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Nearly half of Wilsons Promontory burnt due to CFA neglect

I have been monitoring the Jan-Feb 2009 Victorian bushfires from NSW and have turned my attention to the bushfire management in a natural area - Wilsons Promontory. I note satellite observations of the fire with concern showing the lighting ignition on the east coast started 9th February, but had almost extinguished itself by the 13th. Then a wind change drove it out of control. A week later it has burnt out 22,000 hectares (almost 50% of our precious 50,000ha Prom)!

While the Country Fire Authority (CFA) has paid special attention to non-imminent bushfire risks to rather distant private property. The CFA says "the fire does not currently pose a threat to the Yanakie community." Backburning the Prom is given as the only bushfire response strategy. So do we interpret this as a noncommittal response by the CFA for the Prom - that is since no human lives or private property are at threat, the CFA's bushfire response is to just 'monitor' the fire and put out the spot fires threatening private property to the north?

I interpret this bushfire management by Victoria's CFA as one that respects only human life and property, but does not rate the natural asset values of fauna and flora habitat of the Prom with any respect.

The CFA reports read as though CFA policy for active and damaging bushfires in important conservation areas is to wait for rain, but otherwise 'let it burn'.

And yet the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts hot and windy conditions for tomorrow Monday, 23 Feb 2009.

I interpret this bushfire management by Victoria's CFA as one that respects only human life and property, but does not rate the natural asset values of fauna and flora habitat of the Prom with any respect. It seems at best an opportunity for de-facto hazard reduction that it would normally not get permission to do, and at worst an inconvenient distraction for CFA crews.

If this is the prevailing attitude of rural firefighting then clearly the CFA has no interest in natural assets, and no mandate to protect them from fire in the same passionate way it does private property? There seems no difference in approach or skill set by the CFA to that that would be exercised by urban fire brigades.

So why do we have a CFA? Professional fire brigades are expensive, whereas volunteers are cheap is the political answer!

On this basis, it is overdue for the CFA to be incorporated within the urban fire brigade structure. While this initial structural change won't save Victoria's vast tracts of wildlife habitat in the short term, it will sure will remove the false premise to the community that the CFA respects and defends natural wildlife habitats.

What does Victorian Government's Department of Sustainability and Environment have to say for itself? It is charged with the Promontory's protection.

See also: "Crews unable to slow Wilsons Promontory blaze" on ABC online on 17 Feb 09, "Huge blaze threatens the very heart of the Prom" in the Age of 19 Feb 09.

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Comments

During the summer of 1995 there were major fires, including a very large one in the Enfield Forest outside Ballarat. There was comment at time over the obvious turf battles between CFA and what is now DSE. They each had very different ideas as to how major forest fire should be fought and by whom. At that time there were sufficient large bodies of water about to sustain the operations of waterbombing aircraft, both fixed-wing and rotor. In the debate that followed the fires it became clear that the large waterbombers ( Canadair ) routinely used in Canada, Spain, France and America and available in Australia on demand were deemed too expensive to fly out and have on standby here during our fire season. Its a pity. They are perfect for conditions such as those at the Prom this summer. They can pick up 6000 litres of water in 10 seconds, even in a choppy surface up to 1.5 meters, and dump it in a long line across a fire front, with very quick backup times. Even though Elvis is effective, the sheer volume of water that can be quickly dropped by these aircraft would have had the Prom fire, and perhaps several others near large bodies of water out long before now, It does really seem that the natural bushland is a very second best to more urban rural areas, and consequently frequently left to burn in a barely controlled manner. We need to dig deeper if we are to be seen as serious about fire threat.

I'd like to read more and have an article about these waterbombing craft and the turf-battles, Les. How about writing one for us?

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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As a Victorian, environmentalist and occasional visitor to Wilson's Prom I rejoice when parts of the prom go up in flames. Because the regeneration of native plants that follows will improve biodiversity and provide new grazing for the local marsupials.

