Hugh and Nan Nicholson in a fire-stricken area of Terania Creek in November. (Photo by Terri Nicholson)
The extent and ferociousness of recent bushfires in Australia has been devastating. It’s taken lives, destroyed homes and decimated our wildlife and forests. My story about Terania Creek in NSW recently appeared in The Age and looks at how the ‘new normal’ in global warming bushfire seasons may threaten rainforest and wet forests in Victoria.
By Peter Barrett
More than 45 years ago, Nan and Hugh Nicholson left Melbourne to go bush. Mindful of bushfires, they set out for somewhere wet. It led them to Terania Creek, a pocket of cheap farmland not far from the hippy epicentre of Australia, Nimbin, in NSW’s lush north-east. The couple bought 100 hectares of land for $20,000. “We wanted to live a simplified lifestyle, and that worked,” says Nan. “Except that we soon found out that the rainforest nearby was to be logged. We weren’t expecting that.”
On August 16, 1979, despite more than four years of writing letters to politicians, the bulldozer and two forestry trucks arrived to begin work. But Terania Creek had been changing demographically, and the loggers found themselves greeted by 200 singing, guitar-playing protesters. Nan and Hugh’s one-room cabin became campaign headquarters, 120 police were sent in and 17 people were arrested. Suddenly, Terania Creek was national news.
The month-long dispute eventually swung the way of the greenies and, in 1982, the Wran state government protected 120,000 hectares. Australia’s first environmental blockade became a template for campaigns to follow, including the Franklin River in Tasmania and Victoria’s East Gippsland native forests.
But last November, Nan and Hugh watched as Terania Creek burned. Lack of rain, extremely dry conditions and climate change had conspired to make the usually wet and lush understorey vulnerable. Despite the local community’s best efforts, flames “trickled through” the dry leaf litter until they got into the big trees and ignited the canopy.
Nan estimates about half of the forest has been burnt. “I still haven’t come to terms with the grief, I’m putting it off,” she says. “This forest is so beloved, not just by Hugh and I, because we’ve been working on rainforests our whole lives, but the whole community utterly loves the surrounding forests and has worked so hard to protect them.”
“When I first started firefighting [the season extended from] December to the end of February, mid-March,” says Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) chief Chris Hardman, who has been fighting fires for more than 30 years. “Anecdotally, now it’s first of November through to April 30.”
The lesser-known cousin of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), Hardman’s team is responsible for fighting fires in state forests, national parks and other conservation areas that span a third of the state – that’s all public land and nearly 8 million hectares of forest. To do that it relies on 2800 personnel and a fleet of 50 aircraft (with another 100 on call). It also boasts Australia’s only rappelling firefighters, trained to drop into remote forested areas down ropes from helicopters.
Could Victoria’s rainforests suffer the same fate as those in NSW? Hardman says the short answer is yes: “Where you get long-term drought or lack of rainfall and the soils are dry, which means the fuels are dry, we will see our wet forests burn more readily.”
Last year, Victoria weathered just over 2000 bushfires, with 95 per cent of those kept to under five hectares, according to FFMV figures. Hardman says firefighters can no longer rely on patches of rain forest and wet gullies to form natural breaks.
The Victorian National Parks Association’s Phil Ingamells is concerned that fire has moved through the high-altitude temperate rainforests of the Errinundra Plateau in East Gippsland: “Some ecosystems are very resilient to repeated fire, like grasslands, but others really cannot handle frequent fire.”
Although wetter forests, such as those in West Gippsland, would be unlikely to ignite at this time of year, come March or April it’s a different story.
“If you get four or five days of 40 degrees and you get those big, windy blow-up days, then fire will move through the landscape and it’s beyond human capacity to do anything about that, no matter what,” Hardman says.
In September, researchers from the CFA and the Bureau of Meteorology published a paper with the catchy title Understanding the variability of Australian fire weather between 1973 and 2017. After examining 44 years of seasonal fire weather history from 39 weather stations across the country, Sarah Harris and Chris Lucas concluded that “human-induced climate change is the most likely driver behind Australia’s earlier and longer fire seasons”.
Although we should still expect variability from one season to the next due to changes in climatic conditions (El Nino, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode), Victorians may have special cause for concern. “There is also a long-term upward trend in fire weather, with the strongest trend found in southern Australia, in spring,” they wrote.
The pattern of longer fire seasons and more frequent fires has others worried, too. The Australian National University’s Professor David Lindenmayer is a forest ecologist interested in biodiversity. “Many species of plants and animals are able to deal with a single major fire event in terms of their populations recovering. But once you start to have many events in rapid succession, then you really have a problem.”
Lindenmayer is particularly concerned about the wet mountain ash forests to the north-east of Melbourne. Here, he says, the “fire return interval” (the time elapsed between major fires) should be about 100 years, which allows the ecosystem time to regenerate. “But that’s changing in Victoria quite dramatically,” he says. “In the Central Highlands region, which is so important for supplying almost all the water for the city, we’ve had fires in 1926, 1932, massive fires in 1939, 1983 and the catastrophic 2009 fires. The sheer number of fires and how quickly they’re returning to the system tells us that the fire regime is changing.”
Lindenmayer applauds the Andrews government for recently announcing the phase-out of native forest logging by 2030, although he wants it to happen even sooner.
“When you cut all the trees down and then you regrow the forest, that regrown forest becomes much more prone to high severity fire,” he says, adding that this is due to extra fuel from timber debris and the action of new, thirsty saplings drying out the forest floor.
“The other thing that happens when you log a forest is that you remove almost all of the tree ferns. That further dries out the forest floor.”
But when native forest logging finally does end, Lindenmayer doesn’t want to see the community lose important firefighting skills brought by contractors, who routinely use their bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear dangerous trees and build fire breaks. He hopes they one day will become part of an elite firefighting force.
Powelltown logging contractor Peter McConachy is sceptical. “Fires in Victoria are only around, say, two to three months. Is [Daniel Andrews] going to pay us for our machinery … for 12 months’ work? Because we have dozers, we have excavators – they all have monthly payments on them.”
McConachy, 63, is part of a sawmilling family that spans five generations and has been employed by the Department of Land, Water and Planning (DLWP) to fight every fire since Ash Wednesday in 1983. He questions Lindenmayer’s claim that logging makes them any more fire-prone, pointing to state-owned harvester VicForests figures showing that of 450,000 hectares available in Victoria, only 3000 hectares, or 0.04 per cent, is taken each year. “Locking up forests and stopping the loggers is not going to stop a bushfire. It’s not the answer.”
Back in Melbourne, Hardman is less interested in whether a forest is disturbed by man (logging) or nature (bushfires). “Every forest, either through man-made disturbances or natural disturbances, will have a range of age classes. And at different age classes, different forests offer different levels of flammability.”
Hardman says FFMV will adapt to the changing risks and threats by taking lessons from fires in Victoria and other parts of Australia. Sections of forest that pose a particular fuel risk to communities will continue to be purposefully burnt and, in the future, the more flammable parts of forests, such as the ridgetops, western and northern slopes, may be the subject of “large-scale broad fuel treatments”, creating a “mosaic pattern” with the aim of suppressing fires caused by lightning strikes.
Though we may do our best to manage their intensity and impact, bushfires are part of the landscape. “On a Black Saturday-type day we would be doing aggressive first attacks; we’d be attacking every single fire in the bush as hard and as fast as we can,” says Hardman.
“But if some of those fires get away then we’ll just be trying to get people out the way as fast as we can.”