Box Jelly fish
Bushfire Myths in Australia
For hundreds of years, Australians have known about the propensity of native Australian bush to go up in flames every summer. In generations past, the threat was reduced by planting exotic trees around communities. These exotic trees caught flying embers, had lush leaves that did not contribute to the build up of fuel over the years, would not burn if a bushfire hit and could potentially act as a shield against radiant heat. As a result, bushfire were relatively easy to manage.
In the 1970s, a kind of environmental xenophobia took hold in many of Australia’s institutions. Non-native flora and fauna was deemed to be harmful and in need of replacement with natives. Like all forms of xenophobia, the facts started being changed to suit the ideology rather than the ideology being changed to suit the facts.
In the case of bushfires, scientists started arguing that bushfire was good for the ecosystem and that bushfire threats could be reduced with more burning in traditiona ways. Bizarrely, they even argued that burning the bush should be seen as a form of carbon trading.
The consequence of the ideologies was that highly flammable native trees started being planted around houses. Those who questioned the choice of natives found themselves greeted with indignant stares. In the words of former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope:
In an absurd case, in 2004, a Victorian family had a court case with Mitchell Shire Council for illegally clearing trees to guard against fire. They lost the case and were fined $40,000 dollars. When bushfires hit the region in 2009, their house was one of the few in the area that did not burn down. The $40,000 fine then seemed like a small price to pay for keeping their home.
As more and more homes were built amongst gum trees, bushfires became more and more threatening. Realising the stupidity of the whole thing, some critics started pointing out that while the native Australian bush was very beautiful, it was still a fire hazard. One of these was Joan Webster, author of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips, who asked:
Myth 1 - Bushfires are good for the ecosystem
Due to a form of environmental xenophobia, a few silly myths have developed that the Australian ecosystem somehow needs bushfire. For example, Allen Greer, a herpetologist from the Australian Museum, writes:
It is partly because of such silly myths that the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park is almost completely devoid of native animals. Over the last two decades, there has been a 71 percent decline in the total number of animals and almost half the area of the national park no longer has any native mammals at all. The chief cause of the decline is burning by environmental scientists. In accordance with their scientific beliefs, almost 50% of the national park is burnt each year and the consequence is that the native animals have died. Before the park was heritage listed and was instead left alone, the native animals thrived.
Perhaps the silly myths can be explained by the appearance of the bush a few weeks after a bushfire. There is an explosion of greenery as trees regrow and seeds germinate. Looks; however, are deceiving. The explosion of greenery is nothing more than plants using weakness in the ecosystem as the opportune time to push for individual dominance. These explosions use the plant's energy reserves, and most of the new plants will eventually die. If another fire came through, the explosion of greenery would be less. If too many fires came through, the ecosystem would collapse. Although some native plant seeds only germinate when exposed to smoke (not singed), it is wrong to say the Australian bush needs to be burnt. Likewise, although a little bit of ash enriches the soil, the amount of nutrients released by a fire is far far less than the enrichment of the soil via a slow process of decomposition. Fire transforms the various compounds in plants into CO2 and H20, which mostly floats off into the air. The ash that is left behind is just the residue of incomplete combustion. On the other hand, decomposition results in most of the compounds from the earth returning to earth.
Needless to say, the "scientists" that burn the bush to increase its fertility don't take a flame thrower to their backyard gardens to increase their fertilty. Due to some quirk of psychology, the scientists are logical when it comes to their own gardens, but ideological when it comes to the Australian bush.
Another silly myth is that fire management adds to biodiversity. According to herpetologist Allen Greer,
The theory goes that if a "cold burn" is used to burn in patches, then the burnt area will develop a slightly different ecosystem to the unburnt area. In the long run, a mosaic of ecosystems will be created.
Words like "cold burn" seem non-threatening while "mosaic" is emotionally pleasing and indeed selective human input into an area will result in a "mosaic" of slightly different ecosystems. By the same logic, mosaic logging should add to biodiversity because a logged area will have a slightly different ecosystem to an unlogged area. Nevertheless, burning (and logging) decreases the productive capabilities of the Australian land and with a lower productive capability, overall biodiversity is reduced. Afterall, rainforests have more biodiversity than grasslands and deserts. If humans really wanted to intervene to increase biodiversity, it would be better to implement "mosaic watering", "mosaic mulching" , "moasic seeding" or "mosaic fetilisation."
Biodiversity - A changed ecosystem but a more productive ecosystem?
