(The Age. 19-2-2010)

Threats: Fire

Section
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
Page
7.6

Running across and through almost all threats to habitat is fire. Whether indirectly, through clearing, draining and ‘opening up’ of the bush, and as a result of climate change, or directly, through the deliberate lighting of fires, we are seeing more and more of the natural world alight. News items covering the burning of the Amazon, Kalimantan, eastern and south-western Australia, western USA, Canada, and more, are increasingly frequent and fire in these instances is either the cause of habitat loss or the symptom.

(Chan, J. 2018. ACT Parks and Conservation staff lighting a ‘hazard-reduction’ burn, Black Mountain, Canberra. The Canberra Times)

Fire occurring indirectly via climate change will be dealt with in section 10, ‘Wastes’ (10.4), as this is where climate change – as a result of greenhouse gas pollution – will be properly addressed. On this webpage we will address the deliberate use of fire to clear or alter habitat. The example used is of Australia, but it is a worldwide phenomenon.

After the terrible Black Saturday fires of February 2009 in Australia, I met with a number of my colleagues. The mood was, understandably, a mixture of exhaustion (from various fire response roles) and sadness. We all worked in various forms of natural resource management and had been through major fire ‘events’ a number of times before. As a result, the depression in the room was not only from what had happened, but for – inevitably – what would happen from now on: attack. Attack on the bush, attack on the people who were seen to protect the bush; hysteria, bullying, shouting, blaming. Nature as wild, ontologically alien and fearful, unruly; the antithesis of human needs, the human condition, human’s interests. And so it began.

Newspaper columnists in major papers calling for ‘greenies’ to be hanged (see webpage 6.3); colleagues who worked to care for biodiversity, etc., shouted at by management that they would be “****** so hard that they wouldn’t come back for 20 years”; death threats to staff; park staff and environmentalists shunned in their home towns. I worked for the state’s (Victoria’s) ‘environment’ department at the time, outside Melbourne, and we all had our job descriptions automatically, and without any form of consultation, changed, via computer, so that the first two key roles (out of four or five on the template) were to work as part of the department’s fire activities. At the stroke of a computer keyboard, our role was converted from environment protector to firefighter/fire lighter/fire supporter. New managers were installed with either a fire background or sympathetic to the whole fire project, predominant budget resources were diverted to fire* (see note), and any ambitious staff member knew that the path to promotion lay solely through fire. (Even though Black Saturday was 13 years ago now, much of this culture and resourcing remains). Yearly burn targets (‘planned burns’) were installed that were as big as the area burnt in the entire Black Saturday fires (~400,000 ha).

As I mentioned, we had all lived through a number of these anti-Nature waves which in Victoria correspond approximately with major fire outbreaks, which have happened about every seven years since records began. Before Black Saturday there were much larger fires in extent in 2002-3, but, thankfully, far less damaging in human death toll. At the time I was working for the Victorian National Parks Association and was distressed at staff being threatened and the usual irrational myth-making and blaming going on in the media about the fires. ‘The Age’ ran a typical such piece by their reporter Andrew Rule (who specialised in crime reporting) on its front page and the

front page of its Saturday Extra in 20031, complete with a huge, orange, fire picture across its broadsheet page (see, also, fire poster – ‘Tour of Duty’ –  reproduced in webpage 6.3). I wrote the attached in response2 and would largely support what I said then, even though it was nearly 20 years ago. (It needs to be pointed out, though, that what I refer to as ‘prescribed burning’ was a far smaller, more circumspect, activity in 2003, than subsequently).

Despite my and others’ calls for sober thought and calm post these and other fires, the political, cultural and media pull of burning was too strong, and all over the country this became the right response, the ‘answer’. Never mind the sheer irrationality and ecological ignorance of most of it, the damage to the environment and the promotion of highly flammable, dried out and woody understoreys. Never mind the danger and the cost* (see my note at end of webpage on budget allocations for fire vs biodiversity and other needs). At a very shallow level, it just seemed right, to resonate with the common man, so that’s what we did, and to a significant extent, still do. The consequence of same is highlighted clearly in this example from South West Western Australia, one of the cradles of diversity on earth, particularly plant diversity (7,000+ species, 80% of them endemic3).

Are we ‘burning in ignorance’? – Off Track – ABC Radio National

The summary for this excellent ABC podcast (February 20th, 2021) reads:

“Bushfires pose a threat in many parts of Australia, but their management can also come at a cost.

