In the control rooms of rural fire brigades all around Australia, men and women are peering at detailed terrain maps and pondering.

They are trying to use science, weather data, experience and simply gut feel, to pick where the bushfires will start this year.

Because they know there is no guess work about one thing – the bushfires are coming.

As sure as summer follows winter, the flames are on their way.

Sadly it won’t be long now until our nightly television news is regularly full of smoke and thousands of orange clad volunteers with grimy, weary faces.

The fact of bushfires in Australia is something we must of course live with.

We are after all the seventh most forested nation on earth and even if we had no cigarette butts, matches or fire bugs we would still have lightning strikes during summer thunderstorms which would get the flames started.

The real question is, “are we doing all we can to reduce the intensity of the fires when they come?”

After years of argument the answer finally might be a hesitant, and very conditional, yes.

The reason for that ‘yes’, is that the Federal government is about to launch the first trials in Australian bush of ‘biomass removal’.

This is an important first step to look at more innovative ways to reduce our fuel loads in addition to the usual ‘prescribed burning’ practices.

Prescibed burning has been, and always will be, a major tool for fire fighters however it isn’t the whole answer.

The smoke creates health issues and the risks of managing even a ‘controlled burn-off’ close to towns and cities in an often narrow window of suitable weather makes it a highly challenging undertaking.

‘Biomass removal’ is also a process for reducing fuel load but instead of flames it uses machinery.

The machines are sent into strategic zones (such as a bush strip alongside a suburb) to ‘open up’ the forest.

This involves the removal of some small trees and shrubs in an attempt to reduce the impenetrable jungle of dead branches and fallen trees and reveal more of the forest floor.

The goal is to reduce the fuel load that intensifies bushfires, increase access and allow better spaced trees to grow more vigorously.

The machinery also removes what fire fighters call ‘ladder fuel’ which delivers the flames of a bushfire quickly to the top branches creating a far more deadly ‘crown fire’.

The objective of biomass removal is not to completely stop fires passing through such areas.

Rather, it is to reduce the available fuel so that a white hot inferno which mocks the suppression attempts of our largest fire fighting equipment, is reduced to something of lesser intensity able to perhaps be halted by cleared earth strips made by a bulldozer or managed by fire tankers and aircraft.

If we are successful in transforming the bush in this way around key strategic areas – where it abuts our cities, for example — we might begin to reduce the annual national anguish of losses of both life and property.   And from my perspective, property includes the tens of thousands of hectares of our forestry trees and timber resources which are destroyed by out of control bushfires.

A changing climate points to hotter, dryer summers and modelling suggests Australia’s threat of bigger bushfires is only going to grow.

It is time to deal far more aggressively with the challenge than we have until now.

And while all this might be new here, such an approach is certainly not novel.

The United States has been driven by several years of devastating forest fires to reach for every tool at its disposal.

That country is now spending $400 million over a decade, on a truly ambitious plan to work with large areas of strategic forest to reduce fuel load.

Whilst the plan has its critics, and the US is certainly still dealing with major fire challenges, many scientists in that country are already claiming that the program is having a profound effect.

It is predictable that there will be those in this country who will criticise the Federal Government for even starting in a very small way similar  ‘biomass removal’ trials – no matter how carefully managed they are or how well protected the native fauna.

To those who will say ‘better to have the bush burn than allow any biomass removal’, I would gently counsel a field trip to the Snowy Mountains.

The mega fire which swept those thousands of hectares of hillsides in 2003 is ancient history for my young children.

When we drive through that area they do ask however why the gum trees stand as lifeless giants in their silent ranks, bristling on hillsides and valleys as far as the eye can see.

These thousands of mature Alpine Ash trees were caught in a series of infernos and the area has still not recovered.

Biomass removal – combined of course with winter burning – is a must for this nation.

The sooner we move out of trials and into serious activity the safer we all will be.

 

Ross Hampton

Chief Executive Officer, Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA)