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Opinion: Vic Jurskis on a Burning Conversation

Vic Jurskis

A few years ago, a comment of mine was apparently censored by one of many academics whose opinions are freely promoted in The (one-sided) Conversation. So, I no longer bother trying to engage in that medium. But a colleague sent me a link last week which was a red rag that trapped this slow-learning pheasant.

Self-styled Professor of Pyrogeography – David Bowman announced “a quantum shift in public awareness”. Since the recent gigafires, we’ve apparently suddenly realised that Aborigines maintained a healthy, safe and biodiverse landscape by burning.

Bowman’s statement has little to do with public awareness. Rather, it seems to demonstrate isolation from reality by self-congratulatory academic groupthinkers in their small, sheltered world.

Bill Gammage’s multi-award-winning book seemingly made no impression on them. Similarly, the Southern Hemisphere’s premier ecological journal Austral Ecology didn’t review my book about Firestick Ecology because “most of Australia’s leading fire ecologists …declined” and the book review editor found herself incapable of writing a “balanced review”.

In 2003, our House of Reps Inquiry into A Nation Charred heard a consistent message from experienced land managers right across Australia. Mild burning is the key to a healthy and safe landscape, as it was for tens of thousands of years, including periods of extreme climate change.

However, the 2004 COAG Inquiry employed a fire chief and two academics to bury that message and inflict another two decades of pestilence and holocaust on us. Now, two dozen ex-fire chiefs are using climate alarmism to divert attention from their failures and are seeking to pervert the latest Royal Commission. I wonder how many more innocent people and animals have to die or suffer needlessly.

The Conversation article contained three key messages:

1 Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire.

It linked to a paper from Professor Bradstock’s grandiosely monikered Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires in Wollongong. This paper purported to show that burning mostly doesn’t help fire management in NSW, VIC and SA. Supposedly, it works in WA because it’s biogeographically different over there.

But more than half a century of real data from WA showed that, irrespective of climate change, prescribed burning helped to reduce the number and extent of wildfires, especially megafires. Mild burning had little influence in average fire seasons and great benefits in severe fire seasons. Most importantly, at least 8% of the landscape has to be treated to make any difference. Fire experts from Universities in Wollongong, Melbourne and Hobart don’t seem to have had any experience of using mild fire to maintain healthy and safe landscapes. However, this is apparently no impediment to making models which incorporate their ideology rather than empirical data. For example, when Mr. Bradstock was employed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, he made a model supposedly showing that you have to burn more than 30% of the landscape each year to make a difference and that this carries a high risk of plant extinctions.

Bradstock’s crew at Wollongong University supposedly tested the efficacy of burning in south-eastern Australia by comparing the area burnt each year by wildfires against the area burnt in preceding years by mild fires and wildfires. They apparently assumed incorrectly that fuel quantity and structure develop in the same way after a fire irrespective of its intensity. In fact, fuels accumulate very rapidly after high intensity fires. They didn’t test or even report the areas treated in preceding years, against subsequent areas burnt by wildfires. Miniscule areas were actually treated. For example, in the Sydney Basin, the average area burnt in preceding years by both mild and wild fires never even reached the minimum level of 8% required for prescribed burning to have any effect. I’d expect that a scientist who thought that 30% was the minimum effective treatment might have noticed this problem.

It’s even more perplexing that they seem to have taken the severe fire seasons out of the analysis: “The annual weather variables [maximum temperature, number of days above 35 °C, number of days with relative humidity below 15% and rainfall anomaly] were used to partition the variation in area burnt that was due to meteorological rather than past-fire causes”. Interestingly, one of the new Wollongong University crew had been the leader of the WA scientists whose analysis revealed that the biggest benefits of prescribed burning occurred in severe fire seasons. I don’t understand why the new research was published. There seems to be a fundamental problem in the academic peer-review system. But NSW Government was clearly impressed. They recently funded Bradstock to the tune of $4 million to do more of the same.

2 There’s no evidence ‘greenies’ block bushfire hazard reduction …

I suppose it depends on your definition of a greenie.

Fair dinkum science indicates that health, safety and biodiversity can be maintained in eucalypt forests by mild burning every 3-6 years.

However, in NSW, it is illegal to do ecologically sustainable burning. The Bush Fire Environmental Assessment Code specifies minimum intervals between burning of 10 years in dry shrubby forests and 30 years in moist shrubby forests, which are incorrectly classified as wet sclerophyll forests. Nearly all forests in NSW have been invaded by unnaturally dense shrub layers as a result of lack of mild burning.

