Fuel loads key problem for WA fires

Opinion piece 11/01/2016

While we take stock of the fire inferno that wiped out Yarloop, surrounding properties, infrastructure and tragically claimed two lives, the inevitable question is being asked 'how did this fire get away like this? and it is a very good question.

This fire started in Lane Poole National Park, where fuel loads are known to be, well let's face it, enormous. There are areas of Lane Poole which have not been burnt for 15- 20 years, possibly more. It has not even been 12 months since the same thing happened in Northcliffe and Boddington. The battle is being lost in the national parks where fuel loads have been allowed to build to dangerous levels.

In fairness we know we have a drying climate which is contributing to longer drier summers which increases the risk of bushfires. Knowing this we might assume more is being done to reduce this risk, yet unforgivably less is being done now than ever before.

Basically our forests have been managed by fires for millions of years. Lots and lots of medium to hot burns. Our forest has adapted to this regime and many species now require fire to regenerate. But fires can be too hot. Catastrophic fire storms have the ability to permanently change the very structure of the forest by incinerating the seed beds, some species will never recover. These are the fires we do not want, these fires are dangerous to the forest and more so to us.

When the forests were broadly managed for timber production they were also being managed for fires. There used to be manned forestry towers, a constant vigilance for the first signs of fire throughout summer. We used to have CALM officers patrolling the forests with fire suppression vehicles. We used to have many more contractors in the forest with on hand fire suppression equipment. The forests were regularly thinned and subject to regeneration and systematic control burns. We used to have managed forests.

From 1950 to 1999 we had 1 significant fire which got away, burning catastrophically and that was the Dwellingup fire of 1961. By comparison we have had 4 fires of a comparable scale and intensity escape us since last February. We have dropped the ball. Our national parks are overgrown and unmanaged. Granted DPaW do some control burns but it is evidently insufficient.

We must find ways to reduce the fuel loads to improve accessibility for frontline fire fighting efforts and we need to improve forest fire monitoring and fire suppression response times.

There is no 'silver bullet'. Nothing will stop all fires but we need to do more than we are. Yes we should control burn but we should also be thinning the bush, actively removing the smaller trees and 'ladder fuels'. We should be restoring the fire -fighting access tracks and improving our fire fighting capacity and response times. We need managed forests to protect ourselves, our properties and our infrastructure.

Melissa Haslam
Executive Director
Forest industries Federation WA

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