Sunday, July 26, 2009

Black Saturday: Reflections and Responses (without trying to sound sanctimonious)

A few weekends ago, a friend finally left his family home and moved into a small cottage buried amongst the gravel backroads of the numerous forest towns of the Dandenongs. We spent the morning packing his fragile belongings into whatever spaces we had in our cars and delicately navigating them down graded and rippled roads, only to repeat the process, reversed, when we reached his new abode. Joining us was another friend who has recently moved into the hills with her partner. She occasionally ask me about environmental aspects of her new home. Most of the time it’s “what tree’s that?” but on that weekend, she was looking at the dried tree ferns that populate the Dandenongs and asked, “Does that happen every summer?”

To an extent, yes. The common tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica & Cyathea australis) seen in the Dandenongs and the Central Highlands are a slow growing, fire resistant species, which shed branches during its growth. However, the conditions of the past month, with extreme heat being prevalent for numerous days, has resulted in chlorosis of the fronds, the floor of once-green areas are now pricked with auburn hues.

This scene has been repeated all around the state, the public now all too familiar with the consequences of our past summer. The wet forests that once adorned the communities of Marysville, Kinglake, and the Black Spur have been left smouldering. Journalists have frequently alluded to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as if it were prophecy, not fiction. Black Saturday, while considerably smaller than Black Friday or Ash Wednesday, has broken an ominous record in its death toll – compounded, undoubtedly, by the rise in population of mountain communities in the last 70 years.

As expected in the aftermath of any catastrophe, the public, whether represented by the media or the government, has begun searching desperately to find the cause – or, perhaps more crudely, a place to lay the blame. It is unfortunate that these searches all too quickly become misguided and, after the media coverage has ended and the public outrage satiated, the proposed solutions serve to do more harm than good.

Environmental matters typically hold a variety of stakeholders who doggedly pursue their own interests with the vigor of fantatic born-agains – the environmental scientists who preach from their laboratories and textbooks; the inner-city conservationists that admire from afar; the rural luddite townsfolk who harvest their knowledge as they plow their fields; and the public servants that so adeptly stride the fence. Each are interdependent, yet this diversity of knowledge means that successful and sustainable management of our land can become incredibly confused in the swill of vitriol, ulterior motives and personal/political agendas.

And so, in this vacuum of adequate response, we have seen an outpouring of proposed solutions from sources that could barely call themselves ‘experts’ in any field. One that has caught particular traction and has been espoused from opinonistas as diverse as Andrew Bolt and Germaine Greer is the increase of fuel-reduction burning.

The theory behind this is that with the frequent burning of our forests, implemented by the relevant authorities (in the case of Victoria, the Department of Sustainability & Environment), fuel loads will have no time to build up, and thus the devastating consequences of Black Saturday will be avoided from ever occurring again. Further justification is thrown in by allusions to the Aboriginal firestick farming hypothesis, in addition to a few photos of Sam The Koala, and - case closed.

However, this sentiment is not only phenomenally na├»ve, but also a horrendous insult to the diversity of our landscape. There are over 141 species of Eucalyptus present in south-east Australia, each having their own specific ecological response to fire. Boiling this vast complexity down, Eucalyptus species generally take one of two paths after a fire event – either they are a resprout (shoots grow from the bark after fire) or they seed (the tree dies, but releases a batch of seed to assist regeneration). Generally, the response is related to the frequency of fire in the area – resprouters generally found in areas of higher fire frequency, while seeders are found in areas of lower.

The hardest hit areas of these fires were in the Central Highlands, which are dominated by Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans), a wet sclerophyll species found in higher elevations, sensitive to fire, characterised by vast quantities of bark, leaf and branch litter, and a seed species. The ecology of these forests are designed that they burn once every 75-150 years, and require one event of fire every 300-400 years to ensure the species legacy. The
trees themselves conspire to ensure so, with their oil-laden leaves and high litter levels. There is no strong evidence to suggest that these wet, high elevation forests were ever part of a frequent Aboriginal firestick-farming regime. Frequent fire, whether firestick or prescribed burn, would induce seeding, but kill the next generation before they reach seed maturity. The very existence of these forests provide evidence in themselves that frequent fuel reduction burning has not, and cannot, sustainably exist in the wet sclerophyll forests that featured predominantly in the Black Saturday fires.

This is not to disregard the use of prescribed burning or the role of firestick farming as a part of Australian history, however. It thus, rather, a matter of using the appropriate management technique to suit the ecological conditions, rather than assuming our environment can be managed simply under one homogenous umbrella.

Of all the environmental problems we have faced as a nation, there is one common thread that has run through them all – we have yet to completely grasp the Australian environment, and what it means to live in this ancient continent. We prefer to ignore the grand complexity in favour of simple solutions frequently driven by ideology of all shades and hues, rather than considered understanding and knowledge of the land. The broad-brush fuel reduction burn solution only seeks to administer yet another unsustainable practice upon the land, and further our misunderstanding of how to adequately respond to the challenges of our country.


  1. "We prefer to ignore the grand complexity in favour of simple solutions frequently driven by ideology of all shades and hues, rather than considered understanding and knowledge of the land. "

    Sigh, ain't it always the case that people try to simplify things to the detriment of us all?

    Ahem. Anyway, awesome blog. Really well written and gorgeous images too.

  2. Thanks Jessie! Anyway, yes. This is probably one of the biggest sticking points when it comes to, well, almost anything. And I hate to sound like I'm banging on that same old drum, but man! The need for media headlines that sell papers (or subscritions, or whatever) is what really lets us down here. Tie in a devastating event (like a bushfire) and trying to pull some rational conclusions from it becomes almost impossible.