If the climate is changing, so must we

Opinion: If the climate is changing, so must we

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The difference between grazed and managed National Park and unmanaged fuel loads.

The difference between grazed and managed National Park and unmanaged fuel loads.

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The Gauge | Tom Marland says to prevent bushfires you have to understand the landscape and the climate.

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Opinion | The Gauge

The image of holidaymakers huddling on the beach at Batemans Bay in the "agent orange" like hue of this year's raging bushfires, will be seared forever into the Australian psyche.

The million-odd hectares of overgrown and highly flammable eucalypt forest that was incinerated - along with anything that lived in it - only gets a second thought.

The blame for these fires has been split into two camps - one blames climate change and the other the lack of fuel reduction burns.

The reality is both are right, and both are wrong.

Australia contributes 1.3 per cent of global emissions (worst case 4 per cent if we add in the coal we export).

Even if we switched off all the lights 20 years ago - they wouldn't have prevented these fires.

I am not saying we shouldn't be doing more about climate change, but it won't alone do much to prevent the next disaster.

However, even if we could and did undertake hazard reduction burns across the entirety of the eastern seaboard over the last five years - it wouldn't have prevented these fires either.

Open grassland grazed and managed arrested a forest fire without any human suppression in 2018.

Open grassland grazed and managed arrested a forest fire without any human suppression in 2018.

To understand and prevent bushfires, you have to understand the landscape and the climate.

Our landscape is one evolved over thousands of years of climate variations.

While fire has played a part of our landscape, climate and land use change has played a far larger role.

Over the last 200 years of European settlement, the Australian landscape has been significantly modified.

The introduction of domesticated livestock, the fragmentation of grasslands by farming, the introduction of highly flammable noxious weeds and non-native grass species and the spread of urbanisation have irreversibly changed the Australian landscape.

This has also led to the modification of the landscape's fire ecology.

Simply reintroducing fire, alone, to the environment now will do little to arrest future bushfires with a changing climate in a highly modified landscape.

Various eucalypt forests that exist along the entirety of the eastern seaboard today are bred to both generate and propagate from fire.

The more frequent and more intense the fire, the higher the propagation.

The higher the propagation, the higher the frequency and intensity of future bushfires.

Cool burnt forest country pictured in 2018.

Cool burnt forest country pictured in 2018.

The old bush saying goes that "a hot fire kills one wattle bush but 1000 come to its funeral."

Over the past 200 years, dry eucalypt forests have been intensively burned through bushfire and then had fire excluded, which has allowed the vegetation to unnaturally thicken.

This unnaturally increased fuel loads and allows fires to burn further, faster and hotter, which then leads to fire intolerant ecosystems like rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests being impacted.

There is no doubt that drought, heat and wind have exacerbated these fires, but the enormous fuel loads held in our native forests has never been larger than they have been in these fires.

The issue is that the focus of conservation policies, particularly over the last 30 years, has been to restrict activities in vast areas of native forests in the form of national parks and state forest reserves in an attempt to restore the "natural balance".

The concept has been that by excluding human induced activities like cattle grazing, forestry, beekeeping, horse riding, four-wheel driving, hunting and camping - that our native forest estates will magically return to the garden of Eden.

The problem is that you can't simply demarcate one area of the landscape and expect it to function in isolation to surrounding land uses.

Noxious weeds and feral animals don't know the boundary of national parks and neither do bushfires, floods and droughts.

With the added complexity of a warmer, drier climate we need to reconsider our entire land management approach from production systems right through to our conservation systems.

We also have to reconsider the way we look at and treat highly flammable eucalypt species and eucalypt forests.

We need to appreciate and accept that over the last 200 years of European settlement we have changed the landscape that has made it more susceptible to large scale bushfires.

But we also need to appreciate that throwing our hands in the air, walking away from the problem and locking up vast areas of highly flammable and highly modified forests, with no human inputs is not the answer.

The end result is what we see in this year's bushfires.

Hot burnt forest country pictured in 2018.

Hot burnt forest country pictured in 2018.

These areas have been "locked up" by governments that have been more focused on trying to reach some magical internationally demarcated quota, than what's actually good for the landscape and forests.

We are continually hearing that fuel reduction burns are no longer feasible due to climate change shortening the cool burn periods over winter.

The window to undertake cool burns between the end of winter, the first rains in spring and the start of summer, is always narrow and across a large landscape almost impossible to implement to the levels we need to prevent future fires.

What we need to look are other, low-risk fuel reduction strategies such as low intensity and controlled stock grazing, appropriate fire break widths and networks, selective silviculture activities and direct vegetation thinning to create low fuel "green buffers" around critical infrastructure and communities.

Tom Marland is an agribusiness lawyer based in Bundaberg, Queensland. He is also the author of the blog, Food for Thought, Thought for Food.

Tom Marland is an agribusiness lawyer based in Bundaberg, Queensland. He is also the author of the blog, Food for Thought, Thought for Food.

These are all practical, common sense and economically feasible bushfire mitigation measures that are not as risky as fire.

It is estimated that these bushfires have emitted nearly 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - nearly half of Australians total accounted for carbon emissions.

But these emissions don't count to our Kyoto and Paris Targets.

If we really want to do something about climate change, whether we get points for it or not, we need to implement sensible, practical and achievable landscape and forest management policies and processes.

Surely that is something we can all agree on.

Tom Marland is an agribusiness lawyer based in Bundaberg, Queensland. He is also the author of the blog, Food for Thought, Thought for Food.

The story If the climate is changing, so must we first appeared on Farm Online.

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