Image for Flood, fire, mega weather events, climate change and risk…???

The Queensland floods have been shocking.  Utterly devastating.  No one can look at the images, hear the videos, see the graphics and not be moved. 

It seems to get worse as the cleanup takes place and we see the monumental devastation. And there has been the follow on with disaster floods across Victoria, New South Wales and northern Tasmania.  Still continuing.  Some towns like Condamine in Queensland are having their second flood in a few weeks. We are in a La Niña pattern we’re told.  During years of drought even in Tasmania, it was El Niño, the giant system that causes the droughts, high winds and bushfires.  It seems now we have to lurch between one or the other;  and that the daily weather has lost its stasis. 

Lines from Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem spring sharply to mind… “I love a sunburnt country…. of droughts and flooding rains…”

Daily weather patterns can deliver anything as possibly they always have, but it seems these come now with greater ferocity, greater intensity and greater scale of effect; they occur across hundreds of square kilometres.

There might seem to be little connection between the disastrous floods and mega fires.  That what has happened in Queensland might potentially happen in Tasmania, given our unstable weather, its intensity of presentation, and changing climate.  But a recent comment has made this connection. The No. 47 comment by Maaate can be found on Rob Blakers’ post [ This arrogant selfish game of Russian roulette: Mole Creek landslip 14 January: HERE ].

#47. 3 to 4 hundred years of “biomass accumulation”?

Try 4 billion years of undisturbed evolution!

In the early 90’s in Vic we had a symposium on the “definition of rainforest” because the butchers had declared that “rainforest”, by definition, did not include “emergent eucalypts”. i.e. the eucs that emerge above rainforest in the ecotone (ecotone being the intermingling and fluctuating overlap between communities of euc and rainforest species). Rainforest is dynamic and expands and contracts according to prevailing climate and extreme climatic events such as fire and drought.

Even though the symposium was attended by luminaries such as Len Webb (Australia’s pre-eminent rainforest botanist) and virtually every other respected local scientist qualified in the field, the botanical and scientific definition of rainforest that was developed and endorsed at the symposium has been categorically and systematically ignored by DSE which is charged with management of Victoria’s rainforest.

To this day, Victoria still uses a definition of rainforest that was modified from its original scientific definition by a bureaucrat. We have 15,000 Ha of “protected, pure” RF with a further 25,000 Ha that have emergent eucs and could be considered as RF in flux. These disputed areas are still being logged. Over 7.7 million hectares of forest and they can’t keep their greedy hands off a lousy 25,000 Ha that has huge scientific and practical value!

Aside from the scientific value of rainforests as diminutive and diminishing relics of Gondwanic communities, rainforests also have a important role in bushfire mitigation. Their fire resistant nature has helped to ‘compartmentalise’ bushfires. They provide a natural barrier to catastrophic fire.

If you fail to protect riparian communities, rainforests and elevated wet forests, as Victoria has done, you remove all natural measures that mitigate fire.

The flip side of riparian and rainforest (also wet and elevated forests) is their capacity to mitigate catastrophic floods.

You may have noticed that the drainage lines from the Great Divide plateau at Toowoomba down to the Lockyer Valley lacked significant riparian vegetation. The rainforests and riparian communities that grow around gullies, streams, creeks and rivers capture the flotsam and jetsam that get caught in deluges. Vegetation catches the detritus and sequentially dams and slows floodwaters. The “inland tsunami” could not have happened if riparian communities were intact.

PS, On wet elevated forest in Victoria, I’ve just spent more time this summer exploring East Gippsland. I was struck by how much of our forest in elevated areas (400-600+ meters ASL) is being targeted by the woodchippers.

Once you get past the “landscape values” veneer, our high country public forests are being gutted. You get coupe after coupe of matchstick regrowth forest concentrated in elevated areas.

Occasionally you see a little bit of ‘what was’. I.E. huge old growth forest that is biodiverse and fire resistant by nature of its structure and hydrology.

We’re sitting at the wrong end of the continental fire flume down here. Take away our riparian strips, rainforests and wet elevated old growth and we’re well on our way to a 4 meter high Mediterranean type landscape. We had a taste of our future on Black Saturday and the solution so far (more indiscriminate fuel reduction burns) is only going to accelerate the process of conversion to a more fire prone landscape.

The continuation of 4 billion years of evolution is relying on the mental and emotional capacities of imbeciles and half wits (greed &/or stupidity in any configuration). Mass extinction is looking like a safe bet.
Posted by maaate on 14/01/11 at 10:20 PM


Mackellar didn’t mention mega fires.  There were no monocultural eucalypt plantations in Mackellar’s day, no 2020 Vision for the market place, no Regional Forest Agreements, no Managed Investment Schemes for investors to minimise their tax through trees.

