Here’s an interesting rainfall figure

As a follow up to our note on the BOM/CSIRO local climate guides, we’ve come across a Bendigo Advertiser 1991 table of rainfall in Bendigo over the period 1863 to 1990.

The average annual rainfall over that 127 year period was 553 mls. The average for the period 1989 to 2018 has been 460 mls–a drop of 93 mls per year. So, if you’re old enough to have decided things are getting dryer around here, you’re probably right…

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Another pic to add to our road maintenance portfolio

We’re constantly and boringly on at DELWP and Parks Victoria about their road maintenance practices, which as often as not consist of gouging a few extra inches out of the bush. It’s not often we see them gouging a bit of their own infrastructure, however. Usually when you see metal guide posts knocked over you can assume it’s some wandering motorist. At this point on the Porcupine ridge road, however, it’s pretty obvious it’s a maintenance job.

Porcupine Ridge road: the metal traffic guide post has been crushed by the grader. It’s a useful proof to us that the road has actually been widened. And the post only costs $12.32

Well, they don’t cost much…but it is a pretty tricky spot on the road, and a visible reflector post would be quite handy at that spot. The post on the other side of the road at the same place has been crunched too–presumably in the same improvement exercise.

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Fire 1: here we go again. Will controlled burning solve our bushfire problem?

Serious bushfires still burning in NSW have brought out some familiar discussion themes. Like this one: if only there had been more fuel reduction burns, these fires wouldn’t be so bad. And: the reason we don’t have enough reduction burns is that environmentalists are stopping them.

These charges have been loudly proclaimed by prominent media figures like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, and we can confidently expect to hear them again this fire season. It’s worth making a few points on the subject, because it seems like the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission and its aftermath has never happened.

Fuel reduction programs can enable firefighters to control a fire more easily, before it gets to the uncontrollable stage. But they have to be properly done, and they don’t always work. Fuel reduction is not like putting a vacuum cleaner through the bush and sucking up all the fuel, making the place much safer. It’s a tricky and sometimes risky enterprise, and needs the right conditions for success: too wet, and your burn won’t take; too dry, and you risk blowing the place up. If your burn is too moderate, it makes no difference. If it’s too severe, it can not only destroy natural values, but it can cause prolific regrowth with a resultant increased fuel load. A parliamentary report in 2002 noted:

‘Post burn assessments of the effectiveness of prescribed burns in the Blue Mountains in the period 1990-97 found that 30 per cent of the burns had a negative result, 40 per cent were sub-optimal, and 30 per cent could be rated as effective burns. The negative results occurred when there was more “creation of fuel” than reduction of fuel, with “creation” of fuel being the fire’s curing of fuels rather than consumption of them.’

This is not an argument against fuel reduction–and these figures may not apply to all situations: but they are a caution against the claim that reduction is easy, and all you have to do is get rid of restrictions on it.

The charges that fuel reduction programs in NSW have been stymied in some undefined way seem to be flat out false. They’ve also distracted attention from the fact that fuel reduction, whatever its merits, is only one of several major challenges facing fire authorities.

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Fire 2: what about, er, human nature?

Another, very serious challenge is the human being. Readers of last Tuesday’s Midland Express will have noticed a depressingly familiar theme on the front page: the number of fires caused by human ignorance or mismanagement. And two people have been arrested in NSW on charges of arson.

Walmer forest, November 2019: this small fire was lit as a training exercise to teach students how to identify the causes of fire. Less than 10% of fires are natural.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that only 6% of bushfires are natural. The rest are caused by arson, accident or carelessness. Figures for the Mount Alexander region are consistent with this estimate. What’s more, given the debate about climate change and fire, it’s worth recalling that the AIC in 2007 predicted that by 2020 global warming would bring about an increased risk of high or extreme fire danger days.

Further, it envisaged ‘fire seasons starting earlier and ending later. Longer seasons and more high fire danger days will result in fewer opportunities for prescribed burning and will require more resources to be devoted to bushfire suppression and control. Combined with the likelihood of increased water shortages, efforts to understand and prevent deliberate bushfires will become an increasingly important component of Australia’s fire management strategy.’

That was 12 years ago. According to Chloe Hooper, ‘It is estimated that only 1% of bushfire arsonists are ever caught.’ It seems that in the intervening time we haven’t progressed far in educating human beings that playing with fire is a dangerous activity.

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Meanwhile, on the ground: fuel reduction at Spring Gully

DELWP conducted a fuel reduction burn in the area south of Jacobs track, along the Vaughan Chewton road in the week beginning November 18.  The fire was lit on the 18th before the dire weather forecast for the following Thursday was issued. As it happened, the burn passed without incident, though nearby residents were understandably concerned at the decision to light a fire so close to a day of forecast high temperatures and vicious winds. The fire did flare up in spots, but was controlled, and as of November 26 was still being patrolled.

Near Jacobs Track, November 8: Bushfire Moderation Zones aim to reduce fuel by 80%

This was a 95 hectare burn, originally planned for last Autumn. It was a ‘Bushfire moderation zone [BMZ]’ burn, aimed at reducing 80 per cent of the fuel in the designated area. The burn is designed to provide some protection for Fryerstown from fire coming from its north. BMZ burns are directed at protecting human assets, and ecological considerations are not central to them.

The result, as with most of these exercises, was mixed: not as bad as it could have been, not as good as it should be. As an illustration: DELWP policy aims to clean up ground fuel and some scrub, and to avoid bringing down big trees in management burns, but we haven’t seen one which has pulled off this feat. Department policy tries to explain this deficiency with statements like, ‘Occasionally an unhealthy tree may die after a fire or planned burn’, something we’re a bit sceptical about. In the current case, the aim to protect big trees (very rare in this patch of bush) was largely achieved, with one bizarre exception: right on the road, at the edge of the fire, where you would have thought it would be very visible to patrols, perhaps the biggest eucalypt in the zone has been scorched to the crown. This was not an unhealthy tree, but the prognosis for its survival through the summer is not great.

