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5 March 2010 – Reporter: Gregg Borschmann

One year on from the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, many Australians, and the Bushfires Royal Commission, are still trying to explain the ferocity of the blaze that claimed 173 lives and burned more than 450,000 hectares.

The idea that the Australian bush burns the way it always has is being challenged by David Lindemayer, a professor of forest and wildlife management at the Australian National University. Lindenmayer has been working in the Victorian forests for almost 30 years, and he says the latest research indicates that logging a forest can make it more prone to fire, and increase the severity of that fire.

Partial transcript below:

DL: The really important thing here is that with climate change and the drying of the environment and increased temperatures we are going to see changes in fire regimes but those fire regimes are going to burn in landscapes that are more fire-prone as a result of human interventions over the last 100 to 200 years.

DL: I realise more than anyone that these kinds of messages are not ones that are likely to make myself very popular. I’ve lost close colleagues and friends in the fires, my own family has experienced lots of trauma as a result of the fires and I realise that this is very sensitive but I think there’s a moral, an ethical responsibility to report these kinds of scientific findings in a fairly sober context. I’ve already had some pretty heavy-duty traffic on this, I can tell you. Mostly from timber people and, look, I can understand that. That’s their livelihood.
GB: DL refutes the argument that more controlled or prescribed burning would reduce the fire hazard. He says it’s simply not an option.
DL: These are forests that have huge amounts of biomass. These are forests that are extremely wet and prescribed burning is not a sensible ecological option nor a sensible management option in these kinds of forests and I suspect that many listeners won’t be aware of these kinds of things that, in fact, there are parts of forest landscapes that prescribed burning really isn’t appropriate for. And these wet forests of Central Victoria around Marysville and towns like that are those kinds of places where prescribed burning in those wet forests is really not appropriate.
GB: In a move likely to stir debate, DL argues that undisturbed forests, not logged and not burnt, could form effective buffer zones around rebuilt communities.
DL: There probably should be buffer zones of no logging reasonably close to these existing human settlements because of the risk that logging may, in fact, change the fire-proneness of the forest. So probably areas of maybe a kilometre or 2 kilometres where there’s fairly substantial logging exclusion is probably something sensible in terms of thinking about how you plan these landscapes so that these urban settlements may, in fact, be less likely to burn in the future. And I think it’s really for people to understand that if climate change is as serious as many scientists think it is, that there are actually 3 things taking place
– Temperatures and rainfall patters are changing, and that influences fire,
– Landscapes have changed, and that influences fire,
– And those two things interact, and that means that we have to really work hard at solving these problems. 
We have to be much more sophisticated, much more scientific and much more strategic than we’ve been in the past. And these are major challenges and they’re not easy ones to deal with but we’re going to seriously have to deal with them if we’re going to make progress on this.