The only regret I have that burning of small patches does not take place on a more regular basis so that bushfires are not quite so wide spread when they go through.

The dominant EVC of Wilsons Prom is 'heath land' and fire has been an integral and essential part of heath land ecology since long before Europeans arrived in Australia and even long before Eucalypts dominated our landscape.

I do not share the irrational and out dated Victorian English abhorrence of fire in the Australian landscapes that many contributors to this blog site seem to have.

As a Victorian, environmentalist and past visitor to Wilson's Prom I find it hard to rejoice when faunal habitat burns in such vast areas as to clearly kill and mame, else displace ground dwelling mammals from their home range, remove food sources, remove protective cover, open the bush up to feral predation, increased sunlight, etc, etc.

I often hear this theoretical justification about fire being good for the bush. The naive perception is that from a distance the bush grows back. But up close the fire resistant flora moreso than fire sensitive flora and fauna (does this not suggest less biodiversity). If more biodiversity, then how many decades does it take to replicate the pre-fire ecosystem's biodiversity? What happens to the fauna in the meantime? Which species of fauna are indeed fire resistant? The problem is that some justify this 'fire is good' theory without hard quantifiable biological and zoological investigative research to support it.

Of the recorded 30 odd species of native terrestrial mammals in the park (Long-nosed Potoroo, Swamp Antechinus, White-footed Dunnart, Broad-toothed Rat, Feather-tailed Glider and Eastern Pygmy-possum, as well as the more familiar kangaroos, koalas and wombats) what were the numbers before then after the 1995 fires, then before and after the current 2009 fires?

A rational approach should be based on rational evidence, not assumptions on what was the landcape may have looked like and the assumed fire frequency before 1788. Can anyone provide that evidence and prove that fire is good for fauna?

The same bloke who was in charge of the last big (burning off) fire is in charge of this fire (started by lightening but then left to roar)
Why was he allowed to stay in the job?
The animals that live in the burned area have no-where to go. The place is surrounded by farmland and sea.
Has anyone been there lately? Hardly any animals to see, even at night.
It makes me %^#)(* angry!

The original subject of this post was "OK smart ar$e". This appeared on the front page of the web site. This aggravating title was totally inappropriate for and would obviously put off the kind of people we want to attract to this site whilst attracting trolls. Any more such posts won't be tolerated. - JS.

"The same bloke who was in charge of the last big (burning off) fire is in charge of this fire (started by lightening but then left to roar)
Why was he allowed to stay in the job?
The animals that live in the burned area have no-where to go. The place is surrounded by farmland and sea.
Has anyone been there lately? Hardly any animals to see, even at night.
It makes me %^#)(* angry!"

Let's see you go and do a better job!

I would enjoy seeing you naivity about the Australian bush lead you to spectacular failure as Parks Ranger for Wilsons Prom.

There are many reasons why many of our marsupials are under threat of extinction.

The biggest contributor is undoubtedly habitat destruction to make way for urban developments and agricultural land. Foxes, rabits and cats no doubt play a major role in threatening many of them. But many of the endangered species may well even be able to withstand the onslaught of these feral animals if it were not for the second biggest threat to their surivial - the termination of mosaic burning by the former aboriginal inhabitants of this land.

In fact almost all the marsupials that have gone extinct did so in a few desert environments soon after the aboriginal inhabitants left their land in the 1960s and ceased their fire stick farming. No doubt grazing and ferral animals would have reduced their numbers prior to the aborigines leaving their land.

There may be considerable debate necessary on how best to carry out environmental burning given our rather different economic and culural systems, and it may indeed prove difficult to meld the needs of European inhabitants with the needs of the local ecosystems.

But all credible land managers and members of the conservation movement with practical exposure to Australian ecosystems universally agree that burning is necessary, apart from in a few fire sensitive ecosystems like rainforests.