The writer of No. 47 thought that the old forests were ancient.  If the scientists and explorers that first encountered them in Tasmania were any guide, they were.  Described as ‘as old as the world,’ ‘the ancient offspring of time and nature,’ ‘a primeval forest locked away from man’s tread,’ and so on, yes, perceived then as very ancient.  The writer of No. 47 zeroed in on what was happening to the small amount of remaining rainforest in Victoria, noting its wanton destruction.  Rob Blakers also zeroed in on the same issue but No. 47, raised another critical issue for TT readers, one linked to mega climatic events and their ferocity.

No 47 noted that wet forest and rainforest played a significant role in bushfire mitigation.  “They provide a natural barrier to catastrophic fire.”  This No. 47 noted happens by virtue of their structure and hydrology.  Tasmania at one point had much, more of this type of wet and rainforest forest natural ecology, along its river systems and sheltered southern slopes.  The reading of early diaries or accounts of settlers, explorers, or surveyors attests to this fact.  What was here pre white settlement was a very complex system, despite the theories of Aboriginal burning.

We are currently doing our best to remove the rainforest, or wet mixed forest and replace it with eucalypt ‘rich’ forest.  Or even worse, replacing it with private monocultural eucalypt plantations.

The scale of the change from one type of ecology to completely different ones, those more simplistic, and increasingly fire prone, has been extremely rapid, and none the more so, since the signing of Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement in 1997.  Monocultural eucalypt plantations date back to the 1970s.  But not in the size, scale, scope and extent of planting that has occurred since 1997. Plantations stretch in some places continuously across valleys, up and over hills and ridgelines where once complex natural ecosystems existed. 

It is all being regulated satisfactorily we keep being told.

And we are – it appears – promised thousands more hectares of the same, if the or a pulp mill goes ahead and at some point comes to rely on plantation feedstock.

TT readers might be interested, indeed might remember that in November 2005, The Australian Financial Review issued a dire warning on risk from changing weather conditions.1   The paper’s front page dramatically burst forth,  ‘Flash Point:  Business has finally realised that the weather is becoming a major threat to who will make money in the future.’  A three page article was titled:  Future Shock.  Inside it offered a map of Australia with the risks for various states or regional areas.  No. 1 risk for Tasmania was seen as bushfire risk.2  

And so in our wisdom? enlightmentment? or even ‘mental and emotional capacities of imbeciles and half wits’ thinking (No. 47)  we continue to maintain a mantra about more plantations, as being a salve for Tasmania’s forestry woes.

Given Victoria in 2009 and Queensland in 2011, isn’t it time for ALL the players (the community being the chief and principal one) to have a say about the fire risk that is being proliferated across vast parts of Tasmania. 

On ABC. Radio National’s Breakfast, 17th January, what emerged too, is that the connection between the mega fire, or the mega flood is the profound trauma felt, with the end psychological effect, very same….

So a challenge to those who support the present status quo and see nothing amiss.  In respect of,

(a) plantation location
(b) size of plantation coupes
(c) vast contiguous swathes of plantations which stretch across kilometres now a reality in Tasmania,

what is the fire risk, what are the current fire mitigation management practices, what types of fire insurance are out there, and what safeguards do we have? 

In respect of this and as just one example,  think upper Derwent Valley, across the western end of Wellington Park, the Snowy Range, around Ta Ann, across the hillslopes towards Geeveston and beyond into the far southern forests, the ones that the French spoke so eloquently about before Tasmania was even settled.  So what of the imminent danger to small villages like Judbury, like Glen Huon, like Franklin, Geeveston not to mention the entire city of Hobart? 

Isn’t Hobart something of a sitting duck when it comes to mega fire risk and all the monocultural plantations to its west?

For it was a number of fires which coalesced in 1962, and which finally swept across the Mount Wellington Range and swooped down on Hobart.  There were strong winds from the north west.  If the pundits of meteorology check, it’s always been north west and west winds that cause the trouble and have in Tasmania since white settlement began.  And like Victoria, and like Queensland, it’s the small isolated, often remote villages and towns and the people who live in those small isolated valleys that cop the worst.

There are literally hundreds of villages, small towns and isolated settlements in Tasmania up the wrong end of valleys with only one exit.

Tasmanian topography, and Tasmanian past meteorology and well researched historical analysis should have helped govern if, where and how, and how much plantation was ever to be planted in this state.  But it didn’t.  In the mad rush for the MIS, and the 2020 Vision (have the architects of this ever BEEN to Tasmania?)  the PTRs, the trees all went in, willy nilly…. And now it appears it is calmly proposed that there should be more.

It takes just one day,  (or perhaps a few) one set of horrific weather conditions, and one Megafire, (or some that coalesce)  just as in Victoria, to wipe us out.  That is, those of us who have had absolutely no say in the decisions that are being made. 

In 1967 Tasmania lost 1400 homes and 62 lives.  It was carnage.  Talk to some of those who lived through it.  Feel their pain, their trauma, even 44 years later.  That is don’t treat it as mind-head, left-hemisphere-brain analysis, get in touch with your emotions and feelings because, just because…. it might be you in the future ….

It is simply not good enough, for the community to be left to carry much of the potential fire risk, even if investors have made their own arrangements for fire insurance. 