Contrary to what some silly myths propose, fire is devastating for an ecosystem. When a fire rips through, the two things needed to stimulate plant growth - nutrients and water - go up in flames. Furthermore, in the post-fire desolation, there is little grass cover capable of holding the soil together. Wind or rain can then result in the ecosystem being stripped of the vital ingredients needed to rebuild itself. Because fire reduces the productive capacity of the land, it also reduces the potential biodiversity of the ecosystem.
50,000 years ago, human’s fondness for fire resulted in climate change and mass extinction. Large-scale burning of the Australian land turned rainforest into savannah, and then into desert. After the foliage was razed to the ground, rain fell and soaked into the sand or quickly evaporated under the scorching sun. In turn, a reduction in humidity decreased the number of clouds forming.
In 2004 and 2005, Dr John Magee and Dr Michael Gagana from the Australian National University showed that burning caused a decrease in the exchange of water vapour between the biosphere and atmosphere. Clouds stopped forming and the annual monsoon over central Australia failed. Whereas once the Nullarbor Plain was home to forests and tree dwelling Kangaroos, now it is desert. Likewise, Lake Eyre, formerly a deep-water lake in Australia's interior, is now a huge salt flat occasionally covered by ephemeral floods. (1) A small change caused a chain reaction that led to a large change.
In addition to causing ecological collapse, the intentional use of fire probably eliminated most of Australia’s predators. The first to go were the Megalania and Marsupial Lion. Continued burning probably resulted in the Devil and Thylacine eventually going extinct from the mainland as well. (The two only survived in Tasmania where fire was not using in hunting.) Other predators, such as the Roseburg Goanna, were also reduced in numbers due to fire. It was only in fire free ecosystems such as Kangaroo Island where they remained in such high numbers that they were able to completely eradicate rabbits.
The deceptive nature of recovery
Myth 2 - The only way to stop communities being destroyed by bushfires is to have burning regimes
A second silly myth is that controlled burning is necessary to reduce fuel loads for bushfires. The theory proposes that by burning the bush in a controlled "cold burn", there wont be as much fuel if the bush is naturally set alight by a lightening strike. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether a barrel of oil is 70% full or 100% full, it is still a fire hazard and the same goes with a eucalypt forest.
The futility of fuel reduction was seen in the 2009 Victorian firestorm. An estimated 100 lives were lost when the town of Marysville went up in flames. Controlled burns had been used to reduce fuel loads around the town in 81, 82, 85, 87, 99, 04, 05 and 08. These were not effective and the bush around the town merely contributed to the fireball that engulfed it. Even complete eradication of flora does little to stop a fire. In the words of Andrew Cox, head of the National Parks Association of NSW:
"The bush will carry a fire regardless of what you do beforehand. In extreme conditions, bushfires could rage across treeless paddocks rendered bare by drought and feeding livestock. [Hazard reduction] has a negligible effect on slowing or stopping a fire."
No longer a fire hazard????
After the 2003 firestorm in Canberra, the ACT government did something sensible by not replanting the pine trees or native trees in the corridor that connects Canberra to the national park. Instead, it established the Canberra International Arboretum and Gardens as a tourist attraction that doubled as a fire break. The report into the firestorm concluded that pine plantations and eucalypt forests would always be fire hazards that would put communities in danger during the summer months. On the other hand, many plant species from the northern hemisphere do not produce foliage that encourages bushfires and as an added benefit, their moist leaves trap flying embers. Although trapping embers often results in their own destruction, it also dampens the flames and slows or halts the fire's spread. Potentially, the Arboretum is like replacing one of the barrels of petrol that connect Canberra to the national park with a barrel of water. Although not perfect, it is a far better option that a cold burn intended to make one of the barrels 3/4 quarters full of petrol.
While the aberetum is an ok fire break, the ideal one is a fruit orchard because they capture flying embers without being ignited by them. As an additional benefit, fruit trees don't contribute to fuel build up. The leaves are either eaten by animals, such as kangaroos or possums, or quickly decompose due to their high moisture content. Although they need more water than native trees, there are many fire prone areas of Australia where they can survive without watering. Even if watering is needed, it is far better to have water already locked up in trees before a bushfire rather than dropped it from helicopters during one.
Cold burns - towards collapse
Myth 3 - Bushfires are the solution to global warming
A final silly myth is that burning the bush is the solution to global warming. This myth is actively being promoted by Dick Williams from the government-funded CSIRO. According to Williams, if an ecosystem is burnt, then it won't suffer extreme bushfires in the future. Therefore, paying people to burn the bush should be seen as a form of carbon trading. American gas company ConocoPhillips agrees, and is now paying people in West Arnhem land $1 million a year, for 17 years, to offset 100,000 tons of the refinery's own greenhouse emissions. The company has used this arrangment in "public education" campaigns demonstrating that it is an environmentally concious organisation. In a nutshell, it keeps burning its gas and landowners keep burning the bush, but CO2 emissions have been reduced.
