ANDREW WONG. Logging Makes Bushfires Worse

In the wake of the recent bushfires, the logging industry wants to ‘thin’ Australia’s forests to reduce fire hazard. But their plan is likely to make the fire hazard far worse. Could there be another agenda at work?

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote a book titled ‘The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.’ In it she described a class of commercial opportunists who suddenly appear after major disasters, using “exploitation of national crises to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance” (Wikipedia).

While the largest bushfires in modern history are still burning, a series of opinion pieces and media articles have emerged from the smoke, including a recent article in The Conversation by three academics from the University of Melbourne (all of whom have been funded by the forestry industry). They are suggesting we should let the forestry industry start thinning our forests, in combination with increased hazard reduction burns, to reduce the likelihood of these fires happening again. Is this a case of the logging industry offering a generous public service, or Shock Doctrine at work?

There is an easy way to understand what is being proposed. Have you ever lit a fire yourself – say, a camp fire? How did you go about it? Did you start with the biggest logs you could find, and then wait until it was raining, before putting a match to it? Of course not, because big pieces of wet wood don’t burn easily. The right way to start a fire is to build a pile of dry kindling, and place a few larger logs on top of it, which will catch light as the kindling burns. Nature starts fires the same way. So now replace the camp fire with a forest fire, and with this image in your head, read on.

What would the industry’s plan to reduce fuel loads by increasing thinning and burning look like? Perhaps they will remove a tree here and there, and lightly burn the understory, all without substantially harming the forest? That would be great – if it were possible. But, to take out even one tree, think about what’s required. You need an access road into the forest. You need a ‘snig track’ that is bulldozed through the forest understory in order to drag the tree out. You need a log dump where a log truck can access the logs to take them away. To remove even fifty trees per hectare would require a network of bulldozed tracks and mechanical disturbance from heavy machinery. Australia has 132 million hectares of forest. Are they proposing to massively expand the forest road network, criss-cross millions of hectares with snig tracks, and have a fleet of log trucks to cart trees away, all for the public good of fire hazard reduction? The cost would be astronomical.

Well, they have an answer for this! They would sell the wood to cover the costs. So, then, we aren’t talking about thinning a few trees, we are talking about commercial logging. Commercial logging is not a process of removing fifty trees per hectare in a gentle, low-impact manner. It would be physically and financially impossible to do this on a large scale. We are talking about removing a large proportion of the trees over a large enough area to make the infrastructure and investment in heavy machinery commercially viable.

What happens after this point is where things get bad from a fire point of view. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of both logging and burning, there will be less material to burn, this is common sense. But forests are an ecosystem, not a pile of wood. The trees will grow back again. Thinning opens up the canopy for more light, burning produces ash, leading to seedlings sprouting. Within five years of logging, the forest floor will be covered in a layer of small trees. Within five years of burning, the forest floor will be covered in plants that cope well with fire; which are also species that tend to promote fire by being relatively flammable. Opening up the canopy to wind and sunlight, mechanical damage, and fire all cause a significant drying out of the environment.

So five years after the loggers’ plan, what is the fire hazard situation? We will have removed forest dominated by big old trees that are difficult to burn, and which are spaced relatively far apart, surrounded by damp rotting logs, moist soil and a cool microclimate – a natural fire barrier. We will have replaced it with densely packed small trees and shrubs, with some larger trees rising above them, in an environment that has been thoroughly dried out. Remember that image you were holding in your mind of the campfire? You have just created a pile of dry kindling with logs on top. And you have done it over millions of hectares.

It is no wonder that the map of the massive Border Fire, in the far south of NSW, is a close match to the map of post-logging regrowth surrounding the Eden Woodchip Mill. If the forestry industry was right about thinning reducing fire hazard, the bushfires would have burned hot in old growth areas and burned cool, or gone out, as soon as they hit heavily logged and burned forests. But if anything, the opposite has happened, with regrowth being most heavily burned and wet old growth forests and rainforests often burning cooler or sometimes not at all.