Where is the provision for mandatory wildfire management or policy practices by corporate companies engaged in monocultural plantations?  Where is Gunns for example in all of this?  Where is the fire plan by local governments for their small communities?  Where is the fire management plan by the State government issued to the community so that ordinary people have some idea, any idea,  of how to meet a catastrophe?  And above all, where can the community find “risk management”  mitigation information with plantations factored into mitigation plans?  Are private growers, who might take out their own mandated insurance also required to carry mandated insurance to cover costs if fire spreads from “their” plantation (or wood lot) onto neighbouring non plantation land? 

I have observed for years now, while the plantation issue has been carefully massaged, engineered, manipulated and orchestrated.  Public agencies and others (not to mention bi-partisan governments)  have tiptoed so carefully, ever so carefully around the issues of plantation acreage in Tasmania.  There is plenty of research available to illustrate what plantations do to water quantity change in catchments. There’s more research on the subject of chemical harm.  Ignored is what plantations do to Tasmania’s landscape. Pretty much ignored is the plantation life span which might be a critical factor.  Where for example do we have research from the private forest companies or public agencies on fire behaviour when fire enters plantations, especially monocultural plantations?  So apparently ignored is what part plantations will play in future fire destruction, (even of moderately damaging bushfires), so the public is kept in the dark as to how they are being managed. 

It’s all left to the self regulation of the industry.

Gould et al.3   warned tree plantation growers in as far back as 2002 that particular measures needed to be taken where plantations were concerned.  Several points are especially noted from their paper.

‘Plantations… substantially change the quantity and arrangement of flammable fuels in the landscape, resulting in changed potential fire behaviour from that commonly experienced in agricultural fuels.

Seven to ten years after planting, the fuel load can increase to 8 – 12 tonnes per hectare and may be similar to that in dry eucalypt forest un-burnt for 8 years.’

If a disastrous conflagration is likely to occur once or more per rotation, fire management must determine the level of protection expenditure required to minimize losses under the ‘worst possible’ scenario.  Thus analysis of the cost of fire management must be an integral part of plantation establishment and management with the aim of producing a ‘least-cost-plus-lost outcome for the plantation growers.4

And what about the least-cost-plus lost-outcome for the community?  Doesn’t that count?

TT readers might have followed the Canberra megafires.  In the later inquiry, it was reported that to have any hope of ‘managing’ such a fire, fuel build up would have needed to be as low as 4-5 tonnes per hectare or less.5   This degree of fuel loading is apparently reached in plantations by 3-7 years after planting.6   What are plantation managers doing to keep the fuel loads at these low levels?  Is there any prescribed policy?  What is local government insisting upon in areas under its jurisdiction where there are substantial tree plantations especially those upwind (or even downwind) of settlements? 

CSIRO and the Country Fire Authority research from the area known as the Green Triangle area of Victoria and South Australia indicated that young plantations could still exhibit large fuel loads.  Researchers discovered that beyond seven years the eucalyptus plantation had a continuous litter cover with a fuel load of over eight tonnes per hectare with streamers of bark peeling from the trees; this added to the fuel load.  The research concluded that, 

Extending rotation[s] beyond 10 years on a broad scale could result in an escalating fire hazard across the landscape.  Silvicultural treatments to reduce the hazard level in older plantations need to be examined.7 The authors also suggest that ‘new models that provide fire and plantation managers with a better basis for planning pre-suppression and suppression activities are required,  8

Do we have the new models in Tasmania?

Again the research noted a vital point for large plantation blocks of hundreds of hectares, that it

raises concerns that the risk of fire associated with plantations in the future will differ significantly from the historical fire risk associated with agriculture activities.  9

And a last thought.  Shouldn’t rainforest species be the trees being planted?

1. Australian Financial Review.  November 5-6. 2005.  Future Shock was written by Tina Perinotto. 
2. Aust. Financial Review. 18-19.
3. L. McGaw, J.S. Gould, N.P. Cheney:  Bluegum Plantations – are we under-estimating the Fire Hazards?  Paper delivered at the Forest Growers Conference, Albury.  October. 2003.
4.  L. McGaw, J.S. Gould, N.P. Cheney:  Bluegum Plantations – are we under-estimating the Fire Hazards? 
5.  Interview ABC: TV: 7.30 Report.  Kerry O’Brien and Phil Koperberg, NSW Fire Chief.  4 August. 2003.
6.  L. McGaw, J.S. Gould, N.P. Cheney:  Bluegum Plantations – are we under-estimating the Fire Hazards?  Paper delivered at the Forest Growers Conference, Albury.  October 2003.  4.
7. L. McGaw, J.S. Gould, N.P. Cheney:  Bluegum Plantations – are we under-estimating the Fire Hazards? 
8.  CSIRO and Forest Products.  Bushfire Behaviour and Management Team.  Development of a Fire Management Strategy for Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) Plantations.  Research proposal for Country Fire Authority Victoria.
9.  CSIRO and Forest Products.  Bushfire Behaviour and Management Team.  Development of a Fire Management Strategy for Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) Plantations.