The allowable burning intervals were developed on the basis of a disproven hypothesis, founded on false assumptions, that frequent burning will eliminate so-called obligate-seeding plants which actually thrived through tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal burning. In the initial stages of development they were widely known as the Bradstock Intervals.

3 western science does not have all the answers

When traditional burning expert, Victor Steffensen, criticises western science he’s unintentionally offending fair dinkum scientists who are well and truly on the same side with him, as regards traditional knowledge. These scientists are experienced in using mild fire to maintain a healthy, safe and diverse landscape. People like Neil Burrows, Phil Cheney, Lachie McCaw, David Packham, Rick Sneeuwjagt and Roger Underwood have done it, measured it, reasoned it through and tested their conclusions. They have been able to safely control wildfires under severe conditions in treated areas.

So-called western science, promulgated by acclaimed experts such as Bowman and Bradstock, doesn’t have the answers because it’s based neither on experience, nor on the scientific method. Without careful observations and experience, academics have dreamt up hypotheses that burning is bad for the environment, and they’ve made computer models to prove that it doesn’t work. These fire ecologists are blind to the big picture, that mild burning is ecological maintenance, not hazard reduction. It prevents hazards from accumulating and choking out biodiversity. Victor Steffensen knows that without the right fire, we get upside-down country – thin on top and thick underneath. Management based on western science gives us damp soils and sick trees with lazy roots. Fairdinkum Science supports Traditional Knowledge in all respects. Upside-down country chokes out biodiversity and fuels gigafires.

Ironically, when Professor Bowman was working at the Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management & Faculty of Science at Northern Territory University, he wrote that:

“it is not clear whether or not Aborigines had a predictive ecological knowledge of the long-term consequences of their use of fire … The sparse available evidence does not support the hypotheses that Aboriginal burning … was critical for the maintenance of habitats of small mammals that have become extinct following European colonization “. It seems that Bowman has had a personal quantum shift and has belatedly caught up with public awareness.

Professor Bradstock seems to have had a change of heart too, though it’s difficult to judge. Having firstly pronounced that a minimum of 30% of the landscape must be treated to have any effect, then decided that mild burning mostly doesn’t work anyway for biogeographical reasons, he recently stated that, due to climate change: funding for hazard reduction burns would need to increase fivefold just to hold the threat to lives and property at current levels. That means NSW alone would have to spend $500 million a year to maintain the status quo, and even more to reduce the risk of repeating the death and destruction of this summer’s fires.

Only two years ago, Bradstock declared that lack of burning wasn’t a factor in the destruction of 60 homes at Tathra. He maintained that broadscale burning is ineffective, whilst narrow (< 50m) breaks can create “defensible space” around houses. But the Professor admitted that houses were ignited by long distance ember storms driven by high winds. The Tathra fire jumped the Bega River and much of town because it was fed by heavy three-dimensionally continuous fuels in long unburnt bush far away. Experts who haven’t been there and done it seem to have difficulty understanding that firebreaks and waterbombers are useless during extreme weather in a landscape that contains explosive fuels – no matter how much distance there is between wilderness and people.

I find it scary that Professor Bradstock will be assisting NSW’s behind-closed-doors Bushfire Inquiry, not as a witness, but as an expert adviser. The fox is minding the chooks and the outcome is pre-ordained. Bradstock’s predecessor at Wollongong University, Professor Whelan, sat on the COAG Inquiry that effectively visited ongoing holocaust upon us. There seems little prospect that the latest Bushfires Royal Commission will change anything for the better. Though gigafires are clearly an unnatural consequence of human neglect, it is officially The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. Of three Commissioners, Professor Andrew Macintosh is “one of Australia’s preeminent experts on climate change mitigation”.

God help us.

Vic Jurskis has worked for NSW Forestry Commission and was an active member of bushfire brigades before being transferred to Eden as Officer in Charge of the Forestry Commission’s Regional Research Centre.

From 1997 until 2002, he was employed as the Forestry Commission’s Regional Planning Manager before being appointed as Silviculturist for the Commission’s Native Forest Division.

In 2004, he was awarded a Fellowship by the Joseph William Gottstein Memorial Trust and in 2006, received an award from Australian Academy of Science. He has published many papers in scientific journals, presented papers as a representative of NSW Forestry Commission and has given independent evidence at three parliamentary inquiries into land and fire management. Since retiring from the Forestry Commission in 2012, he has written his first book Firesick Ecology published in 2015.