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Frequently Asked Questions

Click on each of the questions below to view the answers
  1. What started the 2003 alpine wildfires and how much forest did they affect?
    The recent Victorian Alpine fires started on January 7/8th 2003 when lightning started about 80 fires in national parks and state forests during the passage of a storm front. During the next 59 days the fires coalesced and burnt approx. 1 million hectares of forested public land and 90,000 hectares of private land in Victoria before spreading into NSW where they coalesced with fires that started during the same storm front.
  2. Is this type of fire event unique?
    It is not unusual for lightning to start so many forest fires during the passage of a storm front. On January 14/15th 1985, lightning started 111 forest fires that burnt 150,000 ha, including 50,000 ha in the Alpine area. In February 1965, lightning from one storm started about 90 forest fires that, together with another fire that started in grassland from another cause about a week later, burnt 300,000 ha of forest and 6,000 ha of grassland in north and east Gippsland.

    Evidence from Euc.regnans forests where stands of trees more than 300 years old exist, shows that very intense fires occurred prior to European settlement. It is likely that some of these fires were also large: however it is also likely that they burned with a range of intensities as they spread across the landscape. And they would have burnt places where previous fires started by lightning and Aboriginal burning had produced a mosaic of post-fire fuels. That mosaic would also contribute to variations in the intensity of subsequent fires.

  3. So why did the 2003 alpine fires cause so much forest and environmental damage?
    The Alpine fires in 2003 were different to any previous lightning caused fire event in that 527100 ha or 53% of the "treed" forest affected by the fires was burnt by fire intense enough to severely scorch or burn tree crowns right off. Not since European settlement started, had such a large area of alpine forest been burnt so severely. Nature caused the fires, but the level of damage caused was not natural. Little or nothing had been done for decades to reduce fuels by planned burning, or any other means. This caused unnaturally elevated fire intensities over large areas; fires behaved in ways alien to the natural processes that forests require for their health, diversity and sustainability. And along the way the fires impacted on private property with distressing effects.
  4. What are the main effects of these high fire intensities?

    Fifteen months after the fire, thick barked eucalypts are shooting along trunks and branches, and thin barked species, with basal coppice. Recovery of the understorey is sparse. Sheet erosion is still occurring. Deposits of sand and gravel fill table drains and gullies. An experienced bird observer/ photographer recorded fire effects at one site from 3 pm until after dark on 19 May last, a fine and calm day, and heard one currawong call. He neither heard nor saw any other bird or mammal in that period.

    In the Black Cypress and White Box/ Black Cypress forests between Suggan Buggan and Willis, tree crowns were severely and uniformly scorched over large areas on slopes in the Snowy River valley. Fifteen months after the fire, White Box is recovering with basal coppice. The Black Cypress trees are dead; there is no regeneration by seed and it is unlikely that any will occur. The soil is 75% exposed, gullies are filled with sand and silt and sheet erosion is occurring.

    Dr DH Ashton, an eminent forest botanist with intimate knowledge of the area over some 50 years, saw the effect of the fire recently and wrote: "there has been a major ecological consequence of the fires in this area. A short forest dominated by Cypress pine will be replaced by an open woodland of multi-stemmed White Box until such time as dispersal from unburnt Callitris succeeds in re-establishing the original stand. Given the severity of the site conditions this may take a very long time to achieve (if ever)".

  5. Why did the same damage not take place after the 1985 fires?

    In 1985 lightning started 111 fires in a pattern similar to the fire event in 2003. The 1985 campaign lasted 14 days and confined the Alpine fires to 50,000 ha without the help of rain. It involved 2,000 Departmental, 500 CFA, 449 Armed Services, 120 timber industry and 50 SEC personnel; 75 bulldozers, 400 fire tankers and 36 aircraft. In the aftermath, debriefs were held without rancor or political interference and there was no call for an Inquiry into the event.
  6. What factors account for the difference outcome in 1985?

    In 1985 there was a large work force of experienced firefighters in the forests. It included people working on hydro-electricity projects; tree fellers, sniggers and log carters employed by the timber industry; graziers; forest workers building fire access tracks, maintaining roads and tracks, and picking seed for forest regeneration and forest officers supervising forest licensees, forest works and planning autumn prescribed burning for forest regeneration and fuel reduction. That work force and the vehicles and equipment it used daily in the forests was immediately available on 14 January 1985. This work force was not available for fire fighting in January 2003.
  7. So what is needed to prevent this type of fire happening in future?
    A top priority for Government is to put a bigger and permanent workforce into the parks and State forests, and set up programs to sustain healthy and diverse forest ecosystems. That workforce must have skills, transport, tools and machinery capable of managing multiple ignitions from lightning as was done in 1985. It is not necessary to reverse land use decisions to do this; but it is necessary to change some current land management practices.

    The workforce must have a mission appropriate for the approved land use. In parks, the mission must include controlling feral animals, weeds, erosion, keeping access tracks in a condition where they are easily maintained, collecting seed and revegetating damaged sites, planning and conducting prescribed burns and controlling unplanned fires. In State forests where commercial use of vegetation is permitted the mission must include all the above and additional tasks appropriate to the commercial operation.

  8. How can we prevent fuel accumulation from reaching such high levels in future?
    Another top priority is to restore prescribed burning programs in forests. Immediately after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 the Government injected $1 million extra into the programs effectively doubling the money available for field staff to do the work. Yet the programs crashed. In 1992 the Auditor General found that the Department of Conservation and Environment had failed to achieve its planned fuel-reduction targets in three consecutive seasons and that those areas the Department identified as warranting the highest level of protection to human life, property and public assets received the lowest level of protection. And in 2003 the Auditor General found that since 1994, fuel reduction burning has never met the Department's planning and operational fuel-reduction targets. Prescribed burning has been done successfully in the past on broad areas to create forest diversity and reduce the damaging effects of wildfires. The practice had little community and no political support from the mid-1980's until 2003. This support must be won and prescribed burning reinstated in our forests in a safe and effective way.
  9. I have heard that this type of burning is simply a tool for protecting and regenerating production forests.
    This view is out of step with current thinking of mainstream ecologists and environmentalists. They know that fire is necessary for the health and biodiversity of most forest ecosystems and prescribed burning is an ecologically- conscious tool to achieve that objective, and to mitigate the damaging effects of large intense wildfires. Even the Wilderness Society of USA, a long time opponent of any sort of manipulation of natural events, now endorses the mainstream thinking. Its spokesman said of recent fires in California, "it's critically important we prioritize protecting homes and communities, but at the same time we need to restore fire to wild lands in a safe way through prescribed burns."
  10. How would employment and prescribed burning programs be funded?
    These two programs will be costly. Contributions to forest fire management from forest industries by way of royalties will not be as great as in the mid-1980's. And visitor fees and similar charges are 'petty cash' compared to the many millions of dollars needed to sustain local and largely permanent workforces in rural communities close to where they are needed most. But Victoria's forests are an asset that requires to be valued by the community in the same way that any other asset is provided with a value that guides its management and protection. The intrinsic values of wilderness, water catchments, biodiversity, cultural sites and the like are valued by the community as much, and often more, as are tangibles like sawlogs and gravel.
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Last Modified:  Thursday 04 November 2004