Planning for fuel reduction burns needs to be smarter

A Gippsland fire expert says climate change should alter the way fuel reduction burning is planned.
A Gippsland fire expert says climate change should alter the way fuel reduction burning is planned.

THE threat of climate change means that forest management must become much cleverer in determining when to do fuel reduction burning, according to a senior Gippsland fire expert.

Garry Squires, a former Gippsland forest manager who is now a consultant, said there was a lot of talk about climate change and the reduced window of opportunity for burning.

"The climate change issue means we must be smarter in finding that window of opportunity," he said, citing one example.

"If you are going to burn in March and things are drier than they used to be, then instead of lighting at two o'clock in the afternoon you light at four o'clock in the afternoon."

Mr Squires was addressing a group tour of east Gippsland's forests which were burnt in the huge 2019-20 bushfires. The group consisted of architects and builders, forest growers, community activists and fire managers.

The tour was organised by the Institute of Foresters of Australia/Australian Forest Growers, which regards the fuel reduction lessons from east Gippsland as relevant to the native forests in the rest of Gippsland, the state's north-east and Yarra Valley.

The group stopped at one patch of state forest near Orbost that had had regular fuel reduction, the last burn about six years ago. The understorey was mainly grasses and low shrubs between the tall, straight trees, which were clearly visible.

It was cited as an ideal example of the benefits of fuel reduction. This was compared to some long unburnt private property in the area that had a heavy understorey shrub layer.

Mr Squires said this fuel reduction site could easily have a burn - a regular cool burn - every two, three or four years.

"This will be very easy to burn; you could have low key fire today (two weeks after Easter)," he said.

However, universally - in east Gippsland anyway - fuel reduction burning seemed to cease about Easter.

"Why aren't we cool burning now, and right through the winter at sites like this?" Mr Squires said.

"To me, that's part of the change in thinking that DELWP (Department of Environment, Lands, Water and Planning) have to have about widening the window of opportunity in what is in many people's eyes a changing climate that's making it drier."

Mr Squires said it was a matter of being "smart and adaptable" to burn in winter.

"The local staff must have the ability to make the decision on the spot and burn when they know conditions are right," he said, without going through layers of bureaucracy.

"You must have a site like this on the burn plans, so when the local staff say it's right to go, they just do it."

Staffing levels were part of the Easter issue, Mr Squires said.

"The summer crew go off about that time and so they are down to smaller staffing," he said.

"But you only need a couple of people to do this burning, two people to light up kilometres and kilometres of ridge tops.

"It's just a matter of changing thinking, in my view."

Mr Squires said the influx of tourists at Easter was another reason for not doing fuel reduction burns.

"It's a safety issue," he said.

Some summer crew were kept on a bit longer, while other staff undertook training in winter.

However, as the native timber industry closed down, Mr Squires said a challenge would be whether DELWP increased staffing levels in general to do the forest management work. This would include the roads that VicForests managed.

"About 20 per cent of road network in east Gippsland is maintained through funds generated by VicForests at the moment," he said.

"When they close down logging, extra money will have to go into DELWP just to cover that change. There must be more money go into forest management."

Mr Squires said there were problems about the window of opportunity where there was heavy shrub undergrowth.

"It's damp under the scrub and difficult to burn," he said.

University of Melbourne Professor Rod Keenan, who is chairman of the IFA's Victorian division and who helped coordinate the tour, said more 'cool' fires and active management of the forests were needed.

"In doing so, we need to learn from and work more closely with the local Gunaikurnai people in using fire in the landscape," he said.

Wider use of cultural burns could reduce fire risks, improve biodiversity and restore connections between people and country.

"This can have significant social and mental health benefits, help with recovery from fires and build resilience in people and forests to future wildfire events," Professor Keenan said.

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