In South West Western Australia, there are concerns that prescribed burning plans are having a negative environmental impact on an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot.

Traditional Owners, scientists and members of the community have been lobbying the state government to reconsider the current prescribed burn regime.”

The fire juggernaut is cleverly examined in a piece by Katherine Wilson for ‘Overland’ magazine4. Appropriately titled ‘The Fire Cult’ – The fire cult | 234 Autumn 2019 | Katherine Wilson | Overland literary journal – she explores the deep cultural and commercial need for fire. Wilson points out that for certain whites and blacks alike, fire is not really a management tool, nor a commercial necessity, but actually – and far more importantly – a cultural identifier, a legitimiser, a symbol of an attitude; of their ‘ownership’ and control of Nature. She is critical of this cult within government and forestry circles, but her position re Aboriginal people burning the landscape is less clear. She starts off doubting calls for the large-scale and extensive application of same, saying that this is due to ‘whitefella’ opportunism, but later in the article seems more supportive of at least some indigenous burning. Despite this possible ambiguity, her most powerful line comes at the end of the article when she says:

“For many Australians, firestick burns might be a form of atonement”.

 

Burning as a political and cultural need regardless of a lack of scientific or historical evidence is dissected most skilfully by naturalist Bob McDonald, in his piece ‘It’s Time to Stop Lighting Fires’ for ‘The Tasmanian Times’5, reproduced here: It’s time to stop lighting fires – Tasmanian Times.

 

(McDonald, B. 2015. It’s Time to Stop Lighting Fires. Tasmanian Times)

McDonald’s key points are that:

  • The popular book, Bill Gammage’s ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia’6, represents “blind advocacy” for repeated burning because “Aboriginal people did it”;
  • Gammage’s ‘hypothesis’ that Aboriginal people farmed all of Australia using fire “contains fundamental flaws” due to selective referencing, selective, interested interpretations of references, and exclusion of contradictory evidence;
  • Sediment cores dating back 70,000 years indicate a 50-fold increase in burning since the arrival of Europeans, not a decrease, as so often claimed;
  • Gunditjmara linguist Joel Wright could find no linguistic evidence of landscape burning in Western Victoria;
  • Gammage “plays on locals’ fear and opinion of fires when he speaks, referring to those who do not want to burn as people, or ‘greens’, from the city” (transcripts are provided);
  • Australia is not in any way “an estate”;
  • Australian Nature and Aboriginal culture is diverse, complex and in no way monolithic, with over 500 tribes and thousands of clans, so simplistic, ‘more fire’ prescriptions, are “disastrous” in so many places and habitats;
  • Forests in Australia do not “thrive on being burned, or need it”; (MF note: in fact, as an example, most habitats in Victoria simply would not exist if the burning regimes proposed were a reflection of the ‘natural’ occurrence. Wetlands, Alpine herbfields and woodlands, wet forests, mature Mallee, old-growth woodlands, riparian zones, etc. and so forth would all be eliminated or severely depleted and all we would have had, and will have, is grassland, heath, and some depauperate, dry, scrubby woodland. It makes you wonder if the proponents of all this fire have ever set foot in the outdoors and actually looked at what is before them);
  • Current fire practices too often lead to “scrubby regrowth” and trees and shrubs are almost invariably killed “adding to fuel loads, as are the animals and fungi that normally reduce fuels”; (MF note: the destructiveness of these ‘planned’ fires is now cloaked in euphemism – ‘gentle fire’, ‘soft smoke’, etc., but this is not how the Australian bush burns and it is simply not so that ‘the animals just move out of the way’; many, if not most (read reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates10, fungi, ground-layer herbs, shrubs and grasses11, etc…are killed – full stop – and those that can escape mostly die subsequently from lack of food and shelter as neighbouring territories and niches are occupied);
  • “Original forests had closed canopies and an open understorey” (1939 Vict. Bushfire Royal Commission) because they were allowed to mature and left undisturbed;
  • Examples of “very bad” and “counterproductive” burns are given at Cape Liptrap, Victoria, Kakadu, Northern Territory, across northern Australia more generally, and deleteriously affecting mammals, hollow-dependent species, moths, termites, beetles, Malleefowl, Lyrebirds, fungi, parrots, possums and owls; (MF Note 1 : e.g. 80 (31%) of Australia’s threatened bird species and subspecies have ‘inappropriate fire regimes’ or ‘wildfire’ listed as a threat to their survival9, and this is predominantly from too much fire; MF Note 2: see, also, my note re the killing of dozens of Stumpy-tailed Lizards in a ‘planned’ burn in the Grampians, webpage 1.5.9);
  • The best answer for fire suppression in Australia is “thermal imaging cameras” and “world’s best and biggest firefighting aircraft”…to “rapidly extinguish them”. Tellingly, the rapid detection and response to fires in Australia is said over and again by those experienced in fighting bushfires as by far the most sensible and effective thing to do, but was, once again, the only recommendation of the latest 2019-20 Royal Commission into the National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Black Summer fires) to not be adopted by Government (Federal);
  • ‘Prescribed burns’ not only damage the bush, they often ‘escape’, burn farms, fences and livestock, cause bronchial health problems, damage water supplies, etc…;
  • Grassfires, usually of pasture grasses, are the frequent cause of fires;
  • He concludes: “Current fuel reduction burning becomes a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ even when it leads to more fires as appears to have happened, especially in Western Australia. To stop burning where it makes bush more flammable may challenge a practice since colonial times, but will cost far less and provide significant economic returns from improved water production, fisheries, tourism and public health.”