Scorched trees on the Chewton Fryerstown road: in theory large trees should not be damaged in reduction burns.

A question hovering over all these exercises should never be forgotten: what is their effect, ecologically? Fire managers are in an unenviable position. Any bushfire outbreak exposes them to a relentless media campaign accusing them of not doing enough burning. The ecological effects of management fire are quieter, more complex and more long term. Managers’ challenge is to achieve human safety without destroying the natural environment which keeps us alive. Are they well enough resourced to do this? We’ve frequently expressed our doubts about this one.

In the fire zone, Spring Gully: Bushfire Management Zones are not directly concerned with ecological values, but surviving patches like this are important in forest health.

 

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Fuel reduction: a bit of ancient history

On the subject of fire safety and ecological health, here’s a look at the past:

“In 1970 the Australian Conservation Foundation released a reasoned manifesto on ‘bushfire control and conservation’ that encapsulated the sentiments and logic of environmental critics (of controlled burning). The foundation recognised that fire in some capacity belonged in landscape, and that barring a technological revolution ‘we in Australia must lean heavily on control-burning in our fire mitigation policy’. But it conveyed powerful reservations. Parks and wildlife reserves should not be managed as commercial forests or wheatfields; controlled burning had become itself a significant source of escape fires, some of which threatened reserves; the full biological impact of the fires, beyond their demonstrated effect on fuels, was not known. All this argued for caution in burning, or for alternatives to burning. It was not even obvious that routine controlled fire insulated a fire from the holocaust fire, which was the ultimate justification for burning. And fire protection was itself a massive expression of a human presence. It violated the illusion of naturalness by laying down roads, trails, and towers, by terrorizing landscapes with bulldozers and chemicals, and by burning according to human schedules and for human ends.” [Page 373-4 The burning bush: a history of fire in Australia, by Stephen Pyne]

Every one of the points made by the ACF nearly 50 years ago still applies. In particular, ‘the full biological impact of the fires, beyond their demonstrated effect on fuels, was not known’. Documents on the effects of burning proliferate, but in the day to day conduct of reduction burns, the long term effects of such practices is not clear: and it would be an unpleasant discovery to find, years down the track, that we’ve saved ourselves from fire by destroying the environment we live in.

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It’s a miracle! Scott Morrison was right! And wrong! At the same time!

The early start to the bushfire season has generated a debate about the connection between climate change and bushfires. This is another debate we can expect to sputter on over summer.

It’s important to be clear about what the argument is here. A warming climate does not cause fires: but  hotter, dryer conditions make outbreaks caused by lightning, arson or something else more likely, more likely to be frequent, and more likely to be serious. The country is drier and hotter, and the explanation for this has been laid out in innumerable scientific papers and attested by senior fire fighters. The equation is pretty obvious to anyone not seduced by conspiracy theories or the wilder explanations of the internet (like Barnaby Joyce’s claim that the sun’s magnetic field is to blame for our problems). Those who reject it are, by and large, those who reject altogether the reality of human induced climate change

Would the situation have been less serious if the Coalition Government had acted decisively to limit or reduce Australia’s contribution to global warming? The Prime Minister has rejected the idea outright: ‘I think to suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.’ In one sense, he’s absolutely right.

As many right wing commentators have pointed out, if Australia reduced its carbon emissions to zero it would have no effect at all on the rate of global warming. In support of this argument, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt cited Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. Mr Finkel responded by labelling Bolt’s claim as ‘a complete misrepresentation of my position…’. He went on:

‘On 1 June 2017 I attended a Senate Estimates hearing where Senator Ian Macdonald asked if the world was to reduce its carbon emissions by 1.3 per cent, which is approximately Australia’s rate of emissions, what impact would that make on the changing climate of the world. My response was that the impact would be virtually nothing but I immediately continued by explaining that doing nothing is not a position that we can responsibly take because emissions reductions is a little bit like voting, in that if everyone took the attitude that their vote does not count and no-one voted, we would not have a democracy.

‘Similarly, if all countries that have comparable carbon emissions took the position that they shouldn’t take action because their contribution to this global problem is insignificant, then nobody would act and the problem would continue to grow in scale.’

There are about 15 other countries with emissions comparable to ours, accounting for over 20% of global emissions. If we followed the logic of Morrison and Bolt, none of them should be concerned about their emissions—clearly a ridiculous position to argue.

The current government can’t be held directly responsible for the recent fires: but if conditions become more severe, its responsibility as a global citizen will be harder to evade.

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So: how’s the climate here?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO have released a series of local climate guides summing up the changes in the last few decades around Australia. The guide for North Central Victoria can be found here. It reveals that average rainfall in Bendigo has decreased by 30 mls  a year over the period from 1989, and the average number of days over 38 degrees has doubled from two to four. There are plenty of other stats for you to wrangle with too, on the detail of frost, seasonal rain variations, etc. Have a look.

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FOBIF breakup reminder: 9 December

Members and supporters of FOBIF are welcome at this years BBQ breakup in Walmer. Find out where and what to bring here.

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FOBIF 2019 breakup

On Monday 9 December Friends of the Box-Ironbark Forests is having a BBQ at Bronwyn Silver’s place in Walmer.

It starts at 6 pm and the address is 1036 Muckleford-Walmer Road, Walmer. 

BYO
*  food to share, including something for the BBQ if you like

*  plates, glasses, cutlery
*  drinks 
*  a chair

All FOBIF members and supporters are welcome. Enquires Bronwyn: 0448751111.

Walmer South Nature Conservation Reserve

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