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Thoughts on a burning issue

By February 16, 20091

At this time, I guess all Australian people are reflecting on the tragic events that unfolded in the state of Victoria the past few weeks.

The devastating bush fires that scorched their way through towns and communities, razing many of them to the ground. 189 dead and rising, approx. 1800 houses destroyed, the devastation must be surreal and unbelievable to those affected. Only someone who has experienced such a traumatic event can truly appreciate what those people went through.

Which brings me to that burning issue.  To burn or not to burn?

When the earliest explorers arrived in Australia, they remarked that the country was a land of burning.   Abel Tasman, Leichart and Gilbert all commented on the burning practices of the Aboriginal people. Joesph banks was quoted in 1770 ” ..fires which we saw so frequently as we passed along the shore extending over a large tract of country and by which we could constantly trace the passage of the Aborigines…”

Professor Tim Flannery offers his account and personal theories of Terra Australis, pre white settlement, in his book  ‘The future eaters’

Here Flannery espouses his theory on the 40,000 years of Aboriginal settlement. How the first people arrived to Australia from the northern Islands, Indonesia, PNG and so on. They bought their agriculture and domestic livestock with them, but those practices soon failed with the poor soil, the arid dry deserts and the humid wet tropics.

Now at this time, Australia was populated by the megafauna. Giant marsupials and huge monitor lizards roamed the lands. Animals like the Diprotodon, a 2 ton giant the size of a Rhino, but more like a wombat in physiology and nature. These beast would have been sitting ducks for the Aboriginal people. Veritable feasts on 4 legs and with no hard wired natural fear of humans (Australia had no large predators other than the giant Varanids (Goannas) the hunters could literally walk up to them and poke them in the eye!

Now where am I going with this?  Well see, the megafauna were the equivalent of Africa’s large savannah grazers. Giant lawn mowers that kept the country devoid of thick vegetation and undergrowth.  After a few hundred years, the Aboriginal folk may have punched a large hole in the megafauna population and eventually driven them to extinction. Gradually the larger animals were hunted out, down to the smaller harder to catch game, wallabies, wombats and the like.

Of course you know what happens when your trusty Victa mower breaks down? The grass goes ballistic!  There would have been a huge rapid  change in the amount of vegetation regrowth thus an exponential increase in the fuel load come the dry season. Bush fires of an unseen scale would have raged across  the land.  The indigenous people would have quickly learnt that this had to be controlled. Not only from a point of self preservation, but also to make it easier to hunt the smaller more agile game.

See there are two types of burn, a ‘cool burn and a ‘hot’ burn. A cool burn is where the fire is effected in a cooler weather period or perhaps when there is not much fuel load around. A ‘hot’ burn is when fire rages in elevated climatic temperatures with a high fuel load, burning with such intensity that all but the hardiest of vegetation is destroyed.

The Indiginous Australian’s became masters of the controlled burn and over time, the vegetation would have adapted to the point that only fire resistant species flourished. Thus I come back to my point.When the first explorers cast their eyes across our wide brown land, it was covered in a haze of smoke.  And the arrival of the first fleet, heralded the beginning of the end of the fire stick custodians of Terra Australis.

Since that time, our ever dwindling patches of uncleared bushland and national parks, have gone from sparsely treed grassy savannah land, to thick scrub laden bushland with an enormous fuel load build up.

This is Flannery’s theory, one that I much agree with and have some relatively small experience ourselves.  On our Small patch of acreage bushland, we have many tall euclaypts, bloodwoods, ash, tallowoods and so on. These are surrounded by masses of understory regrowth in the undisturbed areas and masses of Lantana (don;t get me started on Lantana!) and other noxious weeds in the disturbed areas. We try our best to preserve and regenerate the bushland and it’s vast myriad of critters that live there.  But there is always that concern of fire. Thus this burning issue!

As more and more  people make a ‘tree change’ this problem is exacerbated. How to do controlled burns with residential property build up?  This is a dilemma that must be addressed to help prevent another repeat of the tragic fires that recently affected southern Victoria occurring there or in other parts of the country.

What’s been you experience or do you have a different point of view?