The terrible loss of life that occurred in the recent Victorian bushfires has deeply affected all Australians. In less than 10 years, Victoria has experienced three devastating fire events in 2003, 2006 and now 2009, something that has never before occurred in living memory or recorded history.
The Wilderness Society wishes to express our support and deepest sympathies to the individuals, families and communities who have been devastated by the bushfires, and in particular the heartbreaking events of February 7 and 8. We are also part of the affected communities and have been grieving over this period. Tragically, after scrutiny of our database, we have learned that several members and supporters have either lost their lives or the lives of family members.
The 2009 Victorian bushfires is the greatest peacetime disaster on Australian soil, destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing 210 people and counting. While both the 2003 and 2006 bushfires destroyed a larger area (both more than 1 million hectares each compared with over 400,000ha for 2009), these fires have had a larger impact due to their close proximity to Melbourne, the high death toll, destruction of towns, infrastructure and public assets, and the high proportion of private land burnt.
The debates of the past about how to prepare for and manage bushfire in Victoria are just that - debates of the past. We need a new plan and a new approach to how we are going to live in this new environment. Declaring war on the forests and on the environment will only make climate change, water security and drought worse.
It is for this reason that we congratulate Premier John Brumby for announcing a Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires with broad terms of reference that investigates all possible factors in bushfire prevention, preparedness, warning, response and land management.
Australia’s leading scientists have been warning authorities for many years that climate change will lead to more frequent and intense fires. Until this decade, a fire on a scale similar to each of Victoria’s three major fires since 2000 would have been anticipated once every generation. In addition to Victoria, in the past decade New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have also experienced fires on a scale rarely seen or expected.
What we do know is that the weather conditions that led to the events of February 7 and 8 were unprecedented. Victoria experienced its universally hottest day on record, accompanied by high winds and low humidity. These conditions followed a decade of almost uninterrupted dry conditions in Victoria. Some scientists are now saying we are not witnessing a drought but a permanent trend of drier conditions in Victoria as a result of climate change.
On top of these natural conditions, we already know that arson played a significant role in many of the blazes.
Due to their increasing frequency, scale and ferocity, fire can now be considered one of the most serious threats to nature in southern Australia.
The full extent of the impacts of the Victorian bushfires may not be known for many years. This severe increase in the frequency and intensity of fires threatens to cause a reduction in the resilience of ecological communities, pushing endangered wildlife towards extinction, place once abundance wildlife on the threatened lists for the first time, and put our precious and dwindling water storages at risk.
There is widespread agreement for the need for fire management to have an ongoing priority focus on protection of people and property. This is particularly important in the era we now face of climate change and prolonged drought. As we all now move forward and determine how best to protect people and property, it is also vitally important that careful consideration of the impact of fire on animals and the natural environment areas they call home also occurs.
As we know, as well as the tragic loss of life, properties and townships, these bushfires will also have taken an unimaginable toll on our native wildlife and their habitat.
What is clear is that these large, intense fires have potentially devastated some of the Victoria’s most endangered animals and plants, raising major concerns for their survival in the future. For example, experts from Birds Australia estimate that up to two million birds have been affected.
Just as the Alfred Hospital’s burns unit reported an unexpectedly low number of people arriving for treatment due the ferocity of the Black Saturday fires, so to did wildlife carers and veterinarians report that few animals and birds made it out of the fires alive.
Many of Victoria’s unique forests and other natural areas have also been extensively burnt and will be unrecognisable for many years to come. One significant example of this is the spectacular giant mountain ash stands of the Central Highlands, which supports a vast array of important communities of plants and animals.
While we cannot yet be certain that climate change was a major cause, we do know that we already live in a world affected by climate change, and scientists including the CSIRO predict that there will be a significant increase in the number of extreme bushfire days in the future.
