong Parkway have been sown with rare and threatened species and future giants nurtured, watered, pruned and thinned to reach the heavens.

Chairwoman of the Friends of the National Arboretum Jocelyn Plovits says one force drives wanting to belong to the fire recovery project.

''The hope of growth - people love to see things growing,'' she said.

In a post-fire report forestry and environment specialists noted that loss of life and property evoked an unprecedented community spirit.

Co-author Tony Bartlett, a forestry researcher and member of the ACT Bushfire Council who fostered regreening partnerships, said the focus was on engaging the community and scientists, not fire management.

Hundreds of submissions during the post-fire recovery championed Canberra's bush settings. More than 100 argued against the McLeod Review's recommendation of a fire abatement zone.

Mr Bartlett said ACT Forests burnt all the log piles left after 2003, leaving no heavy fuel accumulation. ''I am aware that much of the land within the arboretum is managed in a very intense manner, with regular grass slashing and irrigation of planted trees.''

Mr Bartlett, a former director of ACT Forests and currently research program manager for forestry with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, said in the past three years it had been too wet for prescribed burning in Namadgi National Park, which was crucial.

''Without a mosaic of fuel ages there is a real risk that the entire area of the 2003 fire will all reach equilibrium fuel levels at the same time, and such a situation would present a significant challenge to firefighters in the event of another large fire in the mountains,'' he said.

''I think TAMS has done the best it could under the weather conditions that have prevailed over the past three years. They have focused on other fire management actions, such as upgrading fire access tracks, water points and helipads while the forests were too wet to burn.''

Territory and Municipal Services fire manager Neil Cooper said fire abatement zones had become more complex since 2003. In the case of the arboretum, dams and irrigation pipes were part of the defensive line, keeping grass green throughout the year.

An old plantation on the western side was now a grazing paddock, which had a 100-metre strip burned followed by heavy grazing. A buffer surrounded the arboretum, created by not planting right to the fence.

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