The historical and contemporary logging regimes of Australia has been the ‘compelling evidence’ that makes Australian bushfires more severe and is likely to have aggravated the catastrophic summer bushfires in the country, a senior Australian scientists’ group have warned in an international journal.
The Australian scientists call for a more transparent conversation in a comment piece published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution about how land management and forestry practices contribute to fire risk.
When the debate becomes intense about the resumption of logging in bushfire hit regions in Victoria and New South Wales, the article by the scientists David Lindenmayer, Robert Kooyman, Chris Taylor, Michelle Ward, and James Watson comes.
In Victoria, Monique Dawson, the chief executive of state-owned timber agency VicForests, has previously defended plans of logging fire-affected areas, saying it was focused on areas “where most of the free-standing trees have been killed.”
A community group based in East Gippsland, Dawson, said in a letter dated 15 April to the Goongerah Environment Centre – VicForests declined to accept Lindenmayer’s published opinions “as reflective of evidence and do not consider him to be an authority in these matters.”
Lindenmayer, who is a widely published and cited ecologist and conservation biologist, said that he was taking legal consultation about the remarks in the letter.
In the comment piece, the scientists say after the spring and summer bushfires, much of the conversation had focused rightly on climate change. However, the impact of land management and forestry on fire risk was neglected in these discussions many a time.
As land management policy was “well within the control of Australians,” scientists highlight this as a concern, and some sectors of the industry used the fires to call for increased logging in some areas.
The paper says as per the industry data, some 161m cubic meters of native forest was logged during 1996 to 2018.
“Beyond the direct and immediate impacts on biodiversity of disturbance and proximity to disturbed forest, there is compelling evidence that Australia’s historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire-prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability,” the scientists write.
According to them, this happens because, in logged forests, logging leaves debris at ground level, increasing the fuel load. The forest composition also changes, leaving these areas of forest both hotter and drier.
During the bushfire season, as the article says, the fire had spread from logged areas that were adjacent to old-growth eucalypts and rainforests in the Gondwana world heritage reserves.
In Victoria’s East Gippsland region, “extensive areas of logged and regenerated forest have burned repeatedly in the past 25 years”.
Several responses suggested by them to reduce the risk of further catastrophic fire seasons include “removal of logging from areas where it adds considerably to fuel loads and creates forest structures that increase fire severity and risks to human safety.”
They also demand the restoration of forests previously logged to build resilience to future fire events.
“In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as ‘salvage’ logging – or logging of burnt forests – which severely reduces recovery of a forest,” Lindenmayer said.
Ideally, the governments required to confine timber supply to plantations and try to accelerate the industry transition in states such as Victoria, which plans to phase out native forest logging by 2030, he said.
Governments needed to have a “clearer conversation” on the impact of logging on fire risks and the safety of communities in bushfire-prone areas, Watson said.
“Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height,” he said.
“It can leave up to 450 tonnes of combustible fuel a hectare close to the ground – by any measure, that’s an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes.”
The bushfires royal commission is currently examining Australia’s natural disaster preparedness.
Both the NSW and Victorian governments were approached for comment.