Despite the illogical destructiveness of the fire cult, despite its robbing the environment of vital and scarce people and resources, criticisms like that of McDonald have been almost entirely ignored and it has gone on from strength to strength. As I said when stumbling from skeleton to skeleton of the burned Stumpy-tailed Lizards in the Grampians near my home, and in yet another ‘planned’ burn, no less (see webpage 1.5.9): “to think that such careless destruction could be employed, as it now is, almost as an article of faith; a bizarre ideology about the Australian bush, propped up by ignorant mantras of ‘it’s good for the bush’ and ‘the bush needs it’ and ‘this is how it was always done’. The destroyer as saviour”.

As we are so often told, we hear what we want to hear and we believe what we want to believe, not what evidence may say otherwise, and in addition to this we are group-thinkers; prey to fashion and whatever the group says is right. Burning the bush has united in Australia the strangest of bedfellows: rural colonisers and conservatives – farmers, graziers, loggers, etc., certain indigenous groups and interests, and city progressives concerned for Aboriginal rights and self-determination. Environmentalists are every bit as prone to fashion as anyone else and they, particularly the younger generation, have adopted this belief holus bolus, so much so that you can barely walk past a desk in any environment department, agency or NGO without seeing a copy on each desk of the production-line of books spruiking this dogma (e.g. Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’7, or Gammage’s ‘The Biggest Estate…’6, or Rolls’ ‘A Million Wild Acres’8), and each occupant will earnestly tell you that the bush is really just a ‘farm’, managed by people through fire. This is manna from heaven for those who understand the bush only as a resource for materials, or as a subjugated park or garden (see schema ‘The Diversity of the Nature-Human Relationship’, Section 1, ‘Introduction’). Their agenda of ownership, control and conversion is now ‘natural’ and even wise and ‘virtuous’. As a bonus, these actions can now be carried out anywhere within the natural world, even within ‘protected’ areas, like national parks, meaning habitat can be hollowed out from within while all the time this destructiveness is cloaked in righteousness.

It is understandable, but very sad, that indigenous desires for identity and primacy (and, even, the white man’s concept, ‘ownership’) have been channelled, by conservative, colonial, ‘tame-the-bush’ interests on the one hand, and progressive’s guilt on the other hand, into almost sole expression through the destructive agency of fire. This is seen to be essential to the whole project because with few Aboriginal people, no fossil fuels or domesticated animals for power, no metals, or the wheel, there just remained fire as a shaper and controller of Nature and therefore it had to be grossly over-emphasised and lauded; it had to carry the entire load of colonial wrongs, as well as – paradoxically – of colonial dreams of submission. And it is Nature that must pay the price, both literally, through the destruction of habitat, and conceptually, through its erasure from the mind.

 

(Herald Sun, 202112. Part of ad followed by full-page advertorial for burning by Forest Fire Management Victoria in Victoria’s highest circulation newspaper. Fire as fear, fire as saviour)

 

 

1 Rule, A. 2003. A Burning Issue for Those who Live with the Bush; and Fire. The Age and The Age Saturday Extra, January 25th.

