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Murray River, 1915, dry enough for people to cross on foot

Fire and the solutions of history

 

WITH Sydney ringed by fire in December, do we dare look behind the spin about the cause and take on board how best to regenerate our country for a cooler future?

   Two and a half decades ago as a member of the Central Highlands Forest Management Committee, and before that again, I was looking into the proliferation of eucalypts and their role in the spread of fire. 

   Other countries had more diverse vegetation, how did we end up with more than 700 species of the one genus? It is a magnificent species of course, with many valuable uses, including medicinal – but, it has also been used to drain swamps, considered a scourge in some countries for repelling insect life, deterring undergrowth and drinking too much.

   However, late in 2019, with the country again in drought, experiencing serious fires even before the summer solstice, we do have the resources to work out: 

  • how to protect ourselves; 

  • how to repair the damage

  • with extant examples from which to work. 

   But: have we the will to make significant change to what we grow and where, and can we alleviate the effects of drought intensifying recent fires?

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, records since the 1860s show that a ‘severe’ drought has occurred in Australia on average, every 18 years. The Federation Drought was considered among the worst. The wheat crop was "all but lost", the Darling River was dry at Bourke, NSW for over a year. By 1902, Australia's sheep population dropped from 106 million in 1891, to fewer than 54 million. Cattle numbers fell by more than 40 per cent. Sheep numbers did not return to 100 million until 1925. Recovery was slow. In 1915, photographs showed people walking across the Murray River bed.

   So of course, we have had it bad before. But how many are considering even, changing methods of farming, horticulture, gardening, to repair the landscape? What was our landscape pre-aboriginal times? Did aboriginal burning practices actually contribute to the lack of biodiversity?

   Generally, we are looking only to aboriginal methods as exemplars to justify current practices of fuel reduction burns that actually destroy soil structure, insect and small animal life, providing seed beds for the same fire weeds to return. That may well be considered a sacrilegious statement, but it has paleo-scientific basis.

   In Canberra in 1989, I was fortunate to talk to paleo-botanist Dr Gurdip Singh, senior fellow in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology at the ANU. I asked why Australia had a virtual monoculture of eucalypts. 

Dr Singh’s work over 10 years on Lake George’s ancient sediments, showed that a dramatic change from fire sensitive vegetation such as the casuarina, to the fire tolerant eucalypt, was largely caused by aboriginal man, burning back the forest to create grassland for game.

   What Europeans took from the Aborigines was a carefully managed pastoral economy. What they saw when they first landed according to Joseph Banks, was a landscape of open forest, gum trees and vast quantities of grass. Abel Tasman in 1642 noted Aboriginal burns occurring in the rain, albeit fire was kept away from waterways, protecting riparian vegetation and water quality.

When Baron Ferdinand von Mueller was Victoria’s government botanist in the second half of the 19thcentury, he asked for fossils found during coal mining at Wonthaggi, to be brought to him. From those he described a more diverse plantscape including gingko, oaks and various fruit trees as native to Victoria in the past.

   Dr Singh asked a big question: whether modern Australians have the will, the capacity and above all the motivation to restore original vegetation.

   “Humans are a dynamic part of the developing eco-system. It is important they recognise the history of their own impact on vegetation, since they first started to use fire as a tool to change their environments around the world. It is only then they can successfully set upon a course of restoration and management.

   “If we weigh the fruits of restoration purely on economic grounds, in terms of having less fire prone forests, improved soil, greater sub surface moisture storage, the existence of perennial lakes and rivers and an overall more hospitable environment for humans and animals, then surely modern humans have good enough reason to reverse the damage,” he said.

   My article ‘Beware of the Gumnuts’ featuring his comments, was published nationally in August 1989, in The Independent Monthly. Delighted to receive a call from him, thanking me “for doing what scientists often failed to do – translate their findings to be understood by the public”. 

   Dr Singh sadly died in 1991 aged 59, with so much more to contribute. His obituary* stated: “For about 30 years the main focus of Gurdip Singh's research was the Quaternary vegetation history of the world's arid and semi-arid lands. Nobody knew more about this and nobody made as great and individual contribution to it. And wherever he worked, in India, Australia or North America, he stimulated more effort by others, and not only because they disagreed with his conclusions. Amongst other things, he demonstrated that the raw data of his studies could be collected from sites which all his predecessors and most of his contemporaries would have dismissed as simply unworkable. Particularly in Australia and India he will be remembered by colleagues in his field as the one who tackled the seemingly impossible and brought it off.

   “To his credit, Gurdip Singh's work always had more than a touch of scientific audacity which invariably led to a flurry of criticism of most things he published. But, increasingly, the critics found that he had indeed foreseen most of what troubled them and had already resolved these matters in reaching his own conclusions. The accumulation of more data and the application of other techniques almost always proved him correct. He had a happy knack of getting it right”.

