Australia’s recent catastrophic wildfires have been viewed by many as an inevitable consequence of climate change. However, voices within the forest and timber industry argue the current crisis could have been avoided – and future fires will only be prevented – with the adoption of widespread management, as Ross Hampton, chief executive of the Australian Forest Products Association, explains.

AUSTRALIA’S forest estate contains 132 m hectares of native or natural forest. Of that, 5.5 m ha is available for forestry (all areas harvested regenerated by law) and hunting, camping, horse riding, etc, with a further 2 m ha of plantations (half softwood for local use in housing and half short-rotation hardwood for chipping and export for pulp making). 40m ha are on farms and privately managed for timber, amenity or conservation, while the remainder is in national parks, conservation areas or other definitions of reserves.

 It is this 86.5 m ha which is our big problem. It has enormous restrictions on fire trails, fire breaks, removing of biomass, cool weather burns and so on.  For 30 years our well-meaning conservation groups have advocated a ‘no touch’ pristine wilderness approach to these reserves and have been successful in increasing that footprint every time they pressure government (16 m ha added in 20 years).

Forestry Journal: NSW Rural Fire Service crew fight the Gospers Mountain Fire as it impacts a property at Bilpin, New South Wales.NSW Rural Fire Service crew fight the Gospers Mountain Fire as it impacts a property at Bilpin, New South Wales.

Like thousands of Australians who live in the bush, I am a volunteer firefighter. We don’t look for thanks. It is just something most of us who live on farms and in villages do, as we know our only defence against fire is to train together and band together to help each other in an emergency.

So I speak from experience when I say the only thing most firefighters are discussing as we race in our trucks towards a blaze is what the fuel load is on the fire ground.

And yet the sad truth is this is the one thing in Australia we have been making worse for decades.

Yes, climate change is drying some areas and reducing the window for burning off, but whatever Australian policymakers do in this area will have no immediate impact on bushfires or firefighting.

The only thing that can make a difference by next summer, and the summers after that, is to start to deal with our 132 m ha of native forest as a connected landscape that must be actively managed. And that means the small areas of state forests that are used for sustainable forest management as well as the much larger national parks, reserves and other set-aside areas.

Forestry Journal: Wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia.Wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia.

This means a combination of legislated targets for hazard-reduction burns (and not letting complaints about intermittent smoke haze stop them), as well as using machinery to thin the forest in key areas such as around communities and assets such as water storage, communications and power infrastructure.

The US aggressively uses these machine-based approaches to transform important sections of forest into much more open, fire-resilient landscapes. But despite the fact that it avoids the issue of creating smoke and can be done in a much larger weather window, in Australia we just don’t do it.

We also have a significant disparity between our multiple-use state forests (which are actively managed by state government forest agencies for recreational use, biodiversity and timber production) and national parks in managing fuel loads, maintaining access roads and firefighting resources.

Since November, millions of hectares of native forest across the nation have burnt, and much more will burn before the summer is over. Much of this is in national parks, where access for firefighters is notoriously difficult, and fuel loads are high.

For 20 years, successive state governments have significantly reduced the multiple-use forest area to declare new national parks. This has meant the closure of forestry and timber industries around the country and, with them, the departure of significant firefighting resources.

Forestry Journal: Plant operators use a 434 backhoe to assist staff from Forestry Management Victoria to clear fire damaged trees from the great Alpine road between Bairnsdale and Omeo during Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia.Plant operators use a 434 backhoe to assist staff from Forestry Management Victoria to clear fire damaged trees from the great Alpine road between Bairnsdale and Omeo during Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia.

Around NSW and Victoria, forestry workers have been risking their lives and their equipment to create fire breaks and to clear roads of burnt logs and debris to allow safe passage for fire crews. Who will do that when the native timber industry is gone?

The Victorian government has already announced plans to shut down the timber industry by the end of the decade. And yet no one even asks the question: will another national park or reserve make this area, and the communities around it, more or less fire-prone in decades to come?

New ‘protected areas’ are precisely the opposite of protected. It means the removal of the men and women and machinery that in the past were on the spot to put out fires when they were still small. It means the removal of the secondary and tertiary roads that give fire crews access to work on back-burning operations to keep fires from joining together.

With the arrival of rain will come renewed calls to shut down the native timber industry in NSW, and an even swifter shutdown of the Victorian industry, and to declare more national parks. The proponents of these will ignore the fact that half a billion native animals have perished so far and the equivalent of two-thirds of our annual national greenhouse emissions have been pumped into the atmosphere.

This disaster should be a wake-up call that business as usual cannot continue. The arbitrary divide between how we manage our multiple-use public forests, privately owned forests, and national parks cannot continue. We urgently need a whole-of-landscape approach to land management with a focus on bushfire mitigation. A more aggressive approach to fuel load management must be considered.

Forestry Journal: Ross Hampton, chief executive of the Australian Fire Products Association.Ross Hampton, chief executive of the Australian Fire Products Association.

The bushfire royal commission that followed the terrible Black Saturday fires in Victoria was rightly focused on uncovering how 173 Australians lost their lives and what measures could be taken to avoid such a monumental tragedy happening again. It didn’t delve deeply into the broader, deeper truths underlying landscape management, be it in Victorian or any other state.

A national bushfire royal commission is the right body to expose the hard truth that our pursuit of ‘lock up and leave it’ is a recipe for disaster and a prescription for much more of the same.