2 Fendley, M. 2003. Fire Half-truths. VNPA Newsletter, April.

3 Lambers, H., Bradshaw, D. 2016. Australia’s South West: a hotspot for wildlife and plants that deserve World Heritage status. February 18th, The Conversation.

4 Wilson, K. 2018. The Fire Cult. Autumn, no. 234, Overland Literary Journal.

5 McDonald, B. 2015. It’s Time to Stop Lighting Fires. January 14th, The Tasmanian.

6 Gammage, W.L. 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia.

7 Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books, Broome, Australia.

8 Rolls, E. 1981. A Million Wild Acres. Nelson, Melbourne, Australia.

9 Garnett, S., Crowley, G. 2000. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra, Australia.

10 York, A. 1994. The Long-term Effects of Fire on Forest Ant Communities: Management Implications for the Conservation of Biodiversity. Vol. 36, Memoirs Queensland Museum.

11 Dept. Environment, Sport and Territories. 1996. Fire and Biodiversity – The Effects and Effectiveness of Fire Management. Conference Proceedings, Oct., 1994. Biodiversity Series no. 8, National Capital Printing, Canberra, Australia.

12 Herald Sun. 2021. How Planned Burning Will Prepare us for Summer. November 25th.

 

*Note: The Victorian State Budget 2021-22 announcement for the Dept. of Environment, Land, Water and Planning was $1.08 billion. Of this, $517 million was for “forest and fire management”. Further sums were allocated to fire, including $28.9 million to “re-invigorate Cultural Fire on Country”. Additional sums allocated outside the DELWP budget included items such as $339.5 million for upgraded fire technology. By comparison, Parks Victoria received $31.68 million “to continue the Park Rangers program, retain 57 park rangers and support staff roles and help meet unprecedented visitor demand, enabling dedicated rangers to undertake critical fire management roles (my underlining)”; and $5 million for pest and weed programs; and $5.79 million for a “wildlife protection and support package”. To cap it off, $21 million was allocated withing the Planning section of the Department for the ‘Streamlining for Growth’ project.

Sources: Budget 2021-22 (delwp.vic.gov.au) ; https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/budget-boost-andrews-government-promises-millions-to-reduce-bushfire-risk-20210508-p57q3c.html .

Explore Other Natural Habitat and Species

7.1 Introduction

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be able to stop, let alone want to stop. How far ...

7.2 State of Habitat

The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s exceptional ‘Living Planet Report 2020’1, Fig. 19 – reproduced below, attempts to show the global distribution of highly modified, largely natural, and in-between habitats. The dark green areas approximat...

7.3 Threats: Land Clearing and Direct Habitat Loss

This is the big one. As pointed out in 7.1 and 7.2 it accounts for over half of all population declines (see Figure 5, webpage 7.2) of native species and is as obvious as it is crude. We burn, chop, bulldoze, log, graze, and drain remaining habita...

7.4 Threats: Species Overexploitation

After land clearing and direct habitat loss, the next biggest threat for native species is overexploitation. It accounts for approximately 24% of declines1 (see webpage 7.2, figures 4 and 5) and can be as simple and direct as overhuntin...

7.5 Threats: Invasive Species and Diseases

Again, strangely, an unfashionable topic for modern environmentalism, but nonetheless, third on the list of threats to the natural world, with an average score across regions of 13%  (to recap: #1 is habitat loss at 50% and #2 is exploitation of s...

7.6 Threats: Fire

Running across and through almost all threats to habitat is fire. Whether indirectly, through clearing, draining and ‘opening up’ of the bush, and as a result of climate change, or directly, through the deliberate lighting of fires, we are seeing ...

7.7 Threats: Erasing Nature from the Mind

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7.8 Habitat and Species Protection Goals

The most relevant international goals for habitat and species protection for the latest decade, 2010-20, were the so-called ‘Aichi goals’. (‘Aichi’, because the location where the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 193 signatory n...

7.9 Acting for Habitat and Species

Everything in T10 is designed either to increase the protection of habitat and species, or reduce the pressures on same. As such, actions outlined in each of the 10 sections will – directly or indirectly – make a significant contribution. This sai...

7.10 The Future

Jorgen Randers was one of the authors of the seminal ‘Limits to Growth’ in 19721, as well as the 30-year update published in 20042. In 2012 he published ‘2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years’3. It woul...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

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4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...