Native Title Report 2007 Chapter 12
If Williams' logic were extended, if a tank of petrol was burnt over three months it would release less CO2 than a tank that is burnt in a single day. If so, perhaps a form of carbon trading could be to buy petrol and then slowly burn it off. Furthermore, clear-felling forests should also be a form of carbon trading beause it too reduces the threat of bushfires. In fact, Japanese companies that woodchip Australian forests should be able to engage in carbon trading because they are reducing available fuel load.
The real motivation for burning-to-reduce-CO2 emissions is money. Scientists want to get money to go out bush, start some fires and then sit back with a few beers. It is a very enjoyable pastime and naturally they would love it if they could get paid at the same time. The Aboriginal angle provides a “moral” argument to justify the profit motive. Even though Aborigines never burnt the bush to reduce CO2 emissions, pretending they did looks better in a grant application. Obviously it was a wise campaign strategy because in 2009, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and Environment Minister Peter Garrett announced a grant of $10 million dollars to scientists at the CSIRO to further their research. Needless to say, the grant made the CSIRO very happy. While simultaneously pushing the "Aboriginal" angle while disseminating information to other potential firebugs that there is profit to be made, the CSIRO’s environmental economist Scott Heckbert declared:
Contrary to what politicians like Peter Garret and Penny Wong want voters to believe, intentionally lighting a fire only reduces the threat of more bushfires in that it reduces the productive capacity of the Australian land. If the ecosystem is not burnt to the point of collapse, the bushfire actually increases the risk of another bushfire. Because the native plants that survive have a comparatively strong ability to recover from bushfires, they have evolved to encourage bushfires so that they can maintain their dominance. As a result, the Australian ecosystem is dominated by oil rich eucalypts that dominate over lush vegetation that decomposes quickly, is enjoyed by animals and does not easily burn. Furthermore, it is only the koala that eats the eucalypts in any meaningful way. Because few animals eat the eucalypts, vegetative matter is likely to end up as fuel, rather than be turned in animal droppings that decomposs quickly back into the soil. When the ecosystem is not burnt, the thicker canopy results in more decomposition, more moisture being trapped close to the ground and less fuel ready to go up in flames. Admittedly, eucalypt foliage decomposes very very slowly. Nevertheless, the more decomposition that occurs, the less fuel that will be destined for a bushfire.
Myth 4 - Aborigines burnt the bush to protect it
Amongst Australian environmentalists, there is a desire to show respect to the practices of pre-1788 humans. Ironically, this is by conceiving them as something other than humans. (Until the 1960s, the NSW government actually classified Aborigines as flora and fauna and the legacy has continued today.)
This desire has in turn created an ideology that everything done by the pre-1788 humans must have had some kind of mystical environmental insights lost by the modern generation. Rather than change the ideology to suit the facts, facts are interpreted to fit the ideology.
In truth, the pre-1788 humans were exactly the same as all other humans that have ever lived; they manipulated the environment for their own benefit. Fire was burnt to herd kangaroos towards spears. Fire was also used to clear forests that were not liked by kangaroos. In a nutshell, fire was used in the interests to their stomachs, not the interests of tourists on holiday, scientist wanting a government grant or a gas company wanting to offset its carbon emissions.
Activity 1 – Does fire add nutrients to the soil
Activity purpose – To determine whether fire adds nutrients and water to an ecosystem
Activity 2 – Flammability
To determine which plants would be best to plant around one’s house in a bushfire prone area
Activity 3 – The carbon sink
Should burning the bush be seen as a form of carbon trading ?
“Cold burning” has been used as a form of carbon trading. The theory proposes that a cold burn can prevent a more extreme bushfire in the future so therefore it should be seen as a method of reducing carbon emissions. Obviously the validity of the claim relies upon which statistics are selectively analysed to support the view; however, to assess the underlying premise, some activities can be done.
The photo below shows the aftermath of an uncontrolled “hot burn”. Although it may be surprising, note how lots of sticks didn’t appear to be consumed by the flames. Because the fire was so hot, the fire killed most of the plants but it did not burn deeply (perhaps because of a shortage of oxygen. Carbon; therefore, remained locked in the ecosystem.
Burning the koala and then offering her a drink
4)Burning caused megafauna extinction (http://info.anu.edu.au/ovc/Media/Media_Releases/_2005/_July/_080705magee.asp)
5)A Majestic Folly Soars http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/a-majestic-folly-soars-20130125-2dcn8.html#ixzz2JJjvxNpA
6)The burning issue: native gardens a killer on our doorstep Date: January 19 2013 Canberra Times