Richard Goonan met with Alan Goodwin (DSE state wide burning program manager) and Damian Drum’s assistant in May to discuss fuel reduction issues. Richard is part of the North Central Victorian Combined Environment Groups [NCVCEG]. FOBIF has generally supported the positions taken by the CEG on the fire issue. Richard has also written a detailed account of the fire which burnt into Bendigo on Black Saturday 2009, in which his own house was destroyed. This account can be read at https://www.fobif.org.au/admin/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Bracewell-St-Fire-Bendigo_Landscape-Attrinbute-Mapping-and-Analysis-Report.pdf.
Reporting on the generally positive meeting, Richard says that ‘It has become apparent that far better outcomes could be achieved if the [DSE] burn team had better direction about what or what not to burn, and if biodiversity assets were explicitly recognised… Greater emphasis needs to be placed on alternatives to burning especially in this region, where fuel levels are generally low and biodiversity impacts potentially very high.’
At the meeting Richard presented a CEG account of appropriate approaches to fire management. We produce part of it below, for the interest of our readers. FOBIF’s own position on fire can be read in our Documents section [see, for example, our submission to the Royal Commission at https://www.fobif.org.au/documents_2_2587903812.pdf ] . We believe that Box Ironbark woodlands can under some circumstances be very dangerous: but that each area should be treated on its own merits, and that our bushlands should not be treated in the same way as forests in other parts of the state.
‘Fire Management Principles [for Box Ironbark country]:
- ‘Fuel layers are discontinuous (heterogeneous), generally lacking fine grassy fuels, with significant mineral earth fuel breaks such as roads, tracks, and utility easements throughout the forest.
- ‘Fuel levels are generally at or below fuel management zone prescriptions, and generally fall below levels required for fuel reduction burning. If manipulation is required alternative techniques are needed which demonstrate specific and selective outcomes.
- ‘Fuel levels and fire history of the Goldfields Bioregion indicate forested areas have a relatively low fire risk overall with either small areas or particular components requiring specific treatment methods to manage broader risks.
- ‘A small amount of manipulation would generally reduce overall fuel hazards below specified targets, and in many cases only one of the fuel hazard elements may require treatment. Research has demonstrated that bark fuel hazards in BoxIronbark forests are not adequately reduced during burning operations because surface fine fuels are generally low. Reduction of bark fuels is a primary goal of hazard reduction and risk management but this goal is rarely met in BoxIronbark forests without jeopardising ecological values, alternatives approaches may improve operational outcomes.
- ‘Established probability curves predict even under high fire danger conditions, wildfire response is likely to remain effective in this region unlike other areas with high/extreme fuel levels.
- ‘Unlike other heavily forested regions, weather is the primary driver of extreme risk within this region. While some fuel manipulation may be required in specific areas, wildfire management needs to be integrated across land tenures to effectively balance risk mitigation.
- ‘If planned burning is an appropriate solution to risk, a particular spatial organisation of treatment would maximise effectiveness. Beyond this point, greater effort (more burning in remote areas) would contribute less efficiently to risk reduction as other measures become more efficient (e.g. direct asset protection). A principle solution to reduce risk would be highly specific and can be delineated in a spatially explicit manner i.e. all burning planned and identified at the outset. Therefore an ongoing rolling target and selection of random parcels (e.g. Tolhurst) is unnecessary to achieve appropriate levels of risk management.
- ‘Fuel management zoning identifies priority areas of specific high risk. Other broad scale areas are designated as lower risk and appropriately have greater flexibility in fuel level prescriptions, while in some areas no burning may be necessary. Current planning appears to contradict zoning by prioritising areas of lower risk but greater scale above areas of higher risk at smaller scales. Current planning also appears to be inconsistent with zoning by applying burn targets above zone prescriptions.
- ‘Management outcomes are constrained by a narrow focus on burning as the primary manipulative process, overlooking other fuel manipulations which may be more suitable in environments with low fuel levels.
- ‘Biodiversity encompasses all species and habitats including their interactions. Management goals need to incorporate flexibility in defining biodiversity assets to suit different forest types, structure / composition, landscape context, and bioregional ecological characteristics.
- ‘Box Ironbark forests have been radically disturbed due to past mining activities. Subsequently the soil layer has been severely diminished, some ecological processes have been suppressed (e.g. recruitment, habitat, fire, dispersal, resilience), while others have been enhanced (e.g. erosion, energy / nutrient loss, water loss).
- ‘The ecological context of disturbances such as fire has been altered in the Box Ironbark forests. Outcomes expected from other environments may be unreliable with unexpected negative impacts occurring due to interactive effects with other environmental stresses.
- ‘Negative impacts on Biodiversity increase rapidly as burn cover increases above 50% and burn frequency shortens to less that 25-30 years.
- ‘Plant species, particularly understory have recovered sporadically concentrating some aspects of biodiversity within relatively small areas of the reserve system. This increases their vulnerability to indiscriminate broad scale disturbance (burning) if actions are not taken to prevent adverse outcomes.
- ‘Other biodiversity assets like tree hollows are highly dispersed and are susceptible to cumulative incremental loss. This is exacerbated when a greater proportion of the reserve system is manipulated.
- ‘Fire has been removed from the Box Ironbark forest ecosystem for over 100 years; therefore species reliant on fire for recruitment may have already been lost. The reintroduction of fire is unlikely to recover these species. The majority of species present today are less dependent on fire. Periods of high rainfall are more significant for long term ecological processes such as patterns of recruit (e.g. 20010/2011).
- ‘Unless actively managed with clear ecological goals to define operational practices and standards, planned burning is an indiscriminate management action and can have significant ecological impacts.
- ‘Cumulative impacts reduce the long term sustainability of frequent burning regimes, particularly in areas such as the BoxIronbark ecosystem where ecological processes have previously been degraded and recovery following burning is unreliable.
- ‘Burn parcels should be aligned with and sensitive to ecological boundaries. Roads and tracks provide convenient perimeter control lines but they are often inconsistent with important ecological characteristics of the landscape. Without creating additional extensive control lines using bulldozers, methods are required which allow application of fire to specific areas within the overall fire control lines (burn parcel).
- ‘Core areas should be clearly identified and burning avoided. Maximum burn area should be determined as a fraction of the localised fragmented landscape to avoid excessive disturbance in key ecological landscape units such as core areas, corridors and links between or through forest units, areas of higher productivity (creek lines), structural habitats (understorey), and areas of different geological /ecological character.
- ‘Detailed ecological monitoring will assist managers to determine the rate and stage of recovery more accurately across a range of ecological processes, and to determine appropriate fire intervals. As recovery may be delayed due to broad climatic conditions, the time since last fire period may need to be extended. Fire return intervals (fire frequency) should be based on site recovery from last fire, rather than an arbitrary time based fire interval. At least one major regeneration event (a year of high rainfall) should occur 10-15 years prior to re-burning. For example several areas recently burnt at 15-17 years since previous fire had not had the opportunity to recover substantially because of extended drought over that period. Additional fire has contributed to cumulative ecological impacts. These areas were also well within fuel management zone prescriptions.’