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Australian Environmental Issues

Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

Crocodile
So you wrestle crocs...

Dingo
Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

Echidna
The wise little gnomes of Australia

Emu
Victors of the great Emu war

Flies
Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Kangaroo
Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Snakes
Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Wombat
Keg of muscle

Quoll
The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories

 

 

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bushfire1

Bushfire Prevention in Australia

The ideological debate concering the replacement of natives or controlling them with burning?

In America, eucalypts are sometimes referred to as 'gasoline trees' such is their propensity to burn. Unfortunately, Australia is covered in them, which has not only resulted in the destruction of the rainforests and the failure of a once annual monsoon over central Australia, but it has also made Australia the most fire prone continent on earth. As stated in the Future Eaters: (1)

"Rainforests are killed by fire, but the Eucalypts had evolved in the fire prone areas, and they thrived on it. In an unholy alliance with fire, the eucalypts spread across the continent - destroying the original forests, creating the Australian landscape we know today.
I think the triumph of the eucalypts was to change, even the climate of the continent. The original forests had acted like a sponge - storing huge quantities of moisture, and transpiring it back into the atmosphere. This allowed the monsoon rains to penetrate hundreds of kilometres south. The rains fed a permanent river system, that flowed inland - filling the lakes at the heart of the continent."

Despite recognising that eucalypts are a fire hazard, they have continued to be planted around Australian settlements as a expression of Australian patriotism. Realising the danger of the ideology, some critics have pointed out that while the native Australian bush is very beautiful and celebratory of Australia, it is still a fire hazard. One of these has been Joan Webster, author of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips, who asked:

"Tigers are native to India. Do Indians keep tigers in their gardens? Or allow them to roam their streets? No. They could kill someone. So why do we Australians feel a compulsion to surround our houses with native plants; grow them in suburban streets? They can kill people… With the fashion for indigenous trees in our gardens, we in effect stack kindling around our houses. Build them within a pyre. Ready for a sacrificial burn."(2)

Patriots believe that the threat of bushfires can be lessened with controlled burning to reduce fuel loads. This is a bit like milking a tiger snake of its venom but then releasing it in the backyard because the threat has been reduced. In reality, irrespective of whether a barrel of oil is 20% full or 100% full, it is still a fire hazard and the same goes with a eucalypt forest. The only time it is almost non-flammable is in the initial days after it was burnt but even then, it can usually burn some more.

Aside from not stopping fire, fuel reduction burns do little to reduce the intensity of the uncontrollable fires that are a risk to life. Research of University of Melbourne associate professor Trent Penman has found that in areas subjected to planned burns five years earlier, there was no measurable effect on the intensity of the fires. This was a surprise that Penman explained by saying,

"It's almost like a turbo-charging effect, when you have such incredibly high temperatures and very high winds that you only need a negligible amount of fuel to produce a fire intensity that is not suppressible." (3)

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 burnings were not effective and the bush around the town merely contributed to the fireball that engulfed it. Truly, it was a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome as the community felt psychological alliance to what would ultimately destroy them. 

Given the lack of scientific research in support of fuel reduction burns, it could be argued that the only reason fuel reduction burns are favoured is because they are the cheapest way of governments looking like they are doing something.

A site on the edge of a residential area that is burned every couple of years to reduce fuel loads. Despite the burning, a match or lightening strike could still set it alight. It remains a potential tinder box for embers from a fire storm or as fuel to support the passing of a fire storm.

Instead of fuel reduction burns, an option promoted by many fire safety organisations around the world is to plant decidous trees around houses that will act as a barrrier to radiant heat. Furthermore, they catch the flying embers and extinguish them rather than ignite like the eucalypts. In a sense, instead of having instead of barrels of oil around a house when a bushfire is bearing down, the moisture rich trees act like barrels of water. As an added benefit, the leaves of deciduous trees don't build up as fuel over the decades so there is no justification for fuel reduction burns.

From: Deciduous trees can provide crucial bushfire protection in rural Australia

Fire Safe in Califonia

Theoretically, such barriers could be extended to make non-flammable green belts around towns to serve a protective purpose. In Portugal, oak and chestnut forests are being proposed as fire resistant barriers to protect villages from eucalypts fuelled bushfires. (4) The Mediterranean Cypress is currently being planted in Spain and Italy to achieve the same purpose. Experiments in a lab showed it can take as much as seven times as long for a Mediterranean cypress to ignite as it would take another tree. (5)

Cypress
Only 1.27 percent of the cypress burnt when a fire swept through an experimental plot in Spain in 2012

The main opposition to implementing the same plans in Australia would be the patriots who have the allegiance to the natives that blinds them to the threat. The government planting non-natives even for beauty is something that inflammes some activists. In the words of former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope:

"There's a strong ideological debate to be had about this. I was always, whenever I raised these questions in government … [asking] why can't we have some more exotics, but of course it was always as though I was suggesting something completely outrageous."(6)

Stanhope's government did in fact manage to get some fire protection for the national capital via exotics after a bushfire started in a national park and swept towards Canberra via a pine plantation corridor in 2003. Four lives and 500 homes were lost when the pine plantation showered a suburb with embers. It could have been much worse as the fire was heading for a eucalypt covered mountain in the centre of the centre. Had it reached the mountain, the entire city would have been showered with embers. Since the majority of the city was full of gum trees, the whole city could have ignited. (It was only a 12th hour wind change that prevented the mountain going up in blames.)