A joint CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology study in 2007 of the impact of climate change in bushfires found parts of Victoria faced up to 65 per cent more days of extreme fire risk by 2020, and 230 per cent more by mid-century compared to 2007. The implications of this increased risk to people, property, animals and their habitat is a major issue.
That’s why The Wilderness Society has developed a six-point plan to reduce the bushfire risk and help protect people, property, nature and wildlife. This plan consists of:
- improving aerial surveillance to detect bushfires as soon as they start;
- ramping up hi-tech, quick response capability, including more “Elvis” helicopters to fight bushfires as soon as they ignite;
- more research into fire behaviour and the impact of fire on wildlife and their habitat;
- prioritise the protection of life and property with fuel reduction and firebreak management plans around towns and urban areas;
- prioritise the protection of wildlife and their habitat through scientifically based fire management plans in remote areas and National Parks;
- making native forests resistant to mega-fires by protecting old growth forests, rainforests and water catchments from woodchipping and moving logging into existing plantations.
On Sunday, March 22, The Wilderness Society also released a Preliminary Report: Impact of the 2009 Victorian bushfires on nature and wildlife. The report is in no way intended to pre-empt the findings of the Royal Commission - it comes to no specific conclusions about areas of interest and expertise to The Wilderness Society, such as the protection and management of public land in relation to the bushfires.
First, this report provides the facts about what vegetation has been burnt where, and the tenure of this land. This is critical data to inform the current public debate as well as the Royal Commission. The Report addresses the misconception that the fires started in “unmanaged” public land, state forest and National Park. The Kinglake, Churchill and Murrindindi fires, which saw by far the most devastating impacts on human life and property, ignited on private land then burnt extensive areas of private, cleared and grassland, before burning extensively into public land including forested areas. In other words these fires started in private land before burning into public land.
Over the following month until March 6 a greater percentage of public land was burnt, with greater impact for wildlife and their habitat.
Second, this report provides a brief on the likely impact of the bushfires on five endangered speciea and their plight for survival, given the extensive impact of the bushfires on their habitat. These species are the Leadbeater’s possum, sooty owl, barred galaxias, ground parrot and the spotted tree frog.
Third, the report identifies six special places in nature impacted by the fires - Kinglake National Park, Cathedral Range, Yarra Ranges National Park, Lake Mountain Ski area, Keppel Falls and Lady Talbot Drive, Marysville and Wilsons Promontory.
Fourth, the report looks at other key conservation values at risk - the koala, water catchments and rainforest areas, and the impact on wildlife caused by the loss of hollow-bearing trees. The loss of these trees affects many animals including bats, owls, possums and gliders which are entirely dependant on hollows only found in big old trees - which can take more than a century to form - for shelter, roosting and nesting.
Finally the report makes the following recommendations for the Royal Commission. The report:
- Welcomes the announcement of a Royal Commission into the fires as an appropriate response to carefully investigate and review fire management for the protection of people, property and the environment at a local and a landscape level.
- Urges the Victorian Government to publish within one year a comprehensive report on the impact and risks of these fires on natural values, water, carbon, wildlife and endangered plants and animals.
- Encourages the Victorian Government to establish long term monitoring of the effects of these fires on wildlife and threatened species.
We make only one specific recommendation to the state government in relation to land management in lieu of the Royal Commission. We make it because the state government will make a decision on this matter in the coming weeks and it is not related to fire prevention or land management to reduce fire risk.
That is, we urge the state government not to engage in so-called salvage logging and/or thinning at least until after the completion of the Royal Commission, due to its known devastating impacts on the natural environment. There is broad consensus amongst scientists that salvage operations are at least as damaging to wildlife and their habitat as the bushfires themselves. In our view, salvage logging removes critical evidence for the Royal Commission and seriously and irreparably preempts its conclusions in relation to public land management.
One thing is certain, the rules we all understood about fire management have now changed and a new approach is necessary. What we need now is a response that takes into consideration both a local and landscape approach where science guides us to take precautionary measures to protect people, property and the environment.