"Of the recorded 30 odd species of native terrestrial mammals in the park (Long-nosed Potoroo, Swamp Antechinus, White-footed Dunnart, Broad-toothed Rat, Feather-tailed Glider and Eastern Pygmy-possum, as well as the more familiar kangaroos, koalas and wombats) what were the numbers before then after the 1995 fires, then before and after the current 2009 fires?"

That would mostly likely due to the fact that previous bushfires were not the only issue for wild life. During that time there has also been massive land clearing for urban developments to feed the property speculation boom.

Any burning programs will have to take account of that so that the size of the mosaic pattern is appropriate for the size of the remaining forests etc. There is not much point deliberately buring an entire forest in one go, containing koalas, if that forest is surrounded by suburbia.

But one thing is for sure. If appropriate burning is not done then natural bushfire will sooner or later wipe out the forest and take the local koalas with it.

From realdirt.com.au/2008/09/08/hazard-reduction-burning-ecological-or-pathological-smhreal-dirt-exclusive

A new scientific paper published in the CSIRO journal Wildlife Research by Michael Clarke, an associate professor in the department of zoology at La Trobe University, suggests the answer to both questions is: we do not know. What we do know is a lot of precious wild places are set on fire, in large part to keep happy those householders whose kitchen windows look out on gum trees. Clarke says it is reasonable for land management agencies to try to limit the negative effects of large fires, but we need to be confident our fire prevention methods work. And just as importantly, we need to be sure they do not lead to irreversible damage to native wildlife and habitat. He argues we need to show some humility, and writes: “The capacity of management agencies to control widespread wildfires ignited by multiple lightning strikes in drought conditions on days of extreme fire danger is going to be similar to their capacity to control cyclones.” In other words, sometimes we can do zip.

Much hazard reduction is performed to create a false sense of security rather than to reduce fire risks, and the effect on wildlife is virtually unknown. The sooner we acknowledge this the sooner we can get on with the job of working out whether there is anything we can do to manage fires better. We need to know whether hazard reduction can be done without sending our wildlife down a path of firestick extinctions.

An annual burn conducted each year on Montague Island, near Narooma on the NSW far South Coast, highlights the absurdity of the current public policy free-for-all, much of which is extraordinarily primitive. In 2001 park rangers burnt a patch of the devastating weed kikuyu on the island. The following night a southerly blew up, the fire reignited and a few penguins were incinerated. It was a stuff-up that caused a media outcry: because cute penguins were burnt, the National Parks and Wildlife Service was also charcoaled. Every year since there has been a deliberate burn on Montague, part of a program to return the island to native vegetation. Each one has been a circus - with teams of staff, vets, the RSPCA, ambulances, boats and helicopters - all because no one wants any more dead penguins.

Meanwhile every year on the mainland, park rangers and state forests staff fly in helicopters tossing out incendiary devices over wilderness forests, the way the UN tosses out food packages. Thousands of hectares are burnt, perhaps unnecessarily, too often, and worse, thousands of animals that are not penguins (so do not matter) are roasted. All to make people feel safe. Does the burning protect nearby towns? On even a moderately bad day, probably not. Does it make people feel better? Yes.

Clarke’s paper calls for the massive burn-offs to be scrutinised much more closely. “In this age of global warming, governments and the public need to be engaged in a more sophisticated discussion about the complexities of coping with fire in Australian landscapes,” he writes. He wants ecological data about burns collected as routinely as rainfall data is gathered by the agricultural industry. Without it, hazard reduction burning is flying scientifically blind and poses a dangerous threat to wildlife. “To attempt to operate without proper data on the effect of bushfires should be as unthinkable as a farmer planting a crop without reference to the rain gauge,” he writes.

In the coming decades, native plants and animals will face enough problems - most significantly from human-induced climate chaos - without having to dodge armies of public servants armed with lighters. Guesswork and winter smoke are not enough to protect our towns and assets now, and the risk of bushfires increases with the rise in carbon dioxide.

This piece was first published in the SMH, 08/09/08 as "Hazard Reduction Burning: ecological or pathological?"

