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Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Dingo
Unfairly judged?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Feral cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Rabbits
Perhaps not so adapted to Australia

Wombat
Keg of muscle


 

 

Email

 

Kangaroo and baby

Bushfire Prevention in Australia

The ideological debate concering the replacement of natives or controlling them with burning?

Due to the dominance of eucalypts in the ecosystem, Australians have always faced the threat of bushfire; however, they have never really agreed on the best methods to reduce the threat. In generations past, the threat was often reduced by either removing all eucalypts or planting exotic trees. These exotic trees caught flying embers, had lush leaves that did not contribute to the build up of fuel over the years, would not burn if a bushfire hit and could potentially act as a shield against radiant heat.

In the 1970s, a kind of environmental xenophobia took hold in many of Australia’s institutions. Non-native flora was deemed to have no moral right to exist in Australia and needed to be replaced with eucalypts. In some ways, the attitude was like replacing the family dog with a pet tiger snake.

As more and more homes were built amongst gum trees, bushfires became more and more threatening. Realising the danger of the ideology, some critics started pointing out that while the native Australian bush was very beautiful, it was still a fire hazard. One of these was Joan Webster, author of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips, who asked:

"Tigers are native to India. Do Indians keep tigers in their gardens? Or allow them to roam their streets? No. They could kill someone. So why do we Australians feel a compulsion to surround our houses with native plants; grow them in suburban streets? They can kill people… With the fashion for indigenous trees in our gardens, we in effect stack kindling around our houses. Build them within a pyre. Ready for a sacrificial burn."(1)

Ironically, Australia has a large range of native plants that rarely burn during bushfires and which don’t result in large build ups of combustible fuel over the years. For reasons that can be debated, these have not been promoted ahead of the eucalypts.

With most scientists predicting that increased CO2 emissions will lead to a warmer and wetter climate with enhanced plant growth, the severity of busfires in Australia is expected to dramatically escalate over the forthcoming decades. Effective policies to manage bushfires will determine whether people live and die.

Why eucalypts are such a threat

Eucalyptus trees are harmed by fire but they are very effective at using the weakness in the ecosystem after a fire to push for their individual dominance. Consequently, they have evolved a number of characteristics that not only help them recover quickly from fire but to also facilitate it. One of these is its highly flammable oil, which has resulted in them sometimes been referred to as 'gasoline trees' in other countries.

As well as contributing to flames, the oil helps wards off animals (koala aside) and preserves their leaves and bark. For this reason, eucalypt leaves decompose slowly and thus creates dense carpets of flammable material over the ground. Furthermore, bushfires lead to a drier climate with less low level shrub cover faciliating decomposition, which in turn results in a greater propensity for a build up of fuel.

Photos taken in 2007, four years after the 2003 ACT firestorm, an uncontrolled burn. Eucalyptus trees use weakness in the ecosystem as the opportune time to push for individual dominance. Fire has not imparted some magical energy that stimulates growth.

 

Option 1 - Replacing eucalypts with non-natives

If someone’s house was on fire, they would have a better chance of surviving if they were wearing a low flammable item of clothing (like wool) instead of highly flammable (like cotton.) The same principle applies to the type of flora that is planted around the house with a bush fire bearing down. Many exotics are hard to burn due to their high moisture content. As a result, they can act as a moist barrier to a bushfire’s radiant heat and also extinguish the flying embers that would set a eucalypt alight. Longer term, the leaves of many exotics decompose quickly when they fall so they don’t contribute to fuel build up.

Option 2 - Reducing the bushfire threat by planting natives but then burning them

In the 1970s, an ideological movement developed in Australia that proposed that only native species should be planted in Australia. The consequence of the ideologies was that highly flammable native trees started being planted around houses. Those who questioned the choice of natives found themselves greeted with indignant stares. In the words of former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope:

"There's a strong ideological debate to be had about this. I was always, whenever I raised these questions in government … [asking] why can't we have some more exotics, but of course it was always as though I was suggesting something completely outrageous."(2)

Proponents of the natives recognised that natives were a fire hazard but they believed the threat could be reduced with controlled burning to reduce the fuel loads that build up over the years, which was a bit like thinking that the threat of a pet tiger snake could be reduced with periodic milking of its venom. In truth, irrespective of whether a barrel of oil is 70% full or 100% full, it is still a fire hazard and the same goes with a eucalypt forest.   

   The futility of fuel reduction was seen in the 2009 Victorian firestorm. An estimated 100 lives were lost when the town of Marysville went up in flames. Controlled burns had been used to reduce fuel loads around the town in 81, 82, 85, 87, 99, 04, 05 and 08. These burnings were not effective and the bush around the town merely contributed to the fireball that engulfed it. Even complete eradication of flora does little to stop a fire. In the words of Andrew Cox, head of the National Parks Association of NSW:  
 "The bush will carry a fire regardless of what you do beforehand. In extreme conditions, bushfires could rage across treeless paddocks rendered bare by drought and feeding livestock. [Hazard reduction] has a negligible effect on slowing or stopping a fire."
 

Bushfire

The aftermath of a hot burn. The fire burns hot, but it doesnt burn deeply. Therefore, much of the fuel is not consumed.

 

Option 3 - Planting non-flameable natives

There are a lot of native trees that don’t readily burn but which are killed by bushfires. Presently, some native-first organisations recommend that they be planted around houses which are not subjected to controlled burns. Because dominant culture is still wedded to hazard reduction burning of eucalypts as a bushfire control method, presently they are not been planted around towns to act as a firebreak. Furthermore, they are not being used to replace eucalypts in fire prone corridors as the eucalypt is deemed to have the greater moral right to exist if in an area if it is already growing in an area.

Fire resistant garden plants - (From Tasmanian Fire Service)

Fire resistant natives (From Australian Native Plant Society)

A scientific or cultural debate?

The debate about whether to replace exotics with natives is not a scientific one because scientific rationality would clearly support the planting of exotics that act as a firebreak and which don’t contribute to the build up of fuel. Even if exotics were excluded on moral grounds, there are a large range of natives plants which could be planted if eucalpt forests were to be cut down and replaced with less fire prone species. Instead, the debate is a cultural one and concerns value judgements about whether an exotic has a right to exist in Australia at the expense of a eucalypt or other native or whether another native has the right to replace a eucalypt if a eucalypt is already in the area.

 

1)The burning issue: native gardens a killer on our doorstep Date: January 19 2013 Canberra Times

2)A Majestic Folly Soars  http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/a-majestic-folly-soars-20130125-2dcn8.html#ixzz2JJjvxNpA

 

Environmental Issues

Environmental problems
The cultural basis of defining environmental problems

Indigenous environmentalism
Differences between Indigenous and non-indigenous land management

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

Bush fire prevention
To go native or exotic?