Because this ‘thinning’ plan is also being suggested for national parks and other reserves, we are talking about a plan to massively expand the logging industry. It will fragment ecosystems, devastate wildlife, reduce water supplies flowing out of forests, and increase the fire hazard by replacing wetter and more fire-resistant old forest with drier kindling-like regrowth. The only ‘positive’ outcome from this plan is that as climate change, drought and fire gets worse, the logging industry will make an increased profit.

Andrew Wong has worked as a forest ecologist in southern NSW, and has a Bachelor of Science in Resource and Environmental Management from the ANU. He has also worked for conservation groups on campaigns to protect old growth forests and rainforests as national parks.


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6 Responses to ANDREW WONG. Logging Makes Bushfires Worse

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    Thank you so much, Andrew, for your detailed and informed insights into the (im)practicalities of “hazard reduction burning”.

    My curiosity has been well and truly ‘sparked’ (sorry!) by indigenous fire practices.

    Any comment?

    • Andrew Wong says:

      The danger for wildlife and forest ecosystems is when a fire burns on very hot, windy days, and covers massive areas in a short period of time. These fires burn hotter, and allow wildlife little chance to recover after the fire, because everywhere is burnt equally and there is nowhere to go afterwards. It is a ‘homogenous’ burnt landscape, as compared to aboriginal burning which creates a ‘heterogeneous’ (patchwork) of vegetation growth stages.

      Traditional aboriginal burning was conducted more on flat terrain, which has since largely been cleared. As a result of clearing, what’s burning now is largely on steeper terrain. This makes an interesting parallel because aboriginal burning created a mosaic of vegetation, and fires in steep country with a mixture of old growth and regrowth is creating the same.

      In steep country, the fire spends half its time burning downhill – where it burns slower than on the uphill slopes. It also hits patches of old forest with big trees with wet microclimates where it also burns slower. If it burns slower the fireground will take longer to spread across the landscape (e.g. weeks or months), hence it will burn across some areas during cool, higher humidity days with low wind – and therefore will also burn slower.

      When a fire burns *downhill* through *wet old forest* on a *cool, calm day* – that is a ‘perfect storm of fire resistance’, where you get patches that will be unburnt or lightly burnt. Hence the forest landscape ends up a patchwork mosaic of burnt, lightly burnt and unburnt forest – which is excellent for wildlife recovery. This situation mirrors aboriginal burning, and is relatively low impact on wildlife.

      Landscapes containing mostly dried out regrowth don’t do this. Everything burns, there is no mosaic. That’s the most dangerous situation for wildlife.

  2. John benson says:

    Good to read a counter to articles proposing widespread burning and logging. Logging dries out forests. Much of the debate misses the point that our wetter forest ecosystems were not regularly burnt by First Australian except for access routes. The areas regularly burnt in pre European times are now cleared for agriculture. And after a decade litter accumulation equals decomposition in Tall wet forests. Ex forester now deceased Ron Hatley book The Victorian Bush is worth a read especially his conclusions about disturbance in Victorian tall forests.

  3. Neil hauxwell says:

    Thanks for passing on your the clear understanding of the situation Andrew. Fires a few years back near here moved onto pine and gum plantations that had been logged a few years earlier. The tops, branches, and remaining bark amid the replants, were light, bone dry and arranged like kindling. It’d be interesting to measure fire movement speed but I was very grateful not to be down wind. This, when the plantation people use “cleaning up the bush after harvesting ” as a benefit of clear-felling our remaining pockets of native mixed species forests.

  4. Stephen Saunders says:

    Step 1: 230y European logging and clearing. Step 2: Record 6m ha burn before Xmas. Step 3: Restart at 1.

  5. David Hunter says:

    What we can do about the bushfires is such an emotional issue for all sides. Congratulations Andrew in providing an evidence based assessment of the effects of forest thinning fire “management” by the logging industry.

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