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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