"A new scientific paper published in the CSIRO journal Wildlife Research by Michael Clarke, an associate professor in the department of zoology at La Trobe University, suggests the answer to both questions is: we do not know. What we do know is a lot of precious wild places are set on fire, in large part to keep happy those householders whose kitchen windows look out on gum trees. Clarke says it is reasonable for land management agencies to try to limit the negative effects of large fires, but we need to be confident our fire prevention methods work. And just as importantly, we need to be sure they do not lead to irreversible damage to native wildlife and habitat. He argues we need to show some humility, and writes: “The capacity of management agencies to control widespread wildfires ignited by multiple lightning strikes in drought conditions on days of extreme fire danger is going to be similar to their capacity to control cyclones.” In other words, sometimes we can do zip."

There is considerable debate to be had on how often environmental / fuel reduction burns should be carried out. There seems as though there is a deficit of appropriate expertise among some DSE staff. And fire stick farming cannot be exactly as the aborigines carried out due to our massive alteration of the landscape since then.

But the debate on WHETHER they should be carried out is OVER.

G. Boyles,
You consistently fail to take on board that the WORST hit areas in the fires were those which were burned back many times and logged and relogged and thinned. Picking and choosing bits to suit your prejudices out of a larger article is not helpful to knowledge. Neither is repeatedly posting abusive comments. No other correspondent on Candobetter is handing out abuse; why do you feel that you should be an exception to this? Why blog on an alternative publication when you are entirely happy with the propaganda peddled by the Murdoch and Fairfax Press? If you think a debate is over, why the big fuss? Play the ball, not the man, Mr Boyles, or expect your account to be suspended. On the other hand, read with an open mind and respond with an open heart and we may all learn something.

Sheila Newman,
Editor

Well Sheila perhaps you are right after all.

Perhaps I should cease investing my time and energy into arguing with a bunch of loopy environmentalists who are largely ignored by the conservation mainstream any way.

Will remove my email address from the subscription so that I am no longer aggrevated by your idiotic postings.

Gregary,

I think you are right.

If you are a genuine environmentalist and sincerely believe that we are a "bunch of loopy environmentalists" (which I would have thought was an oxymoron, anyway) then you are wasting your time here.

If, however, you change your mind and decide to continue with your participation in this discussion, then I ask that you refrain from using any abusive or insulting language from now on.

Most of us cop enough of that on a number of other online forums and certainly don't need any more of it here.

Also, I expect people to debate fairly.

If we see, for example, repetition of previously stated points without acknowledgement of subsequent countering arguments, we reserve the right to either delete the offending posts or move them elsewhere in order to preserve the usefulness of this discussion to ourselves and to other people.

Mr Boyles,

Your comment is self-contradictory and contradicts the material from Michael Clarke that you cite. My own impression is that you are a troll. Whether or not you really are here simply to make a nuisance of yourself, you are being a nuisance at a time and on a subject of deep concern in Victoria. I am therefore blocking your access as a contributor.

Sheila Newman
(Editor)

Gregary Boyles wrote:

After contacting Michael Clarke of the Latrobe Uni Zoology Department he stated that his studies are intended to back a zero burn policy contrary to the way some of you have attempted to misrepresent his studies.

This abstract from the scientific paper that you are no doubt referring to:

