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Burning Victoria

By Max Rheese - posted Thursday, 18 January 2007

Debate on the environment has typically been characterised by emotionally charged statements designed to induce fear or alarm, which reflect an ideological viewpoint rather than statements of fact. The Age chose to print an article by the Wilderness Society titled “Trees Don't Start Fires” (December 27, 2006) which is no exception. In its attempt to denigrate accepted forestry management practices the article makes a series of unsubstantiated claims that have no basis in fact with regard to the article topic.

Probably what is more disturbing than yet another article based on a forest campaigner’s opinion and assertions, rather than facts or evidence, is the unwillingness of The Age to print an alternative view based on fact.

The article states “Management burns are routinely made in most parks …” which may be so, but the National Parks Annual Report for 2006 paints a different picture. It tells us that 3.3 million hectares are managed under the Parks Act of which 6606 hectares were burnt under the statewide prescribed burning program. This is less than half of 1 per cent of the area managed.


The Wilderness Society would further have us believe that “Contrary to popular opinion, most fires start outside parks and burn in”. This is completely at odds with the Annual Report of 2005 which says: “A total of 86 fires started in areas under the Act ... A further 10 fires burnt into areas under the Act from outside.”

Further statements are breathtaking in their simplicity and demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Australian forests or a belief that the rest of us will swallow any “fact” put before us. We are told “About 75 per cent of fires are started by humans”, but government records for the 2005 - 2006 fire season show the majority of fires started in areas under the Parks Act were caused by lightning.

The Wilderness Society accuses forestry interests of contributing to make the forests of southeast Australia fire prone, but fails to equate this statement to the huge alpine fires of 2003 or the current fires which between them have burnt just two million hectares of public land, and that include vast areas which have never been logged.

It is a matter of record that the 2003 fires were the result of multiple lightning strikes in forests on public land. The majority of the 2006 fires were also caused by lightning strikes in forest on public land. These continuing events underpin the necessity of forest management - part of which is sensible levels of fuel reduction burning.

The article goes on to tell us that forests in national parks are great carbon sinks - but this is only true if they are not subject to decimation by wildfire.

More scare tactics are employed when we are told, “With the onset of dangerous climate change, fire frequency and intensity is likely to increase …” We have had climate change for over 20,000 years, but now suddenly it is dangerous climate change. Next the Wilderness Society will be telling us they believe Al Gore’s spin in An Inconvenient Truth.


Where the Wilderness Society and the Australian Environment Foundation are in agreement, is that the community must realise that fuel reduction burning is not risk free. Occasionally a prescribed burn will get out of control. This is the risk we take in managing the forest; but to not reduce fuel loads adequately is gross mismanagement.

This is the crux of the debate that will unfold in the near future. What is the correct level of fuel reduction burning required for state forests and national parks in Victoria? And when will we see that achieved?

The Victorian Auditor General has twice reported in recent years that the Department of Sustainability and Environment have not attained their own fuel reduction targets on multiple occasions. Clearly this degree of management is not sustainable in the long term.

It would be encouraging for all parties if this debate continued with the dissemination of information based on fact, rather than outdated ideology that enshrines the closure of Victoria’s forest industry.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Max Rheese

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