Howitt Society weighs into debate

Philip Hopkins

Howitt Society president Rick Cooper.

HIDING behind climate change is not a strategy to address the increasing number and intensity of fires and floods across Australia, according to the Howitt Society.

The society’s president, Rick Cooper, said even if all burning of fossil fuels was stopped across the world tomorrow, climate change was not going to shift into reverse.

“In reality, genuine climate change reversal strategies are years away from being internationally adopted, and decades away from beginning to impact fire and flood regimes,” he said.

“So we need to adapt our management strategies to deal with the changed conditions as they are today.”

The Howitt Society is a group of experienced land and fire managers and bushmen concerned for the health and safety of the Australian bush and in particular fire management. They are inspired by the work of 19th century Gippsland scientist Alfred Howitt, who wrote extensively on Gippsland’s geology, ecology, forests, fire and the region’s indigenous people.

The society’s secretary, Garry Squires, said there was a good analogy between managing the potential impacts of fire and flood and managing diseases such as COVID-19.

“Prevention is better than dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic or flood or fire disaster. The key is to carry out mitigation works before the disaster,” he said.

“In the case of both disease and bushfire, it is possible to forestall the inevitable tragic outcome.”

With a disease like COVID-19, there was a two-pronged attack: first, a public health program – washing hands, social distancing, masks, contact tracing – followed by a longer term vaccination program.

Similarly, there was a two-staged program for fire: a public education program – leave early orders, emergency warnings – followed by a ‘vaccine program’ where the bush is inoculated with a mild dose of fire – ‘cool burning’.

“This builds up immunity in the bush so it is better able to resist the impact of wildfire and allow fires to be more easily controlled,” he said.

Regarding the recent floods, Mr Cooper said hopefully the calls for increased permanent levees to protect people and assets would be completed now and not when the next disaster was imminent.

From a fire perspective, Mr Cooper said the Howitt Society supported the call from parts of the community for better fuel management in the bush.

“Whilst the climate is becoming warmer and drier, it is not this that is making the fires more intense and more difficult to control, but rather the unprecedented amount of fuel that land managers have allowed to accumulate,” he said. “Mitigation works are required urgently.”

Mr Squires said there were three factors that allow fires to burn – an ignition source, oxygen and fuel.

“The only one that we are able to influence is the amount of fuel available when ignition does occur, whether it be lightning, an arsonist, a campfire or any other source,” he said.

“The science tells us that as fuel availability doubles, fire burns four times more intensely and that this formula also works in reverse and so there are great benefits in reducing fuel loads.

“We also know that fuels can be reduced over large areas using existing and familiar technologies.”

Mr Squires said all that was required was policy change at a government level and appropriate funding.

“A well funded, well led, state-wide, even nation-wide fuel mitigation campaign would be an effective first step in protecting Australian lives and property and the bush itself from the grip of a warmer and drier climate,” he said.

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s 2009 fires identified both the threat of climate change on future bushfire risk and the need to fuel reduce at least over five per cent of the forest area annually to help mitigate the threat.

Mr Squires said the recommendation was only implemented for a couple of years before it was dropped by government in favour of the current residual risk approach. “This clearly is not achieving the area of fuel reduction required to mitigate the current conditions,” he said.

The Howitt Society called on the government to implement the minimum five per cent of forest area to be fuel reduced annually as per the 2009 Royal Commission recommendation.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.