Catering for the needs of fauna in fire management:
science or just wishful thinking?
Michael F. Clarke
Department of Zoology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic. 3086, Australia.
Email: m.clarke@latrobe.edu.au
Abstract. Ecological fire management in Australia is often built on an assumption that meeting the needs of plant species will automatically meet the needs of animal species. However, the scarcity of ecological data on the needs of fauna in relation to fire undermines the confidence managers should place in current popular frameworks for planning ecological burning. Such frameworks are built almost entirely around the goal of maintaining plant community diversity. They provide little guidance to managers regarding the characteristics of desirable ‘mosaics’ (e.g. patch size, connectivity or composition of age-since-burnt classes) or the timing of fires in relation to faunal population trends linked to other cycles (e.g. El Niño events). Claims by agencies of adopting an adaptive management approach (‘learning by doing’) to cope with a dearth of knowledge are credible only if monitoring and evaluation are carried out and future actions are modified in light of new evidence. Much monitoring of fauna is of such a small scale and short duration that the statistical likelihood of detecting a positive or negative effect of the management regime is minute. Such shortcomings will only be overcome through broad-scale and/or long-term studies of fauna. The funding for such research is unlikely to be forthcoming if fire ecologists and land managers convey the impression that the current data are adequate for the implementation of the current planning frameworks.

merely re-states what I have been constantly stating. I.E. That environmental burning regimes need to be tailored to EVC, local site and weather conditions, species specific conservation requirements, etc, etc.

Note this statement particularly:

"regarding the characteristics of desirable ‘mosaics’ (e.g. patch size, connectivity or composition of age-since-burnt classes)"

"A new scientific paper published in the CSIRO journal Wildlife Research by Michael Clarke, an associate professor in the department of zoology at La Trobe University, suggests the answer to both questions is: we do not know. What we do know is a lot of precious wild places are set on fire, in large part to keep happy those householders whose kitchen windows look out on gum trees. Clarke says it is reasonable for land management agencies to try to limit the negative effects of large fires, but we need to be confident our fire prevention methods work. And just as importantly, we need to be sure they do not lead to irreversible damage to native wildlife and habitat. He argues we need to show some humility, and writes: “The capacity of management agencies to control widespread wildfires ignited by multiple lightning strikes in drought conditions on days of extreme fire danger is going to be similar to their capacity to control cyclones.” In other words, sometimes we can do zip."

This is referring to deliberately lit back burning operations but what is ripping through the prom is a natural bushfire that was ignited by lightening.

We do not have the resources or water to extinguish the number and extent of natural fires occuring at present.

But if environmental burning was carried out on a 10 - 15 year cycle at a few thousand hectares at a time (50000/15), or what ever was agreed to be appropriate for the prom heath lands, then perhaps these lightening ignited fires would be considerably less damgaing to wildlife when they did occur.

By the way there have already been reports of some native grasses re-sprouting at Kinglake and of a few Kangaroos or wallabies starting to sniff around for fresh sprouts.

Studies on fire ecology in Australia are plentiful and have produced a lot of knowledge on fauna responses. I guess what is important to consider is the fire regime rather than individual fire events (like the 2009 fires). Studies on fire regimes (a fire history including differences in severity, season and frequency) are still a little limited due to fires only being mapped effectively for around the past 30 years and also the infrequency of fires in certain vegetation types. The important component of the fire regime for biodiversity conservation would be the frequency as if fires become too frequent biodiversity loss will occur due to an inability of obligate seeder species to set sufficient seed or in the case of fauna, non mobile species that breed slowly getting 'hit for six' too frequently.

There are a number of studies that have occurred throughout Australia on fauna recovery post fire yet unfortunately control impact studies (where monitoring had occurred before and after wildfire) are a little scarce. One of the most famous studies have occurred in the heathland of Nadgee Nature Reserve since the early 1970s by Dan Lunney, Harry Recher and other associates with monitoring mainly concentrating on small mammal populations. The area experienced a high severity wildfire in 1972 (2 years into the study) and a low severity wildfire in 1980 with no fires since. Small mammals have been continuously sampled on the site since 1972 and their population trends are summarised by Recher et al in the current issue of Wildlife Research. While undertaking his PhD at the Myall Lakes in northern NSW, Barry Fox's study site experienced a wildfire thus presenting a nice opportunity to document small mammal recovery post fire (documented in papers in the early 1980s with one in Ecology in 1982 if my memory serves rightly). The conclusion to these studies from infrequent high intensity wildfires in heathlands (ie 'flammable environments') is that populations of common species such as Brown Antechinus/ Agile Antechinus and Bush Rat/ Swamp Rat peak at around 7 years post fire and decline thereafter. Having said that several 'threatened' rodent species (New Holland Mouse and Eastern Chestnut Mouse) reach a maximum population density within 2-3 years post fire and decline thereafter and are probably threatened by infrequent fire. Several reviews on small mammal fire ecology have been completed, for example Liz Sutherland and Chris Dickman in Wildlife Research around 1999/00 but I would also have a look at Peter Catling's critisism/ critique of frequent hazard reduction burning in the 1st edition of The Conservation of Australia's Forest Fauna (ed D Lunney, published by the RZS NSW).

