Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Trip Through Hell

The current disastrous bushfires in New South Wales are the focus of attention because of the odd time of their occurrence (this is spring in the southern hemisphere and bushfires are usually a summer phenomenon), their extent and the large number of dwellings that have been destroyed.

With all that happening in the south, it was sad to see what has happened locally in north Queensland.
This is what you see for many kilometres when you drive north from Lake Mitchell towards Mt Molloy. The area has been completely burnt and for what?
Lake Mitchell is to the south and the Kennedy Highway is the yellow line

This area is mostly fenced grazing land. It is burned annually. There are few birds and not many mammals except a few kangaroos that return when the understory of introduced grasses germinate.

To a biologist, this is wanton habitat destruction. Note that all leaf litter has gone. This means that the soil biota- both plant and animal- has been destroyed.

A recent article puts a different slant on this increasing problem. It states that 60% of bushfires are the result of arson. Some 40% of those are accidental. Further statistics are important. The offenders are adolescents and most live in the bush. If they are "keepers of the land", they should know better. Teenagers have been caught setting fires in New South Wales simultaneous with the big fires that continue to rage.

The fires north of Mareeba are very extensive. In some places the burnt trees range over the hills and valleys are far as the eye can see. And the fire reported in the recent blog below was not far from where these photos were taken.

The "Fire-fighting industry" uses an array of statistics to promote its "reduction burning" during the wet months. A misguided individual has written an article justifying reduction burning stating that the leaves of these trees and shrubs are built for burning and that they don't disintegrate in the soil. The soil is loaded with insects and fungi that reduce the leaves, dead wood and other detritus returning it back to the soil for food for trees and shrubs. We don't have to routinely burn. In most cases it just replaces the undergrowth with grasses which readily catch fire in the dry season. As an alternate we should probably begin to consider some areas too risky for human habitation and not build there. This requires some drastic action by local councils and will certain affect their tax base but as the population increases, it may be too dangerous to live in bushland.

But back to the above statements in the previous article. The author says that most recovers in 5 years as indicated by aerial photographs but admits that some things take longer. Probably most of the biota takes longer. Sure the eucalypts that are not killed by the fire can often sprout new growth. But what about the shrubs and small plants with shallow roots like orchids and native annuals. They may never recover, especially if the area is burned annually or repeatedly. And there would certainly be other native trees that cannot withstand continuous burning. Seedlings have a very tough time under this regime. Insects are very slow to return and those that do are usually the most pestiferous ones. Many of the interesting endemics may not be seen for years.

As a distressing aside, I was told that the person who lit the fires in the Mt Molloy area was well known to the locals including the police. He does this every year. Why is the question. How many nesting birds, mammals and reptiles has he sent to an early grave? People like this should be disqualified from owning property in the bush and should receive counseling to help deal with their anti-social problem.

These comments are bound to be controversial because landowners feel that they should be able to do whatever they want with their land. There is always a commercial aspect that dominates. And these days people with a "green outlook" have been damned by shock jocks and certain politicians. They seem to have convinced the general public that a "green outlook" is not in the national interest, whatever that is.

Sure there may be some need for reduction burning in some areas but not to the extent that the "fire industry" would like us to believe. What is needed is more vigorous prosecution of arsonists. And the penalties need to be increased to the extent that it would be unthinkable to consider starting a bushfire. We need more education about the wonderful creatures and plants that live in the bush and how important it is to protect and cherish them.


Camera Trap Codger said...

What you describe seems to be the antithesis of the Smokey Bear philosophy. Makes you wonder whatever became of Aldo Leopold's land ethic. Seems there are quite a few variants of it these days.

Mr. Smiley said...

Correcto, Chris