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Fuel reduction burning a must for Australian forests

Veteran firefighter Ewan Waller has called for fuel reduction burning to be an integral part of a visionary, long-term policy for managing fire in the forest. His thoughts were prompted by the recent fires in Gippsland and his memories of the Black Saturday inferno when he experienced the nauseating feeling of walking over the charred remains of countless birds. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

“Such high intensity fires are so destructive of all values,” he said.

Ewan, Victoria’s former Chief Fire Officer with more than 40 years’ experience as a forester and now a consultant, praised Victoria’s firefighting.

“Forest Fire Management Victoria is doing a really good job on suppression”,” he said, but the biggest issue was burning – fuel management.

“There’s just not enough research going into the damage of the big fires,” he said. “We should burn at night and far more into winter, and selectively – real mosaic burning. Ideally, there should be a mix of burnt and unburnt, with repeated burning.”

That can be done with aircraft. Burning large areas in a mosaic pattern “will not necessarily stop the run of a large fire but will lessen the intensity and the impact,” he said.

Ewan said lightning strikes had to be put out, not left to burn out “naturally”, otherwise they did a lot of damage. Ideally, they ran into a mosaic of burnt areas, which would slow the fires, reduce spotting, and allow animals to escape to refuge areas.

Burning needed to be done across the board, both in national parks and private bush. The precautionary principle, ‘Don’t burn’, should be ‘Burn more’, he said.

Ewan said the writing by early European settlers and scientists showed that Aboriginal burning was so important for forest health, to provide ‘green’ patches for animals and cleared bush to see enemies.

“Elders trailed fire all day, but it was strictly controlled,” he said.

Ewan said good developments included more skilled contractors active in the field, which had come through the national burning program. He praised the mechanical thinning trials as a “big, underused option”.

If the back country was not burnt, it was crucial to do good burns at the interface between the bush and the public.

“The bush can be thinned a long way back – it can be done commercially – and should be regularly burnt, with short rotations of three to five years, and 5-10 kilometres back,” he said.

Ewan said Forest Fire Management Victoria was doing a really good job; multiple lightning strikes across eastern Victoria this year were picked up professionally and quickly, except for ones in really difficult country.

“They are building capacity in people, particularly young people, who can fight fires. The project fire fighters learn great skills in four-wheel drive and chainsaw use in the bush and generally they are well lead,” he said.

“Burning is difficult, risky, stressful, the environment dynamic. We cannot be risk adverse even though this will be difficult for the politicians and the department and the workers doing the burning. The Government and the firefighters must be fully supported and encouraged especially when something goes wrong.”

  • The full interview with Ewan Waller will be published in the June edition of Australian Forests & Timber.