Monday, December 11, 2006

Fires, climate change & biodiversity conservation

I have been following, with concern, the devastating fires over a huge area of central Victorian state forest. About 220,000 hectares of bush-land have been burnt out so far. Fortunately there have so far been no losses of human life and only limited private property damage – two homes have been destroyed. Last Thursday as we were driving to the South Coast of NSW from Melbourne the sky was dark with smoke from around Sale to the Victorian-NSW border. It didn’t surprise me today to read that Melbourne, over the weekend, has had the dirtiest air on record in terms of particulate content from the fires.

At a time of such crisis it is natural that primary attention should go towards the efforts of the 3,000 firefighters to control the fires, to divert the burning away from private property and to use meteorological forecasts to guess the future course of the fire in order to better manage it. The weather has not been kind with Melbourne having its hottest December day for 53 years yesterday. The strong wind conditions that were expected to prevail however were less severe than expected which provided some relief.

But my primary concerns at this stage are that concerns about the limited private property damage that has occurred shifts the focus away from the enormous damage to publicly-owned biodiversity assets in the state parks. These assets are being substantially damaged by these types of broad front, intense forest fires. Indeed the extent to which firefighting efforts can effectively control mass fires from the perspective of conserving biodiversity needs to be questioned.

With increasingly regular summer dry periods and an increasing prevalence of bushfire risks – this, in part, as a consequence of climate change - it does seem important to consider the increased use of controlled winter burning to reduce the spread and ferocity of bushfires. It is not true that all Australian bush-land benefits from burning off – mallee habitats, for example, do not. Moreover, the bush-land that does benefit from periodic burns derives most benefits from moderate fires rather than raging infernos that consume everything across a wide front and deny the survival of local populations of flora and fauna.

The prospect of uncontrolled fires across a broad front turns so-called State conservation zones into little more than death camps. Biodiversity in such areas will be eliminated with probability one without controlled burning that reduces the intensity and scale of future bushfires and without corridor escape routes that permit species to escape and to recolonise.

We know that isolated conservation zones are poor defenders of biodiversity values in the face of fire risks for ‘island bio-geographic’ reasons. Such isolated areas also provide poor defense also against regional climatic changes as a consequence of climate change. This is the reason that our conservation areas need to be so large.

But fires operating on a broad front and such factors as regional climatic change can attack even geographically large conservation zones. Given the need for species migrations towards areas of more moderate climate and given fire risks we need to think about an integrated strategy of developing fire-protected corridors of nature conservation that provide native fauna with escape and recolonisation routes. This will be much more cost- and conservation effective than controlled breeding programs although the latter might provide much-needed insurance for severely threatened species and for our flora.

We also need to think more broadly about introducing conservation ethics throughout the community. The idea of relying on a ‘lock it up and leave it’ conservation reserve system will not allow us to effectively maintain public biodiversity assets. Whatever fantasies the Productivity Commission and other right-wing groups have for the possibilities of private sector involvement in conservation for protecting cute and cuddly mammals - these types of private endeavors are clearly worthless for purposes of devising and managing corridors of conservation protection that involve coordination responsibilities that markets will not deliver.

Those concerned with denialism in relation to the fact of climate change need to address the same denialism in relation to the conservation of our biodiversity in the face of huge person-induced threats such as fire risks. They also need to focus their attention towards the climate change threat of a species holocaust that will have both utilitarian economic and intrinsic costs.


Anonymous said...

This is a really good post Harry. Did you happen to read the Dec Australian Rewiew of Books cover story? It was a quite scathing review of Paul Collins' new book about bushfire - not ideal as a book review goes because there was so little about the book in there. But the discussion of biodiversity and planned burning was similar to yours though from a different perspective.

jack said...

Thank goodness for good old Lucy here, 1 comment (and now me). Before that, Coastal Development 0; Open skies - a hopeful 7, Summer Hols 2, Beaconsfield 1, Cricket 1, Rudd 3. A lot of water under the bridge since your rant about the teacher unions got you a respectable 23.

It's been slack at work (the realo pages have gone into short recess) so I have been trawling around your pals, Tim, Sam, Helen, Jason, Wingnut, Rafe, Jason, Sukrit. What a lovely bunch!

Wardie, Boltie, Edwards, Helen Demidenko, Blairie, Andrew Leigh all certainly put you in the shade. What is it? Hey, I know: They are all much much younger...

hc said...

Thanks for that Lucy - I haven't seen that but will chase it up. I am doing some research on bushfires.

Anonymous said...

This map may come handy to put currently burning bushfires into perspective:

hc said...

Anonymous, An amazing map which I will bookmark. Many thanks!

Where's the publicity for the huge number of fires burning in northern Queensland?

Anonymous said...

Qld fires are mostly in remote locations, "as per usual" so, media is not concerned...