Some good news . . .

The Andrews government has closed an “outdated” legal loophole that allowed people to kill wombats without a permit in eastern Victoria.

More than 4000 wombats are killed each year, according to the Victorian Greens, because of a decades-old rule that allowed landowners to control the marsupial’s population at 193 parishes in Gippsland.

The amendment to the Wildlife Act 1975  officially revokes an outdated law that declared wombats unprotected in some parts of the state.

It follows a state government inquiry into wombat protection laws that was triggered by public outrage after it was revealed that wealthy international tourists were being invited to a farm in northern Victoria to hunt the animals.

Wombats are present in large numbers in the protected environment of Wilsons Promontory National Park. Photo Bronwyn Silver, 2019.

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The year ahead

We recently sent a fobif newsletter to our members. We have reprinted a version here for our members and supporters who may not have received it.

Welcome to 2020 – a year with a difference and with many challenges across Victoria and Australia. The smoke haze is a reminder of the current and future threat of fires and the damage that they bring to communities and to our natural environment. We will continue to put relevant posts on the FOBIF website – please send any links that you think will add to our understanding.

Join or renew FOBIF memberships
The 2020 membership form is now available. Please note that you need to return this form by email or post if your contact details have changed or if you are a new member. If you are paying by bank transfer use your surname for the code. Membership paid in the last 3 months of 2019 with cover 2020. 

Open committee meetings
Remember FOBIF committee meetings are open to all members. They are held at the Castlemaine Community House building, Templeton Street, Castlemaine, on the second Monday of every month from February to November, at 6pm. Come along and have a say.

FOBIF 2020 walks program
Thanks to the organising team, the 2020 Walks Program has been planned to cover a wide range of locations and interests Check the website before each walk for any alterations. 

FOBIF books and greeting cards
This year saw a new printing of our Wattles of the Mount Alexander Region. This book as well as Eucalypts of the Mount Alexander Region and Mosses of Dry Forests can be purchased through our website or at Stoneman’s Bookroom

We also produced eight greeting cards which feature photographs of our local bushlands. Photographers are Joy Clusker, Patrick Kavanagh, Damian Kelly, Geoff Park, Bronwyn Silver, Bernard Slattery and Noel Young. They are available through our website as a set of eight for $20 including postage. 

Marie Jones
FOBIF President

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How will fire change Victoria?

The Victorian National Parks Association has recently provided an analysis of environmental issues related to the bushfire crisis:

Victoria is one of the most fire prone places on earth, and this is being made a far more severe problem by human-induced climate change.

And while fire has long been a natural disturbance in the Victorian bush, in recent years many of our special natural areas have been experiencing fire too frequently, allowing insufficient time for habitat recovery. Even our normally fire-resistant temperate rainforest areas are burning, a situation which they have not evolved to cope with. Read more here

Sadly, many animals have been killed and will continue to perish following the fires.More here

This is devastating for endangered species like the brush-tailed rock wallabies of the upper Snowy River, but also for common species already experiencing a decline in populations.

Here lies the challenge: many species are not given time to replenish before another threat comes along, whether it is more fire, predators, pest animals such as deer which eat regrowth and trample already polluted wetlands and waterways –  or the logging of either burnt or unburnt areas.

Once these fires are controlled, we will need urgent surveys, condition assessments and expert management advice and action for the recovery of critically threatened species and highly localised habitats. Every bit of unburnt bush is now a vital refuge for the recovery of species, especially in East Gippsland and the North East. See more here.

See the VNPA website for the full article which concludes with links covering: 

  • evidence-based articles on the latest bushfire crisis
  • organisations to support if you want to help
  • websites with current safety information 
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Christmas wishes

The FOBIF committee wishes all friends of our forests a happy Christmas and a great new year. We’ll be sending out a membership renewal form and the 2020 walks list in January. Our 2020 walks program will also be available on our website.

FOBIF members and supporters at the end of the year celebration on 9 December.

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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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