Bushfireprone areas canberra
Canberra; the bush capital. Purple marks bushfire prone areas. From http://app.actmapi.act.gov.au/actmapi/index.html?viewer=bushfire

Stanhope was determined that a fire hazard would never again be in that corridor. His solution was an arboretum. Fire resistant plants were positioned around the periphery to act as a barrier to fire ever using the same corridor to hit the city. Tourism gave the plan an economic benefit and perhaps persuaded some of the patriots to accept something other than a gum tree being planted in the city. Officially, the arboretum is not a firebreak of lush plants but unofficially it was conceived for that purpose. In that regard, it could one day be defined as the first attempt by an Australian government to protect a urban centre using trees much like individual property owners use them to protect their houses.

Conceived after the 2003 firestorm, fire prevention has been considered in the design of the National Arboretum. When grown, many of its trees will act as a fire retardent green belt barrier between eucalypt forests in the city and eucalypt national parks in the sourrounding ranges.

Non-eucalypt species Australia

Native timbers Australia (not eucalypt)

Although they are small in number, a few non-eucalypt species have managed to hold on as eucalypts have used fire to dominate the ecosystem. In Tasmania, deciduous beech, huon pine and pencil pine have managed to hold on in cooler and alpine areas that get burnt less frequently. On the mainland, bunya pine, antarctic beech, sand pine cypruss and wollemi pine have been found in isolated pockets.

 All up and down Australia’s east coast are national parks. Such is the eucalypt's propensity to create monocultures, most of the national parks are composed of eucalypt trees with little else. There are relatively few plant eating mammals in the national parks as these prefer land with grass that isn't poisoned by the eucalypts' toxins. Aside from the rare koala, almost nothing eats a eucalypt. The designation of eucalypt forests as national parks symbolically communicates that they are in need of protection; however, eucalypts are nature’s great survivors and are in no need of protection. For that reason, the national parks might be better off being called national fire hazards.

In 2019, lightening strikes in the eucalypt forests started a series of bushfires in the national parks that burnt more than 5,900,000 hectares of land, destroyed over 2,500 buildings and killed at least 18 people. Statistically, eucalypts had once more proven they were the most dangerous species in Australia, killing more people than sharks, crocodiles, spiders and snakes combined. Rather than needing protection from people, people needed protection from the eucalypts.

 

 

 

Low flammability plants that would be helpful around a house in a bushfire.

Cypress chestnut
Cork
Origins: South West Europe/ North West Africa
Notes: A cork planation survived Canberra's 2003 firestorm as a pine plantion next to it went up in flames
Mediterranean Cypress
Origins: Mediterranean
Notes: Only 1.27 percent of the cypress burnt when a fire swept through an experimental plot in Spain in 2012

Horse chestnut
Origins: Southern Europe
Notes

 

atemisia
Hebe
hydrangea
Artemisia
Common names: wormwood, angel hair,
Origins: Asia

Hebe speciosa
Common name: veronica
Origins: New Zealand

Hydrangea macrophyll
Origins: Japan
Camellia
Spider Flower
Frangipani

Camellia
Origins: South east Asia

Hymenocallis littoralis
Spider flower
Origins: South America

Hymenosporum flavum
Frangipani
Origins: North Australia

Lavender
Diplarrena moraea
(White Iris)
Origins: Australia
Lavendula angustifolia
English Lavender
Origins: Mediterranean 
Pomaderris apetala
New Zealand Hazel / dogwood
Origins: Southern Australia / New Zealand
Fruits
fruits plums, cherries, peaches,
 nectarines, apricots, and almonds.

Origins: Eurasia
Acacia caerulescens (low flammability. Dead material should be removed. Will burn when dry)
Limstone blue wattle
Origins: Southern Australia
Salix babylonica
Weeping Willow
Origins: China
     
     

1)Taming the Fire https://www.abc.net.au/science/future/ep1/trans1.htm

2)Joan Webster (9th Jauary 2013) The burning issue: native gardens a killer on our doorstep Date: January 19 2013 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-burning-issue-native-gardens-a-killer-on-our-doorstep-20130118-2cyxh.html

3)RMIT ABC Fact Check 20 Dec 2019 “Are hazard reduction burns effective in managing bushfires? The answer is complicated”  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-20/hazard-reduction-burns-bushfires/11817336

4) Oliver Munnion 20th September 2017 “Portugal’s perfect fire-storm: Industrial tree plantations and climate change” The Ecologist https://theecologist.org/2017/sep/20/portugals-perfect-fire-storm-industrial-tree-plantations-and-climate-change

5) Sarah Kaplan September 3, 2015 
“How a devastating forest fire revealed a tree as close to fireproof as a tree can get” Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/03/how-a-devastating-forest-fire-revealed-a-tree-as-close-to-fireproof-as-a-tree-can-get/

6)Sally Pryor, (January 26 2013) A Majestic Folly Soars Canberra Times  http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/a-majestic-folly-soars-20130125-2dcn8.html#ixzz2JJjvxNpA

) Lallanilla, Marc (October 21, 2013) Australia's Wildfires: Are Eucalyptus Trees to Blame?   In Live Science https://www.livescience.com/40583-australia-wildfires-eucalyptus-trees-bushfires.html

 

Invasive ferals

Carp

Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

Rabbits
A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Bushfire
Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

 

 

       

Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012