A strange weather phenomenon over central Australia in January and February influenced SE Australia’s hot dry season. This, coupled with the January lightning storms across Victoria created another serious fire season this summer. The mid January storms saw 770 lightning strikes, slightly up on the 30 year average of around 600. Many of these self-extinguished or only burnt very small areas, others were rounded up and put out and in East Gippsland 10 became problems fires.
The fire’s vital stats
Statewide, 413,000 ha were burnt.
This included the Mallee/Wyperfeld NP, the Grampains, Kilmore/Midlands fires, Mt Ray/Glenaladale Hearnes Oak/Hazelwood and in East Gippsland the largest being the Deddick/Goongerah fires.
These 166,000ha burnt for 53 days until declared ‘contained’ on March 10th, leaving a seriously devastated landscape with an 850km boundary.
Although there were around 800 or so fire fighting personnel, DEPI, Parks and CFA volunteers, it was inadequate for the task. Air strike capacity was also very limited due to the numerous fires.
On the ground observations - destruction over destruction
Goongerah has its own CFA brigade and tanker so we were able to observe and be part of fire fighting efforts on the ground. While the work of some govt personnel was quite amazing and appreciated, there was much that wasn’t.
Many people were astounded at the way all green forest that had survived the main bushfire and were essential refuge areas for wildlife, were endlessly burnt by DEPI in the hottest driest conditions. As they don’t keep records of what areas these back-burns or black-outs devoured and what the real bushfire burnt, no one can ever determine accurately which was which.
New fire control methods – bushfires by design.
The new super-cautious policy seems to ensure that fire fighters these days rarely go near flames or use much water to put them out, but do a lot of patrolling tracks from 9-5pm. CFA volunteers are often left to do the night patrols. The new arrangement uses bulldozers galore to punch tracks through the forest, light fires along them and try to coral the bushfire with more fires, adding to the burning edge every day. These regularly escaped. So more bulldozer tracks were put in further out, and more fire lit to burn back in. This might be appropriate for a large bushfire, but after the threat passed, it continued for weeks.
At best maybe a third to a half of the total burnt area was deliberately lit and at worst possibly three quarters of these destroyed forests were ‘bushfires by design’.
We can accept that immediately adjoining private land, putting fire around the edges to burn out at a cooler time of day could be useful. But to keep these fires going along every unburnt track, gully, hillside and road miles from anywhere seems like unnecessary destruction. The valuable pockets of green that didn’t burn were wildlife refuges and actually dampened the fires run, yet were deliberately and systematically burnt as well.
Some of us are now doing regular food drops out around burnt and semi burnt areas (near water) for the surviving wildlife (thanks to our donors who helped us buy the feed). In the high fire severity areas there was no uptake. This was extremely bad news for all life. There are no signs of gliders, possums, wallabies, wombats, potoroos or bandicoots. There are no tracks, no poo and no food uptake. That also means, birds would have perished, and a total wipe out of forest frogs, lizards, snakes, goannas. This type of burn severity goes for mile after mile after mile. It’s hard to imagine how these ecosystems will recover in anything less than 100 years. Leaves and bushes might grow back, but the entire finely-tuned ecosystem that operates unseen will take much longer. However the semi burnt areas closer in to the valley acted as a refuge and there are quite a few signs of survivors and they are taking the food drops regularly.
Hollow tree loss
As well as the immediate loss of wildlife, there was a considerable loss of large hollow tree habitat. This net loss of trees between 100-600 years old will have a further serious impact on the East Gippsland
population of rare hollow dependent fauna.
The thunderous sound of trees crashing down in the surrounding hills was constant all day and night for weeks. Whether DEPI burns or the bushfire, the hollowed base of these essential trees appeared to be burning out at the same rate. These are crucial for gliders, forest owls, the black cockatoos and so on.
What the bushfire and DEPI burns didn’t take the bulldozers pushed over. Then whatever sturdy trees still survived all this and grew along the roads, the government’s new ‘dangerous trees’ policy saw chainsaws take them out – sturdy or not, leaning or straight. The Bonang Road is like a four-lane freeway in places. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to this.
A new regional economy?
However the fires did employ a lot of logging industry operators for many weeks. Even now operators are out there on rehabilitation work, pushing up trees, breach and barring tracks and repairing some of the damage as best as possible.
When a fire is declared out of control and dangerous, it is taken over by the state control centre and money flows freely. These fires have so far cost between $60-70 million. They are quite a regional industry all on their own and welcomed by many businesses and locals.
Autumn planned burns
Many are rightly asking how this almost 200,000 ha of forest fires fits in with DEPI plans to do their controversial 5% targeted burns. We were told that the DEPI still plans to burn another 33,000 ha of forest and coastal areas up. Only 8,000 ha that were already on their plans and were burnt during the fires (by DEPI or the lightning strikes) will be taken off and the other 25,000 ha of planned burns will go ahead. There are also around 40 clearfelled forest areas to be burnt in the usual intensely hot post logging ‘management’ fires.
And all THAT is a whole ‘nother major issue! DEPI has huge areas to be torched without having done any sort of surveys to see what would be killed off, nationally threatened or not. Their justification is that they declare some forests require burning due to this thing called ‘Tolerable Fire Intervals’, meaning that they are due for a burn for their own good. No other ecological criteria matters.
But apart from seeing the bushfires take out some seriously beautiful areas and then more seemingly pointless destruction perpetrated by the fire fighting agency, the local communities of Goongerah, Bonang and Tubbut at times had frustration levels reaching catastrophic. The fires were easy to deal with next to the fire bureaucracy. The genuine assistance, good work and info sharing was at times contrasted by the very same criticisms that we have heard from every other fire affected community since 2003; bad communication skills, conflicting information, road closures and refusal to let people in or out despite DEPI coming and going freely, promises of help and then when needed most tankers and crews pulled out. Whether people were brown rice or beef eaters, the experiences were much the same.
Maybe this will never change. The reality is that there is a lack of resources (remember when Baillieu sacked 500 DEPI staff on taking government?), ever changing personnel, confusion dressed up as ‘control’ and a number of cowboy operators and controllers that can make the fires themselves seem like a friendly visitor.
The real victims
But all this pales into pettiness when compared to the real victims. The most tragic losses, the most unbearable suffering that was rarely mentioned, were endured by the wildlife. There were no radio alerts, no fire bunkers, food parcels or medical aid for them. If they weren’t killed outright, thousands of others would have suffered horrific burns to their feet, tail and lungs, exposure, hunger, infection and a slow death - or maybe a slow recovery.
Much of our surrounding forests have been taken by the flames of one sort or another. But some parts were less severely burnt and the healthy ecosystems will come back in time – albeit a very long time. East Gippsland has been the last stronghold for so many of the forest dependent wildlife that has now become rarer since the 3.5 million ha of fires over the past 11 years. Gliders and owls in particular would have to be in major decline, but no one is researching these impacts, certainly not the government!
While communities are now offered counselling and ‘pamper days’, and while they rebuild fences and deal with insurance companies, the wildlife and forests of Eastern Victoria that have coped with lightning strikes and fires for thousands of years, are at a critical crossroad.