A burning question

By Donna Marie

WHILE Western Australian state governments have committed funds and other resources to prescribed burning, it’s questionable that the practice is producing the outcomes that society hoped for. Prescribed burning ideals have become broadly accepted – certainly within the emergency response community – as a means of increasing the safety of people and property from bushfire. However, many wonder if it really does reduce the hazard risk. While politicians have to deal with the “he said, she said” of Parliament and scrutinise the spending of public funds, others in the community have initiated some very different conversations about prescribed burning.

A cool and slow Djeran (wetter end of autumn) burn is ideal, according to Wadandi Pibulmun man, Zac Webb. In his keynote address to two back-to-back full houses at the Denmark Festival of Voice, Zac described fingers of fire spreading through the leaf litter and lower storey, without getting into the canopy. Spring is the season of abundance in Southwest forests – young are born and the bush larder is full. In a spring burn animals have limited opportunity to escape with their young, and those that survive are likely to go hungry and become easy prey in the charred landscapes.

New findings

Research into the long-term response of vegetation and fuel loads in similar forests on the east coast has been carried out by Phillip Zystra from the University of Wollongong. His findings reveal that prescribed burning regimes similar to ours in the west maintain peak flammability conditions, with a perpetual thick understorey. Recent studies are providing evidence of what is really going on in our southwest forests. Mr Zystra’s methods comprehensively measure fuel loads through the vertical layers of forest, instead of more simplistic models that limit measurement to fuel load material on or near the forest floor. He shows that unburned forest is likely to provide a less flammable, more accessible and more visually appealing setting.

This and other evidence is moving us to rethink burning regimes in the west, for both hazard reduction and ecosystem enhancement. In light of our recent bushfires we all thank local crews and support from DPaW for managing several fires in windy conditions, especially overnight. And that raises the question of whether increasing response capacity may be a better use of public funds, and allowing forests to age into a more natural maturity.

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