Australasia's home for timber news and information

SETA forestry scientist says ABC should do better fact checks

Spokesperson for South East Timber Association (SETA) Peter Rutherford, a forestry scientist of 40 years standing, claims the RMIT/ABC fact check on prescribed burning rates in NSW had failed to compare correct data sets. Source: Timberbiz

“Fire researcher, Dr Philip Zylstra stated that prescribed burning rates have increased markedly in NSW and claimed that burning by state agencies was at a peak” Mr Rutherford said.

“Yet official statistics published by the Rural Fire Service (RFS) show his statements are misleading. His attempts to reword his general comments to claim they only related to national parks, after being challenged, were questionable.”

The RMIT/ABC Fact Check published a “Fair Call” decision on the question – “Has NSW seen more than twice the amount of prescribed burning this decade compared with the last?”

This question arose, following media comments made by landscape flammability expert and adjunct professor at Curtain University, Philip Zylstra.

“It would appear that the RMIT/ABC Fact Check investigation only looked at the area of prescribed burning in national parks, not for the whole of NSW. The investigation did not match the terms of reference posed by the question, which was prescribed burning in NSW, not just national parks,” Mr Rutherford said.

“We expect a higher standard for the public broadcaster.
“Fuel reduction records taken from the last 20 years of Rural Fire Service annual reports, which cover the whole of NSW, contradict Dr Zylstra’s claims.

“During 2010 – 19, the annual area of fuel reduction in NSW averaged 179,433 hectares. From 2000 – 2009, the average was 309,903 hectares. The past decade has seen a fuel reduction decrease of 42% across NSW, not the markedly increased level claimed by Dr Zylstra.

“Why have RMIT/ABC Fact Checkers failed to investigate the question actually posed? It would seem that Dr Zylstra is inflating prescribed burning figures, to downplay the value of fuel reduction burning, in protecting human lives and assets and biodiversity across fire affected areas?

“The issue of future forest fuel management, is critical to all SETA members, including those who have lost homes, property and have their employment under a cloud of uncertainty. Legitimate CSIRO research has shown the value of prescribed burning in protecting human life and property and equally importantly our native flora and fauna. Decision making in relation to managing the future risk of wildfires must be based on the physics of fire, not opinions massaged through a computer model.”

What Dr Zylstra said on ABC Radio National on 7 January was: “We’ve got a simple reality. We’ve got record drought conditions, allowing for fires that have broken all records. So far beyond what we’ve seen and this comes at the peak of a record period of prescribed burning.

“It’s completely false to say that there’s been a lack of prescribed burning. Prescribed burning rates have increased markedly in NSW. The last decade has seen more than twice the amount of prescribed burning compared to the decade before and in all the mapped records of prescribed burning across NSW national parks, it’s the highest decade.”

Dr Zylstra was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 January as saying: “The reality is we are at a peak of prescribed burning by state agencies. More has been done in the past decade than in many, many decades.”