   In another move in my career, I edited a local paper at Healesville serving the Central Highlands, foothills of the Great Dividing Range. I seized opportunities to explore the region with conservation and water officers, one time seeking the source of the Yarra River in the closed catchment.  

Fire was an ever-present threat in these dry sclerophyll forests. Rows of majestic Mountain Ash on the nearby Black Spur evidenced the appalling fires of 1939. On Friday, January 13, almost 20,000 sq. km was burned; 71 people died; several towns were obliterated; 1300 homes and 69 sawmills were destroyed. That was Black Friday, with temperatures in preceding days similar to those of Black Thursday in 1851.

Blame was attributed to careless burning, campfires, graziers, sawmillers and land clearing. Stands of Mountain Ash we admire today were planted to restore the area and importantly, protect the water supply.A Royal Commission led to major changes in forest management.

   At the newspaper one Christmas, we received a card from an arsonist in prison offering “warm greetings”. We smiled and groaned. Out on fuel reduction burns, I noted the excitement generated by fire. Statistics then showed a high percentage of wild fire was caused by escape of ‘cool burns’, but the story of arsonists is huge.

   A BBC report (November 14, 2019) indicated 13% of Australian fires were started deliberately, and 37% were suspicious. That meant 31,000 Australian bushfires were either arson, or suspected arson, every year. Half were started by people under the age of 21, Dr Paul Read, co-director of Australia's National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson, told the BBC. That group included children "playing" with fire, who then lost control, and those with developmental disorders. It also included the "truly malicious" who were "developing towards full-blown psychopathy".

  There was also a "small proportion" of arsonists, Dr Read said, who simply like fire (the term pyromaniac is no longer used). "They will be genuinely excited and fascinated by fire, and they're the ones likely to light on the hotter days." Arsonists, instead, were far more likely to be found on the fringes of society. As the Willis review puts it: "Fire is unique in its ability to put power in the hands of an otherwise disempowered person."

   Way back then when still able, walking through the Central Highlands with a conservation officer, I noted an Antarctic Beech seedling pushing through. “        "We’ll knock that off with a cool burn,” he said dismissively.

   Why would you do that? I asked, appalled.  Nothofagus moorei was seen as an important relic of the Gondwana rainforests of southern hemisphere and was still there!

  “Would close the canopy”, he replied.

   “Yes,” I argued, “and cool the earth, improve the soil, allow insects, birds, animals and people to thrive”.

   The officer was however, wedded to his history of forest. All he knew was the eucalypt loop of fire – gums and wattles quickly returning. No thought of slower growing species that might save our part of the world.

   His professional status exemplified the depth of challenge of Gurdip Singh’s big question about our will to change. Can we recreate Gondwanan rainforests? Or did those remaining just burn? Not forgetting, they survived and evolved until now, through major climate change and tectonic plate shift.

In 2010, the Australian Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts submitted the following to a UNESCO World Heritage listing:

 

“Rainforests once covered most of the Australian continent and the Gondwana Rainforests now contain the largest and most significant remaining areas of subtropical rainforest in the world, the largest remaining area of littoral rainforest in the region, the largest and most significant areas of warm temperate rainforest and nearly all the areas of Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei) cool temperate rainforest in the world. These rainforests provide a fascinating living link with the evolution of Australia. Few places on Earth contain so many plants and animals whose form today remains relatively unchanged from that of their ancestors in the fossil record. There is a concentration of primitive plant families that are directly linked with the birth and spread of flowering plants over 100 million years ago, as well as some of the oldest elements of the world's ferns and conifers.

In addition to the biological evolutionary links, the Gondwana Rainforests contain outstanding examples of ongoing geological processes associated with Tertiary volcanic activity. These features include one of the best-preserved erosion calderas in the world and a landscape dominated by striking vertical cliffs and one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls on the Australian continent.

Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth and the Gondwana Rainforests has many centres of outstanding species diversity including the highest concentration of frog, snake, bird and marsupial species in Australia. The Gondwana Rainforests contains more than 200 rare or threatened plant species, many of which are endemic to the property”.

 

   But can younger people, genuinely concerned about the planet’s future step up to restoring Gondwana? Already teams are repairing the Illawarra rain forests (Gardening Australia November 9). More of this can be done, especially now with the huge regeneration projects required following current fires – but not by simply replanting what was there, keeping the forests on the same fire-prone loop. Please.

 

For expert information on how to protect yourself and home from fire, go to my Facebook page and scroll down to the long post of advice from Ralph Barraclough. Very sane, tried and true recommendations. https://www.facebook.com/fran.henke.5

 

  • Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pictures from left: measuring a forest giant with David Fleay and friends; earlier search for a stream beginning, with David who dragged me to places I'd never see otherwise; and the Board of Works crew looking for the Yarra's beginnings in a soak.

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