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Opinion Piece – A tale of two fires

7 February 2023

Two separate fires that started from lightning strikes earlier this month reinforce the need to increase the resources available for prescribed burning and plantation protection in Australia’s south-west forests. During just one storm, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) responded to more than twenty fires resulting from over 300,000 lightning strikes across the south-west.

Fire one started in jarrah forest near Kirup on Monday, 9th of January. It had been just two years since the area had been prescribed burned and with low fuel loads, the fire behaviour, even being pushed by winds, was only moderate.

It only took two DBCA fire trucks and one bulldozer to contain the fire to just sixty hectares. Contrast this with fire two started at the same time, 10km south-west of Mumballup. Unfortunately, this lightning strike landed in fuels that had been not managed through prescribed fire for sixteen years.

Despite the best efforts of fire crews, it escaped from the native forest and burned into pine and blue gum timber plantations, inflicting millions of dollars’ worth of damage to valuable tree crops, and destroying at least one home.

The fire eventually impacted an area of over 6,000 ha and at its peak, 40 fire trucks, almost a dozen pieces of earthmoving equipment, two Large Air Tankers, several single-engine water bombers and fire-fighting helicopters fought the blaze.

The cost to extinguish the first fire would be under AU$50,000 while the second fire would be closer to AU$5,000,000 and still counting. This does not include damage to farm infrastructure, lost earnings by volunteers and economic disruption of closed roads and the psychological stress upon the community of contemplating the safety of loved ones and enacting evacuation plans. The difference of $4.95 M in direct cost to taxpayers can be largely attributed to differences in fuel ages and prescribed burning in the immediate vicinity of the ignition point.

Prescribed fire is an essential tool to mitigate the risk of wicked wildfires and help protect the communities, biodiversity and business that surround Native Forests and ensure future investment in Australia’s timber supply. With the closing down of the native forest harvesting and the sawmills that come with it, Western Australia has put all of its timber eggs in the plantation basket.

Without better protection of community assets like plantation forests, investment in new plantations to supply the timber we need will be untenable – the risks will be too great. To get a pine plantation to harvestable age, it must not be exposed to fire for a minimum of twenty-five years.

Already, it is virtually impossible for small plantation owners to obtain insurance for their crop. The massive plantation losses experienced on the east coast during the 19/20 Black Summer have scarred the insurers. Continued losses in WA from fires like those experienced last week make any insurance, let alone affordable insurance, just a daydream.

Local governments in areas where new timber plantations are being established are looking with trepidation at what risks may be being introduced into their community. They are asking questions about what increased demands will be made of their volunteer fire-fighters.

Australia is relying on these plantations to sequester carbon, to offset emissions from our major employers and creators of wealth. Not much carbon is going to be sequestered if plantations keep being rendered into carbon dioxide by fire, before they reach an age where they can be turned into timber for our children’s houses.

The members of Forestry Australia call on the WA State Government to invest further in the successful and proven prescribed burning program, and to commit to native forest fuel age maximums around plantation areas of no more than four years. Overall, prescribed burning activity should increase to exceed 250,000 ha per year. When this level of treatment was applied through the 1970s and 1980’s, plantation losses were essentially zero.

A virtuous side effect of such a policy would be that average intensity of prescribed fires, with less time for fuel accumulation between treatments, would be reduced. This would make the fires “cooler”, with less tree canopy scorching, and increased prospects for mosaics of unburned areas within fire-boundaries, creating refuges and habitat diversity.

The reinforced prescribed burning could be complemented by dedicated mitigation crews, preferably involving Noongar, working on Country, tasked with mechanical fuel reduction, carrying out cool burns in the wetter months, and being available for rapid deployment in suppression efforts during summer.

Photo: the remains of Mandalay plantation from January 9th.

Brad Barr. Brad is a Registered Forestry Professional and volunteer fire-fighter with twenty years’ experience in WA’s forests, and is current Chair of the WA Branch of Forestry Australia, the professional association for forest scientists, private forestry and commercial tree growers.

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