Recent reporting about the risks of conducting prescribed burning in the ACT's forests fails to recognise the critical role fire plays in maintaining the health of Australian forest ecosystems and ignores the lived history of bushfires in the ACT. Fire has always been part of the Australian landscape. Therefore, it makes no sense to try to keep it out of forests for 40 to 50 years, as suggested by Professor David Lindenmayer.
Best practice forest fire management takes into account the findings from fire and environmental research, the lessons from previous bushfires and community expectations that life, property and environmental values will be protected from severe bushfires.
We are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, which killed four people, destroyed 510 buildings, and caused significant environmental impacts to 91 per cent of Namadgi National Park. The two inquiries following these fires both made very clear findings on the need for active management of fuels in the forests to the west of Canberra. As someone who was actively involved in fighting these bushfires, I know how difficult it was to establish fire control lines in areas with very high fuel levels. At the 10th anniversary of these bushfires the then-chief minister, Katy Gallagher, said the lessons from the 2003 fires were learned in the hardest possible way and vigilance and cooperation was required to make those lessons count. With the passage of time various people, who are opposed to active management of forests, increase their lobbying of politicians to try to reduce or eliminate the implementation of prescribed burning in forest landscapes.
There is ample evidence within Namadgi National Park of the destructive negative impacts on forest ecosystems arising from repeated short-interval catastrophic bushfires, as well as the positive impacts implementation of well-managed prescribed burning can have on reducing such negative impacts. The lived-experience in the ACT clearly demonstrates the proposed strategy of trying to keep fire out of forests for more than 40 years will not ensure that such areas do not burn at high intensity in the future. There was a large area in the very south of Namadgi National Park where no fire had occurred for more than 40 years and the ground fuel levels were very high. The 2020 Orroral Valley bushfire burned through this area at very high intensity and left the forest with no foliage on any trees and no understory vegetation.
The 2020 bushfire burnt 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park, with a very large proportion of the burnt areas coinciding with areas that had been severely burnt in the 2003 bushfires. This means there are large areas of fire-sensitive vegetation in Namadgi National Park that have now been burnt by severe bushfires twice in 17 years. The majestic alpine ash forests are one example of the forest ecosystems that have been impacted significantly by these large-scale bushfires. About 20 per cent of their pre-2003 extent has been lost due to being burnt by bushfire a second time, before the regrowth that arose from the 2003 bushfire was old enough to produce seed. In a changing climate, where severe bushfires are expected to occur more frequently, it is absurd to argue abandoning prescribed burning in remote forest areas is the best way to protect these areas. We need to use low-intensity prescribed fire strategically in the landscape to reduce the likelihood of important areas of fire-sensitive vegetation being subject to repeated high-intensity bushfires.
Far from being a threat to most of the vegetation in Namadgi, the application of prescribed fire has significantly reduced the impacts of the 2020 bushfire on native vegetation, as well as offering protection to water storages. One example of this is in the forests to the west of Corin Dam, where prescribed burning had been implemented before the 2020 bushfire. In these areas the bushfire burnt at low intensity, the tree canopies were unaffected and much of the ground vegetation survived the fire. In areas that had been excluded from the prescribed burn, the bushfire burnt at high severity, completely consuming most tree canopies and almost all the ground vegetation, leaving the sites adjacent to the dam highly susceptible to soil erosion.
When considering how to manage forest landscapes, we need to be more respectful of Aboriginal people, their traditional knowledge and their care for Country over many thousands of years. We should not be suggesting that the use of fire to manage forest landscapes is unnecessary. Aboriginal people consider that fire is a natural element, similar to rain and wind and it forms part of their cultural land management practices. There is scientific evidence that the cultural burning they practised produced radically different forest landscapes and fire regimes to both those we see today and to those now being advocated by academics, such as Prof Lindenmayer.
Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri man and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, maintains the imposition of conservation policies that prevent prescribed burning has created the conditions in which forests have become denser, more flammable and more susceptible to climate-driven bushfires. He argues that it is time to listen to and learn from Indigenous and local people and empower these communities to drive research and forest management agendas. In his view, cultural burning is a holistic approach to forest landscape management that has many purposes, only one of which is hazard reduction.
There is no doubt we need to improve fire management in Australian forests. We need to get better at quickly suppressing forest wildfires when they pose risks to life, property and the environment. But at other times of the year, land managers need to increase the use of prescribed fire, both to reduce fuel hazards in strategically important areas and to better protect important environmental values from the impacts of frequent severe bushfires. Nurturing effective partnerships with Aboriginal people needs to be a key part of this strategy.
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