More importantly I suppose for the victorian Mountain Ash/ Alpine Ash/ Messmate forests and fire recovery a great deal of work has documented the requirement of these communities of infrequent high severity fire (ie crown fire) to regeneration (ie to stop them becoming rainforests). Dave Ashton completed a PhD around Kinglake in around 1964 and Malcolm Gill (CSIRO) has worked extensively on the ecology of Alpine Ash. Anyway back to fauna responses. Brendan Mackey, David Lindenmayer and associates published a book by CSIRO publishing in around 2001/02 called Wildlife, fire and future climate based on fire ecology of Mountain Ash. This book might be out of print but good uni and TAFE libraries should have a copy. It contains details of modelling of mountain ash hollow dynamics post fire and lots on the leadbeater's possum, a bit of a conservation paradigm as it requires hollows but also Acacia in the understorey thus fire events are good but also bad. There have been a number of studies in Mountain Ash and other recently burnt vegetation types, for example one in Wildlife Research by van der Ree and Loyn (from around 2000) that compared Greater Glider and Small Eared Possum abundance among sites last burned in 1939 in comparison to those last burned in 1983. There were more Greater Gliders in 1939 sites yet due to a lack of fire severity work I wouldnt conclude anything further on it.

So I guess in conclusion with fires there are winners and their are losers. Certain species are sensitive to frequent fire while others relish frequent fire. Unfortunately we cant cater to all species with single fire regimes and at best we can probably only cater to species that are easiest to monitor, represent the greatest ecological importance or are flagship species (ie cute and cuddly).

Cheers

Chris McLean
Centre for the Risk Management of Bushfires
University of Wollongong

"The Wilsons Promontory Cathedral Range fire is 23,763 hectares this morning. There are 74 fire fighters and support staff working day shift on the fire.

The focus today remains on preparation for the “spike day” in the FFDI (Forest Fire Danger Index) predicated for tomorrow. A “spike day” is the day the escalation in the fire danger index reaches the highest rating caused by predicted higher temperatures and changing winds.

Fire is still active in many locations across the Wilsons Promontory Cathedral fire. Even though calmer conditions have slowed down fire behaviour over the past few days there are numerous hot spots across the fire ground. A number of these spots have been located near Entrance Rd, Squeaky Beach, Mt Oberon and the airport.

The fires is slowly moving in a north easterly direction on the Yanakie Isthums and is burning in the Silver Swamp area. The back burn on the Promontory Rd is holding and crews are actively blacking out and consolidating the edge of this control line.

Preparations for protection of Tidal River are progressing well with Biddles Track a fallback option if fire threatens the settlement.

The fire has almost reached the tip of the north east section of the park.

Weather:
The weather today is predicted to be around 21 degrees with winds from the north-east this morning turning easterly later.

Crew tactics:
Crews will work on all sectors of the fire concentrating on using hand tools to break up and black out burning material and patrol control lines."

"Victorian Bushfire Information Line on 1800 240 667 (free call)"

The above was transcribed (with some changes to formatting) from "Promfire, Community update newsletter" at http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/incidents/images/news_image/Prom_9am-newsletter_22587.pdf

There was, unfortunately, nothing to tell us about measures taken to assist animals in their terrible ordeal. Anyone with news please comment here.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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