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Mountain Journal

Environment, news, culture from the Australian Alps

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bushfires

How do we build our air capacity to fight wildfire?

Australia just experienced its hottest, driest year on record, with fires starting in the winter months and burning in some places until early March. Thousands of volunteer and career firefighters battled these blazes. As is normal practise, states helped each other out by sharing teams and resources.

As fire seasons get longer because of climate change, the prospect of fighting local fires and also having to support other states for larger sections of the year is daunting. It is also a problem for those who have to ensure we have adequate air support to be able to fight fires. Because many of the firefighting aircraft are leased, and shared around the world, as fire seasons get longer, there will be ever more demand, and greater cost, to secure the fleet we need.

Continue reading “How do we build our air capacity to fight wildfire?”

Old forests slow fire

We know that climate change is driving longer and more intense fire seasons. We know that fuel reduction can greatly reduce the spread and intensity of wildfire. However, in extreme fire conditions, the value of fuel reduction burning is reduced, and fires will burn through almost anything, regardless of recent fuel reduction treatment an area may have had. We also know that logging will make forests more flammable because of the loss of more humid micro climates and thick growth of the seedlings that will occur after logging. But we also know that older forests are less fire prone, burn less intensely than regrowth forests, and have the ability to slow down fires as they move through the landscape.

This has been highlighted again in research called Propensities of Old Growth, Mature and Regrowth Wet Eucalypt Forest, and Eucalyptus nitens Plantation, to Burn During Wildfire and Suffer Fire-Induced Crown Death by Suyanti Winoto-Lewin, Jennifer C Sanger and James B Kirkpatrick at the University of Tasmania. It highlights the value of older forests in slowing fire. (Available here).

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‘Mega’ fires more frequent in Victoria

In Victoria, the frequency of ‘mega’ fires (those greater than 100,000 hectares) has grown significantly over the past century.

  • 19th century – 2 mega fires
  • first half of 20th Century – 4 mega fires
  • 2nd half of 20th century – 7 mega fires
  • In the first 20 years of the 21st century – at least 8 mega fires

This is in spite of the huge advances we have made in fire fighting technology over the past 50 years.

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Logging increases fire risk

For those willing to look, the evidence has been available for years: logging increases fire severity. Industry advocates continue to claim that ‘logging reduces fire risk’. But it should be obvious to any impartial observer that ‘removing large established trees actually increases the amount of flammable fuel, with unshaded stumps and new-grown saplings dried out by the sun and wind serving as ‘kindling’ for the flames’.

This has been backed up again by range of prominent scientists.

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A remote area firefighting force for Victoria

For the last few months I have been talking with various land managers and career and volunteer firefighters about whether Victoria should establish a remote area firefighting capacity of volunteer fire fighters.

NSW has such a force: the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has Remote Area Fire Teams, with around 500 active volunteer firefighters.

It is clear climate change will make fire seasons more intense and will also lead to an increase in ‘dry lightning’ strikes, which will increase the number of wildfires. The value of the NSW model is shown by the effectiveness of their teams in stopping small fires becoming blazes: for instance, in the 2018/19 fire season the Rapid Aerial Response Teams responded to 77 incidents, and were able to keep 90 percent of the fires they attended contained to less than 10 hectares in size.

I think we should create a similar group in Victoria.

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What mountain species were impacted by last summer’s fires?

We know how devastating last summer’s fires were on local economies across the country. The ecological impact becomes ever more clearly understood, although some on ground research has been slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February 2020, the Federal Environment Department released an initial list of threatened ecological communities which have more than 10% of their estimated distribution in areas affected by bushfires in southern and eastern Australia between 1 July 2019 and 11 February 2020. What are the known impacts in mountain environments?

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The impacts of the Kosciuszko fires

The 2019-20 bushfire season is the most widespread and extreme that NSW has ever experienced. More than 5.4 million hectares burnt across NSW, including 2.7 million hectares of national park estate (up until 3 February 2020). In some regions, over 50% of the national park estate has been impacted.

Within Kosciuszko National Park, just over 231,000 ha, or 33.5% of the national park has burnt. The Adaminaby complex (which originated out of the Green Valley fire) and Pilot Lookout fires were finally declared extinguished on 16 February 2020.

The following report comes from The Resort Roundup (available here), published by the State of NSW and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

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How to make a submission to the Inquiry into Victoria’s fires

On 14 January 2020 the Andrews government announced an independent inquiry into the 2019-2020 Victorian fire season would be conducted by the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM).

Through this Inquiry, IGEM will ‘examine Victoria’s preparedness for the fire season, response to fires in large parts of Victoria’s North East, Gippsland, and Alpine regions, and will review relief and recovery efforts’.

There is still time to make a submission to this process.

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Shared Firefighting in a hotter world

Australia just had its hottest, driest year on record, with fires starting in the winter months and burning in some places until early March. Much of the Alps, including the Snowy Mountains, Upper Murray, Eastern Alps and East Gippsland were burnt. Then, as we started to get on top of the worst of the fires, the mountains of the ACT went off, with enormous blazes that devastated the high country of Namadgi National Park.

Thousands of volunteer and career firefighters battled these blazes. As is normal practise, states helped each other out by sending teams and resources. My CFA brigade sent strike teams to NSW and then Mallacoota. By February we were asked to send teams to the ACT fires. We were fighting fires at home too, and we were all bloody glad when the rains came in mid February.

As fire seasons get longer because of climate change, the prospect of fighting local fires and also having to support other states for larger sections of the year is daunting for fire fighters. Helping each other out is second nature to firefighters, and a tradition we will maintain. But longer fire seasons does mean greater impact and time away from home and work for volunteers. It means greater expenditure on career firefighters. It means greater wear and tear on trucks and other equipment if they are being used for more of the year. It is also a problem for those who have to ensure we have adequate air support to be able to fight fires. Because many of the firefighting aircraft are leased, and shared around the world, as fire seasons get longer, there will be ever more demand, and greater cost, to secure the fleet we need.

A recent report in Bloomberg by By Mira Rojanasakul and Hayley Warren highlights the scale of the firefighting effort that happens, and the cost of keeping planes and helicopters on the fireground.

Continue reading “Shared Firefighting in a hotter world”

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